Van Gujjar: The Persistent Forest Pastoralists

By Gooch, Pernille | Nomadic Peoples, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Van Gujjar: The Persistent Forest Pastoralists

Gooch, Pernille, Nomadic Peoples

The forest is a veil behind which we live--a Van Gujjar saying

During the last decade the condition of life has changed in many ways for the pastoral Van Gujjar who have their winter camps in the interior of the forests of the Shiwalik foot hills of Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal in northern India. While the Gujjar in most of northern India are a very large and ethnically as well as religiously diversified population, the pastoral Gujjar in this particular area are all Muslims and constitute a rather homogenous, specialised community based on the production of buffalo milk from pastoralism in state forest. Although most other pastoral communities in the Himalayan region have a village base where they practice agriculture for part of the year, this is not so for the Van Gujjar, who live scattered in temporarily erected huts, made from forest materials, in both their winter and summer pastures in the interior of the forests. During summer they migrate to the spruce forests and alpine meadows of Uttaranchal or to the Shimla hills in Himachal Pradesh. I visited the Gujjar of this area for the first time in 1987 and conducted the main part of my fieldwork among them in 1989-1992. What I found in 1987 was a non-literate, not very well known, pastoral people living with their herds at the periphery of local Indian society. Socially and politically marginalised and heavily exploited by both forest officials and middlemen, they appeared to have all odds against them (Gooch 1992).

Historically, the Van Gujjar have been suppliers of dairy products in the region, but in spite of new market possibilities for such products in the fast growing urban areas, they were not economically benefited; rather they were sinking deeper and deeper into debt. As people on the move without an address they had had no chance of being included on the voting list, and were consequently literally nonexistent as Indian citizens. The introduction in 1992 of a national park, the Rajaji National Park, in the central part of the Van Gujjar winter pastureland further seemed to diminish their chances of pastoral survival. The Van Gujjar--who have their camps within the park area during winters--were threatened with eviction as they were conceived by both forest and wildlife authorities and by local 'nature lovers' as constituting the most serious threat to the delicate ecological balance of the park as well as to its wildlife. All official policies were aimed at making them leave the forest and sedentarise, in order, presumably, to survive as petty agriculturists.

A Van Gujjar Movement

In spite of all this the Van Gujjar have proved persistent pastoralists and most of them are today, more than fifteen years later, still herding their buffaloes in the forest. Assisted by a local NGO, RLEK (Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra), and mobilised by Mustooq Lambardar, a Van Gujjar leader with great rhetorical skills, they decided not just to accept fate and leave a forest that for them is not only a home but also a way of life and their only way of gaining a livelihood. They resisted, and this was the start of a Van Gujjar movement for a forest conservation that should involve the forest dwellers instead of eliminating them. The conflict that followed was fought at several levels, discursively as well as through real encounters, and attracted massive media coverage. During this the centre of the conflict has been the town of Dehra Dun and the surrounding upland.

A very important part of the message was the establishing of a special Van Gujjar identity as jangli log (forest people), close to nature: 'There are many Gujjar in India but we are the Van Gujjar, the Gujjar who have looked after the forest and have lived in harmony with it'. Mustooq played a major role in expressing the otherwise tacit knowledge of the Van Gujjar and thus providing them with a collective identity. The strategy used by him and other Gujjar leaders was to establish the Van (forest) Gujjars as 'natural ecologists'.

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