Bakarwal tribal families migrate lock, stock and barrel for the summer from the Jammu plains to the hills of Doda district, 200 km from Jammu, in Jammu and Kashmir. Image: AFPOn Friday, in the wake of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua district, Gujjars and Sikh organizations marched for justice and seeking the death penalty for the accused. The march was led by Choudhary Nazakat Khatana, a Gujjar and Bakarwal leader. The Bakarwal community, as a result of this latest crime does not feel safe in their district. This has triggered early migration of the nomadic Bakarwal community from Rasana village in the border district of Kathua. The main consideration usually being weather conditions; now however, they feel threatened.
Bakarwals are a sect within the Gujjar community. They are Muslim nomadic tribes whose main source of income and livelihood is trading livestock. They are part of the Scheduled tribe’s population of the state. Many in the community say they have been the target of hate crimes before and the violence against them is done with the aim of marginalizing them and pushing them out of society. The two communities – Gujjars and Bakarwals are the single largest Muslim group in Jammu & Kashmir. Recently, both communities have been wary of the PDP-BJP government owing to recent evictions as a result of falsely claiming that they encroach on forest land. In 1991, when the Centre declared the Gujjars and Bakarwals as Scheduled Tribes, they were granted 10 per cent reservation in jobs and promotions in the state government, and 7 per cent in Central government departments.
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A report from News 18 quoted the first Gujjar from Jammu & Kashmir to rise to the rank of Additional Director General of Police in Indian Police Service stating that Gujjars and Bakarwals felt increasingly insecure due to threats and attacks – “Gujjar and Bakarwal communities were always insecure in Jammu and Kashmir, but this time the problem is that they are being threatened not just by some local goons but by the some powerful ministers and seniors in the administration”. After the investigation began into the abduction, torture, gang-rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua, there were protests in favor of the accused, which involved two state ministers and BJP leaders Lal Singh and Chandar Prakash Ganga, who later resigned after public outcry. The Gujjar and Bakarwal population have come under threat from the majority Hindu community in Jammu according to a young Gujjar activist. The Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, an organization working for the Welfare of Indian Tribes with special focus on "Gujjar Tribe" of India said in a statement that read in part, “We have sacrificed our blood for this nation and do not need certificates of being Indian from any group or people”. The communities, living on the border, have been on the receiving end of repeated incidents of firing from Pakistan and as a result people and livestock are killed. The Council went on to state, “Every year dozens of Gujjars and their livestock get killed near the border, hundreds are injured and thousands of people migrate every year to safer places during the heavy gunfire, but in this side of our country, we need a certificate of being nationalist”. M.L. Kotru, in a column for Greater Kashmir, writes on the religious aspect of the communities involved in the murder of a young girl and points out that some places and regions are not particularly welcoming to Muslims – “With years some Gujjars, too, have tried to find a foothold in the habitations, the tragedy being they are less than welcome in some of the predominantly Hindu populated areas, Kathua, for one”. The case, many felt was not properly pursued by the police and investigators and action was taken only after the Bakerwal community started protesting. “The influential community of Hindu lawyers in the meantime girded their loins and upshot is mayhem –Ministers, defying the Chief Ministers decisions and apparently getting away with it, issuing fiery rebuttals to any Chief Ministerial decisions”. Critics have labeled the actions of the BJP of feeding into fears of Jammu’s Hindu community that Gujjars and Bakarwals are changing the demographic make-up of the state. The PDP on the other hand sees the two communities as a constituency. The tribal policy that came out of a February meeting of the Tribal Affairs Department chaired by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was misconstrued. It was initially suggested that she had provided relief to the nomadic population of the state stating that they should not be evicted. There was anger that this meant the encroachment was green lit. It was later revealed, through an RTI activist that circulated the minutes of the meeting which included the accusatory comment that the PDP had a Kashmir centric agenda in a state which had a majority Hindu population. The fact that a horrific incident such as this has been politicized to this degree isn’t necessarily shocking. It does draw the spotlight away from the investigation and the important fact of a community feeling threatened and being labeled anti nationals. However, with some politicians brazenly supporting the accused, it feeds into the fears of the communities in the state.
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