BJP aims to win Anantnag LS seat with ST status for 4 communities; will the math work?
The Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) ST Order (Amendment) Bill is being called the BJP’s tool to wrest power from the National Conference (NC) in the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha constituency of Jammu and Kashmir. However, political experts are divided on the outcome.
Through the Bill, the Narendra Modi government seeks to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Pahari, Gadda Brahmin, Koli and Paddari communities in the Union territory. A section of observers say the move will fall flat as Gujjars and Bakerwals, traditional beneficiaries of the ST quota, disgruntled by the Bill, will ensure that the party doesn’t come to power in the seat. Others, however, opine that the party may hit the jackpot as the Bill targets the Pahadi community, which has a sizeable population in the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary segment.
Delimitation and number game
A traditional stronghold of regional parties, the Anantnag Lok Sabha segment (now renamed Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha segment) in Kashmir has been alternately administered by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the NC. Former Jammu and Kashmir High Court judge and NC leader Justice Hasnain Masoodi is the current MP from the constituency.
Seat dynamics changed in May 2022, when the Delimitation Commission, headed by Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai, renamed it as Anantnag-Rajouri constituency after clubbing together the Anantnag region of Kashmir valley with Jammu’s border towns of Rajouri and Poonch. The move, which was part of the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370, also aimed at creating an equal number of 18 assembly constituencies for each of the five parliamentary constituencies in the Union territory. Thus were formed the Lok Sabha segments of Jammu, Udhampur, Srinagar, Baramulla, and Anantnag-Rajouri.
The delimitation panel also reserved nine (10 per cent) of the 90 Assembly seats in the Union territory for the ST community, then comprising tribal Gujjars and Bakerwals along with some other communities; and seven for the Scheduled Caste (SC) community.
The Gujjars and Bakerwals, who had no such quota in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, had lauded the decision as a “historic” move and praised the BJP government at the Centre.
However, their bubble burst when Union Minister Amit Shah, during a rally in Rajouri on October 4, 2022, announced that 10 lakh Pahari-speaking people would also get reservation benefits meant for the ST community. He said the decision was taken based on the recommendation of the Justice (retired) GD Sharma Commission report, which has also suggested the inclusion of Gadda Brahmins, Kolis, and Paddaris in the ST list.
Shah’s assurance materialised into action when the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry introduced the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) ST Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023 in Parliament during the ongoing Monsoon Session.
Who are Paharis?
Paharis are indigenous people of the Himalayas who are said to have migrated from Punjab and Central Asia to Jammu and Kashmir some 500-1,000 years ago. Former MLC and senior advocate Murtaza Ahmed Khan says, as per the 2011 Census, around 11-12 lakh Paharis including Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, live in Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu and in Kokernag, Shopian, Anantnag, Gurez, Kupwara, Baramulla, Karnah, Uri, and Keran areas of the Kashmir valley. He said around 39 lakh Paharis live in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) as well.
BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir general secretary and former MLC, Vivodh Gupta, says there are at least 10 lakh Paharis in Rajouri and Poonch region alone and five lakh in other parts of Kashmir.
Seat dynamics and Pahari heft
Interestingly, six of the nine assembly seats reserved for the ST community fall under the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary constituency. The six seats are Kokernag in Anantnag district, Rajouri, Budhal, and Thanamandi in Rajouri district, and Surankote and Mendhar in Poonch district. The other three constituencies are Gurez in Bandipora town, Kangan in Srinagar, and Gulabgarh in Jammu’s Reasi district.
The six reserved assembly constituencies within the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha segment have a sizable population of Pahari-speaking people.
BJP leaders that The Federal spoke to claimed that Paharis account for around 50 per cent of the total population of the Rajouri-Poonch region, while Gujjars and Bakerwals collectively account for 40 per cent of the population. Kashmiris were only 10 per cent of the population, they said.
In the 11 other Anantnag assembly constituencies as well, Paharis have a considerable but scattered population. So, the vote of Paharis matters a lot to win in these assembly constituencies.
Paharis promise to repay the ‘favour’
Paharis have decided to “repay kindness with kindness” if they are given ST reservation benefits.
“We’ve already made it clear during Mr Amit Shah’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir that Paharis will vote en masse in favour of the BJP if they are included in the list of STs in the UT,” Murtaza Ahmed Khan, who hails from the community, told The Federal.
“We’ll repay kindness with kindness as we’ve guaranteed to Mr Shah. There is no denying the fact that our leadership will also join BJP if they provide us with the reservation benefits,” he added.
According to Khan, Paharis have long been demanding the benefits of reservation but their requests have been falling on the deaf ears.
NC leader Farooq Abdullah, during his stint as chief minister, had also batted for ST reservation for the Paharis in 1989, but his request was rejected by the Registrar General of India, who claimed that there existed no caste or tribe as ‘Pahari’ in the government records.
Experts divided on BJP’s win
Will the Paharis turn the tables in favour of BJP then? Political observers are divided on the matter with many calling the BJP’s decision to include the four tribes in the ST list a masterstroke and others opining that it will have no impact on the party’s fortunes in the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha segment.
Veteran journalist Sanjeev Pargal, bureau chief, Daily Excelsior, believes the BJP will benefit hugely from its move both in the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Pargal says the party can not be affected by the ire of the Gujjars and Bakerwals as they are not its traditional voters.
“Rather they prefer voting for NC and PDP. Moreover, when the ST quota was given to them, they didn’t even acknowledge it by thanking the Centre. So, accordingly, the Centre decided to grant ST quota to Paharis as well,” he said.
Pargal said as opposed to the poor voter turnout in Anantnag area (a mere 13.68 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls), the voter turnout is quite high in the frontier towns of Rajouri and Poonch where the Paharis are concentrated and this can benefit the BJP.
Journalist and editor of Kashmir Images newspaper, Bashir Manzar, however, believes that BJP has disappointed the Gujjar and Bakerwal communities by granting the ST status to Paharis and this disgruntlement will reflect in votes.
“Since Kashmiris have now understood the BJP’s game plan of including Rajouri and Poonch’s Assembly constituencies in the Anantnag-Rajouri parliamentary constituency, they will increase the voting percentage in the 11 Assembly constituencies that fall in Kashmir region and this can stop the BJP from winning the Anantnag-Rajouri seat,” Manzar said.
Zafar Choudhary, editor, The Dispatch, seconds Manzar. He says, the Gujjars and Bakerwals who were singing praises of the BJP when the 10 per cent reservation for STs was announced are now feeling cheated and taking to the streets in protest against the Centre’s new Bill to include four more tribes in the list.
Choudhary says the Centre’s proposal to introduce a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is another reason why the BJP may not be able to conquer the Anantnag Lok Sabha.
“Since most Paharis in Rajouri-Poonch and Kashmir are Muslims, their religious identity and attack on it through issues like UCC will create hurdles in the BJP’s plans of conquering the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat,” he added.