Kashmir on Edge as Election Looms: Indigenous Tribes Demand Fair Representation in Caste Quotas

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Tral, Indian-administered Kashmir: Bashir Ahmed Gujjar, a 70-year-old shepherd from a nomadic tribal community, never had the opportunity to attend school due to poverty and constant movement. However, his community, the Gujjars, saw a change in their fortunes after the government introduced quotas for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in state-run educational institutions and government jobs in 1991. This was part of an affirmative action program to uplift historically marginalized groups, which included the Gujjars.

Now, Bashir fears that the next generation of his community may lose the gains of the past three decades. A recent legal amendment passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to include the Paharis, another community, in the list of STs has caused concern. While the government assured that existing tribes’ educational and job quotas would not be affected, it has not clarified how this will be implemented. This has led to apprehension among the Gujjars and Bakarwals that they may have to share their benefits with the Paharis, who were previously considered better off.

The move has triggered protests from Gujjar and Bakarwal community groups, demanding a repeal of the amendment. The decision has also deepened caste divisions in a region already tense due to previous controversial actions by the Modi government. The inclusion of Paharis in the ST list could impact national elections, expected to be held between March and May.

The BJP’s decision is seen as a political move to sway the Paharis, who make up about 8 percent of the region’s population, to secure ST seats in the legislature. Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, comprising about 10 percent of the population, allege that the BJP is using the Paharis for political gain. The Gujjars and Bakarwals fear losing their political representation if the Paharis are included in the ST category, as traditionally they have not supported the BJP.

The BJP argues that the reservations for the Paharis were long overdue and that the community has been neglected by Kashmiri political parties. Pahari activists believe that the BJP’s move will benefit their community and lead to better development prospects. However, critics see this as a tactic by the BJP to secure votes in an area where they have historically struggled.

The Gujjar and Bakarwal communities are concerned about losing their benefits and political representation, while the Paharis see this as an opportunity for equality and development. The political landscape in Indian-administered Kashmir is evolving, and the inclusion of Paharis as STs has set the stage for a contentious election year.

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