Baramulla: A poster of Union Home Minister Amit Shah is the next best thing to the real deal. Masrat, a 42-year-old Kashmiri health worker, hurries to catch a seat next to it, pulls out her phone, snaps a selfie with Shah’s likeness, and immediately posts it on social media.
“So, you put in your attendance? Are you done? Now let us take one. We also woke up at 4:30 am today,” her colleagues laugh and pull her arm.
Masrat is part of a group comprising members of the J&K administration that was brought to Showket Ali Mir stadium in Kashmir’s Baramulla area for Shah’s public rally Wednesday. He is on a three-day visit to J&K and his rallies the first of their kind after the abrogation of Article 370.
The stage has been set with beautiful flowers, cameras are lined up in a neat row, and big LCD screens have been mounted to ensure that all in the crowd are able to catch a glimpse of Shah.
And what a crowd it is. There are policemen and employees from various J&K departments “on duty” to attend the event, as well as panchayat and waqf board members from across the region. Many locals have also arrived from adjoining areas, amidst tight security arrangements comprising local police as well as personnel of the CRPF and Sashastra Seema Bal.
But the biggest and most exuberant group consists of members of the Pahari community, a linguistic group comprising Hindus as well as Muslims. The day before, at a rally in Rajouri in the Pir Panjal region, Shah had announced that the community would be given Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
In an apparent response to this, the many Paharis at the rally are in a jubilant mood. They are dancing to the beats of dhols, playing the bansuri (flute), and chanting slogans in praise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Shah for hearing out their decades-old demand.
If implemented, this will be the first time a linguistic group will get quota benefits in India. The Union government will have to amend the Reservation Act in Parliament to grant a 10 per cent reservation to the community in jobs and college admissions.
For Paharis, who have been demanding to be included the ST quota — granted over three decades ago to the Gujjar and Bakkarwal communities in J&K — this is a huge turning point. Each of the three non-Kashmiri-speaking communities comprises Hindus as well as Muslims, and they’re settled in the Pir Panjal region, besides Anantnag and Baramulla districts.
There’s something in it for the BJP too. If ST status is granted to Paharis, the party is likely to expand in seven assembly seats in the region.
‘Extremely grateful to the government’
Speaking to ThePrint, Nasir Geelani — a member of the executive committee of the Pahari Tribe ST Forum, an organisation founded by former Kashmir IGP Raja Aijaz Ali Khan — says they’re grateful the government has finally heard their demands.
“Now, our children will be able to go to the best of educational institutions. They will be appointed to good posts. They will become IAS, IPS officers. This representation means a lot to us,” he says.
“We have been waiting for this for over 30 years. The demand was made in 1974 but we were left out and the Gujjars were given special status and reservations in 1991. After so many years, we have been heard and we are extremely grateful to this government,” he says.
Geelani says there are about 24 lakh Pahari people in J&K and in Kashmir, with most residing in areas of Uri, Pulwama, Kupwara, Shopian, Pahalgam and Budgam.
Members of the community now hope they won’t have to wait too long for the reservation to be implemented.
“We just hope we all get what we have been promised now. The announcement was made by the Home Minister but we hope we get the benefits of it fast,” says Saddam Hussaine, a member of the Pahari Welfare Forum, another group that works with Paharis in the Pir Panjal belt.
When asked about resentment among the Gujjar and Bakkarwal communities over the announcement of reservations for Paharis, Altaf Thakur, BJP spokesperson in Kashmir, says it’s a non-issue.
“The regional parties in the Valley who have been ruling for years cannot see the people happy. The Gujjars are not upset, they are just being misled, and this is being done to create a rift between the communities. Giving reservations to Paharis in no way means diluting the benefits to Bakkarwals or Gujjars,” he says.
“Look around. We had a target of getting over 30,000 people here, but the numbers have swollen to much more. This is the power of democracy, the power of the BJP,” he adds.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)