I had read somewhere that “a story is decorous when the audience listens to it with care.” However, in Kashmir there are some tales which have never been heard with the dignity and attention it deserved. The story of the Gujjar and Bakarwal tribe of Jammu and Kashmir is among them, a tribe that has always believed in oneness because of their beliefs in Sufism. The Bakarwals I see here, are one of the largest community in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir constituting about 11.9% of the population. Being a nomadic community, they have a pattern of seasonal migration.

It’s not merely a tribe of nomads or pastoralists; it’s a community of peace and nature. Being on a constant move yet there is an element of stillness in Gujjars and Bakarwals. They take refuge in mountains so they could pour out the pain and agony of their souls. From the plains of the Jammu region to the lush green landscapes of the Kashmir valley and the inhospitable peaks of Nubra valley in Ladakh, Gujjar and Bakarwals have never been ‘off duty’.

Away from the materialistic needs of life, Bakarwals begin the day with their most prized possession, congregating their cattle.

They move with their cattle and stock along the stunning mountains and flowing brooks. Whistling in a distinctive way, Bakarwals guide their cattle towards another pasture. I was cycling my way through Sonmarg and that’s when I met the family of Ata Mohammad.

“It’s the sound of care and love,” said Ata Mohammad, a 13 year old kid who was leading a herd of cattle while gently holding a newly born lamb in his arms. Though, he was not the herd-leader.

However, there is a murky side to this serene sojourn which is filled with inhibitions and insecurities among the entire tribe, including the 13 year old Ata Mohammad who says “we don’t have any identity; your society looks at us in a certain way, so basically they look down upon us.” He handed over the newly born lamb to his mother and continued, “We are twice as hard working than your society and we are welcom

I could sense the displeasure. They feel betrayed by the society and the system and rightfully so!

Ata Mohammad had started his journey from Sonmarg to Gurez via Mushko Valley. He said, “People aren’t sympathetic, even if we are killed tomorrow, I don’t think it will make any difference to anyone. There won’t be a reaction from your society. They’ll choose their best weapon called silence.”

That’s the kind of uncertainty and fear they imbibe. How can we forget the contribution and sacrifices of this soulful tribe? Its not just the efforts of the Indian Army, but the seamless efforts by the Gujjar-Bakarwals to act as informants to the Army about any Paki intrusion in the valley.  It is stated that in any Counter Insurgency Operations Intelligence, actionable int is traditionally provided by the Gujjar-Bakarwal community and this sort of support is irreplaceable & priceless.

As I was talking to Ata Mohammad, Army Convoy passed by and visibly excited Ata and his sister started waving to soldiers with a cheery smile. Intrigued by observing all this, I just wanted to hear more about the various challenges the nomads face and how the Indian Army is trying to offer a helping hand to them.  The crowd then stated that the Indian Army Battalions regularly interact with them to try and find out for any problems that the community has been facing and have been rendering necessary assistance in solving these issues amicably. As the situation demands, they have catered to our needs and amidst this pandemic, their assistance to the old aged group with the necessary household supply has made this time less harder for us.

“We have never shifted our loyalties, no matter what. My cousin is in the Indian Army & I always wanted to join Army and contribute to my nation”. Ata Mohammad stated.

Before I could walk further and listen to Ata and his family’s ordeal, Ata’s father told me politely that they will have to change their route and start the climb now. Hence, I approached the rest of the Gujjar-Bakarwals and bid them goodbye and thanked them for enlightening me with things that I could have never known if it weren’t from them. As our conversation turned out to be pretty jovial with them and as I was set to leave, Ata Mohammad happened to give me a shawl that was made out of the wool of the sheep that they were grazing. I not only felt overwhelmed by this gesture, but I wanted to capture this moment as one found memory of the trip. I then took out my camera for a picture and said ‘Cheezeeeee’ and got the perfect click.

 As they were about to leave, Ata Mohammad innocently said, “Will you share my story with ministers and bureaucrats?”

 I had no answer and probably he knew it. So we both smiled at each other, Ata took the lamb from his mother’s hands, kissed the lamb gently and walked away.

I stood there in melancholy. I didn’t feel like riding the bicycle, so I walked.  In hindsight, I felt this tribe needs nothing except their pride, their dignity and most importantly their identity.

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