Sedentary patterns of living are often termed as ‘civilized’, yet, in semi-arid regions, pastoral nomadism remains an efficient subsistence-base.
While seven per cent of India is nomadic, a majority have little access to development programmes. Research across continents reveals that the
success of such initiatives among nomads is contingent upon their sensitivity to a mobile lifestyle.
The pastoral Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir herd goat and sheep and are a subset of the buffalow-herding Gujjars of the State.
They migrate and return annually from the hills of the Jammu-Poonch region through the insurgency-riddled Pir Panjal into the Valley, to
beyond the tree line atop the highland pastures of the Greater Himalayas.
The Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir: Navigating through Nomadism presents this almost entirely nomadic community, through an
ethnography of their social association, religion, language, folklore and material culture, normative beliefs and indigenous knowledge, the
contexts for development, gender relations, the nature of power and reciprocity, as well as the indices of change, with the aim to sensitize the
reader to the precariousness of their lives, as also to their remarkable vitality and grace.
Anita Sharma has studied at Pondicherry, Delhi and Oxford Universities. She has conducted several years of ethnographic research on
Himalayan communities including on the Sherthukpens of Arunachal Pradesh, the Hajong and Chakma refugees, the Lepchas of Dzongu, and the
Limbus of Hee in Sikkim. She is currently working on a project on South Asian nomads for the Consortium for Research on Educational Access,
Transitions and Equity, University of Sussex.
This story, told in exquisite pictures and eloquent text, gives us a peek into the lives of the sheep-rearing Bakkarwals of Kashmir. Anita Sharma,
who has done sustained work on nomads and border communities living in the Himalayas, joined the Bakkarwals for a few months in 2004 on
their move with their animals from one pasturing place to another (annually, they cross over from Jammu into Kashmir). She revisited her
friends again in 2007. As one who understands Bakkarwali and is comfortable with this language, Sharma was able to perceive many aspects of
this society about which an uninitiated visitor would remain oblivious. (The Bakkarwals themselves, like many tribal groups in India, have
perforce to be bilingual in a country in which they find themselves on the margin.)
This is an unpretentious account, and yet beneath it there lies a thorough reading on, and understanding of, pastoral nomadism as one
kind of human adaptation to the world. This a way of life now threatened by extinction. It is realized today that the colonial administration did not
appreciate mobile pastoralism, mainly because of a lack of understanding and because of the imperative to control groups that may be too
independent for the good of the (British) rulers. Today the academic world is more enlightened on this topic. Yet we cannot argue for the
preservation of full-time sheep-rearing or for a peripatetic culture just as a curiosity or just because it is a dying way of life. Instead, pastoral
nomadic life runs on the basis of certain social and economic institutions that are in themselves worthy of analysis. This is where the importance
of this book lies.
There are brief discussions of social organization, of family and biradri and the nature of the authority of the sardars; about what it is
like to live in tents from one month to the next; about religion; and on how these poor and busy people furbish their ‘homes.’ There are also
delightful morsels of their verbal art. We read about how clan rivalry is expressed in everyday life, how a Spartan diet keeps the people healthy
(Bakkarwals rear sheep but can rarely afford to eat mutton), and how the mode of subsistence is a sustainable one.
Nomadic Bakkarwals learn how to face danger and cope with hardship. The peripatetic life teaches them to adjust to diverse
landscapes and to a social world in which they cannot be the dominant players. In numerous little ways, Sharma shows us that Bakkarwal life is
one of adaptation and accommodation. People learn to take misfortune and injustice in heir stride, not to brood over them but to move on to the
next challenge. Most strikingly, the nomadic existence has instilled in Bakkarwal culture a respect for certain institutions of conflict resolution,
so that these people do not resort to the law courts in order to settle their disputes. Neither did they ever have to learn from a king their norms
of sharing a grazing space in such a way that neither the richer nor the poorer among them would be at a disadvantage-they have evolved these
exemplary norms for themselves. Bakkarwal culture is thus not just about ‘tradition’. Families must repeatedly negotiate their way through
The nomadic life fosters, and is in its turn fostered by a valuation of independence, even though it is lives in the harsh reality of
modern India, as we learn from various incidents that Sharma has narrated. Many Bakkarwals cannot vote because the authorities cannot be
bothered to seek out their scattered families in their pastures in order to register their names!
The Bakkarwals lead an active life on goat milk and wild herbs in the main, but they are a robust people with a lively aesthetic evident
in the caps, turbans, tent furnishings, and horse trappings that the women make and embroider through the year. Their sense of humour comes
through in a lively and sardonic tale Sharma has recorded, about a princess who habitually flogged her husband.
I think a reason why I enjoyed this book is that, while it is frank about the numerous injustices that the Bakkarwals have to face, they
emerge as a people who do not grovel. The anthropologist writing about them does not have to lament for them, or ask the reader to pity them.
Instead, without resorting to exaggeration or propaganda, Anita Sharma enables the reader to participate in the vigorous physical life of the
Bakkarwals, in their creation of beauty through handiwork, and in their sense of fun.
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