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The Van Gujjars’ Dilemma

Editors Note: This piece was originally written in Hindi and translated to English. All names are changed to protect identities

'Basheer' lives in the forests on the western flank of the Mohand range in the state of Uttarakhand. His settlement is located on top of a hill only accessible by crossing a river and scaling a thick forest. Basheer's abode is a sturdy construction, a hut made out of clay and gravel. It is airy and open from all four sides.

He lives in this house with his wife Bano Bibi, his mother Jamna, and his son Zayd. Today, Bano Bibi is resting on a cot. His 70-year old mother, has just finished ritual ablutions with water and is getting ready to offer johar namaaz (afternoon prayers.) Basheer's half dozen buffaloes are stall-feeding.

But his son Zayd is lying under a quilt in another hut. There are injury marks on his face. Basheer explains that Zayd was brutally assaulted by the forest officials. He was hung upside down from a tree, tied and beaten up. He is unable to stand on his own feet. Basheer says that this was done because Zayd had plucked a few symbals, a local vegetable, from a symbal tree for his family. Zayd doesn't want to say anything.

“These forest officials have been criminally assaulting us continuously,” Basheer said “They think that we won't be able to do anything, nobody will listen to us, because we stay in the forests, we are like 'animals' and they can do anything to us.”

Basheer and his family are Van Gujjars, also translated as Forest Gujjars. They are a semi-nomadic pastoral and Muslim indigenous people who traditionally herd and work with water buffaloes. Thousands of Van Gujjar families reside in the Shivalik mountain ranges of the north Indian states of Uttarakhand, Himachal, and Uttar Pradesh. They are also related to the larger Gujjar communities of the regions of northern India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jammu, and Kashmir.

A typical Van Gujjar settlement made to be suit a life on the move. Photo Credit: Aas Mohammad

There are many problems facing these communities. In their forest dwellings, Van Gujjars have neither electricity nor mobile networks. Their children do not go to schools because they are far away from educational institutions.

But one of the most significant issues among nomadic communities is that they are caught between state administrations — the Van Gujjars who reside on the western side of the road fall in Uttar Pradesh while those on the eastern side fall in Uttarakhand. The Van Gujjars who are in Uttar Pradesh are at a much deeper disadvantage — they are not recognized by a ST (Scheduled Tribe) status and are also not issued land pattas or papers/ documentation certifying their right to live and graze their animals on certain pieces of forest land. Not having legal rights on paper means they are not protected from state officials and the violence inflicted on them. This puts some Van Gujjars in a deeper state of deprivation and vulnerability.

Another member of the community, Suleiman, 55, explains further. He says that Van Gujjars are spread over several miles. They travel up to Himachal and Jammu through long routes in the forests to manage the shortage of fodder and water during particular seasons. Known as bugyan, these migrations are a Van Gujjar way of life. But when they migrate, forest officials dub their settlements and demolish them.

“The new forest laws have become a tool for harassing us,” said Suleiman. “They want to uproot us from these forests. They assault us physically, if we don't give them milk for free. We also don't want to live in the forests anymore, but tell us, where can we go?”

Forest officials in the region refused to comment on when we reached out.

Basheer is one among these more vulnerable largely UP-based Van Gujjars. He asserts that they have been residing in these forests for centuries. "These forests only are our homes, we rear cows and buffaloes and we sell their milk,” he said. “Our lives have become much more difficult in the last few years. Many restrictions have been imposed on us. We are made to pay 'taxes' (bribes) to stay in these forests. We have to pay for the leaves that our animals forage on. Earlier we had to struggle with wild animals only, now we have to fend off these civilized animals also, who are trying to squeeze us."

Because of all of these reasons, many Van Gujjars are choosing between staying in the forests of their ancestors, religion, and tradition or to leave to the cities.

But the decision to go to the city is not an easy one.

"There are many problems in our lives here but I am afraid of going to the city too,” said Bilqis Bibi, from the Uttarakhand settlement “When I go to the main road I become fearful and anxious. One day a vehicle hit my brother-in-law and sped away, nobody was able to catch them. He is now not able to walk anymore. Those who stay in the city are not like us. They don't have a sense of honor!"

A woman lies in the sun next to her buffaloes. Photo Credit: Aas Mohammad

There is a restlessness among the Van Gujjars regarding joining the ‘mainstream.’

People like Harun Ali who go to the city to sell buffalo milk experience it everyday. "That life is better, here we neither have any electricity, nor can we make calls through mobile phones since there is no network,” he said. “ I want to live in mainstream society for the sake of my children. When I go to the city to deliver milk, I really like to see the sight of all the children going to school. I want my children to go to school too. Why should they lose out on modern life?”

Harun Ali says the Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand have been provided land for housing and have schooling facilities for their children. He wants those equal opportunities for him and his family, too.

“We should also be given land on lease, our children should also be given their rights to a future should they not?” he said.

55-year old Salman agrees.

“We definitely want our children to get educated and be skillful in other areas too,” he said. “And the government should support us in that endeavor. Political leaders visit us during elections, and we raise all these demands in front of them also. They make promises and return back to the city. And we remain here.”

The Van Gujjars had to face extreme difficulties in the last few months during the lockdown. They were prevented from migrating due to COVID. The town and villages stopped buying milk from them. Some people started saying that these people are Muslims and they would spread coronavirus. If moving out of forest settlements into urban areas might provide them and their children with new opportunities but Salman also anticipates that this kind of heightened anti-Muslim violence will then become the new norm.

In all, the Van Gujjar community is facing a time of deep change. Migration to the urban areas or staying rooted. There are several difficult considerations. Leaving ancestral lands, ending ways of life and losing knowledge developed and perfected over thousands of years, means deep emotional and existential reckoning. But people’s desire for their children to have safety, modern amenities like phone and electricity access, contemporary education and jobs and will ultimately guide this community’s new migratory patterns.