In poll-bound Himachal Pradesh, the recent announcement by the Centre to bring the Hatti community under the Scheduled Tribes list in Sirmaur district is spreading resentment among some sections. The only ST community in the district - Gujjars - and Scheduled Caste groups have voiced concerns over the move.
With the Assembly elections not far away, the ruling BJP is faced with a delicate balancing act on the issue, while Opposition parties like the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are hoping to capitalise on this resentment. The State is set to vote on November 12.
Soon after Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda announced the Cabinet’s decision to include the Hatti community in the ST list, the BJP’s ST Morcha chief in Sirmaur, Hansraj Bhatia, who belongs to the Gujjar community, quit his position along with six other members. Mr. Bhatia’s outfit, the Gujjar Kalyan Parishad, had also staged a road blockade in Kala Amb - a key entry point to Himachal Pradesh.
The Sirmaur district has five Assembly seats - Pachhad, Nahan, Renukaji, Paonta Sahib and Shillai. Pachhad and Renukaji are reserved for SCs.
“Most people of our community live in the Nahan constituency area and in the entire district, our population is just 10,000-11,000, which includes both Hindus and Muslims. Now, if the government wants to bring 1.6 lakh Hatti members in the ST list, our share of job reservations will be wiped out,” Mr. Bhatia told The Hindu, as he prepared for a meeting of Gujjar leaders in Kala Amb to decide which way they will vote in the upcoming Assembly election
He added, “We are not against anybody. We are just saying our share of the benefits should not be diluted. Hatti people are generally better-off than us. A lot of our community members are still nomadic. How will we compete?”
The Congress’ Ajay Solanki is contesting at Nahan against incumbent Dr. Rajeev Bindal (BJP), against whom he lost in 2017. Congress leaders have been saying they will make the resentment among Gujjars an issue in the polls.
However, in a Tuesday meeting of Gujjar leaders in Nahan, most had thrown their weight behind the saffron party, sources said. “The logic is that the ST list is in the Centre’s hands and at least a BJP MLA can take up the issue with the Centre as opposed to an MLA from an Opposition party,” one Gujjar leader said.
On the other hand, there is disquiet among the SC communities in villages of Pachhad and Renukaji, where many Dalit villagers are afraid of atrocities and discrimination against them increasing if the Hatti community is notified as an ST.
Ashish Kumar of the Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch said, “Most of those who are Hattis are actually Bhats, Khash, and Kanaits - traditionally considered as upper-caste. Atrocities against Dalits in Sirmaur is an issue and in many cases, those committing the atrocities are from these communities. If they are given ST status, we will no longer be able to register cases under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.”
Mr. Kumar has been leading protests after the announcement on Hattis being included in the ST list, and has now been fielded by the CPI(M) in Pachhad, the only seat the Left party is contesting in Sirmaur. “Declaring the Hatti people as STs will not stop them from thinking they are superior to us. We will definitely bring this issue up in the campaign,” he said, adding that he had already started receiving threats on social media “from people supporting ST status for Hattis”.
Parts of the Trans-Giri region, where most of the Hatti community lives, also come under the Assembly Constituencies of Renukaji, Shillai, and Pachhad. As per the most recent Census (2011), 5.71% of the State’s population is ST and 25.19% of the population is classified as SC.
However, Mr. Kumar added, “We are not opposed to ST status for Hatti people. But what we are saying is that our rights should be protected.”
While Congress leaders in the State said that they too are hoping to capitalise on this dissatisfaction in Sirmaur, they are also treading carefully so that they do not lose out on support from the Hatti community.
“Some of the communities counted among the Hattis are already classified under the Central list of Other Backward Classes (OBC), which provides for 27% reservation in Central jobs. Why are they being brought down to the ST list, which has a smaller share of the reservation pie?” said Harshwardhan Chauhan, incumbent MLA from Shillai, who is fighting to get re-elected this year.
The Aam Aadmi Party, which is contesting four of the five seats in Sirmaur district, has also said it “cannot ignore” the Hatti people but that its primary focus is to find a way to “get things done without affecting the rights of other communities”, according to leaders working on the party’s campaign in Himachal.