Scheduled Tribe for Paharis: Re-emerging social fissures in Pir Panjal

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For over three decades, Paharis from the Pir Panjal valley have been demanding recognition under the Scheduled Tribe (ST). So, when the home minister Amit Shah visited Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) in November, Paharis held discussions across the valley; and a delegation also met Shah to push for the demand. The demand was amplified with debates over social media spaces by activists, from Poonch- Rajouri areas, on the ST recognition. 

Despite the strong advocacy for the recognition, the demand hasn’t been met yet. Also, the Gujjar-Bakarwal community, who are already recognised under ST, continue to oppose this demand of Paharis. They argue that there will be no special reservation left for them and Paharis are not socially backward compared to the Gujjar-Bakarwals. 

This opposition only highlights the internal divide between Gujjar and Pahari communities in the Pir Panjal valley, where both have long been living together. In recent years, it has further escalated as evident especially during elections, when the vote banks are clearly divided for the patrons of the respective communities. 

In 1991, after consecutive reviews by various central government committees and constant struggle of Gujjar-Bakarwals, the community was recognised as the Scheduled Tribe. The Pahari community, however, were disappointed over their exclusion from the same. Since then the frictions between the two communities have only turned sour. 

Dr. Javaid Rahi, a writer and tribal social activist, says that the fault lines have always existed as the Gujjars were always the most downtrodden community of the Pir Panjal valley.

“It is post-1991 that we got meagre access to educational and political spaces,” he says. “Therefore equating the situations of Gujjar-Bakarwals with other communities would be an unfair comparison.”

Who are the Gujjars and Paharis?

Gujjars and Bakarwals are a nomadic tribe sustaining on their livestock and cattle. According to the 2011 census, Gujjars-Bakarwals constitute 8 percent of the total population of J-K and 80 percent of the tribal population. They are culturally unique with Gojri as their mother tongue and that has added to their struggle for survival. 

On the other hand, constituting almost 20 percent of the J-K population, Paharis reside in mountainous regions of Poonch-Rajouri (including parts in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir), Mirpur, and some parts of Kashmir valley including Baramulla, Kupwara and Uri. Their mother tongue – Pahari, is an offshoot of Pothwari language with varying dialects and their own unique culture. They usually reside in rural areas and are majorly involved in agricultural and cattle activities.

A small section of the Pahari population serves in the government and private business establishments. Majority of Paharis reside in the economically and socially disadvantaged regions, who are majorly dependent on agriculture and labor. The decades old political and social othering has made them one of the most underdeveloped communities. Being the linguistic minority of J-K, Paharis have struggled to sustain in the region. 

Even though the Paharis are economically and socially ahead of the Gujjar-Bakarwals, both the communities are the most backward. The Gujjar-Pahari division is a major political and social topic in everyday life. It has become a dominant influence in all political and administrative choices.

Advocate Younis Chaudhary from J-K Pir Panjal Awami Party suggests that if the Paharis are granted the ST status then Gujjar-Bakarwals should not contest this. “Politically speaking this decision would bring advantages to the Pir Panjal region,” said Chaudhary. 

“We live in a composite community, the economic and social issues of these two communities are more or less the same. Our region has always been in a disadvantaged position and such internal fault lines must be dealt with to secure a politically brighter future for our region.” 

Political parties and their selective patronage

In 2020, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) presented the Pahari speaking people with 4 percent state reservation based on income (for people with annual income of less than 8 lakhs). This has led to contradictory deliberations as the majority of Paharis and their representatives have called this an insufficient step for the welfare of the community.

In truth, from time to time, political parties and the state’s leadership have assisted in the escalation of this divide, whether explicitly or secretly. Between the Gujjars and the Paharis, there is a latent tension and enormous disdain towards one another. In 2014, former chief minister Omar Abdullah led government denied the Central government’s request to review the status of Paharis. The talks of providing Paharis with a reservation always existed but were not taken forward. Many like Advocate Murtaza Khan, former legislator who has been an active face in Pahari’s struggle for ST, have called it a calculative move to patronize the voters from either of the communities. 

“The issue over ST status has been even during the governments of other political parties too; the onus is not only on the BJP,” said Advocate Khan. “With the grant of 4 percent reservation from the central Indian government, our delegation is trying hard to achieve our long due rightful demand.” 

A lot of Gujjar political activists have made claims that granting ST reservation to the Paharis would leave the former at a politically disadvantaged position. However, Advocate Khan refutes these claims, saying that in J-K there are nine reserved assembly seats for Scheduled Tribe. 

“If Paharis get ST status these seats will increase to 18-20, given the demography in certain areas where there are Gujjar-Bakarwals and very few Paharis,” he says. “The reserved seats will by default go to the former. Therefore, the Gujjars will have an exclusive hold on 5-6 seats in the general assembly.”

Advocate Khan further adds that the recognition of Paharis under ST will establish Pir Panjal valley as an inviolable factor in state politics, with increase in reserved seats in the general assembly elections. But the Gujjar-Bakarwal community seems to be ignoring all these factors when it continues to oppose the ST status for Paharis.

Gujjar and pahari discord based on social realities

The two communities have survived under the same social circumstances in the region but unlike a section of Gujjar-Bakarwals the Paharis don’t migrate to meadows in summers. The nuances of social realities of these two communities are distinguished in their own way, regardless of this the Gujjar-Bakarwals have been the most underdeveloped community.

“After rigorous surveys and studies done by various committees of the Government of India the Gujjar and Bakarwals were given the ST status. It was after the recommendation of Anand Committee and Sikri Commission that finally in 1991 Gujjars and Bakerwals were granted the ST status,” explained Dr Javaid Rahi.

Dr. Rahi notes that the Gujjars have a homogeneous culture and there are no caste hierarchies in the tribe. “The social stigma and otherness that we have faced since ages made it imperative for us to be recognised as a ST, whereas amongst the Paharis there are high caste members as well due to which it makes their demand for ST status unreasonable,” he argues. 

However, the Paharis argue the opposite to this. They believe that the circumstances of the two communities are the same to survive as underprivileged communities of the Pir Panjal valley. 

Advocate Mobeen Khan, who is part of the Paharis’ struggle to get ST status, said that a huge chunk of Pahari population is underprivileged. “The socio-economic indicators that other ST of the country have in common are present in the Pahari community as well,” said Khan. “Majority of Gujjar and Pahari population resides in rural areas, especially in border areas so their challenges for survival are the same.”

The Gujjar-Pahari discord has been growing deep for three decades now. Since the BJP government revoked limited autonomy of the region in August 2019, the regional politics has become divisive. Amid such a political backdrop, this fault-line in Pir Panjal valley can further destabilize the region’s political aspirations. This shift of political dynamics of J-K needs to be understood by the Gujjars and Paharis as well to form a strong social and political front for their shared future.

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