A nomadic family of women walks along the boulevard on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar in this file pic Photo: AFP/ Tauseef Mustafa

Muslim Gujjars in India’s northern state of Jammu & Kashmir have served in the Indian Army and been its eyes and ears for a long time. But now, the backward community is looking for a distinct identity and representation in the army.

The recent killing of army rifleman Aurangzeb by terrorists was yet another price the community paid for its loyalty to the Indian Army. Aurangzeb’s family, based in Salani village in the mountainous Poonch district in the northern state, has long ties with the army. Aurangzeb’s elder brother Mohammad Qasim is an army soldier currently posted in Pune while younger sibling Aasim, aged 15, has also expressed a desire to join the army.

But they should be well aware of the hazards of being a soldier. One of Aurangzeb’s uncles, also in the army, was abducted by terrorists and killed in 2004. Similarly, another Bakarwal Gujjar, Mohammad Din Jagir, alerted Kashmir police of suspicious Pakistani Army movement prior to the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war and was awarded the Padma Shri civilian honor in 1966. He was shot dead by terrorists 25 years later.

Aurangzeb’s father Mohammad Hanief, a retired army soldier, said: “My son’s martyrdom is definitely not the first by a Muslim Gujjar for his country. Our people have died in the past too while fighting the enemy. Our people are also killed in cross-border firing by Pakistan on our villages in Rajouri and Poonch. It is the Muslim Gujjars who are fighting the war with Pakistan – not the Kashmiri Muslims.”

In a video released by the militants just minutes before they killed Aurangzeb, he was seen being tortured and refused to reveal any strategic details about the Indian Army’s deployments in the area.

Demand for Gujjar regiment

Captain Khalil Ahmad Choudhary (Retired) from Poonch, who has served at different locations in the state, said: “A Gujjar can never betray the country where he is living.” After 28 years of army service, Khalil is now a member of State Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars and Bakarwals, who remain a backward community in Kashmir. Bakarwals are mainly goat and sheep herders who are part of the larger Gujjar community. “The Kashmiri leadership has suppressed us since 1947 and do not trust us,” Aurangzeb’s father Hanief said. He also feels the need for Gujjar representation.

“I asked Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when she visited my home recently to raise a Gujjar regiment.” The Defense Minister, who called on the family of the “valiant soldier” Aurangzeb’s, told Hanief she would discuss the matter with top army officials.

In India’s last census the population of Gujjar-Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir was put at about 10-11% of Jammu and Kashmir. But Javaid Rahi, head of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, a non-profit organization working for Gujjars in the state, said the actual population was more likely to be 20%. “Most of the Gujjars-Bakarwals were in forest areas when the census took place. They have not been included,” he said. Gujjars also live in the states of Rajasthan and Haryana but are Hindus. Those living in Jammu and Kashmir embraced Islam several centuries ago.

In 2015, Rahi’s organization sought support from Gujjars in Rajasthan to press the government to create a separate army regiment for the community similar to the Jat and Rajput regiments. This demand has been made often in the past by prominent Gujjar leaders like Shamsher Hakla Poonchi.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Gujjar community play a key role, working as informants for the Indian Army in border areas. The community is able to move around freely with their herds in the higher reaches of the Pir Panjal mountains along the Line of Control with Pakistan. They rear cattle and sheep in the higher reaches of Kashmir as well as the warmer plains of Jammu and Punjab.

Being a nomadic community, they traverse the state’s mountainous areas during their annual migration and set up camps for days on these high mountains that provide pasture for their animals. They were given Schedule Tribe status, designated as historically disadvantaged, due to this migratory lifestyle.

The tribe usually moves and camps overnight in forest areas where terrorists sometimes create hideouts. While camping, they are often forced at gunpoint to serve food to militants sneaking into India from Pakistan. As a result, they have also been able to provide security forces with credible information about terrorists’ hideouts, presence and movement. They have also actively taken part in operations against militants as soldiers or as porters.

Community hit by reprisals

Masud Choudhary, a former additional director-general of police in Jammu and Kashmir, who hails from the Gujjars, said the community was in the forefront of ‘Sarp-Vinash’, an operation in 2004 on Hill Kaka in Poonch district to flush out a large number of terrorists from concrete hideouts. The Gujjars, he said, “not only provided credible information but many were included in the operation.”

“However, when the operation ended and the army went back, the hamlets of these Gujjars were burnt down by militants in the area as punishment. Even before the 1999 Kargil war, the nomadic Gujjars who were grazing their sheep at the higher reaches noticed and informed the Army of the infiltration of Pakistani troops,” Choudhary said.

The army readily acknowledges the support provided by Muslim Gujjars. Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand, the army’s public relations officer in Jammu, said: “Most army porters are Gujjars from Jammu up to Kargil. They have helped the Army build infrastructure facilities in hostile and dangerous areas, putting their own lives at risk. They have always shown sincerity towards the nation and army.”

But in recent years, attacks on the border and continuing terrorist activity have adversely affected every aspect of the Gujjars’ lives.

The army and other security agencies have restricted the movement of the tribe to a few stone huts and pastures located near the frontier. These restrictions have not only had a serious impact on the economic activity that sustained the Gujjars and Bakarwals but also their centuries-old traditional lifestyle and culture.

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