Published On: Sat, Jun 23rd, 2007

What about Kashmir’s Gurjjars?

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Zafar Choudhary.

While Gurjjars are to be found on both sides of the LOC, those in Pakistan are today on the verge of losing their identity.

No conclusive research has been done on the origin of the Gurjjars, who are currently in the news because of the recent agitation in Rajasthan.

Historical accounts say that Gurjjars once dominated central India, with Gurjrashtra (present-day Gujarat) as their area of influence. Although today Gurjjars are also found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are mainly concentrated in Kashmir – on both sides of the LOC. The community as a whole is made up of both Hindus and Muslims, but Kashmir’s Gurjjars are overwhelmingly Muslim.

In J&K, Gurjjars make up the third-largest ethnic group – after Kashmiri-speaking Muslims and Dogra Hindus. Over the years, they have emerged as a significant political entity in J&K, wielding considerable electoral influence in a quarter of the constituencies. Since the early 1990s, the group’s inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes has led to a significant improvement in its socio-economic profile, and now it is demanding political reservations as well.

The Partition of 1947 saw the division of the Pir Panchal region – the traditional Gurjjar heartland. This led, in turn, to the separation of lakhs of Gurjjar families. Gurjjars inevitably became the main victims of militancy on both sides of the LOC and during the wars of 1965 and 1971.

When Kargil erupted in 1989, once again the Gurjjar communities in the immediate vicinity of the LOC got caught in the crossfire. They were also frequently harassed by security forces for allegedly harbouring ‘the enemy’.

Given the close ties that exist between the Gurjjars on both sides of the border, the troubles and fortunes of families and friends across the border have long been a subject of keen interest to the community. With the re-establishment of contact between J&K and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) by way of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot bus links, there was suddenly an opportunity to find out about how relatives across the border were faring.

As it turned out, many Gurjjar families in POK were found to be living in difficult conditions, and the community itself was on the verge of losing its identity. As those who came across to J&K from POK put it, the symbols of Gurjjar culture – its folk songs and music, traditions and age-old rituals – which are still visible in J&K, are missing on the other side. The majority of Gurjjars in POK seem to have forgotten the life of dhoks and mergs – the high-alpine meadows to which Gurjjar communities traditionally moved during the summer, and which are such an essential part of the Gurjjar heritage.

One of the reasons why Gurjjar traditions were better preserved in J&K was the fact that the community enjoyed special privileges guaranteed under the tribal quota. No such legislation exists in Pakistan. In POK, it is said, nobody dares to speak Gojri in the bazaars and at public functions. In contrast, the J&K Cultural Academy regularly publishes books in Gojri, while NGOs such as Gurjjar Desh Charitable Trust and Gojri Anjumans are also working to preserve the language. There are even local radio programmes in Gojri. In fact, those who do write in Gojri in POK – like Rana Fazal Rajourivi – have to get their books published through the J&K Cultural Academy.

Choudhary Mohammad Bashir, born in Surankote in J&K, crossed the LOC in 1965 and now works as a district qazi on the other side of the border, said he felt isolated in his chosen homeland due to the inhibition the community there feels about speaking its language or practising its cultural traditions. In fact unlike in J&K, he points out, the community in Pakistan does not use the surname, ‘Choudhary’, as it identifies them as Gurjjars.

Abdul Latief, an elderly Gurjjar from Bandi Abasspur in POK, who had come to visit his relatives in the village of Kalai in Poonch, attributed the dilution of his community’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity in Pakistan to state-sponsored marginalisation. “Our economic condition is vulnerable,” Latief says. “We are mostly illiterate and work as land-tillers on other people’s farms, or as shepherds.” Gurjjars in Pakistan also face immense problems when it comes to marriage. Given the low status Gurjjars, non-Gujjars rarely agree to marry into the tribe. The difficulty in finding spouses for their children has become so great that a large number of Gurjjar visitors from POK have appealed to the J&K government to allow marriages across the LOC.

If this does not happen, the Gurjjars of POK may soon face extinction in a region that was part of their traditional homeland.

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