Ahead of the first-ever visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to border Rajouri district on Tuesday, the Pir Panjal region of Jammu and Kashmir is seeing growing tension between the Gujjar and Pahari communities over expected plans to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the latter.
On Monday, Gujjars and Bakerwals held demonstrations in Jammu as well as Shopian in Kashmir, joined by BJP leaders. A Gujjar Bakerwal Organisations Coordination Committee alleged that “sinister moves” seemed afoot against “the just hopes and aspirations” of the two communities.
On his visit, which includes Baramulla in Kashmir, Shah is expected to announce grant of ST status to Paharis. The Gujjars, already listed as ST, are apprehensive of a shrinking of the benefits that come to them due to this. The recent nomination of a Gujjar leader to Parliament is seen as an attempt by the BJP to assuage the community before giving ST status to Paharis.
On Sunday, former Chief Minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti accused the BJP of “creating a wedge” between the Paharis and Gujjars, and cautioning them to be alert. “The Home Minister (Amit Shah) will come and go back. The BJP is here today, it will not be there tomorrow,” she said in a video appeal. “But the chasm that it (the BJP) is creating between you, the enmity… the vacuum they are creating….”
Urging that they belonged to the same region, Mufti added: “First, they pitted Hindus against Muslims and now they want the Gujjars and Paharis to fight against each other.”
जम्मू-कश्मीर के तीन दिवसीय प्रवास पर आज जम्मू पहुंचा।
विभिन्न कार्यक्रमों के माध्यम से जम्मू-कश्मीर की जनता से संवाद करने के लिए उत्सुक हूँ। pic.twitter.com/mEmBHIZ76V
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) October 3, 2022
Calling Paharis “non-existent”, senior Gujjar leader Arshad Choudhary of the BJP, who was part of the protests Monday, said “their (Paharis’) self-styled leaders having connections in the right places in the establishment in J&K have joined hands to convince the authorities in J&K and New Delhi about their spurious and unjustifiable claim to ST status”. He said the Paharis want to share the benefits enjoyed by “tribals such as Gujjars, Bakerwals, Gadis and Sippis since April 1991”.
The Monday protests saw the participation of members of Block Development Committees, as well as panchs and sarpanchs.
The Gujjars and Bakerwals, who follow Islam, constitute 40% of the population in the border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, with the rest living in these areas identifying themselves as Paharis. With a population of nearly 15 lakh as per the 2011 Census, the Gujjars and Bakerwals form the third largest ethnic group in J&K after Kashmiris and Dogras.
Since April 1991, they have enjoyed benefits of 10% reservation for STs in government jobs and admissions to educational institutions.
The Paharis have been demanding that they should get the same as they live, like the Gujjars and Bakerwals, in the tough and backward terrain of Pir Panjal region, besides Baramulla and Anantnag districts. The Gujjars and Bakerwals, however, contest Paharis getting the ST tag, mainly on the ground that the latter are not an ethnic group but a conglomerate of different religious and linguistic communities.
In January 2020, in a bid to assuage the Paharis, the J&K administration headed by then Lt Gov G C Murmu amended rules to grant Paharis 4% reservation in jobs and educational institutions. This too was contested by the Gujjars and Bakerwals, arguing that they already enjoyed quotas under other categories such as OBC, EWS.
None of the government panels like the Gajendragadkar Commission, Sikri Commission, Wazir Commission and Anand Commission, set up from time to time to look into the allegations of disparities between regions, identified the Paharis as a tribal group, the Gujjars and Bakerwals argue. They also point out that even the BJP-led NDA government of 2002, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had rejected the demand by Paharis for ST status.
While matters had quietened down following the 2020 grant to the Paharis, the demand for ST status has resurfaced now on account of nine seats being reserved for tribals in the new 90-member Assembly to be formed in J&K post the delimitation process.
According to Gujjars and Bakarwals, who are seen as staunchly pro-government as compared to sections of the Muslim population of J&K, local BJP leaders have exacerbated matters. Seeing a chance to make inroads into the Pir Panjal region courtesy the Pahari vote, as well as with an eye on the Hindu vote in the rest of the Jammu division, many have lent support to the ST demand of Paharis. At least some of them are leaders who were hopeful of tickets from the seats which are now set aside for STs. On Monday, Gujjar BJP leader Choudhary that the move may “weaken nationalistic forces”.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, incidentally, Gujjar candidates had won from five of the seven Assembly segments in Rajouri and Poonch when there was no political reservation for them.
Since 2002, the political contours in J&K have changed with the BJP for the first time entering the corridors of power in coalition with the PDP in 2014. Following the delimitation, which is seen as benefiting the BJP, the party is hoping to multiply its tally. For this, it needs the support of both Hindus and Muslims, including Gujjars, Bakerwals and Paharis.
A lot hence rides on Shah’s rally Tuesday.
Shah will visit the Vaishno Devi shrine on Tuesday morning before his rally at Rajouri. He will later fly to Srinagar, where he will hold a security review and address a rally in Baramulla on Wednesday.