CHANDIGARH: The Gujjars from the Muslim community who used to earn their livelihood by selling milk in the border areas of Punjab have been socially boycotted, allegedly beaten up and chased away when they have tried to sell milk, it has emerged.
Not allowed to leave their mudhouses and with nobody buying their milk, they have been left with little option but to throw away their milk into the local ponds and rivulets.
On Friday, the Punjab state cabinet meeting took up this matter and issued clear instructions that this ostracism must end.
A senior cabinet minister, who did not wish to be named, said, "The matter of Gujjars not being able to sell their milk and being targeted was discussed in the cabinet meeting and the Deputy Commissioners have been instructed to resolve the issue as no social ostracism will be allowed."
Narrating his problem, Sarajuddin, a Gujjar living in Padiala village in Hoshiarpur district, who was travelling with his dera (each dera has seven to ten people) to Himachal Pradesh, said, "Our fellow villagers have socially boycotted us as they do not buy milk saying we spit in the milk and spread the virus. At this time of the year, we generally go to Himachal. So, we moved from the village fearing the worst. But now we are stuck in Talwara due to the curfew. We used to sell one quintal of milk in a day, but were not able to sell even half of it recently. The milk used to be sold at Rs 40 a litre, but we were reduced to selling it at Rs 10 to Rs 15 per litre. We were not even getting our basic cost. We have been unable to feed our herd of around 300 cattle. At times we give them fodder if we are able to get it from somewhere. They have been mostly surviving on water only."
Some help, though, was forthcoming. "The district authorities gave us dry rations and meals twice a day," he said.
Hajipur-based social activist Dharminder Singh said, "There are around hundred families of Gujjars who are living in this area and nobody is buying milk from them. They have no option but to throw their milk away. Some of these Gujjars were living in my village and other nearby villages permanently for more than twenty years. A few others come for six to seven months and then go back to Himachal Pradesh. During the last few days, a few ill-meaning busybodies have through social media and by making announcements from gurdwaras and temples in these villages spread the false propaganda that they do not buy milk from these people (Gujjars) as they spread coronavirus. So, people have stopped purchasing milk from them and also socially distanced them."
"A few Gujjars told me that some sarpanches also allegedly threatened them saying if you come out of your deras and sell milk or anyone comes to buy, you will be held responsible for the consequences. The community is now living in fear. As the administration has now stepped in, the threats have stopped but nobody is buying milk from them. The seven Gujjar families in my village were shifted by me to Swan rivulet neat Talwar as they were threatened," he said.
There was another issue as highlighted by Furman Ali a Gujjar from Hajipur. "We used to sell milk at Daulatpur in Himachal Pradesh, but now as the state borders are sealed and so, we cannot sell. Before the curfew, we used to sell about five to six quintals of milk every day but now we sell hardly anything."
Punjab Rural Development and Panchayats Minister, Taripat Rajinder Singh Bajwa, said, "In a few villages in Ropar, Hoshiarpur, Pathankot and Gurdaspur districts, there is the issue of social discrimination as a handful of people have spread fake rumours that the Gujjars belonging to the Muslim community are spreading the virus since a few of them have attended Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi."
Deputy Commissioner of Hoshiarpur Apneet Riyait has issued a strict warning that discrimination on the basis of religion is not acceptable and action will be taken whenever such incidents are brought to their notice.
"There were some reports that the Gujjars were stopped from supplying milk and also a few cooperative milk societies have stopped taking milk from a particular community. It is unacceptable and no society can discriminate. Otherwise, strict action will be taken. Communal discrimination will not be allowed at any cost. We have issued a warning to all of the sarpanches of the villages that if this kind of incident takes place in their village, then action will be taken. Also through Facebook posts and the rural development departments, messages have been sent to the people," she said.
Riyait said, "A group of seven to eight families of Gujjars belonging to Himachal Pradesh are stuck in Talwara. They belong to the hill state but due to the lockdown and due to borders being sealed, they cannot enter Himachal. We offered them the option of staying at the shelter home. But as they have around 200 to 300 cattle with them, they preferred to stay in the open. So, we have provided them with food and other essentials."