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A Long Struggle For Indigeneity: The Story Of Van Gujjars And Their Search For A Tribal Identity

It was on a chilly December night in 2020, deep inside the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, that Mohamed Meer Hamja frantically filled out the registration form for setting up a trust for the Van Gujjars, a nomadic tribe of Uttarakhand. He believed that the time was ripe for registering an organization that formally represents the interests of the community and that would lay the foundation for representing their struggles with the Forest department and other myriad state institutions. He proclaimed “We will call it the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan”, stressing on the need to insert tribal within the name. He said “We live in the forests like most indigenous people, why can we not call ourselves tribal”.

The Van Gujjars identify themselves as Adivasis/Tribals but state institutions have refused to recognize them as such

This piece of write-up is inspired by these words of Hamja who has spent much of his life trying to get Van Gujjars recognized as a tribal group. He believes that Van Gujjars are culturally similar to other Adivasis and therefore must be recognized as such. For Hamja, it seemed important to assert their tribal identity, which continues to be denied by the institutions of the state.

The tussle for a tribal identity

The Van Gujjars are a nomadic transhumant pastoralist community of Northern India, residing in the Terai Bhabhar and Siwalik in winters and the higher Bugyals in Western Himalayas in summers. Based on geographical spread, they are related to Gujjars from Jammu and Himachal Pradesh, but have been accessing pastures in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh since the 1800s. The earliest mention of Gujjars in the forests of Saharanpur and Dehradun date back to 1824, when Kulwa, a nomadic bandit from the community, had chosen to attack the British armory and police stations to free prisoners (GC Williams, Memoirs of Doon). Many Van Gujjars fondly recall Kulwa as a revolutionary against colonial rule who was one of the first freedom fighters of modern India. Furthermore, numerous archival records as well as working plans from the late 19th Century have recognized cultural practices of Gujjars pursuing pastoralism and undertaking migration across the forests in this region.

A typical dwelling site of Van Gujjars

The etymology of the word ‘Van’ prior to the larger Gujjar identity of the nomadic community was primarily a means of assertion by these forest dwellers to distinguish themselves from the mainstream Gujjar identity. The reason to insert this prefix stems from the need to be classified as forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes like their brethren in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. However, till date the Van Gujjars are classified as Other Backward Castes and despite representation to the state government through the Social Justice and Empowerment department for claiming Scheduled Tribe status, there has been no success.

Furthermore, courts too have not been supportive of their claim for tribal identity in the past, when the High Court dismissed a PIL filed in the Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti v State of Uttarakhand, citing lack of competence to address the issue. For the Presidential Order of 1956 to be amended, there must be a Bill passed in Parliament on the recommendation of the state government to this effect, a measure that seems lacking political will and mobilization at the moment. While the Idate Commission Report in 2019 has recommended the need for denotified and nomadic communities to be recognized as a third identity coupled with the need for constitutional safeguards for protection of their rights, it seems unlikely that the government would take adequate policy steps in this regard. The non-release of the Socio-economic and Caste census is also depriving several nomadic communities, who are treated as Other Backward Castes, of any affirmative action support from the state.

The missing emancipation of the Forest Rights Act

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) was seen as an emancipatory legislation by the Van Gujjars to recognize their nomadic, pastoral, as well as forest dweller nature of identity. However, they were categorized as Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, which not only deprived them of their tribal identity but also made it difficult to access the forest resources for their livelihood. For Scheduled Tribes, the rules are more relaxed. They can attach evidence of their caste certificate and submit a proof of residence on the land prior to the cutoff date of 2005 to show dependence on forest land (Rule 13, Forest Rights Rules, 2012). However, for OTFDs, there is a need to supply evidence of having resided on the forest land for three generations. This is a huge challenge as the lack of education, awareness, and the nomadic way of life, has ensured that the community does not pay too much emphasis on documentary proofs, often putting them in a precarious position to prove their forest dwelling identity. In several instances, instead of engaging with the state, they negotiate with the officials by paying bribes of milk and butter (Pacquet, 2018). However, this has ensured that their legitimate rights under FRA continue to be denied, with not even a single claim recognized till date due to these bureaucratic interpretations and lack of political will for implementing the legislation in an emancipatory manner.

Van Gujjars have traditionally been cattle-grazers

In addition, grazing has historically been seen as averse to the Forestry policies since British times but since it was a useful source of revenue, the Van Gujjars were permitted to access forests. However, in the post-independence period, the Forest department categorises grazing communities as encroachers within the forest who have established ‘kabza’ over forest land. While researching for this article, I met and spoke to Manoj Chandran, Chief Conservator of Forests (HRD), who said that unlike tribals, Van Gujjars do not live within forests. According to him, the Van Gujjars are professional grazers who in the past used to be granted permits for grazing in certain compartments of the forests after payment of fees. Due to this, they cannot be treated as forest dwelling tribes who are dependent on forests for their subsistence. These permits were mere concessions granted to access forests; they cannot be used to lay claim over the forest tracts today. Another Officer, DK Singh, Director Rajaji Tiger Reserve claims that the Van Gujjars cannot reside within National Parks, subsequent to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. He said that grazers pose a grave threat to wildlife within these grasslands and severely deplete the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. He argued that wildlife reserves must be protected from human interference and thus the remaining Van Gujjars must also be resettled at the colonies setup in Gaindikhata and Pathri, in Haridwar district.

Komal Singh, presently Deputy Director of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, had evicted several hundred families from Ramgarh, Chillawali and Gohri range in 2017. He referred to these grazers as “poachers” and rejected their autonomous claims to reside and access forest land. None of these officers considered that as per the Forest Rights Act, resettlement and rehabilitation must occur with the free prior informed consent of the community and nobody can evict forest dwellers prior to recognition of rights as per Section 4(5) of the Act. Even within Protected Areas, if forest dwellers exhibit coexistence with wildlife and there is no substantial threat to wildlife, as per section 4(2), then such an area should be declared as inviolate and cannot be used as a ground for eviction. The attitude of the Forest department shows deep resentment to the transhumant and migratory lifestyles of the Van Gujjars despite several ecological benefits of rotational grazing. The co-existence of the Van Gujjars within the Protected Area is seen in their maintenance of water sources for animals, measures to prevent forest fires, check on invasive species like Lantana and constant fertilization of land through foraging and manures of livestock.

The state government is not too keen to take up the demands of the Van Gujjars as they are a miniscule population within the state. The lack of voting rights in Panchayat elections makes them non-existent in grassroot politics. Their residence on forest land denies them the ability to assert revenue status for their deras to claim political representation at the local level. While efforts have been made to provide election IDs, the community’s vote in the state and central election hardly make a difference to the existing mandate of politics within Uttarakhand. In addition, their Muslim identity further marginalizes their demand for legitimately claiming land rights in a Hindu dominated state, which sees them as a threat. It is crucial to note that as Pasmanda Muslims, the Van Gujjars face double discrimination – one of backward caste identity and the other of religious minority. While they often have to negotiate with slangs such as ‘jangli’ while negotiating with locals, their Muslim identity, coupled with the fact they deal with cattle rearing, makes them prone to Islamophobic threats from malicious elements.

Looking Forward – Quest for mobilisation

There is a growing urge for primitive societies to look at terminology of tribe beyond a politico-administrative category as seen by the Indian state today (Corbridge, 2000). The Van Gujjars seem equally representative of a tribal society based on their nomadic, isolationist and naturalistic ways despite not being classified as the same by India. Their assertion as tribal is key to highlight their dependence on the forests as well as the sustainable interrelationship between their livelihood and nature. The community has consciously tried to stay away from a settled life near traditional villages and preferred to set up their deras deep inside the forest. Their access to state and market institutions have been minimal, except when local tradesmen come to purchase their milk deep within the forests. The only criteria while setting up deras is equitable access to grazing pastures, water resources, and access to forests for lopping trees. Furthermore, both their summer and winter homesteads are located within dense forests that ensures comfort to their indigenous breed of buffaloes, Gojiri, which are attune to rotational grazing across forests. The cultural practices of baith and sangeet reflect their animistic ways within the forest. The traditional knowledge of the Van Gujjars are another facet of their symbiosis with forest and the larger natural landscape. The myriad practices of sustainability practiced by the Van Gujjars through protection from forest fires, rotational grazing, removal of invasive species and re-fertilization of soils, all reflect a sense of how safeguarding their identity can help enhance their claim as stewards of the forests.

The emphasis on tribality for them also stems from the belief that they have been original inhabitants of the forest and deserve to be classified and recognized as indigenous peoples. It is also a call to seek solidarity from other Adivasi and forest dwelling communities to identify with their claim for recognition. The Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan was created precisely with this motive to ensure the community can stand on its feet, feel proud of its tribal identity, exercise their agency in decisions that affect them and seek support from state and institutions for welfare benefits like education, healthcare, subsidy etc. It is hopeful that the Sanghatan is able to put forth its representation to the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes and myriad commissions. The Sanghatan seeks to be face for asserting the Van Gujjar and their nomadic identity as forest dwellers. It is hopeful they can find support and solidarity from other similarly placed forest dwellers and nomadic communities. It can also ensure the assertion of the Pasmanda movement that seeks to provide representation and enables greater mobilization for the community. It is hoped that assertion of the tribal identity can go a long way in recognizing their customary tenure to access grazing pastures within the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

About the Author: Pranav Menon is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His interests lie in studying legal anthropology, forest rights, and identity politics through constitutional lenses. He is currently pursuing his fieldwork with the Van Gujjars and is a member-consultant of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan.

Note: All views belong to the Author.


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