“If Paharis had ST [Scheduled Tribe] reservation, I would be a government employee today,” said 28-year-old Tanveer Ahmad.

His home is in Hajirath village in the hilly Tangdhar area of North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. But he lives on rent with his wife and child on the outskirts of Srinagar. After a masters in history from Kashmir University, he earns Rs 13,000 a month teaching at a private school and a coaching institute.

If Ahmad had his way, he might have stayed back in Hajirath. Years ago, he took the examination for a police post and got 49 points. “I had a reservation under the residents of backward area quota but the cut off was high in that category and I couldn’t make it,” said Ahmad, adding that the job went to a Gujjar candidate from his locality. A Gujjar candidate from his locality, however, got the job.

Gujjar-Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir have had Scheduled Tribe status since 1991.

Ahmad belongs to the Pahari community, a social and linguistic minority that lives in the mountainous areas of Jammu and Kashmir. As of 2018, about one million Paharis lived in the region. In December, Ravinder Raina, the Jammu and Kashmir unit head of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who is also Pahari, said that the government would ensure Scheduled Tribe status for the community.

The timing of the announcement was significant – it coincided with a new proposal to redraw constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir by the centrally appointed delimitation commission. It floated the idea of adding seven new seats, six for Jammu and one for Kashmir. It also planned to reserve nine seats for Scheduled Tribes in Jammu and Kashmir.

The legislative assembly of Jammu and Kashmir was dissolved on August 5, 2019, when the former state was split into two Union Territories. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had promised elections for a new assembly would be held once the process of delimitation was complete.

The promise of Scheduled Tribe status to Paharis, coupled with the proposal to reserve seats, suggests the BJP lays a new emphasis on wooing the community. In the process, it has also pitted two of the region’s most marginalised communities against each other – the Gujjar-Bakarwals, who are largely nomadic and also live in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Paharis.

A new constituency

When the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood and autonomy in August 2019, it argued that Scheduled Tribes such as the Gujjars and Bakarwals would finally get the government benefits that they had been denied so far by the mainstream Kashmiri leadership of the Valley.

Two years later, not much has materially changed for the community (the two nomadic tribes are usually hyphenated and considered a single community in the administrative lexicon). Instead, the forced evictions targeted against the community in Jammu have now spread to the Kashmir Valley.

When Shah travelled to the region in October 2021 – his first visit since August 2019 – he did not dwell on the concerns of Gujjars and Bakarwals much. Instead, he waxed eloquent on the advantages the legislative changes had brought for Paharis.

“Elected members of the Pahari community can now become a minister and CM of Jammu and Kashmir, which was impossible earlier because of dynastic politics,” said Shah at a public rally in Jammu district on October 24.

Amit Shah in Jammu this October. Picture credit: PTI

“Dynastic politics” was an oblique reference to the two Kashmir-based parties – the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party – that had taken turns in power in Jammu and Kashmir for decades. Shah’s comments were not entirely true – several Paharis had been ministers in the former state.

But this idea that the BJP was the answer to the community’s problems was reiterated by Raina, touring Jammu’s Rajouri and Poonch districts, where most of the Pahari community lives, in December.

“After solving the issues of Gujjars and Bakerwals, it’s time for Prime Minister Modi to solve the issues of the Pahari community,” Raina told reporters after a rally in the Mendhar area of Poonch district on December 16. “Gujjars, Bakarwals and Paharis are three sons of the same mother.”

The next day, Raina spelt it out more clearly. “Soon BJP will grant ST status to Paharis which is their genuine demand,” he told a public convention of the Pahari community in Rajouri.

A long-term demand

Ahmad felt Paharis need Scheduled Tribe status as much as Gujjar-Bakarwals. Both communities face many of the same hardships, he feels. “They live next to each other, go to the same schools and colleges,” he said. “There isn’t much difference when it comes to village level. That’s why I feel the Paharis’ demand is genuine.”

But leaders from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community are up in arms against the proposal. “Paharis are upper caste like Syeds and Brahmins,” Zahid Parwaz Choudhary, state president of the Jammu and Kashmir Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference, an organisation that works for tribal rights. “They are traditionally a landowning community. Gujjars work on their lands as labourers. If Paharis too are given Schedule Tribe status then who remains in the general caste?” he asked.

Both communities, predominantly Muslim, live in rural areas in the mountains. But Gujjar-Bakarwals have traditionally been herders who move from Jammu to Kashmir during winter – few have their own land. The relatively better off Paharis are engaged in farming or cattle rearing.

The two communities have demanded Scheduled Tribe status for decades. In 1989, the Jammu and Kashmir government recommended the Centre grant Scheduled Tribe status to seven communities living in the region, including Paharis, Gujjars and Bakarwals. In 1991, the Centre gave Scheduled Tribe status to four communities, including Gujjars and Bakarwals, but not Paharis. Scheduled Tribes in Jammu and Kashmir have 10% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

The Pahari demand for Scheduled Tribe status intensified after 1991, a demand that was recognised by the government of the former state. “The Jammu and Kashmir state assembly has passed three resolutions in favour of ST status to Paharis and not a single Gujjar leader in assembly voiced his opposition then – why is it happening only now?” asked Zafar Iqbal Manhas, a Pahari politician and writer from South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

Climbing the Pir Panjal

The Pahari outreach has certainly gained political visibility in recent times. For the BJP, the promised Scheduled Tribe status to Paharis may be tied to long-term electoral calculations.

The community is largely concentrated in the Muslim-majority Rajouri and Poonch districts, in the Pir Panjal range that separates the plains of Jammu from the valley of Kashmir. A substantial number also live in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district.

While a map of the redrawn constituencies has not been published yet, it is surmised that Rajouri and Kupwara will get at least one new seat each. Since these are also the areas where most of the region’s Scheduled Tribes live, it is likely that many of the reserved seats will also be concentrated here.

Some observers feel the outreach to Paharis is part of the BJP’s plan to increase its footprint in these areas.

The BJP started wooing Gujjar leaders earlier. Over the last couple of years, it tried to balance this by bringing several Pahari Muslim leaders into the party fold. In Jammu, particularly, the two communities have lived in an uneasy truce ever since Gujjars got Scheduled Tribe status three decades ago.

“Known for working as tillers and cattle grazers for zamindars, the Gujjars now make notable visibility in social and political life, particularly in Rajouri and Poonch districts,” said Zafar Choudhary, a Jammu-based writer and political commentator who also belongs to the Gujjar community. “Included in list STs since 1991, the reservation benefits have helped Gujjars recast the social order. Governments in the past, in state and at the Centre, have navigated this anxiety among Pahari speaking communities very carefully.”

He pointed to various quotas that covered Pahari communities, keeping the demand for Scheduled Tribe status at bay. “However, in recent months when the BJP started making a massive outreach to Paharis, the question of ST returned to polarise the narrative,” he said. “The BJP is now counting its fortunes as Gujjars and Pahari speaking communities are caught in a bitter war of words.”

If the BJP was hoping to balance the demands of both communities – reaching out to Gujjars while also promising to fulfil Pahari demands – it may not have worked.

Zahid Parwaz Choudhary was dismissive of the BJP’s claim that reserved seats would politically empower all Scheduled Tribes. “In the 2014 assembly elections, ST leaders across J&K won 15 seats even without reservation,” he said. “Reserving a mere nine seats for STs is too little.”

Reservation politics

Even before the recent announcement, reservations had become part of an increasingly contentious politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

In February 2019, when the former state was under governor’s rule, the BJP-led Centre extended two constitutional amendments to Jammu and Kashmir. The Constitution (Seventy Seventh Amendment) Act, 1995, made state employees from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes eligible for reservation in promotions and the Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Act, 2019, introduced the 10% quota for economically weaker sections to Jammu and Kashmir.

It also expanded the scope of benefits assured to populations in border areas. Earlier, only those living along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh had been eligible. Now, permanent residents along the International Border in Jammu could also avail of these benefits.

The decision had evoked protests from regional politicians, who opposed the extension of central laws to Jammu and Kashmir at a time when the former state’s elected government had been suspended.

Then in January 2020, the Union Territory administration approved amendments to the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Rules, 2005. Under the new rules, Paharis got 4% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Hailing the decision, regional leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party had said it was the first time Paharis were “formally recognised as a tribe.”

Zahid Parwaz Choudhary said Gujjar leaders did not oppose the 4% reservation for Paharis as it did not cut into the Schedule Tribe quota. Paharis also being eligible for the Scheduled Tribe quota was “unacceptable”, Choudhary said. “It will dilute our quota, which is already very low when compared to the proportion of ST population in the Union Territory.”

Scheduled Tribes have 10% reservation in government jobs in Jammu and Kashmir. At last count, there were 1.2 million Gujjar-Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir – many in the community say the figure is much higher – which means they account for at least 10% of the Union Territory’s population, if not more. Other Scheduled Tribes in the region are also eligible for a share of the 10% quota, stretching it thin.

For Gujjar-Bakarwals, Zahid Choudhary pointed out, Scheduled Tribe status was not just about jobs and education, the empowerment it provided offered a way out of the stigma the community had to live with.

“The reservation was also given to eradicate stereotypesagainst the community,” he explained. “Even today, if someone has to be abused he’s called a ‘Gujjar’. Have you ever heard ‘Pahari’ being used as a slur for someone?”