Published On: Mon, Jul 18th, 2016

Monsters On Mountains

“Sometimes we are asked to act as informers by the Indian Army if we see any suspicious activity and if we refuse, we are beaten to the pulp or tortured and disgraced to the extent that we lose our mental stability. And if we do that, we have to face the wrath of the armed militants”

The June of 1992 had been tenser for Juma Khan, a Gujjar of Larnoo village in south Kashmir’s Anantnag. His wife, Sultana Begum, had her first child in her womb. It was after three years of their marriage that she was able to conceive. According to doctors, Sultana could develop medical complications when she slips into labor and the couple was warned that she would require specialized medical attention.

But the conflict took a toll on her life. In the early hours of that frightful day, some gun shots were heard in the village. People were rushing to safer places to save themselves from becoming human shields. Armed men in uniform were taking cover. Sultana slipped into labor. With the situation tense, she was locked in her room with her family. Her pain aggravated, but she had no other option but to remain quiet inside for the sake of her family who thought that a gun battle might have erupted between the militants and Indian Army.

 

Gujjars and Bakerwals facing hardships because of presence of armed forces. Pic by Shuaib Masoodi

Gujjars and Bakerwals facing hardships because of the presence of armed forces. Pic by Shuaib Masoodi

 

“How could one imagine going outside to call a doctor or a nurse from a nearby village in such a situation when it would have been at the cost of my life,” asked Juma Khan, “I was very frustrated as if I had lost my mind. I was seeing death coming closer to my wife and our child. I couldn’t have compelled any of my family members to go outside and look for even a village nurse because he would have lost his life. Having witnessed the awful spree of the killing of many innocents, I staunchly believe that a gun has no eyes to distinguish between an innocent and an armed man.”

Forced by the circumstances, Juma Khan tried to venture outside to inform the forces about the condition of his wife, “I was targeted by both the sides. Some guns were aimed at me because my traditional turban was then perhaps seen as a sign of an Afghani militant. My long beard too aggravated the risk to my life,” Juma Khan said.

Unable to resist the labor pain and for the want of medical attention, his wife breathed her last, “I was not even consoled by anyone because the entire family was in a shock. They had witnessed death closer. Even when we tried to cry on her death, we had to stop, for it would have been an invitation to armed men to barge into our house and we would have risked our women to rape and young men to human shields,” said Juma Khan.

Besides risking their lives, the armed conflict in Kashmir has its other impacts too on the Gujjars and Bakerwall communities who are living in the mountainous areas, especially near the Indo-Pak border. These communities have to bear the wrath of both the armed militants and Indian army, especially during infiltrations and guerrilla gun battles.

In many areas of Poonch and Rajouri, the Gujjars and Bakerwalls had to leave the agricultural land barren because of heavy mortar shelling from both the sides of the border. In Dallan village of Poonch, people were forced to leave their agricultural lands which are laden with land mines to stop the infiltration of armed militants across the border at the cost of Gujjars and Bakerwall families who have lost their lands to the armed struggle.

Suleiman Khatana has some eight kanals of agricultural land which was earlier used for maize and cereal cultivation, before the start of the armed struggle in Jammu and Kashmir turned it barren. “We used to cultivate wheat and cereal crops in it and the overall production was great. We sold extra cereals in the market”, said Suleiman.

But Suleiman is facing abject poverty, owing to non-availability of land which provided sustenance for his family. “We have never got any compensation. We have only been assured by different governments of some relief,” he said.

The forceful occupation of land has led to the marginalization of Gujjars and Bakerwalls of Jammu and Kashmir. It has been often alleged by these people that troops and militants very often take away sheep from them without paying them. And if anybody resists, he has to pay the price of being either labeled as a collaborator by militants or a rebel by the Indian army. Many have been forced to leave their homes and they have settled in plains.

Shakir Poswal of Gadwail village in Anantnag was able to save his life when, one day, he resisted the attempts of the armed men in uniform to take away a sheep without paying him. The same night, armed men came to his house and warned the family that Shakir was helping militants in building hideouts and he is wanted by the top officials.

“Fortunately, I had left the village the same day with the flock to the upper pastures for grazing. My brother secretly came to me and told the whole episode. He was frightened. He said they might kill me”, said Shakir.

Shakir left the flock in his brother’s custody and clandestinely moved to Anantnag town where he remained hidden for many months doing menial jobs to earn a living. He even didn’t inform his family about his presence in Anantnag town.

“It was after many months that I found a villager accidentally in Anantnag who hugged me and informed me that the camp was shifted to some other place and now I can come to my village,” he said.

The nomadic movement of Gujjars and Bakerwals is under severe threat because of the security concerns that these people have to face. This ethnic community not only faces the threat to their lives but also fear the loss of their livestock. The families of Gujjars and Bakerwals have been going to the upper Himalayas that are used as pastures for centuries.

But with the onset of the armed conflict, these families say they face a lot of harassment at the hands of the warring sides, the militants and Indian army. They are always under the constant threat of losing their lives, but they can’t help themselves because these pastures are the only means of sustenance.

Bashir Ahmad Famda moves every year along with his family and flock of sheep to the upper pastures of Gagad Nai along the Waedwan area in district Anantnag. “All along the track to the pasture, we face different harassments at the hands of both the militants and Indian army. Sometimes we are asked to act as informers by the Indian Army if we see any suspicious activity and if we refuse, we are beaten to the pulp or tortured and disgraced to the extent that we lose our mental stability. And if we do that, we have to face the wrath of the armed militants,” Bashir said.

Bashir says many of his men had to face the music for acting as informers to the Indian Army and many have left their homes to survive from the fury of militants. “It’s high time that the government comes up with a policy to look into the miseries of Gujjars and Bakerwalls who have been affected much by the armed struggle. The authorities should-s take corrective measures to save our community from further marginalization,” he said.

About the Author

Sheikh Mudasir Amin

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