Accepted Paper:

States against pastoralism, nomadism, and informal access to natural resources in India: the case of Van Gujjars pastoralists in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand  


Pierre-Alexandre Paquet (McGill University)

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper reviews theories deployed by the modern Indian state depicting pastoralism as disorderly and a threat to nation-building and the environment. It discusses Van Gujjar herders' engagement with bureaucrats, how they maintained access to forests, and options of relocation and sedentarization.

Paper long abstract:

The modern Indian state has never been at ease with nomadic populations moving either within or across its borders. Pastoralists caused anxiety to colonial administrators starting in the 19th century, as desiccation and Himalayan degradation theories painted grazing as an ecological menace. Mobility was also deemed to provoke labor shortage and induce criminality. Thus, the colonial rulers enclosed forests, controlled cattle, and imposed strict schedules on pastoralists seen as unproductive, destructive, and putting the existence of the British Raj in jeopardy. Postindependence governments drew similar parallels between movement and disorder, and advocated for sedentarization. The Van Gujjar buffalo herders among which I have worked since 2013 are semi-nomadic buffalo herders of Muslim confession living in in present-day Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. They are fully dependent on forest resources which are under state control. Although Van Gujjars have successfully engaged with lower-rung bureaucrats to protect their access to forests, their position has recently become difficult to sustain. Forest resources are depleted, invasive species spread, and climate change looms. From the Van Gujjars' perspective, the state has nurtured a kind of nature which can no longer sustain their livelihoods. This paper reviews discourses deployed by the Indian state before and after Independence depicting the nomads as disorderly and a threat to nation-building and the environment. It then explains how Van Gujjar herders unofficially maintained access to the natural resources, at the same time as they cultivated novel representations of the state. Finally, it links questions of access, tenure, ecological change, and power, to untangle divergent state and nomadic perspectives about sedentarization.

Panel RM-MRB03
Indigenous peoples in South and Southeast Asia: migration, refugee and IDP issues