As per the Centre for Pastoralism‘s records, there are close to 35 million pastoralists living in India’s forests and grasslands. Despite being in such size-able numbers, these nomadic communities live in acute poverty on the fringes of the forest where there settlements are under a constant threat of eviction. The lack of civil rights, access to public services like health care, education, veterinary support for their animals and more has pushed them further into the margins. The Forest Rights Act passed by the Indian parliament in 2006, which was meant to protect the rights of forest-dwelling nomadic communities, has had little impact on the ground.
I had read reports about the Van Gujjars facing eviction from Rajaji National Park a while ago. Van Gujjars are nomadic buffalo-herders inhabiting the foothills of Himalayan states like Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. They are one of many tribes who depend on forests as a source of livelihood and for whom, ‘transhumance‘ (the practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle) has been a way of life for centuries. The Van Gujjars have now become the human face of ‘victims of conservation‘.
I started reading further on the Gujjar nomads when the rape of a child from the nomadic Gujjar-Bakarwal community of Kathua in Jammu district highlighted the threat that Muslim nomadic tribes face and the constant fear they live under. It was the same time that I had started recording for the first time for Change Room. It is also in the current context of cow vigilantism that this Muslim forest-dwelling nomadic community, that rears mainly buffaloes and some cows and practices transhumance season after season even in the present day, that I felt that the community is in an extremely vulnerable situation.
I came in contact with the Centre for Pastoralism in Delhi and offered to record with the nomadic tribes, particularly with the Van Gujjars, if they would be willing to speak with me. The organization connected me with their field worker in Uttarakhand. I travelled to Rishikesh by bus where I was received by the field worker from Centre for Pastoralism working with the community and Amir Hamza who is a Van Gujjar himself. We rode on motorbikes and reached the outskirts of Rajaji National Park where the community resides in various deras spread across the periphery of the National Park.
I spent some time with the community, recording with many women and men who spoke about their fears, their expectations, their daily struggle for survival in the absence of natural resources, especially for their cattle, from the forest, that they had had access to before they were ousted from there. The recordings were done during the time of transhumance.
Recording with the Van Gujjars and other nomadic communities is an ongoing process for which the people themselves as well as the Centre for Pastoralism have supported me by helping me to connect with the community to record with those who wish to share their experiences.
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