Srinagar: A Bill by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government to grant tribal status to ‘upper’ caste Paharis has triggered a major row in Jammu and Kashmir with the Gujjars and Bakerwals threatening to hit the streets next month.
The Union introduced the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023 in the Lok Sabha on Thursday, July 27, under which Paharis, a linguistic minority in Jammu and Kashmir, are set to be notified as a Scheduled Tribe.
If passed, the Bill will be the first of its kind to grant tribal status to a linguistic group – a fact which has angered the Gujjar and Bakerwal tribes who allege that the Union government is creating a ‘Manipur-like’ situation in Jammu and Kashmir by pitting one community against another.
‘Vote bank’ politics
Talib Hussain, a Gujjar leader and founder-member of All Reserved Categories Joint Action Committee (ARCJAC), which was set up last year to oppose the inclusion of Paharis in the Scheduled Tribes list, said that the Bill was aimed to “manufacture ethnic divisions” in the Muslim-majority region.
“The BJP wants to repeat the Manipur experiment in J&K for political dividends. Our unemployment rate is the highest in the country and people are unhappy. Even the Dogra vote bank is slipping from the BJP’s hands because they have lost business and other opportunities to non-locals due to the government’s ill-conceived policies,” he told The Wire.
Hussain added: “The bill is aimed to cover up the BJP’s failure and divide the people. But we will resist it tooth and nail.”
Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, another Gujjar leader from Rajouri district, said that the Bill was an attempt by the BJP to “create a vote bank” by “destroying the identity of J&K’s tribal community”.
“This is an attack on the identity of J&K’s tribals and it is being done in a manner similar to Himachal Pradesh and now Manipur. The tribal communities of J&K will not accept this decision,” he said.
According to Census 2011, there are between eight to 12 lakh Pahari-speaking people, and about 15 lakh Gujjars and Bakerwals in J&K, most of whom live in the Pir Panjal region which comprises Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu division.
“The two groups can together influence the outcome of elections in 25 assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Jammu-based editor and political analyst Zafar Chaudhary. The BJP is hoping to brighten its prospects on these seats by wooing the Paharis, he added.
The Gujjar-Bakerwal tribes and the Pahari community share a similar social and cultural milieu and together form a majority in the Pir Panjal region. The Gujjars mostly live a nomadic life by shuttling between Kashmir and Jammu regions with their livestock of buffaloes, sheep and goats.
On the other hand, Paharis are a socially stratified – a mostly financially well-off and culturally moored – community with caste and other ethnic divisions, who are joined by the thread of language.
After the Union government read down Article 370 in 2019, the BJP, which is struggling to find a solid electoral footing in Kashmir Valley, is attempting to make inroads in the Pir Panjal region where it hopes to dent the prospects of the traditional parties like National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party by allegedly creating divisions within Gujjars and Bakerwals, and Paharis.
On December 25, 2019, a delegation of Paharis met the Union home minister Amit Shah seeking ST status for the community. In January 2020, the Paharis were given a 4% reservation in the OBC category.
Ex-MLC Sh. @BjpVibodh, led a delegation of Jammu Kashmir Pahari Cultural and Welfare Forum meets Union Home Minister Sh. @AmitShah and National Security Advisor Sh Ajit Doval (NSA) in New Delhi over granting Scheduled Tribe status to 'Pahari' speaking people of Jammu and Kashmir. pic.twitter.com/1n3qO8KXrW
— BJP Jammu & Kashmir (@BJP4JnK) December 28, 2019
A year later, the J&K Commission on Socially and Educationally Backward Classes headed by G.D. Sharma was set up by the government. In its 2022 report, the commission recommended inclusion of Paharis, Paddari, Koli and Gadda Brahman communities as Scheduled Tribes.
In November 2022, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes supported the proposal following the recommendation of the Registrar General of India.
Chaudhary, the Gujjar leader, said that the issue of ST reservation for Paharis was raised by the BJP for political interests. Terming the move as a “fraud”, he claimed that there was no member from the tribal communities in the commission.
“For so many years, the ST commission didn’t see the Paharis as a tribal community but suddenly it has had a change of mind because the BJP is in power. The Sharma commission made political recommendations and the National Commission for STs closed its eyes to this attack on the identity of tribals,” he said.
Hussain, the ARCJAC founder-member, said that the law has set out a “clear criteria” for granting tribal status to any minority community. “The community has to be ethnically distinct or economically backward. Both these criteria don’t fit the Paharis. The Sharma commission didn’t even care to see that not even one criteria was fulfilled by the Paharis before making its recommendation,” he claimed.
Choudhary said that the Pahari community has different castes and if the Bill is passed, he claimed that 300 more castes will be added to the list of tribals in Jammu and Kashmir, which presently includes only five tribes – Gujjars, Bakerwals, Shinas, Gaddis and Spitis.
“If a Bukhari (caste name) of Poonch gets tribal status, how can the government deny it to a Bukhari in Srinagar? There is no criteria for defining who is Pahari? The whole of Jammu and Kashmir will become a state of tribals,” he said.
He added: “If the BJP truly wants to empower the Paharis, they should be provided political reservation like Kashmiri Pandits and refugees from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir have been given recently. Giving them tribal status will shrink the opportunities which are aimed at the social and economic empowerment of Gujjars and Bakerwals.”
Both Gujjars and Bakkerwals, and Paharis, have met the Union home minister over the issue in recent weeks and months but the meetings have failed to end the deadlock. “The government says that granting ST status to Paharis will not affect the reservation benefits of Gujjars and Bakkerwals. But there is no provision of quota within quota in the reservation,” Hussain said.
The tribals of J&K are preparing for a mass agitation if the Union government doesn’t roll back its decision. A major protest is being planned in the first week of August in Jammu. According to reports, Dalit leader Chandra Shekhar Aazad and tribal leaders of the country have extended their support to the agitation and a mahapanchayat is also being planned in Jammu in coming days.
“The issue is no more in our hands now because it doesn’t concern the tribals of Jammu and Kashmir only. It will affect the tribals across the country. From last year, we have been coming out on the roads and staging peaceful protests. Now our livestock will join us too,” he said
The move to introduce the Bill for providing ST status to Paharis comes at a time when the Union government has faced criticism for approving a controversial ‘land for landless’ scheme. The opposition has termed the scheme aimed at changing the demography of the Muslim-majority region by settling non-locals in the Union territory.
The BJP-led Union government’s attempt to woo the Hattee community of Himachal Pradesh by granting them tribal status failed to yield any electoral dividends as it lost the assembly elections while the proposed move to declare Meiteis in Manipur as tribals has triggered large-scale protests across the state.