Accepting Difference: India’s Nomadic Van Gujjar Community

This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell

“I can’t stay in one place for a long time, that’s why I work with nomads,” Praveen Kaushal Manto says smiling as he stands, pacing the room, while I sit. Manto reads eight newspapers a day, five in English and three in Hindi. As one of the founders and current director of the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities (SOPHIA), Manto’s eight newspapers is in stark contrast to the under fifty percent literacy rate of the community he works with and on behalf of.

SOPHIA, with a total staff of seven, is an Indian NGO working with a population of nomadic people called the Van Gujjars in the Himalayan region. SOPHIA works to safeguard rights and sustainability of Van Gujjar livelihoods.

van gujjar womanA Van Gujjar woman walks through the forest (Photo: SOPHIA)

As nomadic pastoralists, living at the foothills of the Himalayas, the Van Gujjars do not have a village base and have come under scrutiny, not only for their way of life, but also for their religion as they are predominantly Muslim. The lives of Van Gujjars are intimately connected to the environment and further illustrated by their name (“Van” meaning “forest” in Hindi). Even today the Van Gujjars still struggling for land rights, voting rights as well as state sponsored government programs.

In adivasi areas (literally “earliest inhabitants), poverty is higher and health and education outcomes lower. According to a SOPHIA report titled Agency & Forest Rights, a study by the World Bank South Asia Region, Human Development Department.
Between 1951 and 1990, 21.3 million people were displaced, of which 40%, or 8.5 million, were adivasis (Burra, 2008). Activists argue that such alienation and destruction of traditional livelihoods is the single largest factor explaining poor health among them (Das et al. 2010).

sophia milk programThe SOPHIA milk marketing program (Photo: SOPHIA)

Sitting down with Manto, I learned a bit more about the problems the Van Gujjar community has had, and still is facing. When he first started working, he saw two problems: lack of education and inability to sell the Van Gujjar buffalo milk on the market. “We thought, is it possible to sell the milk directly to the city?”

The milk program, started in 1995, now collects the milk from the Van Gujjar community and goes to different areas of the city to sell milk, bypassing middlemen. The milk program sells 1000 liters everyday and “gives respect to the lifestyle of the Guajjars,” Manto said.

Now, four years after the Indian government passed aForest Right Act (FRA) aiming to give forest related rights to tribal populations living in forests, SOPHIA is still working for Van Gujjar rights. The intention of the FRA is to address the historical injustice done to communities whose forest rights have not been legally recorded. As with many Acts with the best of intentions in mind, in practice it is more difficult.

As Manto says, “ It is very good, except for a few things.” For one, they must prove that they have been using the forest for the past 75 years. In Manto’s opinion, the Act should say, “Unless the contrary is proved, you should have a right.”  In his criticism, Manto believes the Forest Rights Act should not take away the option or right of resettlement either, “implementation will tell us more.”

sophia milk linePeople line up behind the SOPHIA milk truck (Photo: SOPHIA)

As Manto sees it, “The problem is that people are taking extremes, eco-terrorism and curious anthropologists.” In the meanwhile, he believes the forests have decreased because of rising urban centers. With SOPHIA, Manto aims to take a middle ground, “We cannot just be curious anthropologists. We are in the middle path. Both extremes are increasing the conflict.”
They are neither there, nor here Manto says gesturing to the map on the wall. He told a story of an old Van Gujjar woman who was asked if she was scared of tigers or elephants. She said no, and the interviewer asked her what she was afraid of: “We are afraid of paper.” The papers brought by outsiders have removed people from their land.

“In a way SOPHIA is saying mainstreaming is bad,” Manto says, but SOPHIA is also working to provide voting rights. He quotes Heraclitis: “The only constant is change.” Manto aims for “the least exploitative change.”

van gujjar and buffaloA Van Gujjar man and buffalo (Photo: SOPHIA)

In his many years working with the Van Gujjar community, Manto says the “Best thing I have learned with the Van Gujjars is that happiness is a state of mind. You learn to appreciate pleasures you derive directly from nature.” Manto remembers one Van Gujjar who said: “We don’t need electicity,” he adds, “why can’t we accept that people are different?”

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