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The Ban Gujjars - Children of the Forest

The Gujjars are a tribe who rear livestock and earn a living by selling milk and other dairy products. They are totally pastoral and unmoved by the desire to either hold or cultivate land. So deeply imbued are they with the nomadic spirit that an elderly Gujjar once declared, If you are settled, you are like a stone.

The origin of the Gujjars is traced to the Huns who came to India in the third century AD. Gujjars are also identified with the Kushans of Yuchi, a tribe of Tartars. Yet another source traces their descent from the Seythian tribe, those nomadic conquerors and skilled horsemen of ancient times who marched into India and established themselves in Kashmi, Punjab and parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Most likely, present day Gujjars are the progeny of intermarriage between early Indo-Aryans and local inhabitants.

There once used to be a flourishing Gujjar kingdom in North India. But the raids of the Afghan, Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century AD, the Pathans, and later the Mughals rang the death knell of this kingdom. Most of the Gujjars converted to Islam and many left their homes. A Gujjar wave moved southward alongward along the Indus and settled down in the plains. But more colourful by far was the wave that moved northward to Kashmir and the foothills of Punjab. Now known as Ban(forest) Gujjars, these are the ones living in the hills and committed to a nomadic existence. Most Ban Gujjars are Muslim, with strong mystical leaning. Those settled in the plains are Hindus.

In the course of time, Gujjars migrated from Kashmir to Chamba, in present day Himachal Pradesh. An interesting story is told about this phase of the migration. It is that once the Maharaja of sirmaur visited the kingdom of Punchh and went into raptures over the taste of the milk served at the palace. On being told that the milk was supplied by the Gujjars, he requested that a few families to lie in Sirmaur as a gift. From Sirmaur, the descendents of these families spread to other areas of Himachal.

Today the Gujjars inhabit the foothills of the Dhauladhar range. Come winter and they cross over some of the lower mountain passes to the floor of the Ravi Valley in Chamba district. Others move as far as Kangra, Kullu, and Manali. At the time of the Indo-Pak partition many Gujjar families moved to Pakistan. But they soon returned to India because round the year facilities for grazing were not always available.

Gujjar move with the seasons. Since they live entirely off the sale of dairy products it is important for their herds to have plenty of grazing. Winter in the plains is ideal because after the monsoon, the pastures are green and the cold is well within the tolerance level of the cattle. But summer compels them to move up into the lesser Himalayas where the snow has melted into fresh young grass and one can forget about the searing heat of the plains. Gujjars keep to low mountain pastures, within say 10,000 feet above mean sea level.

The home of the Gujjars can be anything from shack, to a tent, to a patch of grass under the wide open sky. A permanent dwelling is rare. Gujjars live and move in joint family groups and set up temporary settlements where the grazing is good. Generally this happens to be on the outskirts of forests because the grass is greener within. Armed with a formal permit the men attend to the grazing while women milk the cattle, make butter and help carry both to the market. Or else they sell these to passing pilgrims and tourists.

Ban Gujjars have maintained their separate identity and do not generally mix with the local population. The well built and hardy men are recognized by their typical carelessly tied turban, tehmed(sarong), and short beard. Some wear colourfully embroidered waistcoats. A folded sheet on the shoulder, a stick in hand, and the pictures is complete. The woman wear a long kurta(shirt), curidar(tights) pyjamas, and jackets, much like the women of Kashmir. But they do not always observe purdah(veil).

Gujjars speak Gujjari a dialect of Hindi. Many speak Urdu,Kashmiri, Pahari or Dogri as a second language. They are a monogamous and patriarchal society where a son is always more welcome than a daughter and, following a marriage, a wife goes to live with her husband’s family. Divorce and remarriage is permissible for both men and women. Old traditions relating to religion, marriage, birth and death are strictly adhered to and superstition is rife. But all said and done, Ban Gujjars are a simply peaceful lot. Milk and cornmeal are their staple food and they are generally strict vegetarians. Indeed they consider non-vegetarians. Indeed they consider non-vegetarianism and alcohol to be the evils of urbanized society.

However the lot of Gujjars has always been a cause for concern. Their nomadic lifestyle does not permit any security, financial or otherwise. They are often riddled with debt. While they possess sound insight into various aspects of conservation and animal husbandry, they are vulnerable to and open to exploitation simply because they are illiterate. In other words they stand marginalized.

Recently the cause of the Ban Guijars in Uttar Pradesh had been espoused by the Dehradun based Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK).

Teaching the tribe was no cakewalk. For one thing, the Gujjars dwelt in small groups spread over a vast area and much of the terrain was far from hospitable, being at once rugged and remote. It was difficult to get Gujjars to collect at one place, and equally difficult to get teachers to walk freely in an doubt of the dense forests. Under the circumstances, the Gujjar elders themselves came up with a solution, suggesting that the teacher volunteers stay with them in their deras (forest homes), and they would be looked after as well as possible.

Hard going, but it paid off. Today the same Gujjars are in a position to maintain accounts. The capacity to write ahs made it possible for them to lodge written complaints with the police, and to air their grievances in the press.

As a sequel to the literacy drive an advanced programme aimed at sharpening the recently acquired skills has been launched. The programme aims at teaching the basic of issues like health, sanitation, immunization and solving problems related to natural resource management and animal husbandry.

With enlightenment the Gujjars are now organizing themselves to ask for the right to live in and to manage the forests that have been their home for ages.