Protest rallies by Gujjars and Bakerwals, who oppose inclusion of upper caste Paharis in the Schedule Tribe (ST) list, are gaining steam in J&K. They have threatened to hit the streets along with their cattle if the Centre fails to withdraw Bills introduced before Parliament.
“Our struggle is to safeguard the Constitution. It’s a political fight to protect the rights of tribals, not only those in J&K but also those living across the country. The BJP’s move to include upper caste Paharis is a grave provocation. You see what is happening in Manipur. The BJP is anti-tribal and intends to pit one community against another,” Advocate Guftar Ahmed Chowdhary, a prominent Gujjar youth leader, told The Hindu.
Mr. Chowdhary and his supporters organised a torch protest in Jammu city on Sunday evening against the Centre’s move to table three separate Bills, which include the Constitution (J&K) Scheduled Castes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023; the Constitution (J&K) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023 and the J&K Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023.
The Bills, once passed, will pave the way for Paharis, Gadda Brahmins and Koli to be included in the ST list in the Union Territory (UT). The Centre also intends to include Valmikis in the Schedule Caste list.
“Laws are being passed in an undemocratic way to demolish the Constitution and its structure. G.D Sharma, whose commission made these recommendations, belongs to the Gadda Brahmin community. Manusmriti is clear that ‘yagya’ can be performed by a Brahmin. How can a Brahmin be a tribal in J&K?” Talin Hussian, another Gujjar leader, said.
He accused the BJP of employing the ST status issue “as a tactic to divert attention from its failures”. “The BJP promised implementation of Forest Rights for tribals. We are yet to get that. This is a tactic to start an inter-community fight,” Mr. Hussian added.
Gujjars and Bakerwals were joined by other reserved categories in Jammu to protest against the move. Activists of the All Reserved Categories Association recently organised a protest march at the Jammu University (JU).
In a joint letter to the President of India, the leaders of Gujjars and Paharis have sought his intervention. “The Pahari speaking people form a remarkably heterogeneous group. They already enjoy differential treatment under the Constitution in the form of reservation under Article 15 and 16. Among Muslims - the Syeds, Mughals, Maliks etc. have been the most privileged castes. The people at the top of the ‘varna’ hierarchy among Hindus have also been demanding tribal status,” the memorandum reads.
Mr. Chowdhary said any caste could be included in the ST list if it meets the criteria set by the Lokur Committee (1965). “Who is a Pahari? Rajputs living in Jammu city are Paharis and people living in Jawahar Nagar in Srinagar are Paharis. There is no clear definition of Pahari,” Mr. Chowdhary said.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah in October 2022 announced ST status for the Pahari community, which comprises Hindus as well as Muslims unlike Bakerwals and Gujjars, who are all Muslims. Mr. Shah also held a meeting with top Gujjar leaders in November 2022 following protests by these groups.
“The talks with Mr. Shah have failed. We will not allow inclusion of Paharis and Brahmins in the ST,” said Mr. Chowdhary.