After leaving the forest trails for asphalt, Jamila, Roshni and the rest of the crew that had been sent ahead with the pack animals traveled a narrow road through a small agricultural village and beyond, until they reached the Asan River. They turned left, marching west along its banks, sometimes splashing across where it looked most shallow rather than following its looping meanders. Though the Asan is the main drain for the Doon Valley – a basin between the Shivaliks and the Himalayas – it runs low in April, braiding into channels; in some sections, you’d barely wet your ankles, in others, buffaloes could stand shoulder-deep.
Jamila and Roshni stopped the caravan on an empty patch of floodplain that was large enough for both families and all of their animals. On one side, they had instant access to the water, while on the other, an embankment rose to a vast quilt of fields where the buffaloes could graze on the stubble of recently-harvested wheat stalks. Other Van Gujjar families who’d emerged from the forest over the previous few days were camped along the length of the river, resting their animals before moving toward the mountains. Normally spread out over many miles of jungle, here the nomads could easily meet to share news and gossip.
Once the horses and bulls were unloaded, cooking fires were started and tea and khichri (a one-pot concoction of rice, daal, and spices) were prepared – there’d been nothing to eat since dinner the previous night, before the climb over Shakumbhari Pass. Meanwhile, each family pitched a shelter made from black plastic sheeting. Years ago, Van Gujjars carried fabric tents with them, but switched to plastic because it is lighter and cheaper, even if it’s not as durable. There were so many tiny punctures in Dhumman’s tent that, when sitting beneath it during the day, it looked like the ceiling of a planetarium, pierced with countless constellations; the longer lacerations were like comets.
When Dhumman and Yusuf arrived a little later with the buffaloes and the rest of their families, they ate, then talked. No time seemed as sacred as mealtime, in a completely secular kind of way; more than sleep, even more than prayer, it was the one activity during the day worthy of uninterrupted focus.
When he finished, Dhumman said he thought it would be best if they planned on staying where they were for about a week. There were two crucial elements at play.
The first was something that Van Gujjars have had to reckon with forever: optimizing the timing of their ascent based on conditions on the ground. If they reached their meadow too early, it could still be covered with snow. But if they lingered too long en route, they would waste money buying fodder that they didn’t need. Of course, they also preferred to be in the mountains than on the road, to retreat once again behind the veil of the forest, so they moved strategically, aiming to get there as soon as grass had come up in the meadows.
This year, Dhumman was also trying to factor in the looming threat that the Forest Department would deny them permission to access their ancestral alpine pasture. He hoped that, given some time, the authorities would change their minds and let his family trek on up, as they had every year for longer than he’d even been alive, to the Himalayan meadow they thought of as their summer home.
Van Gujjars don’t own the land on which they live and graze; it’s common property administered by state governments, which manage its use through a permit system first introduced during the colonial era. The British issued each nomadic family a document certifying where their grazing range was located and how many buffaloes they owned, which became the number they were officially authorized to keep. Since then, every year, the nomads show their papers and pay grazing and lopping taxes based on the amount of livestock listed, in exchange for permission to access their traditional territory.
Problematically, however, the number of buffaloes assigned to each family permit has been fixed since they were first allocated generations ago. Even as herds grew over time - and even after India became independent - no updates have been granted. Permits may be split: a man with a permit for, say, thirty buffaloes, who had three sons, could divide his permit among them, but they would only be allowed to own ten buffaloes each. And if each of those sons had two sons, they could split their permits in half again, and so on….Meaning, as generations have passed, and permits were split and split again, most families came to have – and need to have – more livestock than they’re allowed. Even so, they were rarely if ever blocked from using their lands. The permits were merely a formality; the gates to the forests just required some grease.
For decades, corruption has been the lifeblood of the permitting system. Van Gujjars expect to pay bribes when it’s discovered that they have more buffalos than they’re officially allowed, or if something about their paperwork is amiss, or to avoid being fined or jailed for no reason at all. Because the laws are set up in such a way that the nomads inevitably break them - and can easily be framed for violations they didn't commit - they are vulnerable to the whims of those in power – including low-ranking, poorly paid forest rangers, who could certainly use a few extra rupees. Even so, there’s a certain kind of logic to crooked systems, and the Van Gujjars could always take some small measure of confidence in that.
That changed suddenly in the fall of 1992, when thousands of buffalo herders were blocked from re-entering their winter ranges if their camps were within the boundaries that had been drawn up nine years earlier for Rajaji National Park. In accordance with the environmentalist ethos of the time, and with Indian law, people were forbidden from living in national parks and using park resources for subsistence or profit. Thanks to a media stir and legal action, the Van Gujjars were allowed back in temporarily. But over the next fifteen years, most of the Rajaji families – 1390 of them – were evicted, forced to settle in government-built villages and abandon their age-old way of life.
Dhumman’s winter grazing land was west of the Rajaji zone, so his home in the Shivaliks was spared. But his summer meadow happened to fall within Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, which was created in 1990. Still, nothing much changed until 2006. That spring, the Forest Department in Uttarakhand announced that they might not let Van Gujjars enter the park. After delaying a decision for a couple of weeks, they finally relented and granted “the permission.” But in 2007 and 2008, the same situation played out all over again, with increasing severity and rising anxities, as the authorities kept the nomads in limbo longer and longer each year.
In 2009, the Forest Department was even more adamant than before that this year, and forever after, the park would be closed to the buffalo herders. If true, it would be devastating. Dhumman’s family and the others weren’t simply setting off on a summer holiday to the mountains – they had to get their herds to the highlands where there was abundant grass and water, or the animals could die and a humanitarian crisis could follow – especially because unlike the nomads evicted from Rajaji, those heading for Govind were not being offered any kind of compensation or alternative grazing lands for the loss of their meadows.
The Forest Department asserted that because these families spent winters in the state of Uttar Pradesh, they were not residents of Uttarakhand, thus the government of Uttarakhand didn’t have to take any responsibility for their welfare. The Van Gujjars were depicted as interlopers, as invaders from another state taking advantage of Uttarakhand’s precious resources (and Muslim invaders at that). The logic of the authorities paid no heed to the fact that these families spend about as much time in Uttarakhand as in Uttar Pradesh. And the story they spun about this invasion from outside conveniently ignored the reality that the migratory routes and grazing areas hadn’t changed in decades, in many cases centuries – that what had changed was the map of north India, when the state of Uttarakhand was created less than ten years earlier; before 2000, Dhumman’s migratory route fell completely within the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Even if the rationale of the Forest Department had been air-tight, their plans seemed to be in blatant violation of India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006, which guarantees the rights of “traditional forest dwellers” to live on and use the lands they have long relied upon for subsistence, even inside national parks. The only areas from which forest dwellers can be banned are zones designated as “critical wildlife habitats” – none of which were established in Govind.
Despite believing that the law probably was on his side, Dhumman had little faith that any court ruling would actually favor illiterate, marginalized, forest dwelling Muslim people over powerful elites. And even if it ultimately did, it could take time, and his needs were immediate. His buffaloes couldn’t wait on the justice system. They had to have grass.
Still, no one knew for sure how serious the forest officials really were, and Dhumman held out hope that they were bluffing, as in the previous few years. So, for a little while anyway, he and Yusuf would wait along the Asan River. And they would try to come up with an alternative plan, if the worst-case-scenario came to pass.
Their days along the Asan River moved to a steady rhythm. The buffaloes were milked in the morning, then led out into the nearby fields from which wheat had recently been hand-harvested by local farm laborers. As the beasts browsed on the remnants, Dhumman and Yusuf and a rotating crew of their children – from age five to thirty – stood nearby, holding their lathis. They were like a team playing zone defense, trying to keep the animals from getting into adjacent fields still flush with wheat. Usually, a quick burst of speed and a vigorous wave of a bamboo rod was enough to turn the buffaloes back, but sometimes they’d get a firm whack on their thick black hides.
Meanwhile, Sharafat and his cousin Hamju consolidated the milk their families had collected and carried it across the river and up a dirt lane to a major road that links Dehradun and Paonta Sahib. They’d hop a bus to Vikasnagar, where they’d sell the milk to a dairy shop. Sometimes, they’d bring Dhumman and Yusuf’s mobile phones and chargers, to plug them in for a while. If the milk was bought for twenty-two rupees per liter (about 35 cents), Sharafat would tell Dhumman that it sold for twenty, and pocket the extra as commission. He might use it to buy an ice cream bar, or he might give it to his sister, Apa, to keep for him. (Women in Van Gujjar families generally manage the money, which is one reason why, some people say, there is virtually no drinking or gambling in their culture.) When Sharafat was asked to buy a new phone charger for Dhumman, he reported that it cost two hundred rupees (almost four dollars) when he only paid about a hundred – though Sharafat justified this by saying he was actually saving Dhumman money in the long run, since if his father thought it was more expensive, he’d take better care of it.
At mid-day, temperatures spiked to the mid 40s Celsius (around 110 Fahrenheit). The buffaloes were often brought back to camp to keep cool in the river while the families took shelter under their tarps and dozed off in a heat-induced stupor. Later, the animals were taken out to the fields again. Though all this grazing helped, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the herd, so each afternoon a handful of Dhumman and Yusuf’s strongest children would be sent to purchase fodder from a vendor about a mile away. They’d return carrying unimaginably gargantuan loads of grass on their backs, which they’d spread out on the ground for the buffaloes’ dinner.
After their own dinner – usually some kind of spicy curried vegetables with chapatti – the adults and some of the older children, would perform namaaz, chanting and prostrating beneath the sparkling night sky.
A week passed like this. Though the Forest Department showed no sign of backing down and Dhumman and Yusuf had not yet been able to get their grazing permits, they needed to continue toward the mountains, hoping, still, that they would be allowed up to their meadows.
They left one night, crossing the river at 2:40 am. When they reached the main road, Jamila and Roshni stopped with the smallest children; they'd wait there for a couple of hours for a bus that would drop them near their next planned campsite. The rest of the family marched on with the animals past dawn, until they reached the Yamuna River.