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National - Elections 2004 Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Inventing a tribe to further political ends

By Praveen Swami

Last month, a group of young men gathered outside the Gujjar Hostel in Poonch, raised slogans, and then started throwing stones at the students housed inside. No one was hurt in the incident, which barely made it to even the inside pages of local newspapers — but it could hold the key to the outcome of the Lok Sabha election in Jammu province.

The elections to the two Lok Sabha seats in Jammu province are generally regarded as a communal face-off. This representation is misleading, more so now than in the past. Perhaps the most important political dynamic this Lok Sabha election will see is the contest between Gujjars, a pastoral tribe who rear buffalos, and the Paharis, a tribe recently invented by executive fiat.

Both groupings are mainly Muslim — the showdown evidence that caste and class are at least as important to politics in Jammu and Kashmir as communal questions and regional identity.

In February, the People's Democratic Party-led coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir recommended that those who speak the Pahari language be included, like the Gujjars, in the official list of Scheduled Tribes. The action has provoked a furious reaction from Gujjar voters, who hold the keys to power in an estimated 15 Assembly segments. Gujjar leaders say the Government's recommendation is intended to strip them of the benefits of Scheduled Tribe status by the expedient of extending the privilege to all.

On the face of it, the Jammu and Kashmir Government's assertion that the Paharis are a tribe is absurd. Not one census has identified Paharis as a distinct ethnic group; nor did anyone claiming to represent such a tribe appear before the successive Commissions which dealt with caste backwardness. The Jammu and Kashmir Government itself has offered no definition of who a Pahari might be. The Pahari Advisory Board constituted by the State Government last month includes Hindus and Muslims from elite castes like the Rajputs, Mahajans, Rajas, Peerzadas and Soodans, bound together by nothing other than their claim to speak Pahari.

Lack of evidence for the existence of a Pahari tribe led the Government of India, acting on the basis of recommendations by a panel of Parliament, to reject calls for its inclusion as a Scheduled Tribe in 2002. A state government panel had done exactly the same thing in February 2000. Indeed, even the evidence that a Pahari language exists — distinct from the regional dialects of Gojri or Dogri — is thin. Linguists from George Grierson onwards have used the term Pahari to refer to a welter of mountain dialects, not a specific tongue. No census survey until 1971, the last for which data is available, identified Pahari as a distinct language.

Politics, not concern for real backwardness, seems to be behind the Jammu and Kashmir Government's course of action. The PDP sees the February recommendation as a means of creating a constituency for itself in Jammu, among the upper castes in the mountains. Many of these caste groups are ethnic Kashmiri Muslims, closely linked to villagers across the Pir Panjal mountains, the PDP's core area of influence. The move to give Paharis Scheduled Tribe status has also helped the PDP in Anantnag, which has a substantial mountain population.

As with almost everything else in Jammu and Kashmir, the issue has become embroiled in the politics of terrorism. Gujjar leaders note that the Pahari movement has the patronage of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir leaders Sardar Qayoom Khan and Sikandar Hayat Khan. The fact that one Pahari leader in Poonch, Sardar Rafiq Khan, is a relative of Sikandar Hayat Khan has led to energetic polemics on the cross-border linkages of his cause. Gujjar leaders claim Paharis have used such linkages to engineer terrorist attacks their community's leadership, which have claimed dozens of lives over the years.

Given that Gujjars have been at the receiving end of terrorist assaults in Poonch and Rajouri, and also at the cutting edge of resistance to it, the stakes are high. Gujjar vigilantes have long played a key role in operations against terrorist groups in Poonch. Their community has long borne the price for doing so. In 2001, for example, 15 Gujjars were killed by terrorists in the village of Kot Charwal for having set up an armed self-defence committee. Last month, when the Indian Army deferred plans to name Territorial Army units raised from Poonch the Gujjar Scouts, a concession to Pahari resentment, Gujjars claimed they had been denied their due.

Gujjar leaders — along with representatives of the Bakkarwals, a closely-allied tribe of shepherds — have taken an aggressive posture on the issue. "We have won our pride and self-respect back after centuries," says Poonch Gujjar leader Wali Mohammad Chechi, "and we will not tolerate efforts to force us to become servants and tillers of the upper castes' fields again."

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