As each day’s trek alongside the Yamuna brought the families closer to Naugaon, where they’d have to make what felt like an epic choice, the tension increased. Dhumman was distracted, keeping one eye on events in Dehradun and the other on the progress of his friend Firoz, whose family was also heading to Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and was a week or so ahead of them on the road. They would be first to truly test the Forest Department’s resolve.
The signals, at this point, were mixed. The chief minister of Uttarakhand visited the town of Mori, not far from Govind Pashu Vihar, and had met with Firoz and others who were already nearing the park boundary; at the meeting, local villagers voiced their support for the nomads, saying that they’d been coming to the area longer than anyone could remember, never caused trouble, and should be allowed to go to their meadows. Besides, the villagers added, it was good for them to have a plentiful source of buffalo milk.
Meanwhile, in Dehradun, SOPHIA had gotten the National Tribal Welfare Department involved, which wrote a letter to the Forest Department insisting that it respect the Forest Rights Act. But Director Rasaily not only refused; he took out advertisements in newspapers saying that he would never allow the Van Gujjars into Uttarakhand’s parks, and wanted to keep them out of the forests there altogether, to protect the citizens of the state. He depicted the tribe as a threat from outside, and seemed to be trying to sway public sentiment against the nomads by playing on latent prejudices about Muslims. Journalists, however, were generally sympathetic to the Van Gujjars.
As the sides vied with each other in Dehradun and in the media, the migrating families were out on the road anxiously contemplating their fates.
The last camp before Naugaon was just past the village of Bornigad. By the time Dhumman and Yusuf’s families got there, their cousin Alfa and his family had joined up with their caravan. If the park was closed, they’d need to find somewhere else to go, too, and their best bet was to travel toward Kanasar and try to piggyback on the documents Dhumman borrowed.
The families camped on the dusty shoulder of the road, but they were able to keep the buffaloes down the hillside along the riverbank. It was one of the nicest places yet to watch the herd: a bridge overhead provided plenty of shade and the water flowed cold and clear. It was the perfect escape from their troubling situation, and most everyone tried to spend as much time by – or in – the river as possible.
Early in the day, Dhumman and Alfa had taken a shared jeep north to Purola, where they could get the latest updates from the ranger station there, and where they could meet with Firoz and talk to him personally.
The news they returned with was discouraging. Firoz’s family had been stopped at the forest gates and barred from entering the national park. They were camped on the road, waiting, in a place where there was little fodder available to scrounge or to purchase. If they headed up to their meadow, they could reap unlimited fines or face arrest and have their herd confiscated. So they stayed where they were, stuck in limbo.
On one hand, Dhumman reasoned, if he and Yusuf and Alfa stuck to their usual route and joined Firoz, their combined presence might be enough to pressure the Forest Department to let them all into the park. But if it wasn’t, if the parks director still wouldn’t budge, their combined presence would deplete any of the already scant resources in the area four times faster, hastening the arrival of disaster for them all. Neither choice was a good one, nor a clear winner.
In the end, fear of the consequences of being shut out ultimately swayed their minds. They simply couldn’t risk going to Gangar; they could lose everything. So, they would turn right at Naugaon and aim for Kanasar, where, despite the difficulties involved, they felt more confident that they’d be able to get their buffaloes to grass.
With this decision made, the families pitched in and hired a cargo truck to carry all the buffalo calves and the young children to their next camp, which was up a long, steep section of road. Knowing that before long they’d have some unavoidably strenuous days, the adults didn’t want their little ones – human or bovine - to overdo it now, especially since some of the children were already sick.
The truck came at about 2 a.m., and once the back was filled with animals and the front was packed with kids and a couple of moms, it groaned up the road toward Barkot. The rest of the family followed behind, walking with the herds, toward unfamiliar terrain. As they moved through the night, they sang together, for longer and with more passion than on any other leg of their trek.