Radical Ecological Democracy

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Traditional Governance Systems of the Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand (India)

Neema Pathak Broome and Akshay Chettri

With looming ecological calamities and the failure of the current systems and measures to conserve biodiversity, the need for alternative transformative pathways is being felt acutely and being discussed widely – alternatives to address the root causes of the crisis, such as centralised and politically motivated governance, exclusionary decision making including for biodiversity conservation, disproportionate global economic aspirations and corporate profit accumulations, individualism, among others. In this article we explore where such alternative pathways could emerge from. In doing so we join a large body of work which advocates that answers may emerge or evolve from age old, tried and tested systems which still exist but are fast disappearing or getting distorted. Here we are focusing on one such system of self-governance including the governance of the commons. We would like to clarify upfront that this article is based on quite preliminary yet deeply inspiring explorations over a short period of time, and a more detailed documentation and analysis will be carried out as a follow-up of this exploration by the youth of the community themselves.

It is well known that indigenous communities have customary systems of self organisation and governance which define their interactions within the community as well as with their ecological surroundings. These governance mechanisms are based on the defining characteristics of the community – their day to day interactions with nature of which they see themselves as a part, and their cultures and traditions based on unique and critical set of values. These systems have been existent and functional for generations, before the current state oriented and centralized institutions were established, and evolved based on intergenerational knowledge and experiences. While formal state institutions have occupied centre stage in defining how and what is governed in administrative records and systems, traditional governance continue to exist within many communities as the primary and well functioning system running in parallel and independent of the formal institutions.[1]

Through this article, we explore the governance systems of the Van Gujjars living in the Western Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The Van Gujjars are a semi-nomadic pastoralist community who migrate to the upper Himalayan regions during summers and the lower gangetic plains during winter. They rear the ‘Gojri’[2] breed of ‘dangars’, the local term for buffaloes. For generations, consumption of milk in its various forms, along with the occasion grains bartered with the neighbouring communities, and a simplistic lifestyle in wilderness has sustained the Van Gujjars. In the last few decades, the strengthening of conservation laws and institutional processes have led to greater efforts towards sedentarizing and mainstreaming this community[3]. The Van Gujjars are recognized as one of the 11 Scheduled Tribes in Himachal Pradesh[4], while in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh they are still identified as Other Backward Castes (OBC)[5].

Governance system of the Van Gujjars

Before describing the system itself we would like to talk about the value system and the worldview which weaves together the fabric of the Van Gujjar society. The most significant of these values as we understood through interactions with them but also as they communicated include generosity, honesty, deep trust in the goodness of human nature, loyalty, peacefulness, love of nature and her beings, solidarity with  each other, with nature, with outsiders and non violence, among many others. Van Gujjars have lived by these values, which have endeared them to those who really got to know them, but have also led to their exploitation over time.

The lives of the Van Gujjars are centered around their enduring relationship with their cattle and nature

No one in their community will ever go hungry when a family falls under misfortune, the entire community will come together to help generously, contributing buffaloes which are the wealth of the community. No woman who lands up at the door of a family calling herself a distantly related sister would be turned back if she demanded something for herself. Marriages are a community responsibility and even a poor family looks forward to the son or daughter getting married as not only the entire expense of hosting and feeding is borne collectively but the family is left with surplus to overcome difficult times.

As the name suggests, the life of the majority of Van Gujjars even today revolves around their forests and buffaloes. In Uttarakhand, over the last few decades many families have been evicted from forest areas as ‘encroachers’ due to conservation and forest laws, yet they continue to stay in their simple thatched mud huts called ‘deras’ along the highways, canals and whatever commons they could find, some have been relocated from different parts of the landscape and settled in areas assigned to them by the forest department, some have settled in settlements called Khattas in the terai region along with the other communities, while a small population continue to migrates. Even though lack of access for grazing is increasingly a big issue with restricting forest laws and institutions, keeping buffaloes is still intrinsically linked to their identity.

The basic unit of the Van Gujjars is a family (father and his sons) and their buffaloes. A settlement is usually a cluster of different families of a clan. Clans are loosely connected to each other but come together in times of difficulty and celebrations. Traditional governance for this community revolves around the forests and the buffaloes. Since the British times, family or clan heads have been issued annual licenses for grazing in different forest compartments, and therefore the boundaries for each family and clan have been clearly demarcated.  Major decisions about these compartments or about migration are taken by the family head.

The Van Gujjars believe that every individual is born with certain set of skills. These skills are used for performing a particular function as member of the family or clan, thereby also allowing for division of labor within the commune. The ‘Mai’ are members in the family who take care of the ‘dangars’. They have knowledge on the food habits, movement patterns, herbs and medicines required for the dangars. The relationship between the Mai and the buffaloes is said to be as close as that of a mother and her children. A Mai can recognise his buffaloes from among thousands without any markings just by looking at them or calling them.

The ‘Baddi’ are members who lop the trees for the bufalloes. The lopping is done primarily for two purposes; for household use and for fodder for their dangars. Since the lopping of certain species is important for the buffaloes, there are very specific rules about when to start lopping, which trees to be lopped and from which area, and how the trees are to be lopped. The top branches of the tree are never lopped as they are essential for the survival and growth of the tree, violation is considered a sin and the violator is punished through social strictures.

These traditional systems, the knowledge, the relationships with different birds and animals, mountains and streams, trees and herbs, migration, among others is shared with each other and across generations  through ‘Bainths’, which are couplets that are created and sung before and during any celebratory gathering. The Bainths harmonize their interaction and relationship with nature and the environment they are a part of.

Who is a Painch and how does the system function?

However, this is not to say that there are no conflicts within the community. These situations often arise and the Painchi system is an important institutional mechanism to maintain peace and harmony within the community. The system functions on the above mentioned principles and through discussions and deliberations in a non-violent manner.

The Painch or a “council of wise people” largely consists of village elders.

The ‘Painchi’, can be loosely interpreted as a ‘council of wise people’. There is no particular or defined process for electing a Painch. In the cases where a conflict arises, members of the community who are known for their wisdom or conduct in the commune are called upon to resolve such conflicts by the contesting parties or their representatives. They address conflicts related to access to forests, violation of traditional rules, marriages, and livestock[6]. In the current times, Painch are more often than not, older male members of the community, although till very recently that was not the case.

When any disputes arises between one or two families, the concerned families would approach the Painch in the village[7]. A village meeting or ‘Baithak’ is then convened presided by the Painch, where the two parties share their side of the argument and discuss the issue at hand. After hearing both sides the issue is then internally discussed among the Painch, in the presence of one or two nominated representatives of the parties. Once the decision has been arrived at, it is conveyed in the ‘Baithak’. In case the decision is not satisfactory for one of the parties, they have the right to voice their dissent. The aggrieved party may also approach the Painch of another area in case they feel that the judgement has not been impartial, after which a joint sitting is organized. A village may have two or more Painch and all the Painch, as per their availability, preside over the meeting. In the cases of conflict between a van gujjar and a member of another community, the Painch acts as a mediator on their behalf to address the issues.

The Painch also intervene on the issues of domestic violence and abuse to women within the community. In cases where a woman has suffered abuse, the woman, or a close representative, is free to approach the Painch. Until the Baithak is convened, the woman is free to stay in the Painch’s house, if she so chooses to do so.

In addition to conflict resolution, they also play an important role in maintaining welfare of the community, such as garnering community support during medical emergencies, marriages and other cases where support is required by an individual or family. The Painchi may convene one or more Baithaks to discuss the form of support to be provided. They therefore play an important role when important issues related to the community are to be discussed and also when human and financial resources are required to be collected for specific individuals, families, clans or the community as a whole or when opinions are to be sought or positions are to be taken.

The decisions of the Painch occupy immense significance in the functioning of the community. One has to adhere to the decision that has been taken. Anyone going against the decision is either penalised or in certain cases, faces social sanctions, until the decision to revoke the penalty is taken, if at all. While a dissenter has the right to approach the painch in the other habitations, until a meeting is convened, the concerned person cannot partake in community activities such as cultural and religious functions, marriages etc.

Painchi and their interface with the state insitutions

The Painch do not occupy any official positions within existent official institutions, but some of them do play a role, albeit a limited one, in negotiating with the state functionaries. As forest dwellers, their interaction is more active and frequent with the forest department. While it is not always the case, in situations where an offence is registered against a Van Gujjar, the Painch may negotiate with the department on behalf of the respective individual. Also in cases of conflict between two members of the community, and where an official complaint regarding the same has been registered, if a Baithak is convened simultaneously and the conflicting parties come to a resolution before the complaint is closed, the decision of the Painch is recorded and submitted to the officials, in which case, that decision is more often than not, accepted and the complaint closed.  However, this interaction is limited and may not be the situation in all places the Van Gujjar inhabit. Mohammad Shafi, a Painch of Tumadiya Khatta, Terai-West forest division, also emphasized that a simple resolution does not always suffice and the officials work according to the rules, in which case the decision of the Painch maybe socially binding in the community, but it does not overrule legal procedures.

Women and youth as Painch

The Painchi system, in its foundational structure and functioning, is gender, age, class neutral. This reflects in the society as well. Traditionally, there are many stories of women Painch, and their participation in Baithaks. The request from a community to sit in a Baithak to look into a matter based on the experience of the community with the concerned person and their conduct in the society, a collective assessment and identification without any set process of norm. Hence, they could call upon a young person or a woman when such people were found to be suitable for the responsibility by the community or the parties in conflict. Their reputation would depend on the manner in which they would address the issues presented to them.

Limitations

The absence of women Painch points to the serious concern of patriarchy getting stronger, and also to the decrease in platforms available for women within the community. Few women if at all are now Painch. While the male Painch we spoke to stressed the need for gender inclusivity in decision making processes within the community, they did express their inability to break the existent societal norms and increasing adherence to sharia laws as a hindrance in doing so. 

The general absence of women and the Van Gujjar youth in the Painchi system is a major impediment to addressing contemporary socio-economic challenges of the community.

The Van Gujjars function on the principles of ‘trust’ and ‘harmony’ where the decisions of the Painch are followed out of respect for their wisdom and knowledge. However, in recent times, there has been a perceptible decrease in the level of trust in the system. Individual motivations of the Painch influenced by political and economic factors have led to biased decisions in a few cases. The community members believe that the sanctity of the position is weakening in its essence. However the people we spoke with mentioned that still only a small number of internal conflict issues are taken to the police stations or the judiciary and that almost 90% of the issues are still resolved internally.

Conclusion

Through our conversations with many Painchis and young and old community members we understood that at the root of this communities’ self organization and governance system is a set of values that speaks of trust, honesty, justice, equity, love and compassion. When internal and external factors lead to changes in the value system they impact the entire fabric of the society and the critical fallout of this change is felt through the systems which are meant to deliver justice and which command the people’s trust. In these turbulent times the value base of all communities – urban and rural – is under pressure, and in the case of Van Gujjars it comes from constant displacement and conflicting relationship with the forest department. The Painchi system occupies a central role in the cultural ethos of the community. The symbiotic relationship between Van Gujjars and the forests around them defines the community and dictates their day to day lives, yet the colonial systems of institutional governance have done little to acknowledge this relationship and help strengthen it. The attempts to sedentarize the community and to bring them into the mainstream society have led to an alteration in their functioning and subsequently impacted decision-making processes.

Additionally, marginalization and insecurities emerging from being a minority religious group have given rise to find a political voice through political and/or religious affiliations. The innate wisdom based self-organization and its associated values are giving way to hard-line religious dogmas or are being over shadowed by the values of political and economic power centers. That this change is underway is not lost on the community members, including the youth. The loss of a sense of community and oneness is increasingly being felt by the Van Gujjars, but they also believe that despite such attempts, the bond with their forests, their dangars, and their culture and traditions will persist although they don’t know for how long. This realization along with a number of other factors has led to the emergence of a newer way of self organization through the Van Gujjar Tribal Youth Sangathan (organization) about which we shall write in the near future.

Neema Pathak Broome and Akshay Chettri are member of Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, an organization working on environmental and social issues, based in Pune, Maharashtra, India

This article is a product of discussions between Painchs, community elders and youth from Kunao Chaur, Rajaji National Park, Rishikesh, members of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan, a youth group working on process towards strengthening and empowerment of the Van Gujjar pastoralists, members of Kalpavriksh Envrionment Action Group and Shruthi Jagdeesh, Graduate scholar, University of Colorado, Boulder’.

The pictures in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.


References:

[1] Bajpai, Shrishtee and Kothari, Ashish, with Tsewang Namgail, Karma Sonam, and Kunzang Deachen. (2022). The Goba of Ladakh: Current Relevance of a Traditional Governance System. Kalpavriksh, Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, Nature Conservation Foundation, Local Futures and Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation. Pune & Leh, India.

[2] https://nbagr.icar.gov.in/en/gojri-buffalo/

[3] https://thewire.in/agriculture/no-country-pastoralists

[4] Kumari, N. (2015). PARADOXES OF TRIBAL DEVELOPMENT: A CASE STUDY OF GUJJARS OF HIMACHAL PRADESH. The Indian Journal of Political Science, 76(4), 853–858. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26575616

[5]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/behavioural-changes-among-van-gujjars-dividing-pastoral-community/articleshow/81675933.cms

[6] https://www.newsclick.in/locating-agency-interrogating-adhikaar-van-gujjar-women-rajaji-national-park-uttarakhand#:~:text=The%20’painchi’%2C%20a%20traditional,compromise%2C%20fines%20or%20social%20boycott.

[7] The villages are termed as Khatta, Chaur, Basti, all of which can be referred, for purpose of understanding, as villages.



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