Compared to other Adivasi communities in India, the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe of Jammu and Kashmir lag behind in terms of access to education. In the wake of challenges posed by climate change where frequent avalanches and heavy snowfalls threaten their traditional livelihoods, Mohd. Arshid delves into how the tribe is at the crossroad of the tradition versus modernity debate.
The start of summer in Jammu and Kashmir is signaled by rows of sheep and goats that make their way to the upper reaches of the Shivalik, Pirpanjal and Trikuta mountains. Goaded by families of the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe, the highland pastures provide ample grass for the livestock and forest produce for the families to live comfortably till winter snow and winds make it imperative to climb down again. This centuries old tradition has served the community well and strengthened their nomadic culture, but lately, it has created a dilemma where the younger generation has to choose between modern settled education and traditional nomadic lifestyle.
The old but paramount dispute of tradition versus contemporary survival approaches is being led by people like activist Shazia Choudhary who has been championing the education of fellow Gujjar-Bakerwal women. She is from the Srigufwara tehsil in the Anantnag district and is the president of the women’s wing of the All India Gujjar Mahasabha. From childhood Shazia knew that the women of her tribe were failing to achieve education at par with other communities. "Most of my tribal friends who started school with me dropped out after the 8th standard. By the time we reached the 10th standard only 10 percent of Gujjar-Bakerwal students remained. This situation was further aggravated at the college level when only a few students finished their graduation. Due to the limited financial resources, most tribal girls give up their education. Another reason behind this dropout ratio is early marriages.”
Shazia has been actively promoting education among the Gujjar-Bakerwal community for the last five years ever since she enrolled herself as a student in a college at Anantnag. Through her organization, Shazia conducts door-to-door campaigns and hosts a radio show on Radio Kashmir through which she routinely promotes women’s education. According to her, education is an essential aspect of women’s rights because it leads to health awareness and to the overall development of the community. She opined that the Gujjar-Bakerwal women could not be prosperous unless their health issues are addressed through awareness brought in by education.
Shazia’s good intentions, however, face a mammoth challenge as the road to education is filled with internal and external challenges. On the cultural front, the traditional lifestyle of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community is at odds with the demands of the modern education system. Whereas the country’s existing educational structure revolves around settled residence and pucca schools, the nomadic life of the Kashmiri community poses the question of who must chase who?
The transhumance of the Gujjar-Bakerwal Tribe
There are 104 million Adivasis in India. Of them the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe of Jammu and Kashmir, who speak the Gojri language, remains a predominantly nomadic tribe. With a population of 1.5 million, they are the largest tribal group of the state. They are also the third largest ethnic community in J&K after Koshar (Kashmiri-speaking people) and Dogra (Dogri-speaking people). Some people consider Gujjar and Bakerwal as two different communities but it is an erroneous belief. The Gujjars who rear goats are called Bakerwal where the name originated from bakri or goat.
It is estimated that more than six lakh Gujjar-Bakerwals migrate during summers. This means that children drop out of schools during those six months. To counter this trend, the Shaikh Abdullah government in 1970, launched mobile schools. Later, these schools were severely affected due to militancy, and some closed down during the peak in the 90s. The services resumed after 2000. These mobile schools provide interim education to the GB students but the facilities are bare minimum.
Rehmat Choudhary (40) lives with his three children in a remote village in Poonch district. His children–aged 8, 10, and 13–go to one of the mobile schools in the area during the migration to the mountains. The classes take place in a tent or outside on the meadows. When asked if Choudhury was satisfied with the quality of his children's education, he said, “The school has only one teacher to teach all the children. The teacher is honest at his work but we cannot comment on the quality of his teaching. Neither I nor my wife have had any formal education, we don't know much about what our children read in school.” This particular school is attended by about 30 students who are spending summers working alongside their families during this annual transhumance season.
Rehmat is from a remote area of Surankote and like the rest of the community he is dependent on the pastoral economy for his family’s livelihood. Currently he has six buffaloes and around 50 sheeps and goats whom he tends to like his own children. If an animal suffers from a disease or dies due to it, the entire family enters a mourning period. Yet, rearing animals in such big numbers is not a sign of prosperity as the expenses of rearing animals is very high. In addition, rearing animals is the only means of income for the tribe. “We have to purchase feeders from the market. In winters, we also have to buy grass. As our only source of income is animal husbandry, our earnings are very limited and we lead a very modest lifestyle,” he says. Aside from his three children, Rehmat also cares for his parents and two sisters.
The annual journey back and from the mounttains by Rehman and lakhs of others mean that the Gujjar-Bakerwal children attend schools in phases. For six months they study at a mobile school and the rest of the year, when the family climbs down to the valley in September-October, they study at a permanent school. However, in many cases, the migration dissuades children from pursuing education seriously. When children return to the permanent schools, they find that their classmates have surpassed them in the curriculum leading them to drop out.
Rehmat says, “I wish our kids had the resources to study like children of other communities in our vicinity. Due to a huge financial crunch, private tuition is not an option for our children. I'm planning to admit one of my sons to the religious Madarsa because these institutions give free education along with food and accommodation."
In this matter, Attaullah Shad, a senior teacher of Political Science at the Govt. Higher Secondary School (for boys) in Mandi, Poonch, who has studied the phenomenon, says that many Gujjar-Bakerwal children don't even enroll in primary schools as their parents are unaware of the importance of education. All the Gujjar-Bakerwal hostels and other residential schools enroll students from VI standard onwards only.
Status of education among the Gujjar-Bakerwals
As per 2011 census, India’s overall literacy rate is 74 percent. Male literacy is 82 percent and female is 65.4. The Scheduled Castes in India have a literacy rate of 59.8 percent whereas the Scheduled Tribes have a literacy rate of 59.95 percent. Adivasis of J&K have a literacy rate of 55.6 percent which is below the national average. The numbers in J&K are dominated by tribes other than the Gujjar-Bakerwals who have settled lifestyles and send their children to regular schools. The backwardness in education also extends to lack of access to health, rampant poverty, unemployment, eschewed sex ratio, and more.
Source: Census 2011. chart created by the author.
The literacy rate between the age group 07-12 and 13-19 is comparatively higher. The percentage declines gradually after the age of 19, which suggests that the first generation of Gujjar-Bakerwal is pursuing higher education but others have dropped out.
Source: 2011 census. Data analyzed and made by the author.
The literacy rate among the Gujjar-Bakerwal women is even worse at just 41 percent.
One of the discerning consequences of slow literacy is the lack of knowledge about the significance of sustaining the tribe’s language. Despite the significant ethnic presence, the community had no newspapers until 2018 in their mother tongue. On 25 January 2018, a monthly Rodad-e qaom (Pain of the community) was started in Gojri. "Before Rodad-e qaom paper, the Nawai Qaom and the Gujjar Desh used to raise the community's voice, but these were not in their native language. Some pages of Nawai Qaom were written in Gojri, so we call it bilingual (Urdu and Gojri). Rodad-e Qaom is the first of its kind that is entirely written in Gojri", Ishtiaq Ahmed Misbah, the editor of this paper informed.
Tradition versus Modernity
Apart from the seasonal migration, there are two prominent reasons behind the educational backwardness of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community. Firstly, the concept of mobile schooling, although good in intention, suffers from the lack of infrastructure; and secondly, abject poverty requires children to help their families in sustaining the household during summer months in the mountains.
Explaining the state of mobile schools, Waza Choudhary (name changed), a teacher, said that enrollment is far less than what is intended. Choudhary has been working as a teacher since 2013. He says, “For example, if 50,000 school students migrate with their parents, only 10,000 join the programme due to lack of proper infrastructure”.
Besides, teachers in this programme are poorly paid, he said. “This year (2022), the teachers deployed to this mission will be provided a Rs. 60,000 total remuneration for six months. That means it is Rs. 10,000 per month; imagine how a person can honestly fulfill his duty and take care of their family as such a low salary. Moreover, the mobile teachers are seasonal, and we are jobless during the winter on return to the plain or town. We have no proper buildings or tents during the rain."
Another flaw with this process is the selection procedure; applicants must show their pasture land to become seasonal or mobile teachers. This procedure bars many competent teachers from applying.
According to the Economic Survey of J&K, 2020 more than 42% of the population of Scheduled Tribes live below the poverty line. Unlike the other communities, the Gujjar-Bakerwal has no facilities for ease of doing business. The children support their parents in the workplace. They, along with their parents, wake up early in the morning to take care of the household and the animals. Asooj season is the most hectic time of the year. It is the period from July to October in which this tribe is engaged in cutting grass at risky high altitudes. The families chop every grass straw including those of the thorny bushes. Like all other household chores, children help the elders in grass-cutting too. This season is a disaster for children's education. When the elders of the family are asked as to why they employ children in the work, they typically reply that since their economy is cattle-centric, they have no option but to involve as many hands as possible.
According to a local activist Altaf Saquib, the government needs to come up with a comprehensive financial scheme to stop the school dropout rate of Gujjar Bakerwal Children during the Asooj. It can be financial package to hire labour for grass cutting.
Equipping the community to bear the brunt of climate change
With climate change, the challenges of the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe has increased. They are vulnerable to avalanches, heavy snowfalls, unseasonal rains, and other types of climate catastrophes. Mohd Aftab Chouhan, who recently completed his master’s in Human Rights from Aligarh Muslim University, is concerned about the basic fundamental rights of Gujjar-Bakerwal. He says, their basic rights including right to life are at stake due to the lack of awareness. Education is crucial to meeting fresh challenges. “The tribe needs more people from within to bring about awareness and reform. Education will equip the community with the means to fight climate challenges. If they are able to form well-informed groups, they can raise their demands to UNICEF and other international organizations concerning the environment and disaster management”.
Another factor for the educational backwardness of the tribe, that cannot be ignored, is the rampant discrimination faced by them. Just like some Adivasis in other parts of the country, the tribe faces stigma from the other communities. For example, the common derogatory remarks used against them are Gujjar maki ne taude khan ale (these Gujjars don’t eat anything other than maize), Antauye moon ale ( Gujjar do not wash their mouths), etc. Such is the stigma that many times, the people from the community are ashamed of disclosing their identity in public. The Gujjar-Bakerwals’ demand for political reservation is also facing protests from the so-called upper castes.
The tribe is vulnerable to communal attacks in the plains of Jammu and has a cultural stigma in the valley and the Pir Panjal region. The community members are sometimes attacked by cow vigilantes while carrying cattle from one place to another.
Ameer Hamza, a van Gujjar hails from Kunau Chour Gohri range, tehsil Yamkeshwar, District Pouri Garhwal of Uttrakhand said that he has been promoting the cultural preservation of the GB tribe. Hamza is a person involved in the formation of more than 100 Forest rights action Committees under FRA, 2006 in the district such as Dehradhun, Teri Garwal, Nainital, Haridwar, and Udham singh Nagar. Besides his activism regarding mobilizing the tribals for their forests and other cultural rights, under his organization Tribal Yuva Sangathan operates four educational centers having an enrollment of about 200 children. He reiterated that the GB culture must be a part of the education curriculum so that the tribal students in schools do not feel alienated.
In this regard, Abdul Majeed Kohli, the Chief Education officer of Srinagar agreed that there is a need for improving educational facilities among the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe. He said that the dropout ratio of the GB’s children is due to their remoteness, lack of adequate resources, and their seasonal habit of migration. “There are several government initiatives such as mid-day meal, free books and uniforms, Gujjar-Bakerwal hostels and seasonal mobile centers being operated diligently by the education department but there is a need to increase their efficiency,” he says. He adds that there should be more funds for better implementation.
Another official, who is currently working as Principal DIET in the Shopian district and who previously served as CEO Poonch is also not satisfied with the education of Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe. According to him, residential-style schools particularly for girl children need to be opened in remote areas wherever the tribe is located.
There seems to be an unanimous agreement about the need for education both from within the community as well as outside. Yet, it needs to be seen whether this quest transforms into adequate policies.
About the author: Mohd. Arshid is a freelance journalist from the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribe of Jammu and Kashmir. He is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was selected as one of the fellows of Adivasi Awaaz Media Fellowship which aims at uncovering stories from the margins.