Hazardous weather, hostile officials and evil spirits: Walking with the Bakerwals during their seasonal migration

The accounts of the difficulties that the Bakerwals face during their migration paint a telling picture of their struggles. Channi Anand / AP
04 July, 2018

Twice every year, the Chinta valley in Jammu echoes with the bleats of sheep and goats as caravans of the Bakerwals, a Muslim pastoral tribe, traverse through the region, often setting up camps for a couple of days. In the summer and winter months, the Bakerwals migrate to the upper Himalayas and then down to the plains, respectively, in search of fodder for their livestock. For two days in the last week of April, I travelled with a caravan of the Bakerwals, who left from the Bhaderwah town of Doda district on a dilapidated road, through the Chinta valley, where they were surrounded by rings of lofty mountains with a thick cover of tall deodar trees, streams and waterfalls, and towards the upper mountains.

Though the valley provides an abundance of unpopulated pastures that can be used as safe stopovers, their journey is still fraught with challenges. These include resistance from local residents, harassment at the hands of the forest and police officials, loss of lives and livestock to hostile weather, and their struggles with other ailments and imagined evil spirits. To add to these concerns, the community is now facing calls for an economic and social boycott by Hindutva groups in Jammu, following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakerwali girl in Kathua district earlier this year. Fearing further repercussions, members of the community were unwilling to discuss the boycott or how it had affected them. The accounts of the difficulties that the Bakerwals face during their migration, however, paint a telling picture of their struggles.

The caravan of Irshad Ahmed, a 35-year-old member of the pastoral tribe, and his three brothers, who set off from Chinta valley a few days before I joined them, broke their journey on a mountain peak in a forested area near the valley. The camping site is a three-hour climb from the nearest road that connects the tourist destination Jai, in Doda district, with the town of Bhaderwah. The summer destination of the Bakerwal family was the Marwah Valley in Kishtwar—home to several other nomadic families. All the migrating families halted here for a couple of days because the children, elderly members and livestock needed a break to rejuvenate. The male members of the community tended to the goats and sheep, while the women attended to the children, prepared the food and took care of the horses.

Irshad recounted their journey so far—after stationing in Chinta valley for a few days, the men resumed the journey with a flock of over 2,000 cattle and headed towards Jai through the forest. He said the women were “supposed to cook food and join us later with over 50 horses and mules,” but they were impeded by heavy rainfall that lasted for over 12 hours. Hakam Jain, a 55-year-old member of the community who was caught in the storm, recalled that it had made it difficult for them to cook. “It was difficult to prepare food for female and children,” she said. “There was no question of sending food to the men.” Pointing to a few nearby trees in the forest that had been uprooted in the storm, Irshad noted, “While we can’t set up tents during windy rains, we also avoid taking shelter under trees.”

The climate can be a hostile enemy for the nomads. In the absence of insurance policies for their livestock, the Bakerwals suffer heavy losses whenever their cattle get killed due to bad weather. On 8 May, over 110 sheep and goats of the Bakerwals perished during a cloudburst in Rajouri district. Most of these incidents normally go unreported—for instance, Irshad recounted that his relative had lost almost an entire flock of sheep and goats due to a tree that fell in the Chinta forest only a few days earlier. The threat of lightening, which often kills humans and cattle alike, also constantly looms large over the mountains.

The migration is further complicated by the state forest department’s decision to enclose plain areas along their route as forest areas, which limits the spaces where the Bakerwals can break their journey. In the absence of pastures and shelter en route, the nomads are often compelled to continue their journey for days together without a break. Even in the areas that are not fenced out by the forest department, the Bakerwals face resistance from local residents.

According to Manzoor Ahmed, a 36-year-old Bakerwal, the locals stake their claim over forest land and confront them when they try to set up their camps and graze their livestock. Mohammad Rashid, 45, echoed the concern: “Since generations, Bakerwals used this migration route. We usually let off our livestock to graze in these forests.” But of late, he added, the locals have started raising objections. He continued, “They pick up quarrels and start harassing us. They demand money or livestock in lieu of allowing us to set up camps for use forest resources.” Rashid also said that members of the Gujjar community, another nomadic tribe in the area who use the forest land during the summer months, also oppose the Bakerwals’ setting up camps in these areas. He added that the two nomadic communities “amicably resolve all these issues” by exchanging money or livestock.

Vivek Verma, the divisional forest officer of Bhaderwah, told me that no one could legally prevent the Bakerwals from using the forest produce or passing through the forest area because the community had a permit from the department. He noted that according to the Jammu and Kashmir Kacharai Act of 2011, which regulates the revenue gained from the costs imposed for grazing, the nomads have to pay for their livestock to graze—it is not a matter of right. “We take a nominal fee of few rupees for issuing them a permit to graze livestock in open forest areas during each migration,” Verma said. He admitted that the number of complaints by the Bakerwals against local residents obstructing the nomads and other herders from venturing into forest area is increasing. According to Verma, the locals stake a claim over the forests so that they can charge money, or payment in kind, from the nomads.

The Bakerwals also found themselves caught between the militants and the Indian Army during the peak of militancy in the 1990s. Mukhtar Ahmed, a 40-year-old Bakerwal, recalled that “militants would visit our camps during the night and demand food at gunpoint.” He added, “We would have no other option but to obey their orders. Next morning, the Army would launch a crackdown and make our lives miserable.” The Army officials would then identify the Bakerwals as militant sympathisers, he added, and often “harassed them and beat them to extract information about the militants.” Javaid Rahi, general secretary of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation—a non-profit organisation working on issues of tribal welfare in India—agreed: “They used to live between the devil and the deep sea during those days.”

Moreover, due to the ever-growing military presence along India’s international border, thousands of nomadic families have lost their camping sites due to the acquisition of land by the state. “Whenever the government required land for any development project, it invariably acquires state land that has traditionally been used as pastures by the community, or grazing land,” Rahi told me. “For instance, at least 253 nomadic families of tribal communities have been asked to evict large tracts of land in Vijaypur”—a town in Jammu’s Samba district—“for the establishment of the proposed All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The nomadic communities are now being billed as land encroachers.”

As a result, the nomadic tribes in the state have been demanding an extension of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to Jammu and Kashmir. If extended, the nomadic communities in Jammu and Kashmir would gain rights over the usage of forest land and become eligible for welfare schemes and programmes of the government. The state government has made little effort to this regard so far.

Back at Irshad’s camp, atop the mountain in the Chinta forest, the Bakerwal family covered their camps with blue tarpaulin sheets as dusk descended into night and the temperature plunged to below ten degrees Celsius. Despite the cold, some among the community sat outside under the open sky in order to keep a watch on the livestock, wary of attacks by wild animals. Handmade blankets of sheep wool and fire are their only source of warmth through the bone-chilling cold night.

The cold temperature often resulted in the children contracting coughs, colds and fevers. For instance, that night, Irshad’s one-year-old son was running a high fever. But the family claimed that the allopathic medicine had no effect, and that they would instead use medicinal herbs to treat him.

The Bakerwals normally treat themselves and their livestock with herbs that grow in the forests along their route. According to Dr Rafiq Anjum, a former consultant pediatrician with the state’s health department, “Bakerwals largely rely on their tribal systems of medicine. They only come to allopathic doctors when the ailment is grave. Even if they visit a doctor and get a prescription, they hardly purchase complete doses of medicine, either due to financial constraints or a sceptical attitude towards allopathic medicines.”

“Most of their ailments happen due to nutritional deficiency and infections,” Anjum added. “In most areas of the state, people face problems of joint pain, especially knee pain, due to a deficiency of vitamin D and calcium. These nomads don’t take these vitamins and are most prone to such ailments.” He noted that these afflictions are aggravated by the extreme cold, as well as their lack of access to basic medical facilities for most of the year.

A pale light emerging over the adjoining mountain peak announced the break of dawn. The Bakerwali women had already lit their mud chulaahs—a traditional stove—in which they made thick and oversized chapattis, to be served for breakfast along with salted tea. Most of the Bakerwals I spoke to said that they ate limited amounts of food, just enough to fill themselves. Green vegetables and mutton were exceptions in their diet that were saved for special occasions—they they only cooked meat when a goat or sheep died.

After eating, the men took the livestock to graze on a nearby mountain slope. The women packed up their tents and belongings, saddled the horses and mules with ropes made of goat wool, tied their babies to their backs and resumed their journey. Two Bakerwali dogs dutifully walked ahead of the caravans and two others trailed behind to ensure that they were secure.

During the journey, Irshad recalled an incident from over ten years ago, when he got lost in the jungle near the Bani valley in Kathua district. He claimed that an evil spirit had attacked him. “It took the form of my sheep, which had died long back. It just appeared in front of me and within no time, it threw me off the hillock.” He said that he “somehow survived” and that his family members found him lying unconscious the next day. “I realised later that it was an evil spirit, not uncommon in forests. I remember the sheep had unusually long hair and front teeth.”

Dr Jagdish Thappa, a professor of psychiatry at the Government Medical College and Hospital in Jammu, told me that the psychiatric problems among the tribal population there is rooted in their cultural milieu. “Nomads are usually mobile, living in jungles and desolate areas. For any kind of psychiatric or stress-related problems, they don’t take any medicine.” Thappa added, “The most common mental ailments among them are hallucinations, depression, seeing an ‘evil spirit’ or hearing ‘dreadful sounds.’”

Irshad continued his story. “My family took me to a renowned fakir, where the evil spirit started speaking through me. I didn’t know what the evil spirit was saying, but my brothers later told me that when the fakir was driving that evil spirit out of me, even four persons were having a tough time controlling me.” He added that the spirit left his body only after a young sheep was sacrificed. “Mostly, we avoid going to those areas where the evil spirits reside. If there is some urgency we go in groups to those haunted areas along the migration route.”

Thappa said that the tribal nomads suffer from several psychiatric problems but only come for treatment to the hospitals if their fakirs fail to provide psychological aid or any kind of relief. “Illiteracy, unawareness about psychiatry ailments, less interaction with the well settled people,” he added, “are some of the main reasons for such ailments.”

Through most of their journey, the Bakerwals pass through some of the most peaceful areas that nature can offer. But Irshad had a different take. “These areas are beautiful, enjoyable for a person who has leisure in his daily life,” he said. “But certainly not for us Bakerwals, for whom life is a daily struggle for survival.”