From dystopia to utopia — and back again: The case of the Van Gujjar forest pastoralists in the Indian Himalayas


In August of 2018 history appeared to repeat itself. Flashed on Indian media were messages such as ‘No country for pastoralists’ (the Wire); ‘Van Gujjars are constant threat to wildlife’ (Indian Express); ‘encroachers on forest land’ (Times of India). The Indian environmental magazine Down to Earth wrote about ‘A repeat of historical injustice’ (Asher, 2018). The background to this sudden media interest in the Van Gujjars was an order, issued on 6 August by the High Court of Uttarakhand for the removal of Van (forest) Gujjar pastoralists from the Corbett and Rajaji tiger reserves, part of their traditional winter grazing grounds. What especially caused Down to Earth to react was the High Court’s labelling of the Van Gujjars as ‘illegal occupants’ and ‘encroacher upon forest land’ in forests where they have lived for centuries (ibid.). After an intervention by forest rights activists the Supreme Court of India later issued a stay order, resulting in the maintenance of status quo (Santoshi, 2018). Status quo in this context means that the Van Gujjars are still in the forest with their animals while continuing to live under very insecure tenure rights, where the threat of eviction is never far away. The eviction order directly affected a couple of hundred pastoral families still dependent on the forest within the tiger reserves for their livelihood, but indirectly the threat of eviction and being labelled as ‘illegal encroachers’ affect all Van Gujjar families, still subsisting as pastoralists with their herds of milk buffaloes during winter in the state forest of the Shivalik Foothills in the Central Indian Himalayas.

As an anthropologist I have now followed the Van Gujjars for more than three decades, starting with a pilot study in 1987, and with the most intensive fieldwork period stretching from the late 1980s to the first parts of the 1990s, a period covered in this chapter where many things changed for the community (Gooch, 1992; 1998). Another longer study was conducted between 2008 and 2010 (Farooquee et ah, 2011; Gooch and Kaushal, 2011). During fieldwork I have stayed with the Van Gujjars; they have shared their homes and food with me and discussed their situation and worries over the future. Most of the life of Van Gujjars centres on their buffaloes (see Fig. 7.1) as their needs direct the actions of their human caretakers and a large part of my fieldwork was spent with a stick in my hand following buffaloes along narrow forest paths. This

Buffaloes are seen as persons with intelligence and agency (Photo

Figure 7.1 Buffaloes are seen as persons with intelligence and agency (Photo: P. Gooch).

means that my interpretation of the situation is to a large degree shaped by my position in the forest, being with the Van Gujjars. It was a position I found muted when I first arrived and which then needed representation (Gooch, 1999). There are, of course, countless other perspectives, other positions, from which the situation and the conflict around the environment and forests in the region may be understood, and I have looked at other perspectives by interviewing differently positioned people such as representatives of NGOs, forest officials, decision makers, academicians, environmental activists and journalists. Though the situation for the pastoral Van Gujjars in the forests of the Central Indian Himalayas is complex and unique, it is also in many ways representative of the situation of forest dwellers, not only in India, but also in other places of the world.

Headlines, such as those I am reading now in August 2018, take me back more than a quarter of a century to the summer of 1992. That year the Van Gujjar families, who had their winter camps in what was then the proposed Rajaji National Park, were likewise seen as ‘encroachers’ in the forest and denied entrance to the park area after returning from the summer pastures in the higher ranges of the Himalaya. This was the beginning of a conflict, which came to give the ‘victims of conservation’ a human face among the Indian public and which developed into a movement for forest rights and the sustainable management of the forest (Gooch, 1997). It was also the culmination of a conflict that was more than 150 years old, with its roots in colonial times, over the right to livelihood in the forest.

Going back to pre-colonial times we find that the rights to forests and forest produce between different users were regulated through local institutions. However, in the second half of the 19th century, India’s forests were taken over by the British colonial administration as Crown land and scientific forest management was introduced (Gooch, 2012). Through the colonial conquest and control the local was drawn into global connections, changing the trees of the Himalayan forests from natural resources for local livelihood needs into produce for commodity chains, supplying material for the growth of the British Imperial power, based on one hand on industrialisation at home and on the other on capital accumulation from the colonies through extraction of raw material. It was also the start of a process of deforestation and change of forest ecosystems as indigenous trees, with multiple uses for local people as well as being important sources of fodder for wildlife were replaced by plantations of trees for commercial use (Stebbing, 1982). As pastoral nomads entirely dependent on access to large stretches of state forest for their livelihood, Van Gujjars were one of the communities hardest hit by colonial policies (Gooch, 2009).

After Independence in 1947 India chose a path of economic development based on modernisation of industry and agriculture advocated by Nehru, rather than the Gandhian way, which favours decentralisation and small-scale rural development (Gooch, 2012). The result was that the degradation of India’s natural resources and the disruption of the relationship between nature and local communities accelerated in the decades after independence. Since the structural adjustment in the early 1990s, however, forest management in the Himalayas has undergone a new transformation from commercial forestry to the conservation of nature as more and more forests are now set aside as protected areas. This has brought increasingly more forest under government control on one hand while on the other local people have lost their traditional rights and access over the forest and its natural resources (Farooquee and Mai- khuri, 2007). Such policies have led to new conflicts between local communities and government authorities. As their pasture land is increasingly turned into Protected Areas we find that again Van Gujjar pastoralists have been one of the communities hardest hit by government policies.

Pastoralism through Himalayan landscapes

The Van Gujjars have specialised and adjusted pastoral production, to the mountain ecosystem of the Central and Western Himalayas (Gooch, 1998). By means of their buffaloes they transform meadow grass, forest foliage and spring water into the commodities milk and butter through a livelihood practice finely attuned to the ecology of the landscape. One feature of the mountain environment to which they have had to adapt is the seasonal variation in climatic conditions and thereby in the growth of vegetation. As a result, migration is an ecological necessity. The transhumance of the Van Gujjars oscillates between two fixed points in their landscape of pastoral movement: the subtropical mixed forest in the foothills where they stay in winter (see Fig. 7.2), feeding their buffaloes on leaves cut from trees — so-called lopping; and the temperate or sub-alpine spruce and pine forests in the high range adjacent to the bugiyals, the alpine pastures, where they go for grazing during summer. In between the two are the migration routes, with their halting places. They have thus adapted their way of life to changes in the season and to the ecological zones at different attitudes of their forest and mountain environment, being at each time of the year in the zone that promises survival for them and their herds. As they rely on a wide variety of indigenous trees as fodder for buffaloes and return to the same places both in their summer and winter pastures they need a forest where biodiversity is maintained. As they are specialised pastoral- ists with buffalo herding as their sole profession the whole family from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother partake in the circle of transhumance and share work and responsibilities. That women are equally important in production to men has resulted in very strong positions for women within the community (Gooch, 1998).

Through their transhumance the Van Gujjars see themselves as partaking actively in the ‘way of the land’ and its cyclic changes, characterising themselves as the aana-jaana-log, the people coming and going by following the life of nature (kudrat) that alternatively provides green fodder in the foothills and in the bugiyals (Gooch, 2008). Gontrary to many other forest dwellers, and, I think, to about all other pastoralists of the world, the Van Gujjars are mainly

Gayar dera (camp) in the foothills of the Shivaliks (Photo

Figure 1.2 Gayar dera (camp) in the foothills of the Shivaliks (Photo: P. Gooch) vegetarians and they do not see wild predators, such as tigers and leopards, as essentially antagonistic to them and their herds, and they do not seek vengeance when one of their animals is carried off. What they say is that tigers and leopards also belong in the natural order of the forest, and that they - just as the Gujjars and their buffaloes - are part of wildlife and have the right to be there. In order to survive as pastoralists and in order to use the land in a sustainable way, the Van Gujjars have to maintain access to a landscape that allows them to be flexible. However, the opportunities for nomadic pastoralism along the altitudes are rapidly decreasing and many options for flexibility are now either severely curtailed or completely lost.

An epic journey

I spent the summer of 1992 with a group of Van Gujjar families in their summer camp in the alpine pasture of Uttarakhand just below the treeline at about 3,400 meters. Here, I experienced at close range the results of more than 150 years of state forest policies for the community. During the summer I assisted in herding livestock in lush meadows with a rich biodiversity of grasses and herbs, against a stunning background of snow-clad mountains. At the end of the summer I walked back down with them. Prior to leaving the foothills, Gujjars staying in the Rajaji area had been forced by the Forest Department to put their thumb print on a piece of paper saying that they would not be allowed back into the forest when they returned in autumn. They were anxious and worried over an unknown future and what would be their destiny, when it was not the usual all-embracing forest that was waiting to receive them at the end of the track. Most of them were convinced that neither they nor their animals would be able to survive a removal out of the forest. Fakar, an old man, expressed the sentiments of his community thus, ‘This [the forest] is my country and everything outside is like another country where I cannot live.’ And he continued, ‘This is my life and I do not want any other life.’ Bibo, a woman who shared her camp with me, put all her hopelessness and despair into the exclamation:

It would be better if the government just killed us all at once. We have no land [zamin] and now they are taking the forest [jangal] from us. We have nothing. Even the bear has a better life than we do. It has got somewhere to creep in for the night, but the Gujjars have nowhere. The villagers burn down our huts and the Forest Department janglat] ‘eat’ money, ghee [clarified butter], milk, everything. The government might just as well shoot all of us, children and everybody, and throw us down over the edge of a cliff.1

She saw it as a case of complete injustice that in a forest for the bear there was no longer a place for her and her family. For the Van Gujjars the struggle was a question of survival for their culture and way of life, and as Sethi (1993) points out, conflicts dealing with questions of survival raise two sets of issues: those that concern the specific struggle in question, and those related to the nature of the discourse they give rise too. Both these aspects will be looked into here.

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