WHO ARE BAKARWALS?
akarwals are a tribe within the state's Gujjar community. The word 'Bakarwal' means goat shepherds. In 1991, Scheduled Tribe (ST) status was given to Bakarwals and reservations were extended to them both in state and central government jobs.
Some among them have just a few dozens of goats and sheep but some posses thousands of farm animals.
For the past few years the way of herding has been changing. Not all Bakarwals move their cattle around on foot. “Most of the Bakarwals, load cattle in the trucks and move their families in other vehicles,” Mohammad Khan, 53, said, while he was loading cattle from his village in Thana Mandi Rajouri. Khan is travelling with his family in a load-carrier. “It costs us 100 to 150 rupees per goat,” he explained. “It becomes cheap and easy for us. We cover the journey of weeks in hours.”
The on-foot travel is tiresome. To reach their destination in time, a Bakarwal family has to walk for at least six hours every day. And sometimes even when they want to, the family can’t move forward an inch.
THE HARD LIFE
s Rahman’s caravan started its descent towards dense woods, it began to pour. The family pitched a small plastic tarpaulin tent, which was just enough to cover them and their stock.
There's not much choice for the Bakarwals. Men and women both look after the cattle, collect and cut wood for the fire, and later take part in other chores like cooking and washing.
The weather is another challenge for them. “It is our worst enemy,” said Misra Bibi while pulling a blanket over her children.
The families carry very few belongings. A pair of dress for each, basic utensils, ration for four to five days—particularly flour. Also, everyone wears rubber shoes.
As the rains continued, the tent was soaked and began to leak from a few places. The family spent the day inside the tent, around the fire, lit at the entry.
The weather in the jungle is unpredictable. Here, it can rain or snow anytime.
At least one member of a Bakarwal family now posseses a mobile phone, some even have smartphones. The family I am travelling with, Khatana had a phone, but he was not sure if it was working.
“Its battery is probably exhausted. I will have to find a place to charge it,” he said.
Extreme weather can bring with it, diseases. Bakarwals, who still live at the mercy of nature, continue to die of some very treatable ailments in the absence of any medical help.
Bakarwals have to brave heavy snow while corssing intor Kashmir (Photo: Hashim Maqbool)
Khatana told us that when his daughter fell ill after two days of travel he sold a goat and took her to the nearest health centre. But he is always worried about a medical emergency that could strike his family members when they’re traveling through dense jungles.
“We rarely visit a doctor and prefer to treat maladies with homemade remedies,” he said. Khatana’s wife has delivered six children and she has never consulted a doctor during her pregnancy.
“I delivered all the babies at my home,” said Misra Bibi. She said that even during her pregnancy she had to walk for a month with her cattle.
Not just humans, even the cattle are prone to diseases during bad weather. The Bakarwals are sometimes forced to sell their weak or diseased cattle for a pittance to visiting merchants.
“The other threats looming are the wild animals,” said Rahman. But every Bakarwal family has a dog. The dog with Khatana is always vigilant. They keep the dogs untied in the night. “No one will dare to come close to our cattle in presence of the dog,” he said. “The dogs raise alarm on finding danger and even fight with wild animals.”
Long and soft feathered, burly dogs kept following the cattle. “Our dogs are like our family. They grow with our cattle and their breed passes on,” said Rahman. “Our dogs have been living with us as far back in time as we can think. For many centuries possibly. The only thing loyal to a Bakarwal, on this earth, is his dog.”
The ever-mobile Bakarwals also conduct their trade en route.
Mohammad Ziya Ul Haq, a 40-year-old cattle buyer, bought thirty goats and a few sheeps from a Bakarwal after much negotiation. “The stock is weak and we will have to feed them for a few months. Then we will sell them in Kashmir,” Haq said.
The rains continued for two more days. We just had to keep waiting for the clouds to clear.