In March, the Centre granted the million-strong Pahari speaking community in Jammu and Kashmir the status of a tribe – despite fierce opposition from the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribal community.

Both groups, who live in the mountainous regions of Rajouri and Poonch districts, are politically important for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu and Kashmir.

Before the addition of Paharis to the list of Scheduled Tribes, the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribal community cornered the biggest share of the 10% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions for tribes. The prospect of sharing this with the Paharis, who are a more educated and affluent group, had led to much resentment among the Gujjar-Bakerwals against the BJP.

The Union territory administration, however, found a way out. It added 10% to the existing quota for the Scheduled Tribes, to be shared by the Paharis and three newly added groups – leaving the Gujjar-Bakerwals’ share of reservation untouched.

In this apparent win-win solution, however, many others believe they are losing out.

Kaiser Rashid is one of them.

For two years now, the 25-year-old from North Kashmir’s Baramulla district has been preparing for various government recruitment examinations.

But the 10% additional reservation for Scheduled Tribes as well as a jump in reservation for Other Backward Classes from 4% to 8% has eaten into the pool of jobs and educational opportunities that general category candidates like Rashid would compete for.

“If I sit down to study, I keep thinking about the injustice done to general candidates like us,” he said.

Given the fact that the government is the biggest employer in Jammu and Kashmir, Rashid’s anxiety is shared by thousands of aspirants across the Union territory.

According to the 2011 census, 69% of the state’s population is from the general category, who are defined as those who do not fall in Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBC groups. Some of them are, however, eligible for reservation for economically weaker sections.

While general category aspirants could earlier compete for 50% seats, the non-reserved pool has now shrunk to 40%.

New reservation rules

With the new rules, the BJP-led Union government has extended reservation to various social groups it began wooing in recent years.

Earlier this year, Parliament renamed the category of “weak and underprivileged classes” in the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Rules to Other Backward Classes or OBC. Fifteen new castes were added to this list.

In February 2019, when the erstwhile state was under Governor’s rule, the central government extended two constitutional amendments to Jammu and Kashmir – one which made made state employees from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes eligible for reservation in promotions, the other granted the newly introduced 10% quota to economically weaker sections.

It also extended reservation benefits available to people living along the Line of Actual Control to permanent residents living along the international border.

The recent broadening of the reservation umbrella has now taken the percentage of reserved categories in jobs and professional educational institutions in the Union territory from 50% to 60 %. The pool open for general candidates has been reduced to 40%.

All the significant changes made to the reservation arithmetic since 2018 have been in the absence of an elected government.

History of quota

Since 1947, several commissions and judicial interventions have shaped the policy of the reservation in the erstwhile state. Unlike the rest of India, where caste was fundamental to affirmative action, the majority of the population in Jammu and Kashmir were Muslims – who are outside the ambit of Scheduled Castes.

“In Jammu and Kashmir, the criteria adopted for reservation was either based on caste, area or profession,” argued Dr Shumaila, a Kashmir University scholar in her doctoral thesis “The Practice of Reservations in Jammu and Kashmir Provinces: A Comparative Study”.

While the entire Scheduled Caste population has been entitled to reservation since 1956, the government over the years identified Scheduled Tribes and socially backward groups to grant them reservation.

In addition, reservation was also extended to different socially and educationally backward classes. These include Other Backward Classes, residents of backward areas and areas along the Line of Actual Control and the international border.

However, much like in the rest of the country, the reservation policy in the erstwhile state has always been shadowed by allegations of pandering to the power politics.

Vote-bank politics

Aspirants to government jobs from the general category allege that the new reservation rules for Paharis are driven by electoral politics and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aspirations to make inroads in Muslim-majority Kashmir valley – and not by considerations of social justice.

The Paharis are the most populous group in Rajouri and Poonch districts. In the recent delimitation process, six Assembly segments of the district were added to the erstwhile Anantnag Lok Sabha seat to create the new Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary constituency, making the community significant for any electoral outcome in the seat.

Even though the saffron party did not contest the Lok Sabha elections in the Kashmir Valley, it had directed its supporters to not vote for parties like the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and the Congress. That effectively meant supporting a Pahari candidate of the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, widely seen as the BJP’s proxy in Kashmir.

However, the National Conference’s Gujjar leader Mian Altaf won the seat with a margin of nearly 3 lakh votes, defeating PDP chief and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti. The Apni Party’s candidate Zafar Iqbal Manhas lost his deposit.

Despite the electoral setback, reservation for Paharis is also likely to benefit BJP in the Muslim-majority Pir Panjal region in the long run and if Assembly elections are held later in the year.

“The BJP wants to secure a symbolic victory in Kashmir Valley,” argued a Jammu-based student activist, speaking off the record.

What has fed into the anger over the new reservation is the lack of transparency behind the decision.

In March 2020, the Union territory administration constituted a three-member commission under the chairmanship of retired Justice GD Sharma to examine the “issues” relating to Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Union territory. The commission submitted its report to the government in May, 2022.

“The new reservation is based on the recommendations of Justice GD Sharma commission but why hasn’t that report been made public yet?” asked the Jammu-based student activist.

‘Make reservations proportionate’

According to aspirants from the general category, the increase of reserved categories is a violation of the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Act, 2004, which underlines that the percentage of reservation shall in “no case exceed 50%.”

Moreover, in 1992, a nine-judge bench case before the Supreme Court had also accepted a 50% cap on caste-based reservations. The current caste-based reservation in Jammu and Kashmir adds up to 50%. Over the years, this ceiling has been continuously breached by various states across the country.

According to the 2011 census, the total general category population in Jammu and Kashmir excluding SCs, STs and OBCs, is 69%.

“This means only 31% of the population is eligible for [50%] caste-based reservation,” asked Mudasir Farooq, a job aspirant from south Kashmir’s Shopian district.

“According to the new reservation rules, for 70% of the general category population, only 30%-40% jobs or admissions are available. If this is not discrimination then what is?” he asked.

Another concern is the extent of reservations available in a single region.

The Jammu-based student activist illustrated with an example. “Since we know that almost the entire population of Rajouri and Poonch districts have an ST population – either Gujjars or Bakerwals or Paharis – it means the entire district will enjoy 20% ST reservation benefits,” he underlined.

Farooq pointed out that, taking into account Scheduled Caste residents of the district, as well as areas in these districts which fall on the border or are backward villages, and families which fall under Economically Weaker Sections, this would mean that “every resident of Rajouri and Poonch is eligible for some reservation”. “How is this justified?” he asked.

He argued the government should have rationalised the reservation quota in Jammu and Kashmir as per the proportion of the population. “We are not against reservation but they shouldn’t have touched the 50% seats for which general candidates compete. They should have adjusted the new reservation from the existing reserved quota.”

‘Nobody speaking’

For now, the general category aspirants are trying to contact the Union territory administration with their pleas and objections. So far, they have not been lucky to get an audience with the government.

The response of political parties in Jammu and Kashmir has left the candidates cold.

On May 30, PDP leader Waheed Parra, in a post on Twitter/X, asked the government to reconsider the reservation policy, arguing it “erodes meritocracy”. Later, he deleted the tweet and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti has distanced herself from his views.

“We know they did not want to annoy the people of Rajouri and Poonch due to the Lok Sabha elections but they should know this is not the only election,” said Farooq. “The political parties cannot ignore the majority due to its vote-bank politics.”

However, after the elections, senior National Conference leader Aga Syed Ruhullah came out in support of maintaining a 50% quota for general category candidates. “Maintaining at least 50% open merit is vital to ensure equal opportunity and recognize talent regardless of background", he said in a post on Twitter on May 31.

With their pleas going unheard, the new reservation rules in Jammu and Kashmir are likely to be challenged before the court. “We are trying to see if we can get it addressed by talking to the government. If not, we will definitely go to court,” he added.