Mired in tradition and living in isolation the nomadic Gujjars are a backward community with their womenfolk being worse off. Sonika Raina reports
For the last 30 years little has changed in Shamima Bano’s life. Like most of the people of her tribal Gujjar community living in the outskirts of Jammu, she earns a living by rearing buffaloes for milk.
Her day starts early with tending to her 15 buffaloes, milking them, going to the market to sell the milk and returning home. An illiterate, mother of six, Shamima, is not sure about her age or that of her elder daughter. “I think it would be 13 to 15 years,” she said when asked about her elder daughter’s age.
None of her four daughters goes to school. Shamima says, sending girls to school is “not a tradition” in their nomadic community living in Kanachak area of Jammu.
Saira Bano, elder daughter of Shamima, was washing utensils outside her Kulha (a mud brick house with a thatch roof). When asked about her schooling she reluctantly said, “We don’t go to schools. We have many household chores to do here. None of my friends go to school.”
Since Shamima remains busy with her buffaloes and selling milk, the whole responsibility of household chores and looking after the children is taken up by teenaged Saira.
A recent survey put the literacy rate among Gujjar women at around just five percent. The community seems to be far away from the modern world.
Experts blame extreme poverty, nomadic way of life, blind faith in some age-old traditions, low hygiene and early marriages for their marginalization.
The population of Dudhi Gujjars that are mostly engaged in milk trade, is around five lakh in the Jammu region – spread over the districts of Doda, Bhaderwah, Poonch, Rajouri, Jammu and Kathua. A few of Dudhi Gujjars live in Himachal also.
A study by the Jammu University found socio-cultural taboos, lack of hygiene and education as the major factors for keeping the Gujjar community especially their womenfolk from progress.
Almost all the women respondents said that one should not bathe while menstruating, the study said pointing out lack of hygiene among them.
Gujjar girls being married at age of 12 or 13 is a widely prevalent practice.
“They are rearing children or looking after siblings when they should be in schools,” a young Gujjar leader said.
Gujjars migrate along with their herds from hilly regions to plains and vice-versa during the whole year. The 2001 census put the Gujjar population in the state at 763,806.
The governments have been citing their nomadic lifestyle and a reluctance to depart from their sometimes regressive traditions to justify their backwardness. The tribal welfare schemes of the government don’t seem to have an impact.
The State Advisory Board for the Development of Gujjar Community is mandated to work for their uplift. The board has around 16 staff members. Never ever has a Gujjar woman served in the board at a senior position.
There is a 10 percent reservation for Gujjars in government jobs and professional courses under Scheduled Tribe category since 1991.
During the last six decades only three Gujjar women have cleared KAS (state’s civil services) exam as compared to more than 80 boys from the community.
“Out of 100 Gujjar children in the age group of 7 to 15 years, about 75 are engaged in physical labour,” Javaid Rahi, national secretary, Tribal Research and CulturalFoundation said. “The condition of children of Ajjhari Gujjar (shepherds) and Manjhi Gujjar (buffalo keepers) being worse as 83 percent of them never go to school while 17 percent study in religious institutions’’.
The government runs mobile schools for the nomadic Gujjars but few students study in them. “Among a total of 2300 students in the Jammu university, there are over only dozen Gujjar women studying in the different PG courses. There is no proper education system at the primary level, forget about the middle and higher levels, for the Gujjars, so how can we expect them to perform at the PG level,” claims Rahi.