The abduction, rape and murder of the Bakkarwal girl ***** on 10 January, 2018, at Rassana village, Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir has received wide coverage in the press and social media recently. Like so many stories of this kind, the attempt in the coverage of the case has been to show the horrible plight of the community and the parents of the little girl, in being subjected to this kind of predation. This is the first time that the Bakkarwals (although Firstpost‘s style guide recommends that the name of the community be spelled ‘Bakarwal’, we’ve retained the author’s spelling in deference to her scholarship) and Gujjars of Jammu and Kashmir have appeared so consistently within the horizon of the nation’s attention. As with all the typically tragic and unfortunate stories that lead communities to representation within a modern democracy, the Bakkarwals have been forced to demand their rights to representation within the nation, by incidents and political manoeuvres that have made their traditional ways of life fragile and untenable. It is thus important that we consider seriously their claims and the effects of this case on them, as this is a moment that will shape this community decisively.
In its very essence, political representation, particularly of the kind created by collective trauma, forces a community to face many distasteful and mortifying realities of the political present. One of these is surely the conflation of the Kathua rape with the Unnao rape. Under the din of primetime news, the more complex relationships between people in the field, and ambivalent status of the Bakkarwals with regard to other groups of Jammu and Kashmir has received scant attention. As Bakkarwals have been courageous enough to stand up for their rights at such a trying moment, it is surely incumbent upon us, those who are already well ensconced within the nation to pay careful attention to the details of the case that are significant for them.
This case has taken some time to fully surface upon the national stage and discussions with Bakkarwal friends reveal how the case had to be drummed up by Bakkarwal and Gujjar activists and sympathisers, some of whom arrived at Rassana village on 16 January, the day before her body was found in the forest after the girl had been missing for seven days. Zahid Parwaz Chaudhary, Talib Hussain Chaudhary, Ch Fayaz Karnahi, Nazakat Khatana, Ch Mohd Yaseen Poswal, Guftar Ahmed Chaudhary, Zafar Chaudhary, Sadiq Chaudhary, Ch Mohd Aslam, Haji Yousif Gorsi, Rafaqat Ajaz and several others were among the activists. Post-mortem reports revealed sedation, rape, rupture of internal organs, and eventual death by strangulation and head injury. Something like this has never happened to any Bakkarwal in Kathua before. This was capped by the denial of access to the local burial ground to her parents owing to which the little girl now lies buried all by herself, on a hill, in the forest about 4-5 km from the village.
The fact of the denial of burial grounds to the Bakkarwals is particularly poignant. It shows a steady decline in their relations with sedentary populations. Increasingly, for both the Kashmiri Muslim and the Jammu Hindus, the Bakkarwals are perceived as outsiders. As nomadic people, they also suffered acutely because of the militancy in the Valley. Many Bakkarwals, however, continued their migration up and down the mountains in-spite of the daunting odds posed by militancy, by adopting various diversifying strategies such as leaving their children behind with settled friends and relatives, as some young boys were kidnapped by militants. But incidents such as the Kathua rape have left them stunned. The Bakkarwals are not used to being in the news. Their way is to evade and move on. But how to negotiate this present time without entering the quagmire of the ‘civilised settled’?
Kashmiris ridicule them, some taunt them for being supporters of India — but must now also woo them as the Kashmiri movement for azadineeds the Bakkarwals on their side for their own moral legitimacy. The Jammu Hindus with whom the Bakkarwals shared a warmer relationship are increasingly collating them with Muslim migrants, especially in Kathua and Sambha where their numbers are small. The Bakkarwals have little choice but to sit on the fence every time there is a crisis. “After the killing of Burhan Wani we were told that since we are faithful to the Indian nation we will be thrown out, and our land will be distributed amongst them. We just had to grin and bear it.”
Successive governments have systematically failed to recognise their Forest Rights or rehabilitation needs, and the FRA is still not applicable in Jammu and Kashmir, the one piece of proposed legislation that is still making attempts at securing the Bakkarwals’ traditional way of life. This suits everyone — both Hindu and Muslim. As a Bakkarwal friend who teaches at a government college said, “All we get is lip-service, If the PDP really wants to help us why didn’t they pass the Act when we tabled it recently?” It is precisely such political opportunism that has left the Bakkarwal stranded, and often forced to take on dangerous and precarious modes of survival, which leaves them at the mercy of people who see them as powerless and thus easily exploited. The Bakkarwals who wield any power have gradually amassed land, and have sedentarised or are in the process of sedentarising, while continuing to profit from herding by employing servants or uneducated family and clan members. On the other hand, poor Bakkarwals with growing cash demands, are being driven out of nomadism altogether towards other employment opportunities in towns and cities as daily wage labour, farm-hands etc. gradually diluting their distinctiveness as a nomadic people, and their sense of self.
Nation-states promote democracy by empowering sedentary local populations i.e at the most basic level — villages. But it is only beyond the village that lies the realm of the Bakkarwals. The Bakkarwals live beyond the reach of the village, hamlet and cluster and are thus away from processes of village empowerment and development, which marks them off increasingly as a kind of sub-civilized population. This positioning of them as the “backward illiterate homeless” is ironically a reversal of their former roles when the Bakkarwals were, in fact, the first population to introduce the outside world to remote Kashmiri villagers. However, it is the continued history of hostility towards nomads, coupled with the emerging wish to educate their children that is pulling many towards semi-sedentarisation or new strategies and networks that allow for the education of their children. The little girl’s parents also wanted her to go to school.
The wide coverage of the Kathua rape has left many Bakkarwals bewildered. Divisive politics is engineering new forms of social rules. They are tapping in on a sense of loss or perceived loss, and producing a new kind of violence out of it, turning nostalgia and melancholy into rage and revenge. For every loss, there is a target in sight to be brought down. And any means will do, whether fair or foul. Such strange political means are particularly visible in the quickly fluctuating reactions the incidents incited from surrounding village peoples. As a friend and Bakkarwal student activist said, “Many women from the village cried after her body was recovered and spoke lovingly of the girl and expressed anguish at what had happened to her. Now many of those same women are part of the group demonstrating for a CBI inquiry.”
There was another incident that left us mystified said Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, another friend and Bakkarwal activist. “The day after we buried her was Friday. We decided to go to different mosques in the region to spread the news about the poor girl. I went to Kathua town and spoke to several people. Then we tried to block a road but we were unsuccessful as we were few in number. It is the Panther Party who helped us in Kathua after learning about what had happened to the girl, and we managed to block a road with their help. The matter was not about Hindu-Muslim in January, the Panther Party consists mainly of Hindus but they were sympathetic and understood that what had happened to our girl was beyond matters of religion. Now we find the same members of the Panther Party agitating along with the Hindu Ekta Manch… So we can’t say that this is about Hindu-Muslim divisions, it is politics. If it was about religion then how have we lived peacefully together year after year for so long?”
Another regional factor to consider is that Kathua and Sambha have much smaller populations of Gujjars and Bakkarwals, unlike districts such as Rajouri, Poonch and Reasi where the Gujjars and Bakkarwals are a sizeable population and wield some political muscle. Their small numbers in Kathua and Sambha and the rise of divisive politics leaves the nomads here vulnerable.
Vulnerability, in many ways, seems to be the focal point of this case. The Bakkarwals are not a traditionally vulnerable community, they are a community whose men and women scale the most difficult peaks and passes of the Himalayas and the Pir Panjals. They have rich knowledge traditions and specialised skills of their own. They open the high mountain passes in Kashmir that the entire trekking industry relies upon, even the forest department grudgingly acknowledge their superior knowledge. Bakkarwal women are known for being tough and more than self-sufficient in protecting themselves. It is perhaps this fiery streak of independence that makes them so difficult for us to understand, but also so liable to be demarcated as ‘backward.’ Their history over the last 28 years in Kashmir has been one of increasing fragility, and dependence on the state, and it is only in such a condition that a people can be exploited. The Bakkarwals need this moment to resound within the high halls of justice and legality, so that it may not happen again, so that at the basic level of existence they might preserve themselves, but it has been a high price to pay, to show themselves as victims and to demand this justice. Let us hope the moment does not swiftly ebb away, after the initial fascination with a people’s misery, to remain one among the many false promises of justice made at the price of their honour and pride.
The young girl’s father and family have now left Kathua for their onward summer migration to Sanasar in the Pir Panjals, perhaps because walking, moving and evading the strange machinations of settled life for a time in the world’s highest peaks is what he knows best and what he must do to cope with his grief.