Given his agility, Bilal Ahmed (35) could be a champion sprinter in any hurdle race – save the fact that he is not leaping on a track but zigzagging his way down a slope on the Pir Panjal mountain range, followed by his herd of 250 sheep.
Ahmed has already walked for 18 days and crossed the treacherous mountains in Jammu and Kashmir. He will start again and reach the hill station Sonmarg after 13 days -- where he will stay till September.
According to researchers, over 30% of the state’s two-million-strong pastoral nomadic community Gujjar and Bakerwal reside in the mountains of Kashmir in summer and on the plains of Jammu in winter, travelling with their animals through hundreds of kilometers when seasons change.
The primary reason behind continuing with this traditional practice, tribesmen say, is that animals cannot live through the hot summer in the plains, where fodder and water both become scarce in those months.
But now, the community has new, man-made worry.
The nomads, mostly Muslims by faith, hit the headlines last month after a video of a family – who were travelling with their herd through Reasi district of Jammu – being mercilessly thrashed by alleged cow vigilantes went viral and sparked national outrage.
Reasi incident and aftermath
A nine-year-old girl and 65-year-old man were among the five injured in Reasi. The joint family was travelling with 16 cows, owned by different members.
“The cows we were travelling with are not for trade but for personal use and never do we smuggle cows for slaughtering,” said Nazakat Ali, one of the injured.
The police are investigating the case with initial complaints against 11 attackers and the director general of state police, SP Vaid, had promised “strict action” in a media interview.
This is not the first instant of vigilante attacks on Gujjar Muslims over cows and allegations of cow smuggling – although it is one of the first recorded one during a seasonal migration. Observers link it to an overall upsurge in communal polarisation in the Jammu region.
For instance, in January this year, communal violence erupted in Kathua district after a slaughtered cow’s head was allegedly found near a Gujjar Muslim’s house – and the issue rocked the state assembly the next day.
In September last year, a mob set ablaze a truck carrying cattle towards Kashmir from Rajouri.
Tribal researcher and activist Javid Rahi says nomads often face such hooliganism in the Hindu-majority areas of Jammu region -- a new fear after that of militants in the upper reaches of Kashmir and cross-border shelling.
But for the Gujjar-Bakarwal, cow is just like family, he says – and hence, the allegations are absurd.
“How will they smuggle cows for slaughter who observe four-days mourning for the death of one? A cow is like a family member for the community. There are organised mafias which smuggle cows,” says Rahi, who heads the NGO Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation.
Sikander Khatana, a nomad who is now travelling with his family through the Pir Panjal range, the Reasi incident has instilled a sense of fear in the community. “We are afraid that such things can happen again and get scared about our lives and livelihood.”
‘Keeping alive an ethnic tradition’
At Thanamandi, a small village in Rajouri district, hundreds of nomads gather to rest for the night after a day-long walk from nearby villages.
They have not heard about the Reasi incident, but emphatically add that they do not trade cows. They say they have proper documents required for travelling with their animals.
“The goat gives milk, the sheep are sold for meat in parts of Kashmir and horses and mules are used for ferrying tourist in Gulmarg and Pahalgam, and pilgrims during the Amarnath Yatra. The cows are our own, we milk them,” says Abdul Ahmed (18).
As the sun sets, the families light small fires and start cooking rice. The older men smoke hookahs.
Iqbal Ahmed (60) says, “My grandfather undertook this travel every year and so did my father. My son will, too. We are keeping alive our traditional practice.”