Shepherding is a noble and serious profession, which dates back over 6000 years. Being a shepherd means being a responsible steward of the flock and lands they graze. It’s about surrendering yourself to the rhythms of the seasons, slowing your life down to match the pace of the animals and being ever watchful, ever vigilant. It’s about putting the needs of the flock before yours and doing your absolute best for them.
The Chopan, are a shepherding community of the Valley, who rear and breed the sheep that belong to the upper and middle classes. They are known as Gujjar, Bakerwal, Gaddis, and Changpa in the upper reaches of the state, Jammu, and Ladakh, respectively. The Chopan community is like a sibling of the Gujjars and just like them, they remain educationally underprivileged, economically backward, living a nomadic life as they travel across the Himalayan mountains every year.
Just as the snow starts to melt in April, the community begins its journey with its livestock, back to the alpine pastures for grazing. They return starting September, as the weather gets cold and harsh. Just like other nomadic communities, the lifestyle of the Chopans shuttles between intense movement and utter stillness.
Much about them is fascinating: their woolen shawls are woven in a manner that makes them almost waterproof, they are a repository of knowledge because of their travels, and have an acute presence of mind. Shepherds were historically, an important part of the economy. Unlike farmers, shepherds were often wage earners, being paid to watch the sheep owned by other people.
Shepherds, ironically underprivileged, make a valuable contribution to the livelihood of the impoverished sections of the society by producing wool, meat, animal hide, and manure.
Wool is an important product derived from sheep and its utility highly depends upon its quality. Wool production requires diligent maintenance and rearing of domestic sheep, which in turn, provides employment to millions, the world over.
In Jammu and Kashmir, a sizeable amount of the population, coming from tribal, nomadic, rural, and landless sections of the society, is engaged in this profession. There is another bulk class of workers and artisans in rural and urban areas that earns its livelihood through wool fibre processing, knitting, weaving, and production of multi-variety woolen wear, carpets, shawls, etc.
Thus, its not too hard to extrapolate and say that shepherds play a key role in boosting GDP growth and open avenues for employment.
In spite of their good work and contribution, this community faces a lot of difficulties as they havent yet been granted the tribal status. They are every political partys vote bank yet, the promises made to them are easily forgotten and never fulfilled.
The Chopan Welfare Association established in 1996, gave the Chopan people a platform to raise their voice for the recognition and status that they demanded, but two decades have passed, justice is yet to be delivered. The community is pitching for the ST status that will ensure them of reservation in all general government departments and at least 80% reservation in the sheep husbandry department. Along with this, accessible mobile schools and hospital for the Chopans, special scholarship for Chopan students in state and national institutions, insurance cover for live stock, also make it to their list of demands.
So far, the association has seen the following victories:
1. The Jammu and Kashmir Chopan Welfare Association was officially registered in 1998.
2. A resolution to include Chopans in the ST category was passed on 10th April, 2000, in the J&K legislative Assembly.
Communities of a similar type who live side by side with the Chopans, hailing from Jammu and Ladakh , have already been granted the ST status. The delay towards meeting the needs of the Kashmiri shepherds and the Chopan, can then only be understood as prejudicial discrimination.