At a time when many voices fell silent with the unilateral abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy in August 2019, Saima Choudhary’s instinct was to do the opposite: “If we don’t speak up now, there will never be another time,” she had thought.
For the 23-year-old postgraduate student, activism is a “legacy” of her family’s political background but she doesn’t consider herself an activist at the grassroots; she is, in her own description, just someone vocal on the issues faced by her community, the tribal Gujjars.
Months later when the region was again locked down, this time to curb the spread of COVID-19, Hindu chauvinists in Jammu had branded — taking a cue from the bigotry in India in blaming Muslims for the pandemic — as carriers of disease, “no [Gujjar] leader supported in a significant way or was at the forefront.”
Over the years, the established political leadership of the Gujjars, who owe their allegiances to various regional and national unionist parties, have failed to stand by their own community, said Saima.
After their persecution had intensified since the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in the erstwhile state in 2014, they were now being economically crippled with open calls to boycott the purchase of milk from the community, largely pastoralists supplying mutton and milk.
Yet the leaders of the Gujjar community chose to remain mute. “Representatives work in their particular areas to resolve [developmental] issues but they don’t take a stand for the collective community,” she said. “There is no unity on important issues concerning the community.”
Saima intends to set up a non-profit in her native village Lasana in the Surankote area of Poonch district, nearly a hundred kilometers from the summer capital Srinagar and twice as much from the winter capital Jammu. “Let’s see where the winds blow,” she said, for now.
The failure of the leadership in representing more than a million Gujjars, in their struggle for upward social mobility and assertion of identity has led to the vacuum being filled by young activists who have emerged from the margins to challenge the powerful old guard.
The role played by these young activists was evident last year November when the sudden demolition of hutments belonging to the Gujjars in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam was highlighted, prompting the traditional leadership to then step in.
These Young Turks, mostly former student activists, are campaigning under different banners but share not only their beginnings but also the vision for their community. Driven by passion and armed with social media, they are leading at the forefront, chipping away at the old guard’s influence — one issue at a time.
Propelled by conflict, absence of leaders
Since the rise of the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir — coinciding with the Kashmir-based unionists abandoning the Jammu region, where most Gujjars are based — the Gujjars have come to represent Muslims, therefore becoming a punching bag for the region’s Hindutva forces.
Forcible evictions of Gujjars have increased and the community has been accused, by the Hindu right, of conspiring to change the region’s demographics. Muslims in Jammu, mostly ethnic Gujjars and some Dogras, were in the majority prior to the massacre in 1947 when the Hindu Dogra state forces took to ethnically cleanse the region of Muslims. Thousands were killed and countless migrated to safer places, including Pakistan.
Since then, frictions between the dominating Hindus and Muslims have largely remained under the wraps until perpetrators of the violence, buoyed by the BJP rise across India, came out in the open and intensified physical attacks against Gujjar Muslims.
In 2017, in the Reasi district, a Hindu mob lynched a Bakarwal family accusing them of smuggling cows, the mob also recorded it on camera. In 2018, an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl was gang-raped and murdered by Hindu men to, as per the police, “dislodge” them from the Rasana village. The Bakarwals are also a pastoralist tribal community.
The incident led to the gloves coming off and polarised the region as Hindus rallied behind the rapists, who were later convicted by the courts, against the victim Muslims. In a show of solidarity, the Hindu leadership joined a procession where supporters of the rapists waved India’s national flag.
In July last year, three youth, including a minor, from Rajouri were murdered by the Indian Army in a fake gunfight in south Kashmir’s Shopian. While the leadership turned a blind eye, a Gujjar youth Guftar Choudhary rose to the occasion.
A student activist since his college days, Guftar’s support to the three families in the exhumation of the dead bodies of their sons, buried in a discreet graveyard in Kashmir, prompted appreciation among the Gujjars but also other ethnic communities in J-K.
Time and again, the tribal leadership dominated by Gujjars has abdicated its responsibilities, only to be taken up by young Gujjar activists who tirelessly highlighted and pursued the cause of justice not only in Kathua or Shopian but other big and small troubles faced by tribal communities across the region.
‘Orphaned’ by leaders
The defining feature of the new crop of Gujjar activists is their common beginnings in a student organisation called the Gujjar Bakarwal Student Welfare Association (GBSWA). Likeminded Gujjar youth in colleges across J-K had come together to raise their voice. Guftar was once its district president from Rajouri.
The GBSWA’s first vice-president was Zahid Choudhary, then a postgraduate student of Persian language in the Kashmir University in 2010. In recent months, he has voiced several issues faced by Gujjars, ranging from inflated amenities’s bills to the implementation of Forest Rights Act.
The traditional leadership of the Gujjars, said Zahid, was dominated by a few dynastic political families who “when it comes to a collective cause, they have failed” the community. He today heads the Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference.
The timely implementation of the Forest Rights Act could have saved the Gujjars from unwarranted harassment from the administration, which ironically comprises a significant number of tribal administrative as well as police officers, but despite Gujjar leaders being elected to the erstwhile state assemblies they remained indifferent, Zahid pointed out.
“Leaders protected some families from evictions but there was no permanent collective solution… they let the sword of evictions hang over us,” said Zahid. “In terms of our leadership, we are helpless orphans.”
The result, he said, was evident in the District Development Council elections in which the Gujjar leadership, that Zahid described as the dominance of a few families, as “almost all traditional dynasts lost the elections.”
In dynastic strongholds – Surankote and Mendhar in Poonch, Drahal in Rajouri, Kangan in Kashmir’s Ganderbal – family politicians from the National Conference and the Congress lost to young Gujjars who contested as independent candidates, pointed out Zahid.
Another indicator of their dwindling authority and growing irrelevance, said Zahid, was that the press no longer seeking them out to comment on issues faced by the community they represent. “Even the public doesn’t approach the [traditional] leaders anymore because they have an alternative: young, educated activists.”
While the community’s leaders turned a blind eye to the gruesome rape and murder in Kathua, activist Talib Hussain was at the forefront in highlighting the crime that was initially swept under the carpet by local police officials. He was the first president of the GBSWA.
Hussain was subjected to consistent government pressure since then. He was arrested and subsequently allegedly beaten up by police officials inside the jail, which was then passed off as his attempt to suicide. He has been officially booked for it.
In all, there are fifteen First Information Reports against him, said Hussain. He has also been charged of rape by his wife and another relative but Hussain maintains the charges were politically motivated to counter his activism in the Kathua case.
The main confrontation with anti-Gujjar forces, said Hussain, was in the Jammu region. “Here our people are troubled and persecuted, the battlefield is Jammu,” he said. “Our battle is directly with the BJP.”
Hussain, a lawyer by qualification who hails from Kokernag in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, had at that time also gone barefoot in protest of the FRA’s non-implementation in J-K. The Gujjars were disempowered as they were “easy to milk for votes”, said Hussain.
The emergence of Gujjars vocal for their rights hadn’t just irked the non-tribals, said Hussain. “The old guard of Gujjars have the biggest problem,” he added. “Their problem is that we are young and educated, people listen to us, and we fight bravely even without money. They feel that a new challenge has come up that will harm the leadership.”
Hussain’s tryst with activism began in 2008 when he joined the Law Department of the Jammu University. “It’s not as if there weren’t young Gujjar activists before us but the earlier culture was either you were with the National Conference’s student wing or an association named on Gujjar-Bakarwal identity and then join the Congress,” he said, adding that activism at that time “was limited to presenting bouquets” or “shouting slogans” in praise of leaders at rallies. “Nobody was talking about our issues.”
After years of independent activism, which Hussain said had “changed the narrative that you need to join a political party if you want to do activism”, he joined the Kashmir-based People’s Democratic Party. “I had vowed not to go with any political party but this is Jammu and Kashmir and if here you aren’t with a political party so you will go to jail,” he said. “If you want to work for the society, your freedom and safety is also important.”
Much like Zahid and Guftar, Hussain has also parted ways but all continue to share the same rigour and vision for the betterment of their community. This consensus is perhaps their biggest victory over the traditional leadership.