Union Home Minister arrived in Jammu on Monday for a three-day tour of Jammu and Kashmir. Shah’s first-ever visit to Rajouri district comes at a time when the Pir Panjal region is seeing growing tension between the Gujjar and Pahari communities over expected plans to grant Scheduled Tribe status to the latter.
The home minister is scheduled to meet various delegations, including those representing the Gujjar, Bakerwal and Pahari communities during his visit.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to Paharis, a long-pending demand of the community mostly residing in Rajouri and Poonch in the Jammu region and Baramulla in north Kashmir, where Shah is scheduled to address public rallies over the next two days.
Gujjars and Bakerwals have expressed resentment over the proposed inclusion of Paharis in the ST category. There is massive enthusiasm among the Paharis in anticipation of a major announcement from the home minister but at the same time, the Gujjars and the Bakerwals, apprehending dilution of the ST status, have come out to express their resentment against the proposed move.
On Monday, they held demonstrations in Jammu as well as Shopian in Kashmir, joined by BJP leaders. Hundreds of Gujjar and Bakerwal college students gathered in Jammu and staged a peaceful march to oppose the likely inclusion of the Pahari-speaking people in the ST category.
The STs have been granted 10 per cent reservation in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly for the first time after a recent delimitation exercise. Nine seats have been reserved for the STs, while seven are reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs).
Gujjars and Bakerwals also staged a protest in Shopian district of south Kashmir, threatening to intensify the agitation if Paharis are given the ST status.
Welcoming the visit of the home minister, the Jammu and Kashmir Gujjar Bakerwals Organisations Coordination Committee appreciated the steps taken by the BJP-led Centre for the betterment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir in general and that of the STs in particular.
“For the last 30 years, no central or state government implemented the law relating to the STs in Jammu and Kashmir. It is the current government that provided political reservation and implemented the Forest Rights Act in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir,” convenor of the committee Anwar Choudhary told reporters.
However, he appealed to Shah to allay the apprehensions that the ST status of the Gujjars, Bakerwals, Gadis and Sippis shall not be diluted by including any other section of people from Jammu and Kashmir in the category.
Senior BJP leader Arshad Choudhary, who is from the Gujjar community, said the demand of the Paharis for the ST status is “spurious and unjustifiable”, and said the tribals got the ST status after decades of relentless struggle and secured 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education.
“The conspirators are all out to jeopardise the legitimate rights and interests of the tribals and render them unreal and ineffective socially, educationally, economically and politically, and create a pre-1991-like situation, and all this is utterly unacceptable to us,” he said.
On Sunday, former Chief Minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti accused the BJP of “creating a wedge” between the Paharis and Gujjars, and cautioning them to be alert. “The Home Minister (Amit Shah) will come and go back. The BJP is here today, it will not be there tomorrow,” she said in a video appeal. “But the chasm that it (the BJP) is creating between you, the enmity… the vacuum they are creating….”
Urging that they belonged to the same region, Mufti added: “First, they pitted Hindus against Muslims and now they want the Gujjars and Paharis to fight against each other.”
The Gujjars and Bakerwals, who follow Islam, constitute 40% of the population in the border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, with the rest living in these areas identifying themselves as Paharis. With a population of nearly 15 lakh as per the 2011 Census, the Gujjars and Bakerwals form the third largest ethnic group in J&K after Kashmiris and Dogras.
Since April 1991, they have enjoyed benefits of 10 per cent reservation for STs in government jobs and admissions to educational institutions.
The Paharis have been demanding that they should get the same as they live, like the Gujjars and Bakerwals, in the tough and backward terrain of Pir Panjal region, besides Baramulla and Anantnag districts. The Gujjars and Bakerwals, however, contest Paharis getting the ST tag, mainly on the ground that the latter are not an ethnic group but a conglomerate of different religious and linguistic communities.