Kashmiri shepherds deserve ST status

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Trekking and exploring new places especially in the mountains of Jammu & Kashmir has been my passion. Recently I went trekking with my friends to explore the glaciers of Shali Ganga and Doodh Ganga rivers in Budgam. We set up our basecamp in an upland pasture inhabited by nomadic Kashmir Shepherds also called Chopans. Chopan is used as a surname by Kashmiri shepherds.
We left from Doodh Pathri around 8:45 am on June 25th 2020 and within 4 hours we were at a meadow called Corag by local shepherds. Doodhpathri is a tourist spot in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. It is 44 kilometers away from Srinagar and is located at an altitude of 2730 meters. From Doodh pathri one has to trek uphill 800 to 900 meters to reach Corag with a zigzag and arduous track which takes 3 to 4 hrs. Corag is located at a height of approximately 3500 meters just adjacent to Danderan meadow.
By one pm we pitched our tents and within no time it started raining heavily for 2 hours. In the evening just before sunset when I was walking on the moist grass, I met a Shepherd namely Aziz Chopan who hails from Jabbad Branwar of Chadoora tehsil in Budgam. I had a long chat with Aziz. He told me about the problems and challenges the Chopan community was facing. Infact I was already aware about some of these problems as I have been quite often visiting highland pastures in summers. There were some issues about which I was not familiar.
Difficult Lifestyle
Kashmiri shepherd’s are socially, educationally and economically an underdeveloped community. The job of Chopans as mentioned above is to take care of sheep which belongs to farmers. Chopans hardly have their own sheep. Farmers pay them a fixed amount per sheep per season. 30 to 40 years back the farmers would provide corn or paddy to the Chopans instead of cash. Now the trend has changed with time. Aziz Chopan told me that he gets Rs 300 to 350 per sheep from the farmer per season which lasts for 6 to 7 months. The season starts from April and ends around October. In the month of April the sheep are taken to local grasslands of villages and with the increase in temperature, Chopan’s start moving to pastureland up on the hills. By June 1st week they reach their final destination which is called “Bahak” (Rangeland). Every village in Jammu & Kashmir has its designated Bahak or Rangeland which is registered with the Land Revenue Department.
As per 20th livestock census of 2018-19 sheep population was estimated to be around 3.2 million in Jammu & Kashmir. This population was a bit more i.e. 3.4 million in 2011-12 during 19th livestock census. Shepherds say that population of sheep is on the rise in Kashmir valley from last 10 years and maybe there is some decrease in sheep population in Jammu region.
Challenges during migration
While Chopan’s start their seasonal migration around May along with herds of sheep , they face immense challenges on the way . They don’t have proper tents with them as the shepherds can’t afford to buy the same. They take shelter under trees or tarpaulins / polythene during rains. Farmers get subsidies from the Govt to buy sheep , procure tractors , tillers, spray machines and water pumps, but the Government hardly bothers to provide similar subsidy to the poor shepherds ?
“If a tent costs Rs 4000 Govt could have easily provided us 50 % subsidy which they provide to apple growers or sheep farmers, but we are a neglected community “ said Aziz. Similarly in forests and highland pastures the wild animals like snow leopards , wild wolf’s (Bagaaid) attack sheep, but the poor Chopans don’t have proper fencing to keep their animals safe. Fencing is made of wild bushes like Juniper locally called “Wethhar” . This is used to guard sheep when they rest for night near the mud and wooden huts of Chopan’s also called Kothas or Dokes.
After taking care of sheep from dawn to dusk, in rain, thunder storms and other challenging weather conditions, Chopans hardly sleep during the night. They keep blowing whistles to create a pressure on wild animals. I am a personal witness to all this. Chopan’s hardly own good quality searchlights which could be of great help to them.
Wild animals on the other hand continue to attack the sheep even in the paddock . For the whole night the poor shepherds are awake and sleep only for a few hours after dawn. They work almost 24 hours a day but still have no recognition. Framers continue to ridicule shepherds. They call shepherds liars and thieves. There are several Kashmiri folklores wherein Kashmiri Pohul is disgraced and dishonored as he is called a liar and falsifier.
There are instances when a shepherd lies about a sheep or lamb having been killed by a wild animal while the same is sold by him. Such incidents do happen because of abject poverty conditions of shepherds, but on many occasions the sheep are actually killed and maimed by wild animals but farmers never believe a shepherd, they keep mocking and scoffing at him.
Damaged Dokes
Chopan lives in a dark , dingy mud house supported by some logs. This is called Pahel Kotha (Dokes). Shepherds have their families with them. The Kotha’s get damaged during winter months when the meadows get more than 15 feet snow. But Chopans are not allowed to repair their Kotha’s as Forest officials hardly give them permission to do so ? One can understand the fact about Kothas located in lower reaches wherein the owners damage green trees to repair them , but where shall poor Chopans go ? During my 3 days stay in Corag I met Nazir Ahmad Chopan from Jabbad Branwar , his hut (kotha) has been damaged during last snowfall , but he is scared to repair it with some old fallen kail or fir tree as Forest officials can book him ? Nazir and his family live with Aziz Chopan who already has a family of four with him. Now I have taken up the issue with DFO office Budgam , who have now allowed Nazir to restore his damaged Doke (Kotha).
Changpas and Gaddis
In Spite of the fact that Chopans are tribal in real sense, they have not been included under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category by the Government of India.
“Kashmiri shepherds are similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or Gaddis of Himachal but Changpas and Gaddi’s have been given ST status long back and Chopans continue to be discriminated against. J&K Legislative Assembly on April 10th 2000 passed a resolution for the inclusion of Chopan community under ST category but Govt of India never took that resolution seriously “ said Ashfaq Chopan who is a Chopan rights activist.
The literacy rate of Chopan community is less than 30 % and this is again much lower among the females. If the Government is really concerned about developing sheep sector in Kashmir, then Shepherds (Chopans) who take care of these sheep have to be empowered enough. If we continue to discriminate against this community, a time is not far when these people would get fed up with the work they do and our whole sheep industry which is growing and expanding at a very good pace would collapse. This nomadic community is tribal in real sense and has to be brought under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. It is ironic that successive Govts in J&K have deprived Chopans of their legitimate rights…
(The author is Founder / Chairman of J&K RTI Movement)