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Reservations for Kashmir’s Paharis meant to help them but it could start new fires instead

Fieldwork has shown Paharis and Gujjars are deeply entwined, in ways that their political leadership does not acknowledge.

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The transit of the sun, which fulfils the hopes of the world, into his house of honour in Aries took place on Friday,” recorded emperor Nur-ud-Din Muhammad Salim Jahangir. Kashmir had blossomed under the spring light. Fragrant buds graced their stems, he wrote, “like dark amulets on the arms of the beloved, [and] the wakeful, ode-singing nightingale whetted the desires of wine-drinkers.”

“The fifteenth year of the reign of this suppliant at the throne of Allah commenced happily.”

Earlier that year, in 1620 CE, an imperial holiday to Kashmir hadn’t seemed probable. The kingdom of Kishtwar—part of a wall of semi-independent mountain states on the rim of Punjab that was critical to Mughal security—had exploded into rebellion. Led by Aiba Khan Chak, brother to Kashmir’s dethroned king, and the Kishtwar ruler, Raja Gur Singh, the rebels held out against the Mughals for months.

This week, on a three-day visit to Kashmir, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the central government will give jobs and educational reservation to the mountain-region Pahari-speaking community. The decision is meant to inject life into Kashmir’s atrophied polity, by empowering a long-marginalised social group that cuts across religious and regional lines. There are reasons to worry, though, that the decision could end up setting off savage new fires instead.

Kashmir’s rulers—from the Mughals to the Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh to the Dogra Rajput kings—learned to manipulate ethnic and religious affiliations to secure their thrones. The Pahari reservation issue has developed, over decades, on the back of similar cynicism.

Pahari and Kashmir’s power-dynamics

From Muzaffarabad and Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the Pahari-speaking world inhabits a great arc stretching through Rajouri and Poonch to Kishtwar in the east and Uri to the north. Ever since the census of 1931, Pahari had been acknowledged to be the third-most widely spoken language in Jammu and Kashmir, after Kashmiri and Dogri. Early in the last century, scholar Vandana Sharma has recorded, a body of serious literature began to emerge from the peasant language—marking the birth of a fledgling community.

The Naya Kashmir manifesto, Kashmir’s first-elected Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s blueprint for revolution, promised recognition for all the region’s ethnicities and languages.

For the most part, though, both geography and a Kashmir-centred élite conspired to ensure Rajouri and Poonch remained underdeveloped.  A backward area development scheme was put into operation—but less than half of the region’s villages had any kind of road connectivity as late as 1968-1969. Almost all rural areas lacked electricity. Literacy levels were the lowest in Kashmir.

Like their Pahari neighbours, Gujjar buffalo-herders and Bakarwal shepherds suffered backwardness—but with one additional burden, caste.  Ever since the Mughal era, the Gujjar-Bakarwal had faced harsh levies, but also pervasive social discrimination. The rise of a small educated élite drove Gujjar-Bakarwal in the mid-1960s to demands for reservation, like those given to Adivasis elsewhere in the country.

From 1961 to 1981, scholars PN Pushp and K Warikoo have noted in their authoritative work on Kashmir’s language politics, successive census counts showed a sharp decline in the Gujjar population.  Enumerators, they note, were manipulated by political leadership into undermining Gujjar claims to political influence: In areas mainly peopled by Kashmiri or Dogri speakers, for example, Gujjars were simply given the dominant linguistic identity.

The explosion of the long jihad in 1990 finally led the Indian State to reach out to the Gujjar community—hoping to build an alliance against the Kashmiri ethnic-religious insurgency. The next year, Gujjars and Bakarwals were given Scheduled Tribe status, unlocking access to education and government jobs.

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Taking back caste privilege?

For its critics, Pahari reservation is just a tool to seize back caste privilege. The Paharis, after all, include élite castes like Muslim and Hindu Rajputs, as well as Muslim Syeds and Brahmins. “There have been cases of Gujjars becoming the revenue officers in areas where their families worked as tillers on the lands of Rajput zamindars,” commentator Zafar Choudhary argues. “Since the inclusion of Gujjars in the Scheduled Tribes could not have been reversed, they launched a movement for their own inclusion.”

“There are still many areas where Gujjars do not dare to sit equal to the Rajputs or Brahmins,” Choudhary notes.

For their part, Pahari-reservation supporters argue the bitter legacy of Partition—and three India-Pakistan wars—devastated their community in ways it did not affect the Gujjars. Even if language binds the Paharis rather than an ethnicity, they argue, persistent economic backwardness is a compelling argument in itself.

Existing caste quotas, Gujjar advocates respond, can serve Dalits among the Paharis—some 70 per cent of whom, scholar Javeed Bhat estimates, belong to caste groupings not entitled to reservation. The new policy would give poor and undereducated Pahari Muslims reservation, but not similarly-situated Kashmiri Muslims. Élite-caste Paharis, similarly, would be entitled to caste quotas—but not Pandits in Kashmir.

Kashmir’s political parties have, without exception, backed the Pahari case. Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti—who has now opposed Amit Shah’s proposal—pushed for Pahari reservation in 2019. The National Conference had also backed reservation in 2014.Through Gujjar eyes, Pahari reservation suggests the new Kashmir they were promised in 2019 is much like the old Kashmir-dominated one.

Friction between Gujjars and Hindus in Jammu—fuelled by conflicts over land, as well as ideology—have contributed to the tensions. To rural Gujjars, who fought on the frontline of the war against terrorism in Kashmir, it appears as if they are being punished for being on the Indian side.

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Frontiers of language and identity

To Jahangir, the hills of Rajauri marked the end of the Islamic civilisation. Local people, he wrote, bitterly, “had once been Hindus [but] they still have the marks of the times of ignorance.” Like Hindus practiced sati, Muslim women were “put into the grave along with their husbands”. “Also, when a daughter is born to a man without means, they put her to death by strangulation.” “They ally themselves with Hindus, and both give and take girls.” “Taking them is good,” wrote the doting husband of Manbhawati Bai, “but giving them, God forbid!”

Frontiers between languages, like those between faiths, aren’t as fixed as ideologues of identity have always wished: The critical ally who ensured the rebellion in Kishtwar was Raja Gur Singh’s brother-in-law, Raja Sangram, historian Jigar Mohammed records—part of a network of Manhas-clan Rajputs, Hindu and Muslims, through whom Mughal power prevailed across the Jammu hills. Gur Singh himself was forgiven, and was released to rule again.

Fieldwork has shown Paharis and Gujjars are deeply entwined, in ways that their political leadership does not acknowledge. Political scientist Kuljit Singh found that Pahari-speaking respondents also knew at least two other languages intimately. Researchers Zahoor Bhat and Mahmood Khan made similar findings of Gojri speakers.

The residents of the single district of Doda can speak Kashmiri, Dogri, Himachali, Bhaderwahi, Pogli and Siraji—each comprehensible to speakers of the other languages, scholar Balraj Puri has noted.

For colonial civil servant Walter Lawrence, it appeared the Gujjar—“a fine tall race of men, with rather stupid faces,” he called them, with the blithe racism of his time—were indistinguishable from the Pahari. Lawrence reported that the Gujjar spoke Parimu and Hindki—languages some also know as Parimi and Hindko, or Pahari and Gojri.

Linguists working on the 1941 census also saw no meaningful distinction, Pushp and Warikoo note. “Gujari the language of the Gujars is included with Rajasthani.  Pahari which is shown separately in the Scheme is closely connected with Gujari and is spoken in much the same areas.”

Like much nationalism, the Pahari-Gujri conflict ultimately involves what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The smaller the differences between two communities, the more irreconcilable they appear to be.  Electoral politics and competition for state resources has led caste and community élites to weaponise language and religion—just as monarchs from the Mughals did, in search of legitimacy.

For leaders intoxicated by identity politics, Jahangir left behind a warning. “I took to drinking wine, and increased it from day to day until wine made from grapes ceased to intoxicate me, and then I took to drinking arrack,” he wrote. “Twenty cups of doubly distilled spirits, fourteen during the daytime and the remainder at night” had predictable consequences. “From the excessive trembling of my hand I could not drink from my own cup.”

Kashmir needs a genuine dialogue between communities left fractured by generations of toxic politics—not a new war over how to divide the spoils of power.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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