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.