By SHABNUM SHAH : Who am I? ……….. I must introduce myself to you. I am a Gujjar Bakarwal hailing from Rajouri District of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. My worldly possessions are significant – 175 sheep, 72 goats, 6 horses and 10 dogs. I am married with three children who are very young.
Every year at the onset of summers in the month of April, I move from my home in Rajouri to a lesser known valley called Gurez Valley. I am not the first of my family to do so. I remember clearly as a small child, barely able to speak properly, holding onto my grandfather’s hand and undertaking this arduous journey a number of times earlier. In the past four decades, I have crossed the beautiful Shamshabari Range to reach this breathtaking valley numerous times. As I cross the by now familiar Shamshabari Range today, I am reminded of the wonderful times I have spent grazing my cattle in Gurez Valley. This year, though, because of unprecedented rain and snow, the movement of my derahas been delayed.
As I cross the Lake Satsar, basking in its magnificence, I come across a post – an army post. I, at times, wonder as to how a few people in uniform can man this post through night and day and keep the area so clean at the same time? As I move ahead, I notice two chairs and a table along with a wooden bench laid out just beyond the post. A soldier of the Indian Army is standing there, noting down the details of all Bakarwal deras that are entering through this route. I wait with my wife and children for my turn.
While we are waiting for our turn at registration in order to get the mandatory army pass for grazing cattle in the Jaudar region of the valley, a tall, young, handsome soldier approaches us and invites us to have a cup of tea and snacks. I look at him spellbound ………. deep inside me long suppressed desires rear up their heads ….. a desire to be in that uniform …… a desire to do something for my country, my watan ………. if only, just if only my father had sent me to school to get my education!! I resolve to get my children admitted to school the day I reach back. They must have the opportunity that eluded me.
Registration done ……… the army passes issued, my Bakarwal pass deposited. My dera takes the route to my dhok. A little distance along our route, there is a snow covered Nula. I see an army jawan rushing to help one of my fellow Bakarwals, oh its my dear friend Mohammad Qasim, pull out a horse which has slipped and fallen into a ditch about thirty feet deep. I rush to lend a hand. Soon we are joined by more army jawans who have managed to fashion a makeshift sling and one of them ties a rope along his waist and is lowered by his comrades into the ditch. I am amazed at the level of cooperation and trust on each other these army jawans seem to have! I am simply marveling at the bravery and selflessness of these jawans when I hear a cheer. The jawan in the ditch has managed to slip the sling onto the horse and the horse is now being pulled out of the ditch!!! What bravery, what selflessness, what camaraderie! The desires of long are back! If only…..! My resolve is stronger now. We reach our dhok and settle down for the daily chore of cattle grazing.
In the two months of my stay in the area, I keep on frequenting the army camp ….. mainly to seek medical help and attention for my family and me. There is never a no for whatever help I seek. Oh god, bless these soldiers! The army also organized a big medical camp for all of us – the Bakarwals in the area. Along with the Army doctors there were many specialists and other doctors from big towns like Dawar too. There was a veterinary doctor at the camp who also advised us on our cattle and livestock. A number of Bakarwals got expert medical advice which in normal course we could not afford.
Its mid September now, the weather is getting colder ….. the snowfall can start at any time. I decide to close my dera for the season and along with a few other Bakarwals prepare for the journey back to our homes. I load the horses with our luggage for the journey and start out along the path we came. We return to the same camp where we had initially come and again the process was duly carried out – the army pass taken back, my Bakarwal pass returned and again tea and snacks as we await our turn.
As I look at the soldier inviting us for the tea and snacks, I see that he is the same tall, young and handsome soldier we had met on our previous journey. I could not resist the urge to ask him if he had been here ever since and how long since he had been home. To my query he just smiled and replied – ‘Janaab, I have been here for six months now and probably will go on leave in another month or so, I don’t know. But then I am with my real family – my brother at arms, who are here with me and I don’t worry about my leave as I am comfortable in the knowledge that I am doing my duty towards my motherland.’
His answer has kept coming back to haunt me ever since. It has served to cement the resolve that I have. Today, as I watch my children leave for school, I only hope that they grow up to be like that tall, young and handsome soldier of the Indian Army and thus become a different sheep of our flock.