‘Gujjars have been marginalised and neglected by both the regions’

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Choudhary Zulfikar Ali is a Rajouri lawmaker who has been a minister in the just collapsed PDP government. He tells Umar Mukhtar the crisis and the challenges that Gujjars and Bakerwals face in Jammu and Kashmir

Choudhary Zulfikar Ali

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Is this notion correct that Muslim minority comprising largely of Gujjar’s are living under a constant threat?

Choudhary ZULFIKAR (CZ): The large section of the people in Jammu belonging to Muslim community migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Prior to that Muslims were a dominant community in Jammu. At the time of division, a hate massacre also happened where more than two lakh Muslims were killed. This all made the Muslim community as a minority as there was a sudden drop of 50 per cent in the Muslim population.

When somebody is in the minority, they feel some insecure atmosphere around. But fortunately, the majority community post-1947 never made us feel that we are insecure. We are living in a peaceful atmosphere. Yes, I do agree that unfortunately there are some elements nationwide and in our state too who do not like this harmony. They always try their level best to destabilise the peaceful atmosphere in the state. Largely the people in Jammu province are of the idea of not promoting or endorsing communal clashes.

KL: But a lot of people came out and rallied in support of the rape accused in Kathua. What was that?

CZ: I agree people came out and rallied in support of the rape accused, but they are very few people. They do not represent the majority. Such people want to communalise the issue. By doing so, there is a possibility that this may be the attempt to instil fear in the Gujjar community, but I do not think they succeeded in their nefarious designs. Our community has acted maturely and with patience, hence defeated those elements who tried to destabilise the situation.

KL: Who patronised them?

CZ: They are not hidden; people know them, their intentions and their affiliations who are behind such people. The people who openly came in their support are exposed. They tried to communalise the situation but failed.

KL: Talib Hussain, the whistleblower activist in Kathua case, was ridiculed, criticised and even attacked. Now he is accused of the same crime he fought against. How does the community see this development?

CZ: Talib is a young educated man from the Bakerwaal community. He utilised his energy to maximum to get justice for the little Kathua girl. During that period he gave his best, went to Supreme Court and did all that he could do.

I do not know much about the case he has been arrested for. But the intimidations and threats he got time and again, one thing is clear that there are certain conspiracies against him. They might be trying to frame him in the crime that he never did. But we have full faith in the Jammu and Kashmir police. The way they handle the unfortunate girl’s case, we hope the police would play its due role in Talib’s case too. Maybe there might be also something more hidden behind it, it is all subject to investigation.

KL: Last week, sections in the media reported that Gujjars are now thinking of migrating to the different parts of India. How do you see it?

CZ: I do not agree with this. We have been living in Jammu for hundreds of years. In comparison to the other states of India, the atmosphere of Jammu and Kashmir is much safer. I do not have any such report and if there may be any such case the reasons would be different. There are certain rights available to the scheduled tribes in the country which are not available to the scheduled tribes in Jammu and Kashmir state like Forest Tribes Act, which is applicable to tribals all over the country. This act empowers the tribals living in the woods. There is a persistent demand from the community that these laws should be made applicable to the state.

KL: If the intimidation of the community continues, do you think that this can snowball into a big issue?

CZ: Basically, the community has their distinct culture and style of dwelling. They live in nature and there is a co-existence between the forests and this community.  So, the most important thing is that their culture is to be protected. There are examples in which interfering with tribals created Naxalism and they move out of the mainstream. So in order to keep them with the mainstream, their culture is not to be disturbed. Also, national tribal policy for the tribals where certain rights have been conferred upon them needs to be implemented in the state. Also, the elements who are hell-bent to destabilise the communal harmony need to be exposed before it is too late.

KL: Precisely, what are the problems the community is facing?

CZ: There is no formal education system for these tribals. Education is a basic concern that their children are unable to get. Since they move to upper reaches in the six summer months and to the plains for the remaining part of the year, there should have been mobile schools. They wanted the formal education system and an educational policy to be established so that their children can become contributors to the nation.

Also, there are no proper healthcare facilities for them. Most of the Gujjar ladies are malnourished, they do not have the required iron and proteins and vitamins during pregnancy period. The most important thing is that they need protection and a sense of security as every day they feel threatened that they will be removed from the place, they live in. So I think the empowerment of the community can be done only through bringing the national forest act.

KL: You are an elected representative of the community and former minister. What have you done for the community?

CZ: We tried our level best to deliver but unfortunately, the government collapsed mid-way and we could not deliver much. I acknowledge that during our period of governance, the Gujjar community was victimised even at the administration level but our efforts were always to protect the community. One of the main causes for the collapse of the coalition government was the Kathua case. We took a stand to make sure that justice is done in the case. So we did our efforts

We have also enhanced the seats of the Gujjar and Bakerwal hostels from 1900 to 2600. We have started work on many other hostels in different districts across the state. We have also started work on the tribal research institute

Regarding the implementation of the forest act and SC-ST Atrocity act, there were certain political constraints and compulsions which did not allow us to go through it.

KL: How big is the Gujjar community in Jammu?

CZ: It is a sizeable community. In fact, it is the deciding factor in many constituencies of Jammu region as they are the people who go to polls actually.

KL: In Jammu, Gujjars feel the heat of the polarisation and in Kashmir valley, there is a sense of othering. As a community how do you perceive this phenomenon?

CZ: Yes, the fact is that Gujjars have been marginalised and neglected by both the regions. They have not been owned by any of them. I do not know the reason, why? This is a dilemma for us!

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