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Published in the 16-30 June 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Gujjars save the shared tradition in remote hills of J&K 

By Luv Puri <luv_puri1@rediffmail.com>

The Milli Gazette Online 

Bafliaz (Surankote): Continuing the family tradition every Thursday evening Qasim Mohammad Kassana and his family go to the mazaar of Sufi saint Saidnoor and pay their obeisance at a place, which is thronged by the people of all faiths.It is the same place where five years ago, Lashkar area commander Kamal Zaki had asked the local people mostly Muslims not to go to the mazaar, as it was heretic to go to such shrines in Islam. 

For centuries, the mazaars of the Sufi saints in the remote areas of Jammu and Kashmir or even along the Line of Control or the Indo-Pak International Border have stood out as the common and natural bond between the people of different cultures, ethnic races and different religious groups. Gujjar community, which inhabits every part of the state, is in the forefront of preserving the Sufi tradition in Jammu and Kashmir despite several odds.The Sufi mazaar of Sai Illahi Baksh situated along the Line of Control in Mandi area of Poonch district was one of the most volatile areas which saw intense shelling before the 26th November, 2003 Eid ceasefire.Even then,the Gujjar families who inhabit the belt looked after the mazaar at great risks to their lives. 

The real challenge to save the Sufi heritage for the Gujjar Muslims was in the remote hills of Jammu and Kashmir, where the presence of Sufi shrines was to the disliking of some of the militants outfits as according to them it infringed with the basic tenets of Islam. But these groups made little headway as the Gujjar Muslims openly revolted against their diktat and saved the centuries old shared tradition. In 2000,a group of Lashkar militants descended on the Sufi shrine of Saidnoor in Bafliaz and burnt the fabrics,which are hung on the branches of the tree as part of the local custom. Similarly in the Chariwali area of Surankote, a foreign militant showed disrespect to the Sufi shrine of Banalidapir revered by the local people. This provoked an instant reaction among the locals, who took out a protest demonstration against the militants. This was the first recorded protest by the local people against the militants in an area which was termed their hotbed.Similar backlash was witnessed in the area when militants criticised the serving of food at an Urs ceremony, terming it un-Islamic.But the people could do little in the area where the militants writ ran.In many ways Surankote was known as a liberated zone in the security circles.In the towns also Shahdara Sharief shrine located in the highly militant infested belt of Thanna Mandi area of Rajouri district was targeted by the militants and there were attempts by some extremists to project the Ziarats (Sufi shrines) as anti-Islamic.

In real terms, militancy in Rajouri-Poonch belt lacked an ideological appeal unlike valley due to a different ethnic base of the people living here. The only common aspect between the people of this belt and valley populace was a common religion and therefore the militancy here had a religious character that started taking extremist tendencies against the moderate spirit of Islam. Later it was reflected in militants issuing diktats against the Sufi shrines which was one of the reasons for the first organised revolt of Gujjar Muslims who decided to take up arms against the militants to defend their culture. Mohammad Qasim, a Saudi Arabia returned Gujjar expatriate along with three men decided to form Village Defence Committee to defend themselves. In the last five years the number of such Gujjar Muslims in the belt has increased to over 200.Mohammad Qasim says, “When the militants started telling the people not to go to the shrines there was no option for us but to rebel. For us these shrines are precious as our entire lifestyle revolves around it and it is part of our centuries old heritage.We have lived in the holiest of places of Islam i.e., Mecca and it was certainly hurting when somebody tried to teach us our religion.” Resentful locals provoked a backlash against the militants and this saw the formation of the several Village Defence Committees in the terror zone. And it was the first time when local people gave tip off to the security forces resulting in the killing of the militants. 

Mohammad Aslam, another Saudi returned expatriate says, “Sufi Shrines are our heritage and this is what binds the society together. And at no cost we would allow this heritage to be lost and we have given high priority to save this heritage.” Success is clearly witnessed by the efforts of the local population since they first revolted against the militants as all Sufi Shrines in the belt have witnessed huge rush particularly in the last one-year. In many ways, courage of the Gujjar Muslims has remained unacknowledged as many of them lost their lives while fighting with the militants. Qasim Mohammad says, “We fought for the nation voluntarily with ideological commitment towards saving the secular fabric of country and spirit of Islam which teaches equality and respect towards other faiths. Though we did not demand any awards,it did pain us when people in the security setup started taking credit for the work we had done at great risk to our lives.” 

Padam Bhushan awardee, Balraj Puri, an authority on Jammu and Kashmir and has written extensively on Gujjars in the last six decades strongly believes in the vitality of little traditions. He says,“The Gujjar Muslims of the state of J&K are the prime example of the fact that the great religion of Islam is assimilative in nature and it also shows the importance of little traditions. The community not only takes prides in being Muslim but it is also proud of its cultural identity. In-fact both identities enrich each other and are not antagonistic in nature.” 

What makes the Gujjars such an interesting community for the scholars while studying the shared or little traditions of Muslims and Hindus which have bonded the society at grass root level. The shared tradition of the Gujjar community can be gauged from the fact that though it is hundred percent Muslims it has unique ethnic affiliations with the Hindu Gujjars of neighbouring states like Rajasthan, Delhi or even Haryana. Besides sharing a common caste lineage, the Gojri language spoken by the Gujjars of the state is similar to Mewar dialect of Rajasthani.Sub-caste like Kassana, Baddana, Deddar, Chauhan, Paswal, Kataria, Kohli are common among Muslims as well as Hindu Gujjars in rest of the country. Every sub caste has a mazaar of its patron saint ; pir. For instance Kassana sub caste of Gujjars has its mazaar at Marote area of Surankote. 

There is also diversity in the tradition and customs of the Gujjar community depending on their geographical locations. For instance the Gujjars living in the plains of the state are the main suppliers of milk and milk-products to the plain capital cities of Jammu and Srinagar. These Gujjars are called Dodhis and for centuries they have been suppliers to the Dogras community in Jammu city (both Hindus and Muslims) and also Kashmiris (Muslims and Pandits).At the same time in the hilly belt of the state, Pahari Gujjars believe that selling milk is a sin, a belief held by Gaddis who are nomadic Hindus. Similarly there is a custom called Dunta among the Gujjars in which the first time the cow is milched after its calf is born, the milk is collected in a small container and is taken to and left on a hill top to ward off evil spirits. Such little traditions are quite visible in other communities as well in the belt which some people may call superstitions but remain strong binding forces among various communities. Grass root reality of the Gujjars gives ample example of how understanding the local culture is relevant for laying foundations of cohesive and secular society. 
(This article is based on a study on Gujjar community of J&K under a National Foundation for India fellowship)

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