Gujjars, Bakerwals and Paharis share the same ecosystem but the traditional social stratification dictated the inclusion of nomadic tribes into the ST fold, unlike Paharis. With new delimitation reserving nine assembly berths for them, the tensions have mounted to a new high as the ruling BJP intends to bracket Paharis into the ST fold. Yawar Hussain reports the systems, costs and consequences of the new politics for Jammu and Kashmir which is awaiting elections to the assembly since the 2018 summer
The possible inclusion of Jammu and Kashmir’s Pahari-speaking populace into the Scheduled Tribe (ST) has triggered churnings of uncertainty among the Gujjar-Bakerwal community’s members and leaders triggering symbolic protests against the move.
Gujjar-Bakerwals, constituting almost 15 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir (Census 2011), were rejoicing post-August 5, as their demand for political reservation in the new naya Kashmir had become a reality. The elation, however, withered soon with open assurances being made to the ‘elite’ Pahari-speaking people that they would be brought under the ST fold.
The politics is at play between the thin lines dividing empowerment and disempowerment of the community, which since 1992 was treated as a vote bank by every political party in Jammu and Kashmir.
The reaction was gradual. It started with a Jirga (community meet), in 2021 in Hagnikoot, Kupwara. Then the community leaders reached Jantar Mantar in Delhi. The community protested in Srinagar’s Press Enclave, early this month, reiterating their opposition to the possible move of the central government. The community members submitted detailed memorandums to the Divisional Commissioners of Kashmir and Jammu.
Anwar Choudhary, Convener Gujjar-Bakerwal Coordination Committee, formed to fight against the possible inclusion of Paharis into ST, said the recent developments and reports appearing in sections of media indicate that the “non-existent” Paharis and their “self-styled” leaders having connections at right places in Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi to claim inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe (ST). He claimed Paharis were granted 39 per cent reservation under various categories of J&K Reservation Rules from 1994 onwards.
“The Paharis do not constitute a tribe and don’t deserve ST status,” Choudhary said. “These conspirators are all out to jeopardize the legitimate rights and interests of the Tribal’s and render them ineffective socially, educationally, economically and politically and create a pre-1991 situation. This is unacceptable to us.”
In neither of the censuses in 1941, 1961, 1971, 1981 and every other since then, Choudhary asserts never referred to Paharis as a distinct tribal group. “The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA in 2002 also rejected outright their unjustifiable claim to the ST status.”
Another Gujjar leader, Choudhary Abdul Hamid, said that any move on part of the government to grant ST status to the Paharis would create serious problems in the border belt in Jammu and parts of Kashmir. “The consequences would be disastrous for the nation and Jammu and Kashmir,” he claimed.
|Anantnag||116006 (10.75%)||84742 (7.86%)|
|Kulgam||26525 (6.25%)||3738 (0.88%)|
|Pulwama||22607 (4.03%)||8920 (1.59%)|
|Shopian||21820 (8.20%)||13427 (5.04%)|
|Srinagar||8935 (0.72%)||540 (0.04%)|
|Ganderbal||61070 (20.53%)||17497 (5.88%)|
|Budgam||23912 (3.17%)||5283 (0.70%)|
|Baramulla||37705 (3.74%)||141157 (14%)|
|Bandipore||75374 (19.22%)||16993 (4.33%)|
|Kupwara||70352 (8.08%)||103082 (11.84%)|
|Jammu||69193 (4.52%)||590 (0.14%)|
|Samba||17573 (5.51%)||3239 (1.13%)|
|Udhampur||56309 (10.15%)||7492 (1.35%)|
|Reasi||88365 (28.08%)||20893 (6.64%)|
|Kathua||53307 (8.65%)||42780 (6.94%)|
|Doda||39216 (9.57%)||9961 (2.43%)|
|Kishtwar||38149 (16.54%)||17163 (7.44%)|
|Ramban||39772 (14.02%)||26243 (9.25%)|
|Rajouri||232815 (36.24%)||360409 (56.10%)|
|Poonch||176101 (36.09%)||267194 (56.03%)|
|Total||1493229 (11.91%)||1136043 (9.08%)|
|* Census 2011|
|** Survey by Board for Development of Pahari Speaking People|
The Delimitation Commission, formed under the Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Act of 2019, reserved nine assembly seats for the ST population for the first time. Apart from all three assembly seats of Poonch, two out of five in Rajouri, one each in Reasi, Anantnag, Ganderbal and Bandipore districts were reserved for STs;.
The Gujjar-Bakerwals were accorded the ST status in 1992. Before the reading down of Article 370, the BJP leadership wooed the community by promising political reservation to them. Post-August 5, when they got the reservation, the Pahari population felt disempowered.
After granting political reservation to the STs, the BJP warmed-up to the Pahari leaders, who, unlike, Gujjar-Bakerwal leaders only have sway in Rajouri and Poonch districts.
The plan was unveiled by Home Minister Amit Shah, who said in Jammu in 2021: “Elected members of the Pahari community can now become a minister and Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, which was impossible earlier because of dynastic politics.”
“Prime Minister Modi is now going to solve the issues of the Pahari community. Soon BJP will grant ST status to Paharis which is their genuine demand,” BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir Chief, Ravinder Raina said in a meeting with Paharis, later. “The Gujjars, Bakerwals and Paharis are three sons of the same mother.”
This put a competition between the two populations that almost share the same space and culture. Paharis started following up on the promise. A delegation of Pahari leaders headed by BJP leader Vibodh Gupta met Amit Shah on August 5, 2022, and the Home Minister reassured an ST status for the community. He actually led a delegation comprising former NC leader Mushtaq Bukhari, a former lawmaker and incumbent NC leader Sayeed Rafiq Shah, Pahari activist Advocate Ahsan Mirza, Mohammad Iqbal Malik, Mohammad Rafiq Chishti, DDC members Qayoom Mir, and Sohail Malik, besides, Raja Waqar Asif, Khurshid Ahmed Mir, Gurdev Thakur, Sayeed Altaf and Ashiq Rafiq Mangral.
Reacting to these developments, Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, President Gujjar-Bakerwal Youth Welfare Conference said they caught BJP’s bluff of playing both sides in order to increase their base beyond traditional areas.“We started our struggle soon after that.”
Parwaz argues that even if the Paharis are given ST status, they cannot be given political reservation because the present delimitation was done on basis of the 2011 census under which Paharis aren’t listed as ST.
Siraj Ahmad, another young Gujjar-Bakerwal leader said that Pahari Muslims have Bukharis as one cast. “If Syed Altaf Bukhari learns Pahari, would the government make him an ST too? The same is the case with Pahari Hindus who have Mahajan cast. There are Mahajan clans across the Jammu region. Would they all be declared STs, if they learn Pahari language?” he asked. Language, he said cannot be a criterion for granting political reservation to any community.
Area, Not Language
However, a Pahari leader, wishing anonymity said that the reservation promised to them, is likely to be on the basis of the area populated by Pahari people rather than the language forming a basis.
The process of reservation is going to be twofold, the Pahari leader explained. The Paharis will be included in the ST framework first, which will give them all constitutional benefits which presently Gujjar-Bakerwals and Shinas of Gurez enjoy. “In the second phase, the political reservation would be granted, which would make us eligible to fight elections. Required constitutional changes for that would be brought in,” he asserted.
The Net Difference
As the two people almost sharing the same space are divided over the ST status, people ask: how are they different from each other?
Gujjars and Pahari speak two different languages but understand each other better. Pahari speak Pothwari language, a Punjabi dialect also spoken in the Hindco region including Rajouri, Poonch and Kashmir which falls on the other side of the LoC. Interestingly, only six per cent of the population inhabiting Kashmir on the other side of the LoC are Kashmiri-speaking and the rest is a mix of Paharis and Gujjars.
Gujjars are an old tribe that is spread over vast geography across many borders and have traditionally remained nomadic in nature. In Jammu and Kashmir, Gujjars exist almost everywhere and they are mostly into animal husbandry. They are the main milk producers and have not changed much over the centuries. They are entirely Muslim.
Paharis are mostly concentrated in Rajouri and Poonch and parts of Baramulla and Kupwara. They have mixed faiths and, unlike Gujjars, they have their own social stratification with a well-defined caste system within them. They are Syed’, Mahajans’, Rajputs’ and are into agriculture and other activities as is the norm in the plains of Jammu and Kashmir. “Even if, a Pahari has a herd or a Richfield, it is Gujjar who is shepherding his flock or tilling his land,” Jammu-based journalist, Zaffar Choudhary said. “On basis of education and economy, there could be a diversity of slivers among Gujjar but the basic identity of Gujjar remains as Gujjar.”
While they share the same ecosystem and are economically integrated, still, they are socially divided. They hardly marry each other and they have traditionally retained a love-hate relationship.
Off late, however, when the Gujjars and Bakerwals got the ST status in April 1991, there are indications that there is some kind of empowerment and social mobility as they have 10 per cent of jobs and berths in professional institutions reserved for them. This apparently has triggered the movement for a reservation within the Pahari-speaking section that was first endorsed when the Jammu and Kashmir government included them in the six per cent reservation category. Now, they are drawing their support from refugees of erstwhile Kashmir state – who came to Jammu and Kashmir from Mirpur and Muzaffarabad in 1947, because they are also Paharis. In fact, they have gone to court with the plea that they should be counted amongst Parahris.
“Pahari has gradually emerged sort of a political identity,” Choudhary said. “If they get the ST status, Gujjar believe their opportunities will nosedive and they will technically get pushed to the pre-1991 era.”
Pir Panchal, the King Maker
How this divide and the demand will pan-out, out remains to be seen. Till then, the Pir Panchal region will be the main battleground for opportunities and empowerment.
In the 2021s District Development Council elections, BJP did well in Jammu’s Hindu heartland and the National Conference in Kashmir. The Pir Panchal emerged as the key battleground. It is likely to determine the face of the new government in Jammu and Kashmir, if and when the elections are announced. The BJP, which won just two seats out of then-six in the twin districts of Rajouri and Poonch, is eyeing the region, which now has two more berths.
In this region spread between the plains of Jammu and the LoC, the Gujjar-Bakerwal community has around 12 lakh people. All others are Paharis based on their language.
The Delimitation Commission has reserved for STs six assembly segments— Rajouri, Budhal, Thana Mandi, Surankote, Poonch-Haveli and Mendhar—in Pir Panjal.
With stakes involved for every party in the region, the BJP won just three of 14 seats in Rajouri District Development Council elections while NC had five; Congress three; Apni Party one and an independent. The BJP President Ravinder Raina’s home assembly constituency was wrested by PDP. However, after the DDC polls, PDP’s senior leader and former opponent to Raina, Surinder Singh joined the BJP.
In Poonch, a young Gujjar woman Tazeem Akhter, an independent, became the DDC chairperson. There were eight independent DDC members followed by Congress’s four and NC’s two. The BJP drew a blank.
The BJP, which is now wooing the Paharis, sees them as a potential vote-bank which can be consolidated by granting ST status to them while the Gujjar-Bakerwals, in the majority, are divided among various parties.
Kashmir Parties React
The BJP’s consolidation plan prompted, the NC president Dr Farooq Abdullah to extensively tour the Pir Panchal region just months after his son Omar Abdullah held back-to-back meetings in the region in early 2022. To counter the division, senior Abdullah, in Surankote, appealed for “unity among the cadre” for the assembly elections. Omar had visited the area in May to unify the Paharis and Gujjar-Bakerwals under one banner.
“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,” Abdullah told a public gathering at Islampur (Thana Mandi, Rajouri) while cautioning against BJP’s “plan” to divide Paharis and Gujjar-Bakerwals. Five-time lawmaker and senior Gujjar leader, Mian Altaf accompanied him. “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.”
For PDP, there are two key elements that retain its relevance in the region. Firstly, it is the Mughal Road that connected the region to Kashmir. Secondly, it is the goodwill generated by Mehbooba Mufti’s action in the case of an eight-year-old Gujjar girl, who was raped and murdered by a group of right-wing people. The decision led to the resignation of three cabinet ministers and technically was the first major indicator that the ill-fated BJPDP coalition will not survive. Besides, she has been vocal against the eviction of Gujjar-Bakerwals from the forest land.
With reservations, the Gujjars will have assured nine seats in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. This, however, will not be the first time that the Gujjars or the Paharis will enter the assembly. They have been there all along.
In the previous assembly, there were nine Gujjar and five Pahari MLAs while in the erstwhile legislative council there were five Paharis and one Gujjar. In the 2008 assembly, there were eight Paharis and six Gujjars. In 2002 there were eight Paharis and four Gujjars.
However, Paharis have been more visible than Gujjars. Now, the Gujjar reservation may change its status. BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir President Ravinder Raina and his Deputy, Vibodh Gupta, both are Paharis from the Pir Panjal. Interestingly, their respective constituencies are not reserved.
Congressmen, Shabir Khan (Rajouri), currently the vice-chairperson DDC, Ravinder Sharma (Rajouri), Murtaza Khan (Mendhar), who joined Peoples Conference after quitting, NC’s NC’s Ajaz Ahmed Jan (Poonch) and Mirza Abdul Rashid (Darhal) are Paharis. A Speaker of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, Mirza even was nominated to Rajya Sabha once.
Syed Mushtaq Ahmed Bukhari, a former Surankote lawmaker and minister from Poonch was also a minister, resigned from the NC and met Home Minister Amit Shah with a Pahari leaders delegation for ST status to Paharis.
BJP’s Mohammad Iqbal Malik is another important Pahari leader and ideologue. A former government servant, Malik contested and won the DDC election from the Darhal block, a constituency that lacks a Hindu electorate.
Other influential Paharis in the region include Shafiq Ahmed Mir, erstwhile reporter, and now a member of DDC Poonch, and Pradeep Sharma, BJP MLC. Prominent Pahari leaders outside the region include Mohammad Shafi Urvi (NC), Muzaffar Hussain Baig and Zafar Iqbal Manhas (Apni Party). There are Gujjars too.
BJP Following Congress
Apparently, the BJP is trying to convert the Paharis into a vote bank, taking the route that Congress took in 1992 when it created the division by granting Gujjar-Bakerwals the ST status. The Gujjar-Pahari fault line was technically activated by the then Congress minister Rajesh Pilot, a Gujjar.
In 1989, the Jammu and Kashmir government recommended the ST status to Gujjars, Bakerwals and Paharis. However, Congress granted ST status to only Gujjar-Bakerwals citing their “vulnerable economic conditions”. This created the wedge. The BJP wooing Paharis is the opposite of what the Congress did in 1992 for vote bank politics.
Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, Gujjar-Bakerwal leader said that BJP wants a Hindu Chief Minister, which can only be installed by winning Muslim-dominated areas in Pir Panchal. “They don’t want anybody’s betterment. It is all politics for them,” he said, insisting their rights will be snatched. “We would help a party form a government which guarantees us exclusive rights.”
Amid souring protests, the BJP surprised everyone by nominating a low-profile Gujjar engineer, Ghulam Ali Khatana to the Rajya Sabha giving representation to Jammu and Kashmir after a gap of more than a year in the upper house.
Khatana’s appointment comes on the heels of eviction drives carried across Jammu and Kashmir against the Gujjar-Bakerwal community members who the government termed as “illegal” encroachers of forest land. The drives in the upper reaches of Jammu’s Roop Nagar area earlier this year triggered a new storm with Gujjar-Bakerwal activists terming it “selective” drives targeting the Muslim community.
“If central laws are directly applicable to Jammu and Kashmir, then why is the Forest Rights Act not being implemented here?” asked Zahid Parwaz Chowdhary, president of the J&K Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Conference. “The Gujjar community is being singled out because of their faith.”
It is in the midst of these developments that Khatana goes to the Rajya Sabha. What it means and how it will be pan-out remains to be seen.
What is interesting, however, is the Gujjar-Bakerwal stalwarts are keeping cards closer to their chest. A general impression is that they don’t want to offend the Paharis voters for their political gain.
“They believe that the Gujjar-Bakerwal votes would be divided and then Pahari voters would be the deciding factor,” Zahid Parwaz said. “But they don’t know that if Gujjar-Bakerwals unite against them then they would have no chance in the next elections.”
Mian Altaf, a five-time lawmaker from Kangan and perhaps the most respected Gujjar leader has not come out in support of the protesting Gujjar-Bakerwals, so far. Altaf says that the Gujjar-Bakerwal and Pahari communities face similar challenges in the areas they inhabit. “People with vested interests are out creating a division among these communities.” He says that the four per cent reservation given to Paharis in employment post-August 5, 2019 is a “welcome” step, which should have come much earlier.
“The leaders of the two communities should sit together to counter the differences created on the ST status issue,” Altaf said, adding that the government should announce a special package for the communities in order to address their socio-economic sufferings.
The deafening silence of the stalwarts is visible through their absence from the political stage of Jammu and Kashmir. Choudhary Mohammad Akram, who represented Surankote in the previous assembly, is a Gujjar leader who parted way with Congress to join Ghulam Nabi Azad’s still-unnamed party.
Altaf’s colleague, Choudhary Javaid Rana represented Mehndhar in the last assembly is also calm. Former PDP lawmaker from Rajouri and now a senior Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party leader Chowdhary Qammar Hussain is also a Gujjar. Choudhary Zulfikar Ali, a cabinet minister in the BJPDP government has also not spoken on the issue.