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What the grant of ST status to Pahari community means to Gujjar-Bakerwals in J & K

ON Monday morning, around 200 members of the pastoral Gujjar-Bakerwal community occupied a portion of a bus stand in south Kashmir’s Shopian district to protest against the recommendations made by the Jammu and Kashmir Commission on Socially and Backward Classes for providing Schedule Tribe (‘ST’) status to around one million Pahari-speaking people in Jammu and Kashmir.

The protest was held a day before the Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Jammu and Kashmir.

It was already anticipated that Shah would make an announcement regarding the granting of ST status to Pahari-speaking people during his rally at Rajouri on October 4.

On Tuesday, when Shah finally showed up in Rajouri and began addressing an impressive gathering, thousands of Pahari-speaking people were all ears. As soon as he announced that they, that is, the Paharis, would get the reservation soon, it brought cheers to the faces of lakhs of members of the linguistic community across Jammu and Kashmir.

“The announcement had put us on the edge of our seats. It set off a wave of euphoria among lakhs of Pahari people”, said Suhail Malik, a Pahari activist and District Development Council member from Surankote.

Shah said that the Justice G.D. Sharma (Retd.) Commission had recommended the reservation for the community, and it would be granted once administrative formalities are completed.

Photo by: Mir Zeeshan

Opposition, protests and fears

The Gujjar-Bakerwal tribal community is opposed to granting the ST status to the Pahari-speaking people. They have already rejected the recommendations of Justice Sharma Commission as biased.

“The Commission has adopted a biased approach. There was no member from the Gujjar-Bakerwal community in the commission. Granting Pahari-speaking people ST status will erode the tribal identity”, said Zahid Parwaz, state president, Gujjar-Bakerwal Youth Welfare Conference.

In March 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government had constituted a three-member commission headed by Justice Sharma to look at the issues relating to socially and educationally backward classes, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes.

The other two members of the Commission were Indian Police Service officer Muneer Khan and retired Indian Foreign Service officer Rupa Lal.

The community has been protesting against the move for the last several months. It fears that the sizeable Pahari-speaking population, if granted the ST status, will eat up their share in government employment and higher education.

The community argues that Pahari-speaking people are economically and socially better-off, and it could not compete with them.

Choudary Showkat, a youth Gujjar leader, says that the claim of Pahari-speaking people to include them in the ST category is in no way justified. “They belong to elite castes like Bukharis, Bhats, Maliks Sharmas , Gupatas and Rajputs”, said Showkat.

The 15 lakh Gujjar-Bakerwal population was granted the ST status in 1991, and enjoys ten per cent reservation in government jobs and educational institutes. However, it was reduced to 7.5 per cent after the central dispensation scrapped the special constitutional status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and split it into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh on August 5, 2019.

The community is lagging on many counts. For example, as per the 2011 census, only 17 per cent of the community could read and write, while around 82 percent of their women are unlettered.

Mohmmad Anwar Choudary, convener, Gujjar-Bakerwal Coordination Committee, said that the Pahari-speaking people began demanding ST status for the past many years. He believes that they could not be brought under the ST category as they lack tribal characteristics. “They hold high positions and hardly resemble tribal populations in terms of culture and tribal traits”, Choudary said.

He alleged that the Pahari-speaking people wanted to subjugate them.

The Paharis already enjoy four percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutes.

Home Minister’s announcement

Shah’s announcement has, however, helped to steady the frayed nerves of the Gujjar-Bakerwal community at least for now.

Shah announced that the Pahari reservation would have a scant effect on the reservations granted to the Gujjar-Bakerwal community.

“It will not impact the reservations of the Gujjar community; not even by one per cent”, Shah said.

Parvaz said that they welcomed the assurances of the Home Minister. “If they are not given the ST status, we don’t have any objection to it”, he added

Politics about the issue

The tussle between the Pahari-speaking people and the Gujjar-Bakerwal began gaining momentum after the Delimitation Commission began remapping the territorial constituencies. The Commission reserved nine seats for STs in the Assembly of 90 seats. After the Commission made its report public, the Bharatiya Janta Party (‘BJP’) tried to mobilize the Pahari-speaking people in favour of their demand for ST status.

BJP leader Ravinder Raina, in December 2021, told a journalist on the sidelines of a Pahari-speaking people’s rally that it was time for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to solve their issue.

Raina, who himself belongs to the Pahari community, had been forcefully bringing up the issue for a long time.

The Gujjar- Bakerwal community has always remained an attraction for different political parties in Jammu and Kashmir. Although the community is largely concentrated in Rajouri and Poonch districts, it is spread in other districts of the region. In Kashmir Valley, the community has always cast their ballot even when majority of the people would steer clear of polling booths, following the boycott calls given by the militants and separatist leaders.

“They actually want to field their candidates from the seats reserved for the STs; that is why their voices for reservation have become shriller”, said Chaudhary.

The pastoral community believe that they are an excluded and exploited people, while the Pahari-speaking people are an advantageous lot.

“They are haves and we are have nots. You can put it like that”, said a young protester in Shopian.

He said that the reservation changed their living conditions a bit and it was not taken well by the other community.

The Leaflet