The eight-year-old Kathua victim was raped to ‘teach the Bakerwals a lesson’. ThePrint takes a look at the Bakerwal community and their ‘ostracisation’.
New Delhi: The Bakerwal community has found itself in the spotlight in the aftermath of the horrific rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the nomadic tribe in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Gujjar Bakerwals may not be well known outside the troubled state but they have acted as the eyes and ears of the Indian defence forces for decades. In fact, it was a member of the community who had tipped off authorities about Pakistani infiltrators before the 1965 war.
Mohammed Din Jagir, a Bakerwal, was asked by Pakistani infiltrators to arrange Kashmiri clothing for them to crossover undetected. The plan was to annex Kashmir under Operation Gibraltar. Instead, Jagir informed the police, thwarting the Pakistani operation. He was later awarded a Padma Shri for his bravery.
As reported by ThePrint, police have alleged that the child was abducted and killed as part of a larger plan to drive out the Bakerwal community from the area. According to sources, the idea was to “teach the Bakerwals a lesson” in the wake of regular skirmishes between local Hindus and Bakerwals over land encroachment and trespassing.
ThePrint looks at who the little-known Bakerwals are.
‘The Dalits of Jammu and Kashmir’
According to tribal activist Javaid Rahi, the Bakerwal community is treated the same way in J&K as Dalits are in the rest of the country.
“Kashmiri humain tribal samajtha hai, aur Jammu humain Muslim (Kashmir considers us tribals, and Jammu considers us to be Muslims),” Rahi said.
The Gujjar Bakerwals are a pastoral nomadic ethnic group primarily based in Jammu and Kashmir. They are the third largest ethnic group in the state. Most Gujjar Bakerwals are Sunni Muslims.
According to one estimate, the community accounts for about 12 per cent of the state’s population. In the Valley, they are mostly concentrated in areas such as Kupwara, Shopian, Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Budgam. In Jammu, they mostly live in Poonch, Rajouri and Kathua.
In 1991, the community was declared a scheduled tribe by the government.
The Bakerwals reside in the plains from October to April and move towards the northwest Himalayas during the summer months.
What do they do?
Bakerwals are mainly involved in the rearing of goats and sheep. They also raise horses, dogs and buffaloes. They are either completely landless nomads or semi-nomads with no house in the upper reaches of the state. Some Bakerwals are involved in farming full-time.
A life of exclusion
Kashmiris exclude Bakerwals for their nomadic ways and the Hindu-majority Jammu excludes them because they are Muslim. Jammu residents see the Bakerwals as outsiders settling on their land and as a threat to their demographic as well as political representation, said Rahi.
This perceived threat explains the communalisation of the Kathua rape and murder. Several Hindu groups, local politicians and lawyers have come together to defend the accused, with the latter even trying, but failing, to prevent police from filing the chargesheet.
“No Kashmiri or Dogra will ever stand up for us. It is only our own community which stands up for us,” said Rahi.
Masud Choudhary, a Kashmir-based educator and activist, also said the plight of the Bakerwals was no different than that of scheduled castes and tribes across the country.
Choudhary described the Kathua attack as “rare and reflective of the increasing atrocities against certain marginalised communities” across the country in recent years.
“Now, things are changing — people are murdered, beaten, and lynched in broad daylight across the country. Maybe our people are being encouraged by what is happening in other states,” he said.
Low levels of education
Bakerwals recorded the lowest literacy rate among Kashmir’s 12 tribal groups. According to Census 2011, only 7.8 per cent of the Bakerwals have passed Class XII. Rahi estimates that 8 out of 10 Bakerwal women continue to be illiterate, even though things have radically improved in terms of literacy for the community at large.
The struggle with social evils
Child marriage and dowry are rampant among the Bakerwals. Girl babies are sometimes engaged soon after birth and teenage girls often married to older men. The Bakerwals tend to marry only within their community.
According to Rahi, the Bakerwals practise polygamy, with each man marrying about two to seven women.
“They use women as human resources for rearing animals,” he added. The higher the number of marriages, the more the number of hands to contribute to rearing.