How the BJP Is Banking on Gujjar-Pahari Politics to Enter the Muslim Belt in Jammu

Union home minister Shah has announced that the government will give the Paharis their long-pending ST status. Meanwhile, he also assured the Gujjars and Bakerwals that their reservation rights won't be diluted.

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Union home minister Amit Shah’s rally in Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajouri district on October 4 was not only very well-planned but also very participatory. Much before the rally was held, many were anticipating that something special would be announced for the Pahari community with respect to their long-pending demand of granting them Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.

Around thousands of people from the Pahari community had arrived at the rally, some of whom had reportedly walked long distances. So effective was the participation of the Paharis from the Poonch-Rajouri belt – also known as the Pir Panchal area – that the Bharatiya Janata Party had to ask its workers from other districts of the Jammu not to come for the rally.

The highly enthused Paharis who attended the rally were not disappointed. The home minister announced that they will be granted the ST status after a due administrative process.

Shah said that the Justice G.D. Sharma-headed Commission had submitted its report and recommended reservation for the Paharis, Gujjars and Bakerwals, and that these recommendations were being accepted by the Government of India.

Gujjar versus Pahari politics

Paharis form a linguistic community of Hindus and Muslims (a large number of them are Muslims). They reside in various parts of Jammu and Kashmir, and are mainly concentrated in the twin districts of Poonch and Rajouri. Of the total Pahari population in J&K, around 70% live in these two districts. They also have a visible presence in the peripheries of the Kashmir Valley.

Rajouri and Poonch in the Pir Panchal area are the Muslim-majority districts. Poonch and Rajouri have 90.44% and 62.71% of the Muslim population, respectively. These districts, however, are not known not for the Hindu-Muslim divide, but for the Gujjar-Pahari divide, especially since 1991 when the Gujjars and Bakerwals (the 100% Muslim communities) were granted the ST status along with most of the Ladakhis.

While the erstwhile state government had recommended ST status for Paharis along with Gujjars and Bakerwals, the case of Paharis was not accepted by the then Government of India.

It was informed that the ST status had not been granted to the Pahari community of the erstwhile state because the Registrar General of India (RGI) had not accepted their claim to be a tribe. The RGI was of the view that the Pahari community is a linguistic rather than an ethnic group.

However, the Paharis argued that there was not much difference between the Gujjars and the Paharis and they share a common socio-economic environment. And the case of Gujjars was accepted because they had the support of a powerful advocate Rajesh Pilot.

Further, they made a distinction between the Gujjars and the Bakerwals, saying that if anyone can claim the status of ‘marginality’, they are the Bakerwals, who are really backward and not the Gujjars.

Gujjars, on their part, referred to their ethnic history and the continued nomadic condition of a substantial number of Gujjars (at least one-third of the Gujjar population is still nomadic) as well as their continued backwardness, illiteracy and poverty as the basis of their distinction from Paharis to claim the ‘Tribe’ status.

Although the communities of Paharis, Gujjars and Bakerwals are spread all over the Union territory, they are concentrated in the two districts Poonch and Rajouri. Living side by side, the Paharis have been watching the impact that reservation has had on the Gujjar community.

Notwithstanding the fact that a large majority of Gujjars have remained untouched by the reservations, a small section of middle-class among the community has emerged over the last three decades – with many of them not only getting government jobs but also holding important positions in the local administration.

This has resulted in aggressive articulation of the Paharis’ demand for a similar ST status. Gujjars, on the other hand, have been opposing this demand fearing that this would result in diluting the advantages that they have got from the reservation.

The issue appears to have fragmented the politics of Pir Panchal into Gujjar versus Pahari politics. Every situation is being seen as a zero-sum relationship.

Also read: BJP and the Politics of the Inclusion of J&K’s Paharis in the Scheduled Tribes List

Banking on the Gujjar-Pahari politics 

The Paharis’ quest for ST status has been politically used by almost all political parties in Jammu and Kashmir. Since 1991 when their case was rejected at the Central level, successive governments have pleaded with the Union government for granting the ST status to Paharis.

Last in the list was the National Conference (NC) government led by Omar Abdullah, who, in a letter written to the Prime Minister in 2011, had pleaded for an early resolution of the issue in favour of the Paharis.

Almost every political party during successive assembly elections has shown its commitment to the ‘Pahari cause’ and the issue has been debated within the legislative assembly with a resolution in favour of reservation for Paharis being passed by the legislative council and a Bill (that later lapsed) also being introduced in the legislative assembly.

In the post-2019 situation where the BJP is seeking to expand its political constituency beyond the traditional Hindu areas of Jammu, it has found in the Pahari cause a very potential support base.

By signalling the possibility that the Union government can consider the granting of ST status to the Paharis, the party could think of creating a space for itself in the community, not only in Jammu but also in Kashmir. It had taken the initial step in enticing the community by starting with the process of reservation at a small scale in March 2020.

In January 2020, the state administration had provided a 4% reservation for the Pahari speaking people in jobs and educational institutions.

In March that year, the J&K government had constituted a three-member commission headed by Justice Sharma to look into the issues relating to the socially and educationally backward classes, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes.

The local BJP president, Ravinder Raina, a pahari himself, had also been taking the lead in demanding ST status for the Paharis, hinting at the Union government’s decision on this matter.

Ravinder Raina with Amit Shah. Photo: Twitter/@ImRavinderRaina

Ahead of Shah’s rally on October 4, the BJP held an intense campaign on a house to house basis, and thus, a highly enthused Pahari community in Rajouri and Baramulla attended the rally in anticipation of the grant of ST status to Paharis.

The announcement of the grant of ST status to the Paharis is great news as they have been politically engaged in this issue for the last three decades. Their involvement had almost taken the form of desperation, which was quite evident a few months back when Syed Mushtaq Bukhari, a senior NC leader, a former MLA and a former minister, and the most prominent Pahari face of the party in Poonch and Rajouri districts, had resigned from the party and declared a possibility of supporting the BJP if it party helps the Paharis in getting ST status.

Certainly, it appears that the fulfilment of this demand has resulted in a pro-BJP response among the Paharis.

Interestingly, it is not the Paharis alone that the BJP is interested in. It is as much politically invested in the Gujjars as it is now investing in the Paharis.

It may be pertinent to note that before mobilising the Pahari community, the BJP has been projecting itself as the saviour of the rights of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community. It made a commitment of fulfilling its long-pending demand of political reservation to the STs in J&K and extending the welfare legislations related to them to the Union territory.

However, despite granting ST status to the Gujjar-Bakerwals, the political reservation was denied to them on the ground that the state was having its autonomous constitutional status. In May, nine of the 90 assembly seats were reserved for the STs, following recommendations of the Delimitation Commission. This is seen as a major step taken by the BJP to politically empower the community.

The extension and application of the Forest Rights Act (2006) is another step that is cited to have been taken by the BJP for the welfare of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community. Last month, just days before Shah’s announcement on reservation for the Pahri community, Gujjars were given another booster with the nomination of Gulam Ali, a Gujjar leader, to the Rajya Sabha.

Therefore, it becomes easier to understand why the BJP needed to assure the Gujjars while promising ST status to the Paharis.

As earlier mentioned, ahead of Shah’s rally, there were voices of resentment among the Gujjars as many of them had taken to the streets fearing dilution of their reservation status. However, the home minister had clarified that the reservation quota of Gujjars and Bakerwals won’t be affected.

“It will not impact the reservations of the Gujjar community; not even by 1%,” Shah said. But how that would be done, he did not make it clear. But it appears that the assurance is sufficient for the Gujjars for the time being.

Also read: With Kashmir Not Yet a Safe Bet for BJP, Modi May Prefer to Drag His Feet Over Assembly Polls

The political value of Paharis and Gujjars

With the BJP simultaneously wooing the two communities that have been engaged in bitter rivalry, the question arises as to why are these communities important for the saffron party?

The political value of Paharis, Gujjars and Bakerwals lies in their consolidated number and their value in the BJP’s project of winning a larger number of seats in the next assembly election, so as to make a claim in the government formation on its own. So far, it has its support base in the predominantly Hindu-majority areas of Jammu.

It was mainly from the Hindu-majority districts of Jammu that it was able to win most of its seats in the 2014 assembly elections (21/25).

Despite its vocal political slogan of ‘Mission 44 plus’, it could not enter Kashmir. And even after the reading down of Article 370 in August 2019, notwithstanding the shrill against the ‘dynastic parties’ in Kashmir, there hasn’t been much opening for it in the Valley.

The Gujjars-Pahari project in the Pir Panchal region is an easier one. And the BJP, therefore, is using all its cards to win over these communities.

The importance of these two communities cannot be undermined. Taken together, these two communities form a substantial part of the population of the Union territory and in terms of assembly seats – a total of 13-15 constituencies where they can have some influence. That is the reason why Shah, after announcing the grant of ST status to Paharis and assuring the Gujjars that their interest would be protected, said: “I hope you [Paharis and Gujjars] will join hands and support us now to end the three-family rule in J&K.”

With the support of Gujjars, Bakerwals and Paharis, the BJP is seeking to enter the Muslim belt of Jammu.

In the Hindu-majority districts, it already has a near-hegemonic control at the moment. Though there is an undercurrent of resentment against the BJP in this area, there is no competition or challenge that the party is facing here.

With senior leaders like Devender Rana and Surjeet Singh Slathia having shifted from the NC to the BJP, the little possibility that NC had in this predominantly Hindu belt has been cancelled out. Congress has, too, weakened with its senior leaders joining Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Democratic Azad Party (DAP).

DAP is also too new to give any challenge to the BJP, at least in the predominantly Hindu belt. The Panthers Party, which at one time could win few seats in Jammu, has been fully decimated, and the Aam Aadmi Party has not yet made any impact.

The grant of political reservation to the Gujjar-Bakerwals and ST status to Paharis is a masterstroke that the BJP has played to have an entry into the Muslim pockets of Jammu. That it has succeeded to some extent could be seen from the voluntary presence of a large number of Paharis in Shah’s rally, and the softened response of the Gujjar Bakerwals on this matter.

The constraints

However, it still faces many challenges. First, and most importantly, the balancing act of keeping the two rival groups of Gujjars and Paharis happy is quite precarious. The Gujjars, despite the assurance that their interests would not be compromised, may not be fully convinced and would keenly watch the way the Paharis will be delivered their share of benefits.

There is also the question of political reservation for STs. Though Shah has announced that Paharis will get reservation for jobs, education and election purposes – it has not been made clear how the political reservation will be granted.

Since the delimitation process is based on the 2011 census, will the grant of ST status to Paharis in 2022 enable them to be considered for reserved constituencies? And in case they are considered, will it be possible to create an additional ST quota?

This does not seem to be possible since the process of delimitation is already over. And if that is not done, would they be sharing the seats reserved for the Gujjar-Bakerwals? And would that not generate resentment among the Gujjar-Bakerwals?

There is also the question of the definition of ‘Paharis’. Would the Paharis who reside in the Pir Panchal area and the identified areas of Kashmir be given the ST status? And  would the refugees who have crossed over from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, who also are Paharis, be included?

These and many other questions will be answered as things finally take shape. But for the time being, there is much excitement within the BJP and among the Paharis of the Pir Panchal area.

Rekha Chowdhary was formerly a professor of Political Science at the University of Jammu. She can be reached at [email protected].