Updated: Sep 4, 2020
By Kartik | Delhi based Mountaineer & Explorer
Feeling the Monday blues with a strange tinch of eagerness, I finally reach the last stop of my 20 day long expedition beginning from Karnataka till the magnificent Kashmir Valley. This voyage began with me exploring different parts of India, but as days pass by, it fascinated me to learn a lot about the different cultures and diversities of each state. This involved meeting the sub-urban tribal community, tasting various cuisines, trying on their traditional attire and learning about their everyday lifestyle.
Passing by the beautiful meadows of Kashmir, I couldn’t help but imagine to begin my trek from the lower reaches of Ajas- Chirawan- Rang Nar- Gagarpathri- Gretawat- Kolnar- Pt 2375 & back to Ajas. Having covered half of it, feeling tired I happened to stop by a small Dhok to fill my empty stomach and regain my energy for the long path ahead.
As my maggie and lemon tea were being cooked, I overheard a group of Bakarwal’s who stopped by to feed their cattle, chatting about the change in their well-being amidst the COVID times. What caught my attention in their conversation was the benefit they gained from an operation named “Sadhbhavna” (literally meaning goodwill) run by the Indian Army.
Couldn’t stop to intrude, I asked one young man named Sher Gujjari (name changed) who seemed to be the most learned among the community, as to what this operation was all about?
Sher Gujjari stated that this was an initiative of the Indian Army, aimed at Winning Hearts & Minds (WHAM) of the locals and with the motive that human security plays a major role in national security and can only be achieved through human development. Operation Sadhbhavana focuses on various areas ranging from quality education, women empowerment, health care, community development and infrastructure improvement.
Surprised by this, the next immediate thing that stuck my head was how has this helped the Gujjars and Bakarwals and the local tribal community? Another old man from the flock who was in his early 50’s sat down to narrate to me and stated that the Bakarwals I see here, are one of the largest community in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir constituting about 11.9% of the population. Being a nomadic community, they have a pattern of seasonal migration that drastically affects the education of their children, however, the Indian Army at most of their camps hires local youth for providing quality education to their children. In addition, special hostels for their children have been established with latest amenities & modern facilities. The expenses of food, books, stationary & uniforms are also born by the Army.
Another one from the crowd suddenly stepped in our conversation & mentioned about the medical cum screening camps organized by the Indian Army in collaboration with the Department of Sheep Husbandry for both, men & their livestock for which the Army has been great appreciated. He also mentioned that they are very well attended since good medical facilities aren’t available in such remote areas.
Our conversation on this aspect not only continued but also attracted almost 12-15 Bakarwals of various age groups. Well, with nationwide drastic rise in the number of coronavirus cases & with a dire need to maintain the highest standard of hygiene and sanitation, it was a great sight to watch most of them wearing new masks, to which my next question to them was about how they managed to fight the spread of COVID-19 amongst themselves? To this, one of them instantly told me about how the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Battalions reached out to their community people & not only lent a sympathetic ear to their problems but also distributed several COVID-19 protective kits to the Gujjars and Bakarwals of their area. In order to facilitate our children in keeping in touch with their studies during the pandemic, the Army distributed study material & stationary items. Moreover, meritorious kids of our community were also rewarded with indoor games like chess, carom to motivate them in these hard times. The Battalions also provided us with ration packets to oil the wheels of our lives & solar lights to ignite a ray of hope in our lives.
Intrigued by listening to all this, I just wanted to hear more about the various challenges the nomads face and how the Indian Army is trying to offer a helping hand to them. The crowd then stated that the RR Battalions regularly interact with them to try and find out for any problems that the community has been facing and have given necessary assistance in solving these issues amicably. As the situation demands, they have catered to our needs and amidst this pandemic their assistance to the old aged group with the necessary household supply as well as providing wheel-chairs, hearing aids, walking sticks to the needy has made this time less harder for us.
I discovered, made me wonder that Indian Army was just not responsible for us having peaceful nights while guarding our national borders, but has also been there for the upliftment of such nomadic communities whenever they were in need.
While I was so immersed in learning the whereabouts of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community and was trying to process these new things I learnt, I happened to notice something that caught my eye. A small boy aged 11, came running from across the road to show something to his father, who was a part of the flock I was interacting with. With a spark in his eye and a soft smile on his face, he opened his tiny notebook and showed us a beautiful sketch depicting a clear sky that he had made from the stationary supplies that were given to him while his father was away grazing.
As I was completely alien in understanding these difficulties and was trying to conceptualize the support by the Indian Army, that enthusiasm and zeal in the young boy learning new things and understanding the life around them along with the new facts I discovered, made me wonder that Indian Army was just not responsible for us having peaceful nights while guarding our national borders, but has also been there for the upliftment of such nomadic communities whenever they were in need. Its not just the efforts of the Indian Army, but the seamless efforts by the Gujjar-Bakarwals to act as informants to the Army about any Paki intrusion in the valley. It is stated that in any CI ops, actionable int is traditionally provided by the Gujjar-Bakarwal community and this sort of support is irreplaceable & priceless.
Beginning to gear up for my journey as I complete my Maggie, I approached the Gujjar-Bakarwals and bid them goodbye and thanked them for enlightening me with things that I could have never known if it weren’t from them. As our conversation turned out to be pretty jovial with them and as I was set to leave, Sher Gujjari happened to give me a shawl that was made out of the wool of the sheep that they were grazing. I not only felt overwhelmed by this gesture, but I wanted to capture this moment as one found memory of the trip. I then took out my camera for a picture and said ‘Cheezeeeee’ and got the perfect click.