Every year in winters the nomadic tribes of Gujjar and Bakkarwal descend from the
Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir to greener pastures in the north-Indian plains. Come
summers they retrace their steps back to the mountains with their cattle. The nomadic,
tribal communiy came to inhabit the northern part of India in the early 12th century.
Since then they have lived in these areas, moving freely across state boundaries, bound
by only nature and their traditions.
Though clear data regarding their numbers is not available, as their nomadic lifestyle
has kept them out of various census exercises, estimates put the population of the
Gujjar Bakkarwal community anywhere between 15-20 percent of the total population of
in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Spread all over the territory of Jammu
and Kashmir, the community pre-dominantly practices the Islamic faith interwoven with
its tribal traditions.

Over centuries, the community has moved between the nooks and crevices of the
northern Himalayas. Scraping a livelihood by selling milk, the community depends on
the land and forests for grazing their cattle. The forests in this ecologically sensitive part
of the world are also equally dependent on the community for its conservation.
In India, the relationship between man and nature has long been honoured as a spiritual
bond. During the colonial period, the wealth of forests was diverted to meet economic
needs without any regard to the conservation of forests and rights of the forest dwellers
that inhabited them. While procedure for settlement of rights was provided under
statutes such as the Indian Forest Act, 1927, these were hardly followed till after India
gained independence. The tribal and forest-dwelling communities, continued to live
inside the forests in tenurial insecurity. 

The symbiotic relationship between forests and forest-dwelling communities finally
found recognition in the National Forest Policy of India in 1988. The policy called for the
need to associate tribal people in the protection, regeneration and development of
forests. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of
Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was enacted to balance the right to environment with the right
to life and livelihood. 2006 Act recognizes the rights of the forest dwelling tribal
communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources, on which these
communities are dependent for a variety of needs, including livelihood, habitation and
other socio-cultural needs.

Classified as a Scheduled Tribes community ideally the Gujjar Bakkarwal community
too should have enjoyed the rights provided to them under the 2006 legislation.
However, a peculiar constitutional provision which allowed the esrtwhile state of Jammu
and Kashmir in India to pick and choose the central laws that would apply to the state,
kept the 2006 act from being implemented in the territory. 

As the 2006 act remain unimplemented for over a decade, the state floundered in its
policy making for the tribal communities, perpetuating the insecurity that the
communities faced. Threats of forced evictions in turn threatened access to land,
livelihood and to other services such as healthcare and education for children.

After a constitutional amendment in 2019, the Forest Rights Act – was extended to the
territory by the Indian Parliament. The Act gave back to the community their rights to
freely access, independently manage and govern forest lands and all other resources
related to forests, within village boundaries, providing livelihood security and a hope for
the future generations. Simultaneously, in May 2021 the Government also launched a
survey of all migratory and tribal population to help nomadic communities access
schemes and development programmes.

The tribal community in Jammu and Kashmir is by no means the only community to
benefit from the recent amendment. Sixty-three years after their arrival in the state as
“sanitary workers” on the request of the then government, members of Valmiki
community are also hopeful of a bright future for their children, as they finally receive
permanent residence certificates in Jammu and Kashmir.

Despite having lived for six decades in the region, the community had limited to no
access to education and employment, as the lack of a residency certificate kept the
people out from jobs which reserved seats for ‘local’ residents. The disaffected
community waged a legal battle in various courts for ending the discrimination without
success. The peculiar local laws did not grant them the right to vote, or purchase land,
unofficially making them second-class citizens in their state. However after the
constitutional amendment, the community voted for the first time in the 2020 local
elections. Elders of the community profess hope that their children will live with honour
and dignity in this land where their ancestors served.