“Tribal Bachao Andolan” in J&K is exposing BJP’s Tribal, Pasmanda outreach

Sarfraz Ahmed & Sajid Choudhary 

In their repeated claims, the BJP shows concern about tribals and Pasmanda Muslims. In a post-budget webinar on ‘Reaching the Last Mile’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The government is launching special missions for the most deprived and the tribals.” In his address to BJP workers in Bhopal on June 27, 2023, Narendra Modi underlined the party’s outreach and work for the welfare of Pasmanda Muslims, tribals, and the most deprived sections of society.

If they genuinely care about deprivation and exclusion among tribals, why are the tribals of Jammu and Kashmir taking to the roads, fearing the dilution of their rights?

The Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe constitutes 12% of the population, making it the third-largest ethnicity after ethnic Kashmiri Muslims and Hindu Dogras in Jammu and Kashmir, who exclusively practice Islam. The Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe is one of the most backwards among all tribes in Jammu and Kashmir. They reside in hilly, far-flung areas near forests and the Indo-Pak LOC, far from towns and cities, which denies them basic amenities and exposure to the era of prosperity, development, and technology.

These amenities include roads, electricity, water supply, medical facilities, and education, which is why they are trapped in poverty. They are nomads, semi-nomads, pastoralists, and agro-pastoralists, with the exception of a few hundred families; there are no settled agriculturist Gujjars in J&K. During the summer season, they migrate to meadows (Dhoks) with their families and cattle, searching for fodder for their cattle and herds of sheep and goats, creating a symbiotic relationship with the environment. In their unsettled life, it is incredibly challenging for them to educate their children and interact with society at large.

The Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe of Jammu and Kashmir has traversed a harsh terrain of exploitation, subjugation, domination, and exclusion, orchestrated by the upper class. Ironically, now these groups are demanding ST status. The ST status was granted to the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe by the government of India under ordinance number 3 of 1991, under Article 342 of the Indian constitution, on April 19, 1991. This was a gesture aimed at uplifting this marginalized and excluded tribe.

Tribal Bachao Andolan is a peaceful movement on foot started by tribal students, activists, and youth under the banner of the Gujjar-Bakarwal Joint Action Committee, spanning from Kupwara to Kathua. This was the first phase of the Andolan in which they informed the nomads about how government decisions could impact and force them to the periphery once again.

This movement also opposes the GD Sharma Commission report, which was constituted in 2020 for socially and educationally backward classes. Led by GD Sharma and having no tribal members, the commission recommended scheduled tribe status for the Pahari linguistic group, Koli, Gadda Brahman, and Paddari. The Pahari linguistic group encompasses more than fifty ethnicities like Brahmins, Rajputs, Mughals, Syeds, Mirza, etc., and speaks a common language, Pahari. This is why the Jammu and Kashmir government granted them a ‘Pahari Speaking People’ quota of 4%. Some ethnicities under the umbrella of the Pahari linguistic group enjoy reservation under OBC (Other Backward Classes) and also benefit from EWS (Economically Weaker Section) and RBA (Reserve Backward Area) quotas. Despite enjoying substantial reservation benefits, they are now demanding ST Status to capture political reservations, which were supposed to benefit the scheduled tribes of Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370.

They claim this to maintain their historical position. These people also belong to the upper and ruling classes that have ruled for centuries. The tribals of Jammu and Kashmir are protesting because they are tired of being perpetual victims of system-sponsored poverty, human degradation, and subjugation through the social stigma attached to them by centuries of autocratic rule and feudalism. For the second time, the tribals burst out in anger and flooded the roads and streets with their cattle, blocking the Tawi Bridge of Jammu city when the union government introduced a bill, “The Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order Amendment Bill, 2023”, during the monsoon session on July 26, 2023.

Later, peaceful protests were organized throughout the union territory, drawing thousands of tribal participants.

The members of the Gujjar-Bakarwal community are victims of historic racial and casteist discrimination. In Jammu and Kashmir, they are synonymous with backwardness and have limited access to resources. They do not own the means of production, as Karl Marx rightly pointed out that those who own and control the means of production also control political power. Political power is merely a reflection of economic power. The upper classes, whom the BJP plans to include in the scheduled tribe category, own the means of production and fertile land in the territory. They have full access to towns and cities compared to the Gujjar-Bakarwal. They are commonly referred to as “Zamindars,” which means landlords. Gujjar-Bakarwals face racial discrimination in both the Kashmir Valley and the Jammu region. They also face religious persecution in Jammu. From the unfortunate incident of 1947 during partition to the rape and murder of a tribal girl named Asifa from Kathua, which was intended to instil fear among the tribe and was later supported by a majority taking a Tiranga rally to support the rapist, the Gujjar- Bakarwals have been targeted.

A prominent leader of Jammu, Lal Singh, warned them not to repeat 1947. As they rear buffalos and cows, they remain vulnerable to attacks by cow vigilantes, and several incidents have been reported. In Jammu, they are also termed as outsiders and encroachers. It is the system that paralyzes and cripples people from taking helpful actions, and history provides ample evidence of this. After all, a system or institution can only be judged by the conduct of its representatives, which we call the tyranny of an organized system and historical betrayal.

Social Stigma attached with Gujjar-Bakarwals

Stigma has a perverse effect of silencing. It creates taboos and results in issues not being addressed. Stigma renders some people and their needs invisible in society. Gujjar-Bakarwals are the worst victims of social stigma and identity assimilation. The word “Gujjar” is often used as a slur by the upper caste in public places. Tribals are fighting the battle to be accepted into the larger society. It is a battle for which they are leaving behind their traditions and culture because the majority does not accept them, and they feel ashamed to assert their identity as they are considered inferior. They have only one option: either they have to assimilate their identity or face discrimination in public places.

In 2019, a Gujjar woman from the remote Moore village in the Kalaroos area of Kupwara experienced labour pains at her home. She was rushed to Kalaroos Hospital and then referred to Srinagar Lal Ded Hospital, where doctors refused to treat her. Family members alleged that doctors were discussing with each other, saying, “Amis chu fakh yiwan, Yim chi gujjar” (they smell foul, they are Gujjar). Later, the woman gave birth to a stillborn child on the footpath of Srinagar, at a temperature of 0.7 degrees Celsius.

This historical betrayal and stigma attached to Gujjar-Bakarwal have psychologically traumatized the community, leading to psychological anxiety. Besides social and political subjugation and economic domination, psychological oppression has the worst effects on mental health and develops an inferiority complex among the people of the tribe.

Due to the indifferent attitude of the Jammu and Kashmir state government, led by the upper class, the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe has been deprived of several benefits of the Scheduled Tribe Act, including political reservation, Forest Rights Act, and SC/ST Atrocities Act, all under the shield of Article 370. Decadal censuses in 2001 and 2011 were conducted during the summer season when Gujjar-Bakarwal, along with their families and livestock, moved towards pastures and meadows (Dhoks) in the Himalayas with their cattle. Consequently, their actual population could not be accurately enumerated, leading to a discrepancy between their actual population and census statistics.

Additionally, from 1947 to 2021, no special survey was conducted by the government to assess the exclusion and deprivation faced by Gujjar-Bakarwal. Fortunately, in 2021, a survey of Gujjar-Bakarwal was conducted by the Tribal Department of Jammu and Kashmir in their meadows (Dhoks), revealing that they are the largest migratory transhumance group in the world, with 612,000 people migrating annually. This survey plays a vital role because, firstly, the government needs to understand their situation before addressing their issues. This reveals that the government had not been concerned about their exclusion. Consequently, the exclusion and deprivation of the Gujjar-Bakarwal in Jammu and Kashmir appear to be organized and systematic.

Funds meant for tribals lapse every year. Their goat and sheep herds are crushed several times during seasonal migrations from plains to Himalayan meadows and vice versa on national highways, resulting in many animal deaths due to natural calamities like lightning and attacks by wild animals. The government has not provided any compensation. There are no mobile dispensaries for their treatment in the meadows. This tribe has remained backwards because they have been exploited by those in power.

They are also accused of land grabbing and termed as illegal occupants, leading to harassment by the Forest Department for eviction. In January 2022, officials of the Jammu Development Authority (JDA) demolished the homes of nearly a dozen Gujjar-Bakarwal families in Roop Nagar, sector 6 of Jammu city. They are targeted through demolition drives and are victims of consistent discrimination and harassment. According to villagers and activists from the Kanidajan village in the Budgam district of the Kashmir Valley, more than 10,000 apple trees were cut down by local authorities in this mountainous village, mainly populated by Gujjar Muslims, a nomadic cattle-herding community.

Stranded in crossfire

Zaffar Choudhary, a noted journalist and scholar, wrote in one of his research papers, “Gujjar and Bakarwal are one of the most prominent stakeholders in the Kashmir conflict with an identity among Muslims of J&K whose patriotic and nationalistic credentials towards India have never come under doubt.”

Gujjar-Bakarwal are victims of exclusion and marginalization because of their pro-state loyalty and anti-militancy attitude. In a territory like Jammu and Kashmir, where a separatist movement has persisted for decades, there is minimal participation from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community. Consequently, they are branded as collaborators and traitors by the separatists. They have aided national security in eliminating militant activities. Examples include Operation Sarpvinash and the foiling of Operation Gibraltar. Operation Sarpvinash is the largest operation against militants in the history of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.

It was launched by the Indian army and security agencies, with support and guidance from Gujjar-Bakarwal tribal members. The operation was conducted in the hill Kaka Valley of the Surankote area of Poonch, where terrorists had captured the entire valley, using it as a training centre and recruitment camp. They continuously harassed and killed tribal people and raped their women. Tribals from that area met with the then Home Minister LK Advani and initiated the operation against these terrorists. Twelve members of the Gujjar Bakarwal community were martyred in this counter-terrorist operation, including one woman and four children, along with Indian army personnel.

Operation Gibraltar was foiled by a member of this tribe, Mohammed Din Jagir. Pakistani infiltrators had asked him to arrange Kashmiri clothes for them in the meadows to cross over undetected. The plan was to annex Kashmir under Operation Gibraltar. Instead, Jagir informed the police, thwarting the Pakistani operation. He was later awarded the Padma Shri for his bravery but was subsequently killed by terrorists in 1996.

Although the sighs, grief, and remonstrations of this tribe cannot be adequately expressed, it is a tale of prolonged betrayal. Even today, social differentiation continues to be a major factor dividing Gujjars and Pahari inhabitants across various areas. Gujjars-Bakarwal constitute the largest proportion of domestic labour or forced labour in the households of upper-class communities, while no upper-class individuals, not even the poorest among them, can be found as domestic help, even among the wealthiest Gujjar households.

There are still many areas where Gujjar-Bakarwal does not dare to sit equally with the Syeds, Rajputs, and Brahmins. The inclusion of these upper classes in the scheduled tribe status would clearly cause an imbalance and unrest among Gujjar-Bakarwal, who are already voicing their concerns and questioning the government as they do not want to return to a dark and horrific past.

They set the tone of discourse and narrative, which Marx referred to as a false consciousness created by the superstructure. They want to maintain their historical position, political power, economic privilege, social hierarchy, and structural monopoly. Dr BR Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution and the most prominent social reformer, rightly said, “It is your claim to equality which hurts them. They want to maintain the status quo. If you continue to accept your lowly status ungrudgingly and continue to remain dirty, filthy, backward, ignorant, poor, and disunited, they will allow you to live in peace. The moment you start to raise your level, conflicts start.”

To address the problems faced by the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribe, the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre should take a pragmatic approach instead of pursuing a policy of appeasement for electoral gain. It is high time for them to demonstrate their genuine concern for Pasmanda and Tribal communities, for whom they have made commitments.

Sarfraz Ahmed is pursuing a Masters in Political Science from Aligarh Muslim University. He hails from tehsil Surankote of Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir. Sajid Choudhary is a Postgraduate in Political Science.