Setting right the focal point of J&K tribal politics

It must include economic and social empowerment, implementation of the Forest Rights Act and women’s participation

Updated - February 16, 2022 11:10 am IST

Published - February 16, 2022 12:15 am IST

A Bakarwal with his herd of sheep.

A Bakarwal with his herd of sheep. | Photo Credit: AP

The Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission has recently shared its interim report with the five associate members, the elected Members of Parliament from the erstwhile State. It has caused debate across the various regions of what is now a Union Territory (UT), with most parties expressing their reservations and disappointment. The interim report has proposed an increase of six seats in the Jammu province and one seat in the Kashmir province, though it does claim to treat the whole UT as one unit for seat distribution.

One of the salient features of the report is the proposed reservation of nine seats for Scheduled Tribes (ST). It is for the first time that seats have been reserved for the ST community in the legislative Assembly of J&K. The commission has also proposed reserving seven seats for Scheduled Castes (SCs). In the erstwhile legislative Assembly, there were also seven seats reserved for SCs, but there was no such reservation for STs.

This denial of constitutionally guaranteed reservation under Article 332 post-1991 when four communities (the Gujjars, Bakerwals, Gaddis and Sippis) were granted ST status is a pointer to the harsh reality that discrimination has largely been deliberate. The presence of Article 370 has often been given as a reason for absence of reservation for the tribals in J&K though this is untrue.

A lack of political will

Nothing in Article 370 has prevented the provision of political reservation to STs or extension of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 to J&K. Over the years, many features of the Constitution of India and many laws were extended to J&K. Further, SCs in J&K had reservation even before the dilution of Article 370, and it was provided under the J&K Constitution. All major political parties used to promise these rights before elections, but there was a lack of political will. During Ghulam Nabi Azad’s tenure as Chief Minister, a proposal was made in 2007 to introduce a Bill in the Assembly to ensure these political rights, but nothing materialised. This lack of political will stemmed from an unwillingness to share power with groups ethnically and culturally different from both Dogras and the Kashmiris, the two predominant power groups in J&K.

SC reservation, on the other hand, had at least ensured that power still remained within the ethnic group as far Dogra leaders were concerned; and for Kashmir leaders, it meant that seats reserved were drawn from the Jammu division and not for the Valley. The denial of political reservation and the absence of the Forest Rights Act had essentially become a bargaining tool. The Valley-based parties were not in favour of political reservation and those Jammu based were against the Forest Rights Act. If one side argued for forest and land rights, the other side would oppose it with the political reservation issue. The end result was the continued subjugation and disempowerment of STs in J&K.

The dilution of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, and the subsequent Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 changed political dynamics in the region. As far as tribals are concerned, it promised them political reservation under Article 332 and led to the extension of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Essentially, it has changed the nature of tribal politics in J&K as well, which had largely centred around these two major objectives. Constitutional safeguards and protections are means to an end and not the end in itself. In the rest of India, political reservation both to the Lok Sabha and the legislative Assemblies has been in place since the time the Constitution has come into force; the Forest Rights Act has been in place for around 17 years; yet, tribals continue to be socially disempowered and economically deprived. The focus of tribal politics has to shift toward the economic and social empowerment of tribal communities, with a special focus on effective implementation of welfare schemes and policies for STs in J&K. Implementation of the Forest Rights Act has to be a major issue as it has the potential to significantly empower these communities.

On political relevance

The political mobilisation of STs began many years ago, and the interim report has thrown up new challenges before STs than merely empowering them. It is now a reality that seats would be reserved for STs, but it hardly changes the ground reality. Even without reservation, through community mobilisation, in the 2014 elections, nine Gujjar candidates won the Assembly elections. But as they were from different parties, they were unable to present a united front and ensure tribal issues were not neglected. It will not change after reservation unless there is an awareness and conscious attempt by the leadership to prioritise tribal interests over party politics.

The interim report has reserved six out of the nine ST seats within the twin districts of Rajouri and Poonch which constitute 32.06% of the total ST population (2011 Census). The other reserved seats (three) are in Anantnag (Larnoo), Ganderbal (Kangan) and Bandipore (Gurez). The tendency to limit tribal politics to Rajouri and Poonch (which the interim report has also done) is the extension of past practice though the reality is that more than 68% of the ST population lives outside these districts. Political relevance is a major challenge that tribal politics in J&K faces. Community leaders, especially tribal youth, need to understand the significance of the tribal vote which is a deciding factor in more than 18 seats in addition to the reserved ones.

Marginal tribes

Tribal politics also has to address the political, social and economic empowerment of marginal tribes such as the Bakerwals, Gaddis and Sippis, whose population is 1,13,198, 46,486 and 5,999, respectively. It is very unlikely that these marginal tribes would be able to adequately represent themselves, but the major tribal group, the Gujjars, has to manifest their aspirations as well as share political space with them. Further, no development of any community is possible without the empowerment of women. Women have to play a major role in tribal politics, and their participation and leadership has to be made feasible and suitably promoted. They have proven their leadership in the District Development Council (DDC) elections, and it needs to be strengthened further.

Zubair Nazeer is Assistant Professor (Public Administration), Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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