Young Saif Ali is one of a handful of bhanyara (nomadic) Gujjars of northern Himachal Pradesh who attend college. But education has led him into a number of dilemmas and today, Ali feels he has no distinct identity of his own
WHEN SLIGHTLY built Saif Ali, 22, looks out from his home in Choti Nahar, on the outskirts of Pathankot on the highway to Gurdaspur, he sees the blue-grey hills of the Dhauladhar range in the distance.
It's not just physical distance that separates him from the mountains, it's a whole lifestyle. For generations, his ancestors travelled every summer with their buffalo-herds from the plains of Punjab into the high ranges of the Chamba and made the return trek with the onset of winter. Fifteen years ago, Saif Ali's father, Master Din, took a decision that changed his lifestyle and that of his family. He bought land and decided to adopt the ways of settled communities.
Master Din is a man of majestic mien, sporting a well-starched turban and a watch on his wrist. He owns the pukka house in which he lives. He is a devout Muslim who has made the Haj pilgrimage. Perhaps one of the first things Master Din did after he gave up his former way of life was to enroll his only son in school. Today, Saif Ali is one of the few Gujjars in Pathankot, studying in college. This interview was conducted while he was preparing in earnest for his final B Sc examination.
How has your father's decision to opt for a settled existence changed your life?
Just 15 years ago, I used to accompany my parents as a little boy on their annual migration to the hills of Chamba. From what I can remember, it was not easy. We walked long distances every day, often in bad weather and through difficult terrain.
My father was one of the first to settle down. Even today our lives are totally dependent on our buffaloes. All our income still comes from the sale of milk. But now we can invest our money in urban goods. We have a refrigerator, a motorbike and a television. We sell the dung which was previously given to the landlords in khana-badosh (pay in dung for camping on private land). We can now utilise the medical facilities available in the city. Land ownership has brought us social prestige. Many settled Gujjars now take pride in calling themselves zamindars.
How does it feel to be one of the first Gujjars in this area to be studying for a B Sc degree?
I think I am fortunate. Gujjars have never valued education. They place more importance on practical things like knowing how to manage livestock. Their nomadic ways have made them lead a very marginal and insular existence. But there is nothing very remarkable about my going in for a degree. Given a chance, most other Gujjar boys would show the same potential.
Have you benefitted from any special concessions given by the government to tribal communities?
You must have noticed the geographical location of Pathankot. It straddles the three states of Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Its location has created peculiar problems. Only in J&K and HP, do Gujjars have the status of a scheduled tribe. The Punjab government does not recognise us as such and therefore, I am not able to utilise any of the special concessions due to the community. If I lived 20 km from here, either in Kathua in Jammu or in HP, I may have been able to do so. I did try to obtain a certificate stating that I am a scheduled tribe student, but they put the term gowala next to my name. I never used it as I was apprehensive that I would be ridiculed for getting a false certificate.
Are you satisfied with your position in life?
Having reached this level of education, I now find myself not knowing in which direction I should head.
What is your dilemma?
On the one hand, I have to find a job, the natural culminating point of my studies. This would make my lifestyle very different from that of the rest of my community. At the same time, because of my education, I have become a spokesperson for my community. Whenever there is a problem that requires interacting with the sarkari afsars, the elders send me to represent them. They may even resent having to entrust a young man to speak on their behalf, but they do this only because I am educated and I understand some English.
Has this strained your relations with the elders?
Certainly! Most older members of the community are very sceptical about the value of my education. They consider me too young for leadribazi (leadership). But I don't want to be a leader. Of course, I am very keen on improving the lives of my brethren. But hostility and resistance make me hesitate.
Don't you have a lot of friends in your age group?
No, I don't. On the one hand, the friends of my childhood now consider me a breed apart and rarely interact with me. On the other, the Punjabi boys in college look down on me. I am neither here nor there.
What do you propose to do after your studies?
I don't know what to do. Often I consider pursuing my studies and carrying on an independent life. In fact, I am very interested in becoming a patrakar (journalist) like you, although I have never actively considered it as a career. But I would be setting a precedent by pursuing a different career. All eyes are on me. If I fail to get a job immediately after graduation, my people may lose faith in the value of education.
Do you regret being in this position?
Oh, no! No regrets! Just the sense of frustration of a man whose hands are tied.
How do you perceive your life in relation to other mainstream communities?
Gujjars have always been treated with disrespect. Being landless and nomadic has led the average Punjabi to view us as a barbaric and primitive people. We are harassed and pushed around by government officials, landlords and others. Land and education has improved my self-confidence and now I interact with other communities on an equal footing.
Has your religion ever been used against you?
Gujjars should not be equated with orthodox followers of Islam. Many of our customs run counter to orthodox views. For instance, our women enjoy freedom. They don't have to observe purdah. Non-compliance of orthodox rituals, like reading the namaaz five times a day, are tolerated. In a sense, we are Muslims and we are not Muslims at the same time. We lead a very independent life, in perfect harmony with our Hindu brothers.
Is this still true?
Well, the recent rise of Hindu militancy has affected our relations. When the BJP's Ekta Yatra passed through this region, it created a lot of tension. Some of our mosques were attacked and boys selling milk in the city were taunted. Of late, most Gujjars who have settled down in Punjab are becoming more orthodox in their religious views. Religion, suddenly, has assumed an added significance. As nomads, we were immune to these ills of society. It is sad that in settling down, we have to face these problems.
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