Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

No Place like Home: History, Politics and Mobility among a Pastoral Nomadic Community in Western India

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

No Place like Home: History, Politics and Mobility among a Pastoral Nomadic Community in Western India

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article is based on ethnographic research conducted among Jatt pastoralists of Kachchh District in the western Indian state of Gujarat. (1) In the semi-arid conditions that prevail in Kachchh, the population is more pastoral than agricultural. Even apart from northern areas like the Banni grasslands in the Greater Rann of Kachchh, that are almost exclusively pastoral, the agrarian economy is an agro-pastoral one (Geevan et al. 2003).

The vast grasslands on the edge of the Greater Rann of Kachchh, known as Banni, are home to large numbers of Muslim pastoralist communities among whom the Jatts constitute possibly the largest group. Towards the end of the summer of 2002 I had just arrived in Kachchh for an extended period, about nine months after I had last been there for preliminary research. I went into Banni in search of some of the Jatts I had first met some months ago. What I saw instead was that village after village lay silent and empty; only a handful of people and some emaciated-looking goats remained in them. Where were all the animals, and the people, their vibrantly embroidered clothes and heavy jewellery a bright oasis in the midst of the drab desert surroundings, who had captured the imagination of numerous visitors to the area and whose photographs adorned many glossy picture-covered travel books? I soon discovered that most of these pastoral populations had migrated closer to the towns or large villages, where they had pitched camp adjacent to agricultural farms or wadis, and had converted temporarily 'from nomads to dairymen' (Salzman 1988) as they supplied milk to the towns to earn a living; here also the animals had access to fodder and water, both entirely absent in Banni. This would appear to be a perfect illustration of the kinds of processes described by Salzman of pastoral nomadic groups in transition; access to markets and livelihood opportunities leading to a steadily advancing sedentarisation process. When I encountered these pastoral groups in their camps, I was struck by the temporary nature of this move. They were waiting--endlessly it seemed--for the rains to come. When it rained, they told me, they would return to their abode in the Rann, their azad mulk (free or independent territory) (2), far away from the life of the townspeople, unencumbered, to live the life that they pleased. How long they might have to wait like this they could not say, other than that maut (death) and barsat (rain) were the two things that did not give much warning of their arrival.

This article asks, Why do these nomadic populations continue to adhere to a lifestyle that has clearly become economically and ecologically difficult to sustain? Why has their seasonal transformation from nomads into dairymen not led to the kind of permanent transformation described by Salzman in his study based in south Gujarat? Other regional pastoral communities like the Rabaris continue to herd animals but often only as a supplement to other sources of income. Why do the Jatts of Banni continue to hold so tenaciously to the possibility of return to a land that is barren and dry most of the year and flooded over on the rare occasions it rains? It will be argued that nomadic populations should be situated not merely in regard to the ecological constraints that dictate lifestyle choices, even though those constraints are real ones. Instead, I hope to show that the continued back and forth movement of the Jatt pastoralists ought to be seen as an outcome of a network of choices that are political and ideological rather than purely ecological in nature.

My fieldwork was conducted in territory that forms the border with the province of Sindh in Pakistan, among pastoralists who are Muslims, living on the margins, both literally and figuratively, of a state that is increasingly identified with a right-wing Hindu nationalism. Earlier in the year, large parts of the state of Gujarat had witnessed massive, state-sponsored massacres against its minority Muslim population, creating a tense intercommunal situation (see Varadarajan ed. …

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