BJP and the Politics of the Inclusion of J&K's Paharis in the Scheduled Tribes List

Gujjars and Bakkerwals fear that the move will not just shrink prospects of their political empowerment but also that their children will find fewer quota windows in government jobs and educational institutions. 

Srinagar: With elections in mind, Union home minister Amit Shah told a packed crowd earlier this week in Rajouri town of Jammu that the Pahari community, a linguistic minority of Jammu and Kashmir, was going to be listed as a Scheduled Tribe along with Gujjars and Bakkerwals.

The announcement came amid deepening anxiety in the Union Territory as to whether the socially and economically well-off Paharis could nibble away at seats reserved under the ST category for backward Gujjars and Bakkerwals in the J&K legislature, government jobs and educational institutions. Gujjars and Bakkerwals are understood to be the poorest of the poor in J&K and were listed as Scheduled Tribes in 1991.

The reading down of Article 370 opened the doors of legislature for the two communities for the first time as the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 – which downgraded the erstwhile state into two Union Territories – reserved nine seats in J&K assembly for ST candidates.

If Paharis are included in the Scheduled Tribes list, Gujjars and Bakkerwals fear that it will not just shrink prospects of their political empowerment but also that their children will find fewer quota windows in government jobs and educational institutions.

Senior BJP leader Ashok Kaul, however, said that the Union government “empowered the Paharis” of Jammu and Kashmir by providing them 4% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions in 2020.

“It was done by rationalising the reservation rules without disturbing the reservation quota of STs. A similar decision is likely in this case too,” Kaul, a general secretary in J&K BJP, told The Wire.

The Pir Panjal outreach   

The BJP’s outreach to the Gujjars, Bakkerwals and Paharis as a political vote-bank started in 2019, the year when Article 370 was read down. The saffron party wooed the Gujjars and Bakerwals by reserving nine seats in J&K assembly for Scheduled Tribes of which six seats – Rajouri, Budhal, Thana Mandi, Surankote, Poonch-Haveli and Mendhar – are in the Pir Panjal region. The party also recently nominated Ghulam Ali Khatana, a prominent Gujjar leader, to the Rajya Sabha.

Promising Paharis ST status has been one of the ways in which the party has attempted to reach out to them. In January 2020, Paharis were allocated 4% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions under the ‘Other Backward Castes’ category and the BJP also got in Ravinder Raina, a Pahari, to head the party’s J&K unit with Vinodh Gupta, also a Pahari, as his deputy.

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

According to independent estimates, there are between eight to 12 lakh Pahari-speaking people, and about 15 lakh Gujjars and Bakkerwals (Census, 2011) in Jammu and Kashmir, most of whom live in the Pir Panjal region’s Rajouri and Poonch districts. The two groups can influence the outcome of elections in 25 seats, according to Jammu-based editor and political analyst Zafar Chaudhary.

The two districts will send six legislators to the J&K assembly and the home minister’s announcement on granting ST status to Paharis appears to be an attempt to create a political base for the BJP in the Pir Panjal region, which is also home to the majority of Paharis.

“It is a game similar to the one played by the Congress in 1991 when the Gujjars and Bakkerwals were granted ST status to turn their socially fragmented population into a political vote bank,” said a senior political analyst based in Kashmir who asked not to be named.

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The reservation conundrum 

Although the Gujjar-Bakkerwal tribes and Pahari community are born in the same social and cultural milieu, the former live a nomadic life, shuttling between Kashmir and Jammu regions with their livestock, while the latter are socially stratified, economically well-off and culturally moored with caste and other ethnic divisions.

While the announcement of reservation for the ST candidates in J&K assembly was seen by the Gujjars and Bakkerwals as a major step for their political empowerment, Paharis were not happy. With the support of Pahari-speaking refugees from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, they have managed to emerge as a strong force in the Pir Panjal region.

The Gujjars and Bakkerwals have set up a coordination committee which believes that the move to grant ST category to the Paharis will jeopardise the rights and interests of the tribal people. “If Paharis are declared as STs, it will not only shrink our reservation quota but it will also have disastrous consequences for the country,” Anwar Choudhary, convener of the Gujjar-Bakkerwal Coordination Committee, said.

Exercising caution 

The BJP is straddling the ethnic divisions in Pir Panjal region with great caution. The reservation of Gujjars and Bakkerwals under the ST category in J&K assembly  and the anticipated grant of ST status for the Paharis has been projected by the party as a measure for the empowerment of the socially, economically and politically marginalised sections of Jammu and Kashmir which, according to the BJP, has become possible only after the reading down of Article 370.

As the saffron party has struggled to make political inroads in the Muslim-majority Kashmir, it is relying on the electorate in Rajouri and Poonch districts to dent the prospects of Valley-based parties such as National Conference, Congress and Peoples Democratic Party.

In the recent District Development Council elections, the BJP won just three of 14 seats in Rajouri DDC while NC won five, Congress won three, and the Apni Party and an independent candidate bagged one seat each. The Poonch DDC is headed by an independent Gujjar woman along with eight independent DDC members. The Congress has four DDC members while NC has two. The BJP didn’t win any DDC seat in the district.

The Union home minister did not clarify the mechanism under which the Paharis are going to get reservation benefits. During the Rajouri rally, Shah however made sure to bracket the nomadic Gujjar-Bakkerwal tribes with the Paharis so as to keep the two groups in good humour.

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

There was no BJP symbol at the main venue in Rajouri, a deliberate move to project a ‘secular’ face of the party among the backward Gujjars and Bakkerwals.

“The rally was technically kept apolitical for Shah to present himself as everyone’s home minister and not just a BJP leader,” analyst Zafar Chaudhary said.

However, while Paharis are upbeat about Shah’s announcement, Gujjars and Bakkerwals seem to be disillusioned and, come elections, the disillusionment may even shadow their participation in the polling process, something which the BJP may be anticipating with its move on granting ST status to Paharis.

“The ST quota provides 10 percent reservation in educational institutions and government jobs. If Paharis are declared as STs, it will shrink the opportunities aimed at the social and economic empowerment of Gujjars and Bakkerwals,” said Zahid Parwaz Chaudhary, a prominent tribal activist and head of Gujjar-Bakkerwal Youth Welfare Conference.

‘Attempts to divide Pir Panjal’

Aware of the Pir Panjal region’s political significance in elections, whenever they are held in Jammu and Kashmir, top leadership of the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party have been camping in Rajouri and Poonch districts to create awareness among the people about the BJP’s plan to drive a wedge between Gujjar-Bakkerwal tribe and Pahari speaking population.

Farooq Abdullah, National Conference president, told a gathering in Rajouri recently that the “multi-ethnic unity in Pir Panjal has been an eye sore to anti-J&K forces”.

“At present, also, efforts are underway to drive a wedge between Gujjars, Paharis and Kashmir, particularly in Pir Panjal. Diversity of our state is tremendous. Deep inside, our hearts beat together. There are certain common links and unifying bonds that keep varied sections of our society together. All of us are worried for our identity, our culture, and our dignity,” he said.

For Peoples Democratic Party led by Mehbooba Mufti, who spearheaded the cause of justice for a minor girl gang-raped allegedly by Hindu rightwing activists which became a catalyst for the fall of the PDP-BJP coalition government in 2018, the BJP is trying to pitch Paharis against Gujjars and Bakkerwals for political interests.

“Home Minister will come and go. The BJP is here today. It may not be there tomorrow. But the wedge that they (BJP) are driving between you, the enmity they are spreading between you … your religion is one, you are the residents of the same place. First, they pitted Hindus against Muslims and now they want the Gujjars and Paharis to fight each other,” Mehbooba said in a recent video appeal to the two communities.