The north-western Himalayas are home to two nomadic tribes, the ‘Gaddis’ and the ‘Gujjars’. While the Gaddis are shepherds, rearing large herds of sheep, the Gujjars are cattle herders. Come April/May, members of both tribes can be seen wending their way, along with their sheep or buffaloes, as the case may be, towards the high pastures among the fir and spruce forests of the Himalaya. Their womenfolk trudge along with them, while children can be seen astride the little ponies that also carry their tents, beddings, pots and pans. They spend the entire summer months in the alpine pastures and, from October onwards, begin making their way back towards the lower hills or the plains, where they spend the winter months. The ‘Gujjars’ are hardy folk – the men, on an average, six feet tall, and the women a few inches less. The hooked noses and hennaed beards of the men, and their colourful turbans, make them easily distinguishable. Their foot wear is distinctive too – a pair of thick soled leather ‘juttis’, much like what the rural folk in Punjab wear. Younger members of the tribe, of course, now favour trainers, preferably branded ones!
Records reveal that the association between the Gujjars, their buffaloes and the forests and, by extension, the Forest Department, goes back hundreds of years. For a Forest Officer inspecting the forests, many a time a Gujjar camp (Kotha) was the only shelter available for the night, even though the huts were full of smoke that still could not keep the fleas at bay! A stay at a Gujjar camp meant thick maize Rotis and fresh butter, ‘kheer’, glasses of milk, and honest exchange of information about wild animals, landslides, storm damage or illicit felling. The Gujjar, along with his buffaloes, was as much part of the forests, as were the trees and the animals and birds. I remember once, as I was climbing towards a high pass in interior Shimla District, I suddenly came across a Gujjar couple, colourfully attired, tending a fire on which a pot of milk was kept to boil. They explained that they had heard of my trek from the local Forest Guard, and had been waiting to serve me with some refreshing hot milk, to help me on my way. I can still picture them, waiting in the glade amid the fir forests! For the forester, the Gujjars were almost family – good hosts, companions, assistants, informants … all rolled into one.
It was for this reason, when management of the forests was taken over by the British, in the early nineteenth century, they recognized the rights of the Gujjars and accorded them grazing rights in their customary alpine pastures. Each family was allotted a certain area of pasture land, based upon the number of buffaloes they owned at the time of the Settlement, and the routes they used to visit the grazing grounds every year were also identified and documented. Along with the grazing rights recorded in the Settlement Reports and the Forest Records, the duties and responsibilities of the right-holders were also listed. These included staying in touch with the local Forest Officer and reporting to him any offence observed while grazing their cattle, helping the forest staff in cutting down weeds and putting out forest fires, as well as supplying a fixed quantity of milk, at a fixed rate, to the forest field staff during their sojourn in the jurisdiction.
When I was posted as I/c Kotgarh Forest Range, as part of my training, a Gujjar who had grazing rights nearby would come daily to the Range Office with about five litres of milk in a can. Since I was a bachelor, and not particularly fond of milk, after a couple of days I refused to buy more than a litre of milk from him daily. News soon reached the DFO and he summoned me to his office. He handed me the Forest Settlement Report of the District, and asked me to carefully go through the chapter on Grazing Rights. As I did so, I discovered that the Gujjar of Hatu Thach (pasture) was duty bound to provide, during his stay there, one ‘seer’ (1.07 litres) of milk daily to the Forest Guard, 2 ‘seers’ daily to the Forester, 5 ‘seers’ daily to the Range Officer and the DFO, at the rate of 5 ‘annas’ (0.36 Rupees) per litre. This injunction was also embodied in the Working Plan of Kotgarh Forest Division. The obvious reasoning behind this ‘settlement’ must have been that since forest officers lived in remote locations and had little or no access to fresh provisions, the least that could be done for them was to make fresh milk available during the summer for them and their families. “Are you the permanent Range Officer here?” asked my DFO. “You are here only for three months. The regular Range Officer who will come after you will have his wife and children with him, and he will need the entire five litres that is due to him,” the DFO said. “If you cannot pay the cost of five liters, I will pay for it,” said he, “but please do not break with tradition! If you can’t use the entire 5 litres, give the surplus to your office staff.” Lesson learnt, I resumed accepting my tithe, and sharing it with my two clerks and my peon, for whom it must’ve been a welcome addition to their diet.
My next encounter with the Gujjars, and also with the traditions of the Forest Department, occurred at Rajgarh. The Range Officer (RO) Rajgarh was due for promotion and, since he was in the good books of the Head of the Department, I was ordered to take charge from him. Since the tag “under training” was still attached with me, I had no choice in the matter. My protests that I had completed my Range training already fell on deaf ears. Accordingly, in September 1974, I assumed charge of Rajgarh Range. One fine morning in October my wife, whom I had just acquired, answered the doorbell, and informed me that a tall, red bearded, individual was asking for me. As I stepped to the door, I saw a Gujjar standing before my doorstep with a large can in his hand, which he offered to me. On inquiry, he revealed that he was going back to the plains and, as tradition had it, he had brought some ‘ghee’ (clarified butter) as “Nazrana” (gift). He also needed to deposit the necessary grazing fee for the time his buffaloes had spent in the pastures, and collect the Permit for the next year. Young and idealistic as I was, I firmly turned down the ‘nazrana’ and told him to wait at the Range Office, where I would turn up soon.
Upon reaching the office, what do I see but twenty odd Gujjars, young and old, lined up, each with a four litre can in his hand, filled with ‘ghee’ I presumed. Each gave an obsequious ‘salaam’ as I walked past them. After settling down at my desk, I called for the Grazing Fee Register wherein the fees due from each was entered, and began summoning the Gujjars, turn by turn, to receive their Grazing Permit for the next year. As for the ‘nazrana’, I politely refused to accept the same. As I was collecting the fees and issuing the permits to the Gujjars, I could see confusion writ large on their faces. I must’ve been the stupidest person they had ever seen in their lives! News travelled fast, and before I had issued the third permit, the Camp Clerk of the DFO walked into my office. “Sir,” he said, “If you don’t want the ghee, why don’t you let us have it?” More staff from the DFOs office walked in. I asked them what the price of ghee was in the market. Rupees 40 per kg, I was told. I then asked the Gujjars to sell their ghee to the staff at the rate of Rs. 20 per kg, if they so wanted. Soon I was not only issuing fresh Grazing Permits but also handing them the proceeds of their sale, rather than collecting fees from them! By evening, there were satisfied faces all round … the office staff who had got the ghee at a bargain, and the Gujjars who had received a windfall! The only voice of dissatisfaction I heard, after a week, was that of the DFO who had been left wondering why he hadn’t received his ‘nazrana’ from Rajgarh Range that year!
I received an unexpected reward for my actions that day some thirty years later. I was posted as Managing Director of the State Forest Corporation, and was on tour in a remote corner of the state. As my staff and I were walking along, I spied a herd of buffaloes in a pasture, with a couple of young Gujjars looking after them. Out of curiosity I asked for directions to their camp. It wasn’t too far away so I decided to visit them, for old times’ sake. As I came close to the camp, I saw the family elder walking towards me. We shook hands and walked back to his camp, where a few blankets were hastily arranged on the ground for me to sit on. Maize rotis and fresh butter were soon served, along with glasses of hot milk. As we sat talking about the weather, the availability of grass and the health of the buffaloes, an old man with hennaed beard, leaning on a staff, emerged from a nearby hut and walked towards us. As he came closer, his eyes appeared to light up and a grin came to his face. “Tu (Gujjars had no ‘aap’ in their vocabulary) Khullar Sahib hai,” he happily exclaimed. “Tu hi Rajgarh mein tha aur mujhe permit ke saath paise diye the! Yaad hai? Main Mansur Din!” (You are Mr. Khullar, aren’t you? You were in Rajgarh and gave us money along with our permits, remember? I am Mansur Din). I did not remember the name, nor the face, but I did remember the incident! Even thirty years down the line, an honest good deed had not been forgotten. I had tears in my eyes as I got up and embraced the old man. His lined face was also wet with tears ….