Picture Source: Michael Bernanav (SOPHIA)
About a life in the wild
Aren’t we all too happy with the lives we are living? A sense of normalcy has seeped in all our spheres where the trend, elevations and the definitions of better are already put in place for us. What do we have to do? Simple. Keep running to grab whatever lies on the way. I was no different from all of us to be a part of this popular notion of the survival of the fittest. It was recently two months ago that my bubble was broken, with a
spectacular experience indeed.
I am Pooja Pandey and here in this article on SAIKISITE, I am going to share with you all my 40 days experience with a community, Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand.
Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand
Being a budding ‘social scientist’, we are made to be in a quest of interesting, under-researched subjects and broaden our understanding of the world around us. As a part of such an internship, I got a chance to work with this tiny, little NGO known as Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities (SOPHIA) which works with the Van Gujjar community residing in the foothills of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. Does the name ring a bell? No? I thought so. So let me take this opportunity to introduce you all to this indigenous community of Van Gujjars.
Who are they?
Van Gujjars is a nomadic, forest dwelling and cattle herding Muslim community who are mainly residing in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. Known for their transhumance from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to Himachal Pradesh during summers, this community has been actively involved in buffalo rearing for years. They reside in the jungles on the permits obtained by the forest officials. This community becomes particularly more interesting due to its lifestyle and culture. In a context where Gujjars are one of the most talked about communities in India, Van Gujjars occupy a relatively unpopular space and are fairly secluded in terms of geography and social assimilation. They live in temporary settlements called Deras with their family which is usually large in number and has a patriarchal head. Far away from the concept of education and civic life, Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand reside in a secluded surrounding of forests and engage themselves in the issues of the community with limited links to the outside world. The Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand are dependent on the forest and its produce for their everyday needs of fuel and fodder and this is one of the major reasons why they are alleged to be the ‘destroyers of the forest’ and are in a constant tussle with the Forest authorities over their rights and benefits.
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Lifestyle of Van Gujjars
The community owing to its traditional lifestyle is finding itself on the fringes of the society in the present times. There is a pervasive dearth of food, fodder, water and income for the Gujjars which is making their survival in the forests a difficult affair. It was in during the 1990s and early 2000s that the government came up with its plan of converting Van Gujjars into a sedentary community by providing them land and houses to settle down. I got a chance to interact with one of such settled villages of Van Gujjars in Gaindi Khata, Uttrakhand where there was a drastic difference in the lifestyles of the Gujjars in the forest and the ones in the village. The latter has in some ways adopted the ‘modern’ ways of lives and have indulged themselves in the race of accumulation of materials and comforts. Having experienced both the scenarios, it was hard hitting for me to personally encounter this blinding glamour of a good life. What comes as a more troubling concern is the apathy of the government towards the issue. Even though due to the rigorous efforts of SOPHIA, Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand are a part of various welfare government schemes but the story is more than just that. Just like any other ruling State, India has been suffering with this compulsive tendency of mainstreaming the lives of the individuals and bringing about some sense of homogeneity in the society it inorganically creates. Van Gujjars are in some ways becoming prey to the same agendas. They are under the constant pressures of survival in their native manner and are going through everyday negotiations to preserve their culture and identity as forest dwellers.
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I feel it imperative to mention that my purpose is certainly not to highlight where all is the government failing to do what it should rather I am trying to bring about a bigger issue of our own negligence towards the communities which are relatively less heard about. We are so consumed in self-indulgence that we fail to notice the everyday realities around us which are fighting some real battles in their lives. I am hopeful that this article in some way probes us to pause for a moment and at least look at things which are not going to accrue us any profit of sorts. Getting this chance of understanding and interacting with the Van Gujjars during my internship which was a one of a kind experience and it certainly changed my biases and notions about the indigenous lifestyle. This article in no ways intends to create a sense of guilt among us but it surely raises an apprehension that with the present state of affair and indifference, it would be no surprise if we witness more of Gaindi Khatas in the coming future where the Gujjars will no more be the one belonging to the wild and untamed.
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Think about it
So, if you have anything to share or if you want to ask anything related to the Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand, then please comment below in the box. Keep reading SAIKISITE.
Thank You !