The Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir are a nomadic tribe that live in the shadow of militant terror. But for many in the community, defying insurgents’ demands is a new step towards growing stronger as a community. deepshikha hooda reports
AS the snow melts on the Pir Panjal mountains, Haji Mohammad Shafi and his family embark on an annual summer migration to the lush green pastures of the Kukernag region in Kashmir. However, a chance encounter with two militants on a quiet night changed their lives forever. Three years later, Shafi&’s family vividly recalls the haunting encounter.
For the Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, this annual migration is a way of life and the search for pastures for their sheep has them trudging many kilometres across the rugged Pir Panjal. But with the advent of militancy, these routes not only posed challenges of harsh weather and difficult paths but also crawled with terrorists — hiding, hungry and vicious.
On their way to the dhoks (mud huts) in the summer of 2009, Shafi and his family decided to halt for the night at Gul Gulabgarh. As they began setting up camp, two men carrying AK-47s, the favoured weapon among jihadist fighters, approached, asking for food.
Refusing or resisting the demand for goats was not an option, for Shafi as his family were in danger. “We knew not to fight them; for us, both the Army and the militants are God,” says Liyakat Ali, Shafi&’s nephew.
The militants didn’t stop there. Their hunger suddenly took a vicious turn and the demand for Shafi&’s youngest daughter sent the family into shock.
Without wasting a moment, Liyakat and Shafi&’s son Akhtar Ali grabbed the guns. This surprised the militants and the brothers were able to overpower them. Anger and frustration over such a demand saw them strangle the militants to death. Today, Shafi and his family are in grave danger of a revenge attack, and they find themselves on the hit list of insurgent groups.
When militancy hit the state more than two decades ago, it made life harrowing for the nomadic community. Caught in the narrow gallis (lanes) of their nomadic routes, they were open to exploitation from militants and often gave in to demands. It remains unexplored to what extent nomadic families lost their dignity and many were probably not as lucky as Shafi.
Many young boys of the community would be forcefully inducted into militant ranks. This made many nomadic parents hesitant about travelling with their children. Under pressure, the Bakarwals would sometimes be forced to guide militants from one point to another. However, the militants would never hire permanent guides, says a Bakarwal from Salwa village of Mendhar district in Jammu. They would maintain secrecy and never trust the locals, which is why so many Bakarwals were killed in the conflict.
Although official figures based on FIRs are low, many members of the community feel that unregistered cases amount to hundreds, as many have been killed in conflicts in isolated and remote corners of the Pir Panjal, far removed from any police station.
Even for the non-nomadic Bakarwals, things have not been easy. For the residents of Salwa it was unimaginable that the conflict would reach their homes. Shaukat Chaudhary, the sarpanch of Salwa, explains the atrocities villagers encountered when militancy was in full force. “After 1998, the environment of this region changed completely. From Mandi to Darmiyan, this whole ridge in the Pir Panjal was like a highway for militants.” This discouraged many nomads from continuing their migratory practice and they began settling down in the nearby regions.
But soon things got worse. Militants began hiding in the Salwa region and the area was dominated by terror and fear. “People got scared; they couldn’t even go to Mendhar market,” Chaudhary recalls. Soon the civilian population became a target for militants. Between 1998 and 2004, several beheadings took place.
Take, for example, a woman who was preparing a meal for her child in the wee hours of the morning — the militants arrived and killed both. Abdul Gafur, a resident who would often argue with the militants, calling their ways immoral, was murdered near Salwa valley. Abdul Gani, Chaudhary&’s security guard, would often travel and come in contact with Army and police officials. He also suffered a horrible fate as the militants beheaded him on suspicion of being an informer. “They had a strong network, knew what and where people worked. Our cousin, Mohomman Shafiq, a police constable, was killed,” Chaudhary says. Any affiliation with the security agencies spelt death for the locals of this region. Even a hint of suspicion brought grave danger for many Bakarwals, leading to killings.
In 2007, Yougal Manhas, the subdivisional police officer of Mendhar, was shot in broad daylight outside his office. He survived and is today posted in Poonch. “They initially coaxed people to join the terrorist movement, banking on their fascination for the gun and power. Salwa was the most notorious in terms of militancy,” he says.
However, the barbarianism of the militants forced the locals to retaliate. Fear turned to vengeance. In 2001, the people of Salwa decided to get together and began informing security officials in the region of any militant activity. They even aided in some major operations in the region.
“We took the first step when we realised that nobody could come with 20-odd guns and liberate us,” says Chaudhary. Together, the people helped capture 20 militants. “We felt that even if we had losses on our side, at least the rest of the population would be at peace,” Chaudhary asserts. Soon after, at the request of the people, the Army&’s Romeo force established a camp in Salwa. “Even the temporary road to Salwa was constructed by the Army after firing took place here,” Chaudhary says.
The relationship with the Army continues till today. A brigadier in the Manjakot area explains that the people&’s confidence in the security forces has increased immensely and they inform the Army of suspicious movements. “They call us from their mobiles and say, ‘We have spotted an Afghani looking man, he doesn’t look like he is from this area.’ This contribution and assistance from the civil population has helped us greatly,” the brigadier explains. The Army, too, wanting to gain the trust of the local population, began distributing aid in the form of blankets and medicines to the aggrieved Bakarwal community.
Meanwhile, the government has been quick to respond to Shafi&’s situation and has appointed both his sons as Special Police Officers. SPOs have played a pivotal role in fighting militancy in the remote villages of Jammu and Kashmir. Says Danish Rana, Deputy Inspector-General of Poonch and Rajouri, “The SPOs helped augment security operations with their intelligence gathering.”
Shafi still fears for his family but continues to visit his pasture areas across the Pir Panjal as he knows no other way to support his family and believes it is what he must do. What this nomadic family did three years ago was unthinkable. He believes life must go on and continues to face this reality. His grandson now goes to school. “I want him to have a stable future and look beyond this nomadic lifestyle,” he says and plans to leave this migratory practice in a few years’ time. Some feel otherwise.
Wazir, a resident of Gurrah Sarkari, says that with the improving security situation he is seeing a rise in the number of people going to the upper reaches.
Militancy brought many challenges to this nomadic tribe with a unique lifestyle. For many Bakarwals, defying militant demands was a new step towards growing stronger as a community. They have since emerged as a resilient tribe and their contribution to growing normality in the Jammu region is unheralded but immense.
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