The lives of the Bakarwals have best been portrayed by ‘Shepherds of Paradise’ by Raja Shabir Khan. This documentary has covered the hard journey of Gafoor and his dera, and the hardships that came his way during the 200 miles journey, from the plains of Jammu to the higher reaches of Kashmir.
Nazir Hussain, another Bakarwal from Kalakote, whose family migrates to Gurez during summers, engrosses in some serious talk as he said, ‘We often lose our sheep and goats and also people in road accidents. Yet, that doesn’t knock down our morale and in the spirit of keeping our tradition alive, we do not even think of settling at one place permanently.’ His words echo deep as a speeding truck recently mowed down a shepherd and his flock of sheep and goats near Thopal in Ramban district of the state. The shepherd who lost his life, was all of twenty-nine. Earlier this year, a similar incident took place near Poshana along Mughal road in Poonch district, wherein more than 55 sheep were crushed. Increasing traffic is adding to their woes even as they are continuously being blamed for creating chaos on the road.
Moreover, due to the constant travelling, the children of the tribe drop out of schools. The Government of the state has provided mobile schools with teachers who accompany the Bakarwals and teach their children en-route the entire journey, yet it does little. Children largely help the huge herd of sheep and goats graze. They collect woods. And in their own little ways, they ease a huge part of their responsibilities. Their occupation with the books would make their lives more difficult. The short-run cost-benefit analysis further aggravates the problem of illiteracy among the tribe, bypassing the long-run benefits of education. The result, generation-after-generation of Bakarwali children pose happily with their animal-companions; while their books and notebooks are used to pack groceries for the regular halts.
Their religious identity troubles them in areas, where Muslims are in the minority while owing to their tribal identity, they are looked down upon by the other Muslims particularly Kashmiris. The deras that have cattle especially cows in their caravans, also have started facing the brunt of Hindutva forces. Last year, a Bakarwal family of Reasi was attacked heartlessly, on suspicion of being cow-smugglers. Their lives are at grave risk for they face eviction from Hindu-dominated areas too. The rape of nine-year-old Asifa in Hindu-dominated village of Rasana to create fear among the Bakarwals, to force them to shift, has crossed all limits of morality and humanity.
The Bakarwali women are overworked. And this takes a toll on their lives. Often heavily pregnant women or new mothers have to take this difficult journey. Besides they have to perform numerous other tasks. They are malnourished and their children are left unattended or taken care of by elder siblings. Behind their strings of braids, lies a dark-reality that they do not have time even to comb their hair. A study by Showkeen Bilal Ahmed Gul reveals that the women of the tribe are completely unaware of the schemes that are launched by the government for their upliftment, from time to time. Their lives are at risk, safety at stake while they venture into deep forests to collect firewood or to graze their horses.
Since being listed in the Scheduled Tribes, the jobbed Gujjars and Bakarwals are regularly taunted and underestimated for being a reserved category. Often Bakarwala or Gujru or Gujjar is used as a slang for someone who is shabbily dressed or who speaks meekly or who is little aware of the world-happenings. They have been facing this verbal onslaught since ages and perhaps that is why, they do not mingle much with others, keeping largely to themselves.
Despite all this, Bakarwals would always carry a happy smile on their faces, cheerfully playing the flute or singing folk songs. But behind, lies years of hardships, which have strengthened them to bear not just the vagaries of nature, but also of fellow human beings. And despite these hardships, if you talk to them, they turn out to be the friendliest of all masses and amazing storytellers. All you need is to make the first move, talk.