Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mission Kashmir Diary-3

The nomad has bought a mobile phone. He now wants a house.

Fazal Hussain, the Bakarwal tribe elder with the kohl-laced eyes and henna-dyed beard, clutched the handset like a walkie-talkie in front of him as he told his address to a relative coming by to visit.

“Come to a clearing on a hill between Chingus and Rajouri, keep looking to the left from the window,” Hussain said, as he stood at his annual winter address after returning an hour ago from wandering through Kashmir.

But there is no romance left in these endless nomadic journeys anymore. Hussain wants to stop. He wants a home and a normal life. He wants an address that is not a mountain clearing.
“We hate this life. We are tired of being vagabonds. We are living in darkness, we cannot even do signatures,” he said as his grandchildren looked on, sitting on a rock.

“We are so desperate that we settle down and our children go to school. I wish they could study,” Hussain said. “We want the government’s help.”

The Bakarwals are nomads who still live the ancient lifestyle that their ancestors lived for centuries, surviving on and seeking little except what they can carry.

“We have no greed. We get our dinner, and then we know Allah will do something for us in the morning,” he said, women lit fires and stirred salted Kashmiri tea.

In the summers, the Bakarwals support themselves by doing odd jobs at fruit orchards and farm fields in Kashmir. They have their “qasab” (territories), where they can wander, well divided among themselves.

Many Bakarwals have voter ID cards, and are being wooed by politicians ahead of the Jammu and Kashmir state elections.

“It’s election time, so they will come and promise us relief, land, pensions,”’ said Mohammed Shabir, 45, another Bakarwal villager. “For centuries, we have been cheated like this. Nobody did anything for us vagabonds.”

A little Bakarwal girl walked across the highway, all by herself, to pick firewood.

Wading with their huge herds of sheep into big cities, they come down from the pastures in the winters and walk long distances, as far south as the New Delhi suburb of Noida – before returning to Kashmir in the summer.

When insurgency erupted in Kashmir in the nineties, the Bakarwals found themselves under pressure from both militants and the army’s overzealous officers. They stopped going to the forests, where they earlier used to get lucrative produce, and began living by the roads.

Now they have many youth who are dreaming bag, and seeking aspirations.

“I once went to Srinagar. It is big and beautiful. I want to live there,” said Ghulam Qadir, 14.

But from their information-choked, reclusive world, there is still some distance to be travelled.

“I love cricket. My favourite cricketer is Salman Khan,” Qadir said.

(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)