On July 28, agitated members of the Muslim Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe of pastoralists converged on a bridge over the Tawi river in Jammu along with their livestock and staged a demonstration against the Central government’s move to include the “Pahari Ethnic Group” in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list through The Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023.
The government introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha on July 26. The Pahari Ethnic Group and three other communities—“Gadda Brahmin”, “Koli”, and “Paddari Tribe”—will be included in the Union Territory’s Scheduled Tribes list if the Bill is passed. The protesters claimed that the move was a direct attack on their hard-won constitutional rights.
The “Pahari Ethnic Group” is a social conglomeration of over 50 communities with heterogeneous and overlapping identities, including so-called upper-caste Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. The Paharis inhabit Rajouri, Poonch, Kupwara, and Baramulla districts that sit on the Line of Control (LoC). Perhaps why some security experts have cautioned that the alienation of the Gujjar-Bakarwals could trigger ethnic conflict and even resurgence of militancy in the region.
Behind the Gujjar-Pahari flashpoint is the BJP’s “Mission 50 Plus” for the Assembly election after the panchayat elections scheduled for October-November this year, according to political watchers. . Following the Modi government’s unilateral revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, the BJP has been looking to forge social coalitions with electorally significant non-Kashmiri Muslim communities as its best bet to pull voters away from the National Conference, the Peoples Democratic Party, and the Congress.
Garnering the support of the non-Kashmiri-speaking hill communities has been an uphill task for the party even as it looks to expand its base among displaced Kashmiri Pandits and refugee families from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir and West Pakistan.
Heart of the dispute
At the heart of the dispute are Rajouri and Poonch districts that have eight Assembly constituencies. The region has the highest concentration of Gujjar-Bakarwals, the third largest ethnic group in Jammu and Kashmir. After Articles 370 and 35 A were revoked in 2019, for the first time nine seats were reserved for STs—six in Jammu region (Rajouri, Budhal, Thanamandi, Surankote, Mendhar, and Gulabghar) and three in the Kashmir Valley (Kangan, Gurez, and Kokernag)—when the Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission notified the new constituencies in May last year.
The new Assembly will have 90 seats, including 47 in Kashmir and 43 in Jammu. “The reservation of at least five Assembly seats in Rajouri and Poonch for Gujjars and Bakarwals threatened the political career of the Pahari leaders. So, they started demanding ST status for ‘Pahari Speaking People’ too. The BJP sensed an opportunity and offered ST status to them, driving a wedge between the already socially and politically divided communities,” said Guftar Ahmed Chowdhary, a young tribal leader. The dominant view on the ground is that even without political reservation, the Gujjar-Bakarwal community is strong enough to influence the electoral outcome in over 20 Assembly constituencies.
Chowdhary argued that besides Gujjar-Bakarwals, other communities in the hills were already getting reservation benefits under categories such as Pahari Speaking People (PSP), Residents of Reserved Backward Area (RBA), Actual Line of Control (ALC), Other Backward Classes (OBC), and Economically Weaker Section (EWS) after the Lt Gov. Manoj Sinha administration expanded the social castes list in October last year. “The government can increase the scope of reservation under these categories. But it must not give ST status to non-tribal communities,” he said.
A majority of the Gujjar-Bakarwals have a long bi-annual migration between Jammu’s forest plains and the high pastures of Kashmir and Ladakh in line with seasonal weather patterns. However, the land-owning Paharis traditionally live a settled life. In 1989, when insurgency broke out in Kashmir Valley, the State government constituted a State Advisory Board for the Development of Pahari Speaking People. The board was meant to ensure educational, cultural, and linguistic development of Pahari- or Potohari-speaking people in four districts. In 1991, when the State was under President’s Rule, Gujjars and Bakarwals were granted ST status along with most of the Ladakhi ethnic groups, but the demand of the Paharis was turned down. The Registrar General of India, which grants approval, reportedly viewed the “Paharis as a linguistic rather than ethnic identity.
In 2014, the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference government again recommended to the Centre ST status for Paharis. In January 2020, the Lt Gov. Manoj Sinha administration approved 4 per cent reservation for Pahari Speaking People in jobs and educational institutions.
In the past few years, certificates stating “Pahari Speaking People” have reportedly been issued even to natives of four districts who cited Urdu, Dogri, Kashmiri, and Punjabi as their mother tongue during Census surveys.
On October 4, 2022, Union Home Minister Amit Shah told a rally in Rajouri district that his government’s proposal to give tribal status to “Paharis” would not decrease the reservation quota of Gujjars and Bakarwals. In fact, the BJP had held Articles 370 and 35A responsible for the plight of pastoral tribes. Soon after the division of Jammu and Kashmir into two centrally administered Union Territories, the party celebrated it as a “historic victory” for Gujjar-Bakarwals. But four years later, discontent is simmering in the tribal community over the tardy implementation of two key Central Acts: The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also called Forest Rights Act, and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, which became applicable to Jammu and Kashmir only after August 5, 2019.
“The government move to grant ST status to non-tribal communities is an attempt to neutralise the benefits of these two Central laws. The Bill aims to give tribal status to upper-caste Muslims and Hindus, including communities like Mirzas, Sayeds, Rajputs, and Brahmins,” said Talib Hussain, a tribal leader. “The government move is regressive and aimed at reviving the old social order,” he added.
- The Central government’s move to include the ‘Pahari Ethnic Group’ in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list through The Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023, has got the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribes agitated in Jammu and Kashmir.
- Introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 26, 2023, the Bill proposes to include the Pahari Ethnic Group and three other communities—“Gadda Brahmin”, “Koli” and “Paddari Tribe”—in the Union Territory’s Scheduled Tribes list if the Bill is passed.
- The Gujjar-Bakarwals see the move was a direct attack on their own hard-won constitutional rights and fear that quota benefits will have to be shared with socially and economically advanced communities.
If the Pahari Ethnic Group, as Pahari Speaking People are now called, gets tribal status, there are widespread apprehensions among Gujjar-Bakarwals that their quota of reservation seats in jobs and education sector will also get divided. In addition to this, the twin communities fear, the ST welfare grant under Article 275 (1) of the Constitution will also get divided among the newly added communities. “The announcements of the BJP regarding Gujjar-Bakarwals and other tribes are just an eyewash. The BJP government is robbing us of whatever little rights we had before 2019,” said Talib Hussain.
Several “Pahari” Muslim leaders, including former National Conference leader and MLA Syed Mushtaq Bukhari, a prominent Pahari face in Poonch and Rajouri districts, support the decision to give ST status to Paharis. Interestingly, the protesting tribals have got support from the Akhil Bhartiya Gurjar Mahasabha and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, among others.
Reiterating Amit Shah’s assurance, J&K BJP chief Ravinder Raina and the party’s Rajya Sabha MP and Gujjar leader Gulam Ali Khatana have clarified that ST status to Paharis will not encroach upon the existing quota for the Scheduled Tribes. “Traditionally, the ruling parties have divided Gujjars and Paharis to win elections. That era of violence and discord is over. From now onwards, these communities will co-exist peacefully,” Raina said in a media interview recently.
Locked in conflict
The Bill was brought after a report on Socially and Educationally Backward Classes by Justice G.D. Sharma, former judge of the High Court, was submitted to Lt Gov. Manoj Sinha in 2021. Since the details of the Bill and the contents of the report are not available in the public domain, the government move has been seen as an attempt to grant reservation to Paharis within the tribal quota.
The protesting Gujjar-Bakarwal leaders argue that the so-called Pahari Ethnic Group does not fulfil the criteria recommended by the Lokur Committee in 1965 for designation as a tribe. On December 28, 2017, Union Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Sudarshan Bhagat told the Rajya Sabha, through a written reply, that the criteria generally followed for specification of a community as a Scheduled Tribe are the following: (i) indications of primitive traits, (ii) distinctive culture, (iii) geographical isolation, (iv) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (v) backwardness. He said that these criteria had not been spelt out in the Constitution. “The Government of India on 15.6.1999 (as further amended on 25.6.2002), has approved modalities for deciding claims for inclusion in, exclusion from and other modifications in Orders specifying lists of Scheduled Tribes (STs). Accordingly, only those proposals which have been recommended and justified by concerned State Government/UT Administration can be processed further,” the reply read. “Thereafter, it has to be concurred with by Registrar General of India (RGI) and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) for consideration for amendment of legislation,” he said.
No doubt, a majority of the Gujjar-Bakarwals remain largely outside the ambit of modernity and economic development. Barring a minuscule population, a majority of them continue with their nomadic way of life despite a complex web of challenges. Exposed to several risks and vulnerabilities, they lose their livestock regularly to disease, natural disaster, and road accidents during seasonal migrations. The administration continues with its anti-encroachment drives against Gujjar-Bakarwals, who have lost their traditional migration routes and camping sites to border conflict, growing government infrastructure, urbanisation and worsening climate stress.
The community increasingly finds itself locked in conflict with local communities and even Hindu tribes such as Gaddi and Sippis over shrinking natural resources. Because of destitution and social exclusion, the Gujjar-Bakarwals are seen as Muslims in Hindu majority areas of Jammu province whereas the Muslims in Jammu province and Kashmir Valley treat them as social outcasts.
According to social observers, the Pahari Speaking People do not face such extreme existential challenges. The grant of ST status to Paharis on the basis of language and economic backwardness is likely to open a pandora’s box. In Jammu province, refugee families from Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad districts in PoJK, who also speak Pahari dialects, have also demanded tribal status. There is no dearth of such areas and communities that have immensely suffered due to militancy and border conflict and remain economically backward.
It is an irony that the Union Home Ministry has ignored the demand of Chopans to be included in the ST list. Members of this landless community with over three lakh population are usually employed by local farmers as shepherds in Kashmir Valley. In keeping with the local weather, they migrate with the livestock between local grasslands and pastures in the higher reaches called “Bahak” (Rangeland) designated by the Land Revenue Department.