A number of Van Gujjar families were camped on a terraced plot of land just off of the main road on the outskirts of Uttarkashi. Every caravan whose summer meadows were up ahead halted here first, waiting until after midnight to walk their herds through the normally bustling market town.
For Dhumman, Jamila, and their family, along with Yusuf’s and Alfa’s, this would be the last stop before the forest barrier at Gangori.
If they were going to be turned back for using the paperwork of someone who’d been given land, they knew that's where it would probably happen. If they were allowed to pass, they'd have a very long trek to the next camp, so Dhumman considered hiring a cargo truck again, to shuttle the kids, the calves and all the bags on ahead, then follow with the buffaloes, as they had done once before. But when he couldn’t find a driver to take them for less than 1000 rupees (about $20), he decided it was too expensive.
Everyone would walk – including their white bull, whose feet were now in such bad shape it was now wearing booties made of burlap scraps tied up with pink ribbons. So they waited through the day, and watched as other families loaded their calves and children into a truck.
Then, around 1 a.m., they set off themselves, marching through the tunnel in the mountainside that led to Uttarkashi, past the dormant bus and taxi stands, up the road and finally across the bridge into Gangori. When they reached the small ranger post where the forest gatekeepers were stationed, the night was still pitch dark.
It was almost 4 a.m. when the three-family caravan arrived at the forest checkpoint at Gangori. While Dhumman and Yusuf went inside to show their borrowed papers to the rangers on duty, everyone else continued driving the herd up the road, as though acting like they were doing what they were supposed to be doing would convince the officers to let them pass. It seemed to work. Dhumman and Yusuf emerged from the small office with word that everything was okay, for the moment anyway. They were told a ranger would go over their paperwork more thoroughly later, at a more decent hour, at their next camp. Still, simply getting beyond the checkpoint was a victory, and a wave of quiet relief swept through the group. They quickened their pace and didn’t look back, afraid that doing so might invite the rangers to change their minds.
They trekked for hours more, following the twists and turns of the tarmac alongside the Assi Ganga River, a small tributary of the Bhagirathi that sluiced between rocky, pine-forested slopes. At last they stopped on a flat, grassy spit of land at a bend in the river and set up their tarps among a few cedar trees.
The weather was fickle throughout the day. Once, it started hailing so hard that Dhumman gathered the buffalo calves and sheltered them under the tarp with the family, people and animals pressed together beneath a sheet of black plastic until the fury of the storm passed.
When the ranger arrived, he inspected the documents that had been borrowed from Kasim, and declared that Dhumman and his family had no right to be where they were. Kanasar, he said, was part of a different ranger district, and they were not allowed to graze their animals in this one. Dhumman explained that they were just passing through and that they'd enter the adjacent district designated in the paperwork as soon as they could. This wasn’t good enough for the ranger, who said that the entire caravan had to get out of his jurisdiction immediately or face arrest.
Thus the bargaining began. When it was over, Dhumman, Yusuf, and Alfa had secured a handshake deal to move through the district to Kanasar. The ranger walked away with 2000 rupees (about $40), seven liters of milk and three kilograms of butter, plus a promise of five more kilos of butter over the next few days.
The following morning, the families woke and started off later than usual. Now that they were truly in the Himalayan foothills, around 4000 feet (1220 meters) above sea level, they didn’t have to contend with brutal daytime temperatures, and now that they were no longer traveling along a major road, there was far less traffic to worry about. They hiked nearly to the end of the road, just shy of the village of Sangam Chatti - where Dhumman, Alfa, Mir Hamza, and a couple of Yusuf’s sons went in to pick up supplies from a handful of shops, while the rest of the caravan left the road and struck out onto a footpath into the forest.
While in the village, Dhumman placed a call to Dehradun. Whispers of rumors he'd heard for the past couple of days were now confirmed: the Forest Department had opened Govind Pashu Vihar National Park to the nomads. Firoz, the Van Gujjar whose family had been stranded on the road for about two weeks, had reached his meadow. Dhumman was glad to hear it – but he knew it was too late for his family to turn back. At this point, they were a hundred percent committed to Kanasar. Sometime over the next few weeks, Dhumman, Yusuf, and Alfa would have to go over to the Gangar area to pay their annual grazing taxes, even though they weren’t using their meadows there this summer. It was crucial, they felt, to make it look like they had been there, if only on paper, so park authorities couldn’t later accuse them of voluntarily abandoning their traditional pastures.