Left out in the cold: The Chopan shepherds of Jammu & Kashmir are without identity or many rights

They neither own land nor livestock, but spend eight months of a year in the treacherous high altitudes finding green pastures for sheep and goats of other farmers. The Chopans of J&K are a forgotten people who are fighting for their tribal identity.

Raja Muzaffar Bhat
| Updated: October 27th, 2020

The Chopans live in kothas or dark, dingy huts, made of mud and supported by logs.

Around this time of the year, in October, the Chopans make their way down from high altitude pastures, with sheep that they will hand over to their respective owners. Once they do that, they will retire to a life of stillness in their little huts and wait for the summer to come around again. 

The Chopans are a nomadic community, scattered across the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). They usually own no livestock of their own, but take care of sheep belonging to local farmers. It is not uncommon to see these shepherds dotted across the hilly pastures of J&K, in the summer months negotiating treacherous mountain roads to reach high flung meadows where they graze the sheep till the onset of winters. The farmers pay them to look after their sheep.  

“Our season begins around mid-March and ends around October. As it gets warmer, we start moving towards pastureland up on the hills. This is a slow process as we have to camp at different places en route before we reach our final destination, the bahak (meadow) in the first week of June,” Aziz Chopan from village Jabbad Branawar in district Budgam, told Gaon Connection. The 52-year-old shepherd has 700 sheep in his flock and earns Rs 200,000 in eight months. He has no other means of livelihood. He describes it as a 24 hour job that involves his entire family. 

The Chopans lead a hard life. With no means to buy durable tents, they often take shelter under trees or tarpaulins/polythene during rains. As they are neither recognized as farmers nor have been included in the list of scheduled tribes, they miss out on the subsidy schemes announced by the government. The Chopan Welfare Association was established in 1996 to give a voice to this neglected shepherding community, but more than two decades later, the tribal status of Chopans is still not recognised in Jammu & Kashmir.

The Chopans of J&K.

“Had our population been significantly large, we would have been a strong vote-bank but we are no more than three-and- a half-lakh 3.5 lakh people scattered across 15 districts of J&K. This is the reason we have not been brought under the ambit of scheduled tribe category” Budgam-based Ashfaq Chopan told Gaon Connection. He has watched his father, Mohammad Subhan Chopan, struggle to make a living as a shepherd for nearly 30 years. “My father quit being a shepherd and took up work as a labourer so that he could educate his five children,” Ashfaq said. 

Mohammad Chopan worked on construction sites and on agricultural lands.  “My elder brothers are both post graduates and have done B-Ed as well. My sisters are graduates and I am doing my Masters in Physics,” said Ashfaq who is studying at the Central University in Ganderbal district, J&K, and is a Chopan rights activist. But because their community is not under the scheduled tribe category, two of his siblings were not appointed as government school teachers, he rued.  

“In the agriculture sector, farmers get various facilities and shepherds who belong to the Scheduled Tribe category also get some benefits. Chopans despite their low economic and social status are not offered such beneficial schemes,” Verinder Wattal, a trekker from Srinagar who encounters the Chopans on his treks, told Gaon Connection. “Subsidies are offered to apple growers and sheep farmers. If a tent costs four thousand rupees, the Chopans should at least get a 50 per cent subsidy to buy them,” he pointed out.

“There are no specific social security schemes available with the government for Chopans exclusively,” Basharat Kuthoo, joint director with Sheep Husbandry Department J&K Govt admitted to Gaon Connection. The department of sheep husbandry provides Rs 500 to some shepherds every year. This year it distributed some blankets instead.  “The budget is not more than Rs 36,000 per district,” he said.   

A Chopan shepherd taking care of sheep.

Scattered and marginalised 

Every year, Chopans migrate in search of livelihood – they move from one place to another similar to nomadic tribal communities. “The Chopans are similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh, except that these other communities have been given schedule tribe  status long ago,” informed Ashfaq  Two decades ago, on April 10, 2000, the J&K Legislative Assembly had passed a resolution for the inclusion of Chopan community under schedule tribe category, but the Chopans are still waiting,” said  Ashfaq.

Not just that, schemes that were launched to include Chopans and other shepherd communities in the development fold, have failed. The seasonal schools which were started around the year 2004-2005 for children of Chopan and Gujjar have not been operational for the last few years depriving these children of basic education.  

In the months that they spend in the alpine pastures high up in the mountains, the Chopans live in kothas or dark, dingy huts, made of mud and supported by logs. Usually when they return to the kothas in the Pir Panjal mountain ranges to begin their livestock-grazing work, they find them damaged in the severe snowfall of the winters. Often repairing their homes is a big challenge as forest officials prevent them from taking any wood from the forests to do so. 

With no secure shelter, the Chopans protect the livestock from snow leopards, brown bears and wild wolves.

Nazir Ahmad Chopan, annually migrates with the sheep to the  Corag pastureland which is located at an altitude of 3,500 meters above sea level, in Budgam district. His hut was damaged during the winter snowfall and he couldn’t repair it even with old fallen kail or fir trees as he feared the forest officials. But with the help of a good samaritan he managed to get permission from the forest department to set right his kotha. Nazir got lucky this time as sometimes the shepherds have to bribe the officials to rebuild their homes. If they don’t and take timber to repair their houses, they may find themselves in the police station. 

With no secure shelter, the Chopans do what they can to protect their livestock from snow leopards, brown bears and wild wolves that roam the area and carry away the sheep. They build  fences with wild juniper bushes  known locally as wethar to build makeshift  paddocks near their huts. They stay awake most of the night keeping guard, blowing whistles to keep wild animals at bay. 

It is a far cry from the paddocks owned by the state in these highlands that are well fenced and well lit. The Chopans wish the government would make similar arrangements for them.  

The Road Uphill

The Chopans contribute to the economy of the state in sustaining and strengthening the mutton, animal hide, manure and wool industry of the state. Yet they suffer low literacy, limited livelihood options, poor sanitation and hygiene facilities and low social and economic status.  

“Had there been no Chopans, Kashmiri farmers would not have been able to afford  such a large number of sheep as availability of fodder is a big challenge in villages and the same is available in abundance in the mountains” Ghulam Nabi a farmer from Wathoora in district Budgam told Gaon Connection.  Nabi sends his sheep to the pasteur with a Chopan and has been doing so for the past 10 years, he said, and acknowledged the hard life the shepherds led. “Chopans take care of our sheep and  work very hard in harsh climatic conditions,” he said.  

It is high time the Chopans are recognised for their hard labour and tribal status so that the community members can access various social welfare schemes. 

This article has been sourced from Charkha Features.