On the face of it, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcement in Rajouri on Tuesday regarding Paharis getting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status soon seems fairly innocuous. However, it will pit Gujjar-Bakerwal and Pahari communities against each other as never before. Those familiar with realpolitik of Jammu & Kashmir know how bitter the rivalries between them have often been.
If truth be told, Paharis are no tribes unlike Gujjars, Bakerwals, Gaddis or Chopans who all lead a nomadic lifestyle! Pahari is actually a dialect (call it a language if you will) spoken by around 10 lakh people inhabiting Rajouri, Poonch, Baramullah, Karnah and some other areas. Among Paharis, veteran politician and brilliant lawyer Muzaffar Baig is perhaps the best known face. Of course, he is more widely known as a Kashmiri politician, who was one of the founding members of PDP. But ethnically, he is not a Kashmiri, but a Pahari.
Over two years ago, he left PDP as Mehbooba Mufti marginalised him within the party. His wife Safina Baig was the PDP women wing president for some years but she too has parted ways with Mehbooba now. The grant of ST status to Paharis can actually pave the way for them to join BJP some day. It can also lead to former legislators like Kafeel ur Rehman of Karnah and Mushtaq Bukhari of Surankote joining the BJP bandwagon.
Reacting to Shah’s announcement, Mehbooba said the BJP was now trying to widen the rift between Pahari and Gujjar-Bakerwal communities. Just as the party had earlier tried to divide Hindus and Muslims of the state, she added. Her comments indicate she fears that the move has the potential of further weakening her emaciated PDP.
It bears mention here that the BJP government had announced the grant of political reservations to Gujjar-Bakerwals after abrogating Article 35-A on August 5, 2019. In J&K, Gujjar-Bakerwals were granted ST status in April 1991 and they started getting job reservations after that. They used to get reservations in education sector too but political reservations eluded them till August 2019 watering down of Article 370.
Devil is often to be found in details and the announcement regarding grant of ST status for Paharis on a future date is delightfully vague. Right now, it is neither here, nor there, as no clarity is there and no official document regarding prospective plans exists in the public domain. The confusion can well be imagined from the fact that Vibodh Gupta, former MLC of the BJP, calls himself a Pahari. For that matter, late Yash Pal Sharma of Poonch, who was also MLC at one time, used to speak Pahari.
The point being made is that a Brahmin, or a bania, or a Muslim, or a Sikh, can be easily defined as a Pahari! That can be truly baffling and a nightmare for anyone trying to understand things playing at the ground regarding STs of J&K.
Shah said that the grant of ST status to Paharis is likely to happen once Sharma Commission (headed by former J&K High Court judge G D Sharma) gives its recommendations. After that, requisite administrative approvals and legislation will be needed to be passed in Parliament. One more thing which has remained as a source of substantial reservations in jobs in J&K is people of a category called RBA (Resident of Backward Area).
The commission is dealing with this issue also and many areas can get de-notified, meaning they may lose the RBA status in the coming days. That too has the potential to create a mini political storm in J&K.
With Ghulam Nabi Azad floating his own Democratic Azad Party (DAP), the Congress party in J&K has become much weaker. Several other parties like the National Conference of Abdullahs, the PDP, Jammu Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Peoples’ Conference (PC) of Sajjad Lone are also there in the arena. As such, whenever elections are held in the Union Territory (UT), it can be BJP versus all. Of course, that can help the BJP’s ambitions in emerging as the party with the largest number of legislative assembly seats, if not the party with a clear majority.
(Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000. He edits epaper.earthnews.in, a newspaper from Jammu presently.)