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?”

Ancient Wisdom from Women Farmers in Mandakini Valley

The following are two profiles of women farmers from the Mandakini Valley in the Garhwal Himalayas, India.

“Everything comes from the earth. We sow one, and thousands come.” – Ganeshi Devi, Bhattwari village

Surrounded by her harvest, Ganeshi Devi’s short frame sits comfortably amidst the dal laid out to dry, “the dal is my chair,” she says smiling.

Ganeshi Devi’s favorite crop is black dal. After saying this, she immediately bursts into song. She is over 80 years old, and has two sons and one daughter.

“Everything is mine,” she explains, motioning towards the different kinds of amaranth and fingermillet. As an organic farmer, Ganeshi doesn’t use chemicals, instead she uses ash as a pesticide. She grows nearly everything she needs, and for the essentials such as salt and sugar she sells her Amaranth. She also exchanges seeds with those around her.

In addition to her crops, Ganeshi Devi also has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to herbs and medicinal plants. The tradition of healing runs in her family, as her father, uncle, and grandfather were also known as “wise people” and local healers. Despite this knowledge, the youth do not seem to be impressed, “The new generations says it is not good.” She mentions one herb that cures scabies. Another with three needles can be used for eyes and there are others for shampoo. “Everything is here,” she says, referring to the plethora of medicinal plants. However, now is not the right time to see it all. “Come in April. I can show you lots.”

Ganeshi explains that there are three or four types of jobs, but the number one is farming. “A job is not good, farming is number one,” as she says, “Everything comes from the earth. We sow one and thousands come. In the bank, we have to wait many years for it to grow.”

She also believes farming is intricately linked to hard work, “If you put mud on the roots of a small plant, then we get more. That person who will do work he will get [the crop]. Good farmers are those who work.” Ganeshi Devi depends on hard work and luck. “Who has luck? Water, food, flowers, money? Everything is here, it depends on hard work and luck.”

In other areas, people were worrying about water. She believes that having done good in past lives, was the reason they were doing good. “The knowledge comes when we speak and the water comes when we dig,” she says.

When asked about the weather she says, “They [the gods] will destroy and they will create again.”

Ganeshi interspersed slokas (traditional Sanskrit verses or songs) into her conversation. She seems to have a strong faith in God, which is also tied to the land, “We cannot see God, but this we can see, everything is earth, our mother.” When she goes to the temple they say “What will you give us?” She says “I will give you seeds.”

“Without seed there is nothing at all” – Narmada Devi, 68, Bhattwari village

Narmada Devi, named after India’s Narmada river, was 11 when she came to Bhattwari village. She works on her own now, as her three boys and two girls have all moved away from the village.

“In April or May we sow paddy, at that time we do hard work,” she says. “Lots of work we have to do.” She explains after the plowing is done, compost is spread, then the seeds are sown and finally the crop is harvested. She saves seeds as well. “Without seed there is nothing at all. We should save seed and only then we will sow,” she says.

According to Narmada Devi, “Before they [people] worked and now people are not hard working.”

These days she sows her wheat and then goes to Chandigar to her son’s house for the winter, and comes back in April to harvest the wheat. Her sons also come in June during their holiday, to assist on the farm.

While she could also live in Chandigar, she likes living on her farm. Even her son says, “come here we will feed you”. But Narmada Devi says “this is our habit, we like this, working with hands, then we become strong.”

“I grow everything every person sows,” she says, meaning she grows all that is needed to support her family. With the surplus harvest, Narmada Devi sells at the market or in exchange for necessities such as salt and sugar.

She says it is different now. “Now we don’t do as much hard work, but when my mother-in-law was here, [we did more].”

Her only challenge is that she is now becoming older, “that is why I am tired,” she says. She doesn’t believe her children will come back to work on the land.

Before the interview is completed, her mobile phone rings. With a sickle in one hand and a phone in the other, she has to go.

Vimala Bahuguna: Life-long Activist against Tehri Dam

Based on an Interview with Vimala Bahuguna: Life-long Activist against Tehri Dam

Bija Vidyapeeth, Dehradun, Uttarkhand 3, December 2010

When the contractors shut the gates of the dam to flood Tehri Valley, the water arrived at her door. Police came and told her to leave. Eventually, as the water flooded her home, she left by boat.

“The action satyagraha, sitting at the river bank, changed perceptions – now people see the cost of building the dam,” Vimala Bahuguna says of her and her husband’s struggle protesting the Tehri Dam. She says a “new awareness” emerged. For nearly five years the protest prevented the dam from being built. Over the course of the protests, 16 activists were killed in an allegedly arranged bus accident.

Vimalaji recalls the river culture, “where a woman could safely walk at night in the jungle with all her jewels, they had total confidence.” After the dam, she says, “they are a terrified people.” Shiva remembers that there were hundreds of temples in Tehri, it was an agricultural valley with broad fields, she remarks that the “Ganga basin was the most fertile in the world because the water carried the silt. Now the silt is held back by dams.”

After India’s independence, Vimalaji yearned for higher education. She joined the Lakshmi Ashram,  started by a follower of Gandhi. At the time, the burning question for all, was: “How could Swaraj (self-rule) be shared by all?”

Long before she protested Tehri Dam, Vimalaji, coming from a middle class family was used to having people work for her. She was unaccustomed to cleaning and difficult labor in the ashram she joined. With her teacher as a role model, she says, “bit by bit we started to grow – love of labor (shraamdaan) became a central part.”

When her family wanted her to marry, instead she went to Vinoba Bhaves ashram. She eventually returned to the mountains to assist with a campaign to end alcoholism, where she met Sunderlal Bahuguna. Before marrying, she wanted to think and was not yet ready, her father was angry and told her: “The doors of my house are closed to you. How will you ever find such a good match?”

She wanted to work for civil society and he was a congressman. She asked for one year of contemplation time. Adhering to Gandhian philosophy, she believed that anything of value had to happen at the village level and that she needed to work there.

Her future husband, Bahuganaji did not object, he was willing to be patient because his wife to be was independent, he was even willing to abandon the Congress party. He went to work in the villages and eventually 24 rupees from each side were spent on their wedding.

With Bahugunaji’s work as a journalist, they were able to support themselves. He reported from the villages to newspapers and she worked to end alcoholism and teach girls in exchange for food and grain. His articles brought in about 15 rupees per month.

With the women, Vimalaji fought to close down liquor shops, “Women began to see their powers.” At one point, all three generations were put in jail, her mother, her and her 6 year-old son. “female shakti (power) is not just for farmwork,” she says.

When they realized the strength they had if they all worked together, they moved out to the forests. They tied sacred thread around trees, and “For eight years they committed themselves… The contractors got clever, got men from Nepal to cut at night. The women started to protect day and night for 8 years – all based on the strength of community,” Vimalaji recalls of what became known as the Chipko movement.

“Chipko could never have happened without women…” they had not yet realized their power beyond the household, “but they faced jail without fear. They faced the burning of their huts in the forest by the contractors.”

Vandana Shiva and Vimala Bahuguna met during their work with the Chipko movement. “We walked to spread awareness” Vandana Shiva adds, the Chipko movement spread in India under different names.

Vimalaji and Shiva explain together, “The women knew then, as they still know now that the forest is what would protect water, soil and air.”

Vimalaji believes that if India is to be protected, that nature must be protected. As Vimalaji says, “Nature will dismantle the dam.” In response to the question of, “What is today’s salt?” Vimalaji responded that it is: “Whatever challenge is in front of you.”


Based on an interview and excerpts from talk given at Bija Vidyapeeth, December 2010 and The Road to Survival, by Sunderlal Bahuguna. Compiled and edited by PK Uthaman. Mathrubhumi Books, 2009.