This story is over 5 years old.


Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand Don’t Have WhatsApp and They Don’t Watch TV

But they’re a really happy lot, inspite of being driven away from their homes.
Sharafat Ali doesn't mind posing in his rest time during siesta time.  

The mood at Pau Bania’s midday siesta was being governed by three things: The sounds of birds chirping, the sounds of ruffled branches as Himalayan langurs jumped from one tree to another, and my lethargy from walking about Rishikesh’s Chaurasi Kutiya (popularly known as the Beatles Ashram). Bania and his colleagues, who were taking a break from cleaning the area, were surprised by my fear of the monkeys and therefore my unwillingness to walk around the ingenious property. However, they were gracious enough to let me hang with them, which luckily, pivoted into a conversation.


Pau Bania washes his hands after lunch.

Fifty-six-year-old Bania and his 12 companions are Van Gujjars from Jammu, whose parents came to Uttarakhand’s Rajaji National Park in the 1970s. Traditionally water buffalo herders, a Van Gujjar’s life revolves around tending to their animals. According to a paper published in Indiana University, “The Van Gujjars are well known for having evolved a resource management practice by utilizing the alpine grazing resources in summer and migrating to foot hill forests in winter. They also provide their buffalo manure to the small land holding farmers for their agricultural fields.” In short the tribe’s lifestyle hints at a sustainable model of living, at very least a very millennial outlook on life. The research also adds, “Van Gujjars have proved themselves very resilient; they have intact social structures and mechanisms for mutual sharing of resources with the sedentary population. They also provide ethno veterinary services to the local farmers, and their livestock also represents an encashable asset.”

But since the 1980s, Uttarakhand’s various forest authorities and bodies have been trying to chuck them out of their forest areas and their home, under the guise of forest conservation. By doing so they are also disregarding the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that inspite of being accorded a Scheduled Tribe status, they’re still being ousted of their homelands. Some of their communities have tried protesting against the eviction, alleging how they were beaten up by forest authorities and the police, even having their deras (their homes) destroyed. As of 2016, nearly 1,400 families of Van Gujjars from Rajaji National Park (where the Beatles Ashram is located) have been relocated to one-room houses, outside their cultural and social comfort zone. Bania’s dera of 10,000 was shifted to Haridwar’s Gandi Khata village (before they were given a Scheduled Tribe status), more than 150 kms from his home.


The younger Van Gujjars spend their lunch break napping and checking WhatsApp.

While cooking daal roti, Bania told me that his family (a wife and five kids) and he were evicted from the area surrounding the Beatles Ashram in 2002, and in 2008 were given land by the forest authorities in a process of rehabilitation. He now works nine hours a day at the Ashram, cleaning and picking up twigs, making Rs 400 in the process, while his children attend a local madrassa and his wife tends to the buffaloes at home. He and other men from the tribe come to the Ashram everyday, travelling 50 km (Haridwar-Beatles Ashram-Haridwar commute), on a bus. They come to the jungle as much as they can, for a siesta and lunch for example, because they’ve never known anything besides it. Forest authorities trying to rehab Chaurasi Kutiya into a travel attraction figured who better to whip the area in shape than its original inhabitants? And that’s how Van Gujjars like Bania got a job cleaning and maintaining an ashram dedicated to the Beatles.

“Agar aap van mein kabhi ghus gaye, toh aapko accha ni lagega na wahaan. Aapko dar lagega, koi haathi dikhega, koi sher dikhega, langur, bandar dikhega. Aap ghabra jaayenge (If you wander into a forest, you won’t like it right? You’ll be scared of the animals like a wild elephant, a tiger, monkeys…” he told me. “Aise hi bas hum sheher dekh kar dar jaate. Ye zameen shaant hai, jaankar hai (Similarly, we are scared of going to cities. This area [Beatles Ashram] is quiet, and known to us),” he added.


Work work work work.

Bania claims that the tribe has had no contact with the outside world until very recently. It’s only now that the younger generation has started using WhatsApp. “We don’t get news from the outside because we don’t have TV or WhatsApp. Sometimes we learn something if a random TV is playing in a shop when I’m walking about,” he said. “Even then, sometimes I doesn’t understand the language.” “ Khanabadosh hai hum (we are people who carry our home on our shoulders),” said Gushan Paswal, who was lying next to Bania. “[If we have to spend 4-5 hours in a city, it’s very difficult] Bheedh bhadhaka, kaano mein halla gulla, gaadi gudi, horn maarte hue. Accha ni lagta tha hum. Yahaan accha lagta hai, hum ye zameen jaante hain (We don’t like the crowds, the traffic and the constant sound of the horns. We like it here, we know this land),” Bania added.

I tried to steer our conversation towards politics, but they were still flummoxed over my fear of


, asking if I was scared because perhaps I had been beaten up by one while growing up. As I lit a cigarette to fend off my amused lunch companions, they asked if they could buy a pack off me. To appease them, I told them the story of my aunt, who was slapped by a monkey in Varanasi, after it stole her bottle of Maaza as well as her sunglasses.

They laughed, vindicated in their belief of safety within one's environment. But I left confused. Who were they laughing at? My aunt or the langur?

Follow Parthshri Arora on Twitter.