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Promised ST status by Shah, Paharis could be kingmakers when J&K goes to polls

Paharis play crucial role in swinging results in 8 assembly seats of Rajouri & Poonch districts, which hold significance for any party that seeks to form govt in J&K, where polls are due.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has dangled the carrot of reservation in front of the Paharis in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), much to the bewilderment of the Gujjars and the Bakerwals who are worried about dilution of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) quota.

While announcing the reservation benefit for the Pahadis in Rajouri on October 4, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also assured the Gujjars and the Bakerwals that there would be no tinkering in their share of ST quota. 

If their long standing demand is met, the Paharis will be eligible for jobs and educational institutions under the ST quota which stands at 10 per cent in J&K.

The Paharis along with the Gujjars and the Bakerwals are a crucial factor in eight assembly seats in Rajouri and Poonch districts in the Pir Panjal belt. These seats hold significance for any political party aspiring to form the government in J&K where elections are likely to be held towards this end of year or early next year. 

The Jammu region has 43 seats, six more after the delimitation exercise, while Kashmir has 47. Nine seats — 6 in Jammu and 3 in Kashmir — are reserved for STs. With little presence in Kashmir, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will look to win maximum seats from Jammu if it wants to form a government with other parties, especially after its three-year experience with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that ended in June 2018.

While the BJP remains the dominant party in Jammu, other parties also have a significant support base. In the 2020 District Development Council (DDC) polls, the last elections in J&K,  the Gupkar allies won 110 seats (84 in Kashmir, 26 in Jammu), the BJP 75 (72 in Jammu, 3 in Kashmir), the Congress 26 (17 in Jammu, 9 in Kashmir) and the J&K Apni Party 12. The Independent candidates won nearly 50 seats. 

Traditionally, the Rajouri-Poonch belt has been a National Conference (NC) stronghold. However, in the 2014 J&K polls, the contest became open with all major parties winning seats in the belt. Of the seven seats in Rajouri- Poonch region, the BJP won 2, the PDP 3, the Congress and the NC one each. 

Similarly, the NC and the Congress won 7 each, the BJP 3 and the PDP 1 in the DDC poll. The remaining 9 of the total 28 seats in Jammu went to Independents.

The Centre’s promise of reservation for the Paharis, who comprise 8 per cent of the J&K population, should be seen in this context. 

There are nearly 10.2 lakh Paharis in J&K, according to the State Advisory Board for Development of Pahari Speaking People, based on the 2011 Census. Paharis account for 6.25 lakh population of Poonch and Rajouri districts; the Gujjars and Bakarwals number about around 11 lakh. While 35 per cent of the Gujjar-Bakarwal population live in Rajouri-Poonch belt, the rest are spread across the erstwhile state of J&K.

The nomadic tribes of Gujjar and Bakarwal, who follow Islam, were declared as Scheduled Tribes in 1991. 

Amongst the two tribes, Bakarwals are more economically marginalised, said a former professor of political science at Jammu University. Though a large number of Gujjars are backward too, some have been uplifted after the reservation quota, the professor added.

The Paharis comprise both Muslims and Hindus with the latter estimated to be marginally better in terms of their numerical strength. 

After amendments to the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Rules in 2020, the Pahari community were given 4 per cent reservation in government jobs and admissions in educational institutions. 

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

Nothing but jumla, says opposition   

Pahari political leaders told ThePrint that they were expecting the ST quota to be raised in J&K as Shah has said that the share of Gujjar-Bakarwal quota won’t be diluted.

Before announcing reservation for the Paharis, the Centre had nominated Ghulam Ali Khatana, a Gujjar BJP leader, to the Rajya Sabha in September.

“We have given rights to Gujjar-Bakkar, we will give rights to Paharis as well. In the upcoming elections in Jammu & Kashmir, all eight seats in the Rajouri-Poonch belt will go to the BJP. That’s why other parties are concerned,” BJP state general secretary Vibodh Gupta, a Pahari, told ThePrint.

The BJP is confident to get votes of these tribes after Shah’s announcement, he added.

In 2014, the BJP won all of its 25 seats in Jammu to emerge the second largest party after the PDP which clinched 28. The BJP also won from Nowshera and Kalakote in the Poonch-Rajouri belt for the first time. 

Former Congress MLC Ravinder Sharma, a Pahari, told ThePrint that the party does not oppose the Pahari reservation but added that the home minister’s speech has “not satisfied the Paharis”. 

“Paharis are skeptical because they are not sure if the administrative process [that Shah mentioned in the rally for quota] will be completed,” he added. “Reservation to the Paharis was first recommended to the Centre by the NC-Congress government in 1989 and then by other governments.”

But the BJP claimed that the Congress and the National Conference had only exploited the three communities in the region. “The Congress [at the centre] was not ready to accept the demands, and the National Conference didn’t say a word. The NC-Congress have been exploiting Gujjar-Bakarwal and Paharis,” BJP’s Vibodh Gupta said. 

Regional parties, including the NC, the PDP and the newly formed Democratic Azad Party, have also questioned the nature of promises made by Shah.

“There was no announcement [on expected lines]. They have given no guarantee or any specific time. This is one of his [Amit Shah] jumlas,”  Democratic Azad Party treasurer Taj Moinuddin told ThePrint. “I will welcome the Pahari reservation but there should be no jumlebaazi,” the Gujjar leader added.

Veteran Gujjar leader Mian Altaf of the National Conference was upfront about his community’s sentiment. “Whether they give reservation to Paharis or not, that doesn’t matter to us. We only want our reservation to stay intact,” he told ThePrint. 

The PDP has accused the BJP of trying to divide the communities in Jammu. “First, they pitted Hindus against Muslims and now they want the Gujjars and Paharis to fight with each other,” PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti has said.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: Selfies, dhol, ‘BJP zindabad’ — Amit Shah’s Baramulla rally pulls huge crowd, especially Paharis


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