In Jammu and Kashmir it is an unusual sight of nomads marching on roads without their herds. They carry signs and banners and shout slogans for the protection of their identity and rights under the planned tribal status.
They call it the ‘Tribal Bachao’ march (Save Tribals march) because the Gujjar-Bakerwal tribes fear that the government movement to include upper castes in the planned tribal category will deprive them of their rights to education and work.
They also fear that the inclusion of new groups may dilute their own identity.
With the onset of a harsh winter in Kashmir, nomads who make a living from raising livestock have just completed their seasonal migration from the upper reaches of the Kashmir Valley to the plains of Jammu. But many of them are back in the valley despite heavy snowfall and cold conditions in the region.
Nomad activists have embarked on a 500km march from Kupwara to Kathua covering all 20 districts of Jammu and Kashmir. They visit tribal villages and inform people about the inclusion of higher castes as scheduled tribes and how it will affect their future.
The Gujjar-Bakerwal community lags behind in education and other social indicators compared to other communities including scheduled castes and OBCs.
Under the ST status, the Gujjar-Bakerwals are given a 10% reservation in education and government jobs, in addition to nine reserved seats in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly.
The government’s decision to include Pahari-speaking people and other higher caste groups like Gadda Brahmins in the ST category has left them insecure.
Following recommendations by a committee to grant ST status to the Pahari-speaking people, Kohlis and Gadda Brahmins, the government of Jammu and Kashmir has reclassified “Pahari-speaking people” as “Pahari ethnic group” to pave the way for their inclusion in the ST category. The reclassification will avoid legal hurdles as no reservations can be made on linguistic grounds.
The Gujjar-Bakerwal tribes say that even if the government increases the ST quota from the current 10% after the upper castes are included in the reserved category, they will simply not be able to compete with them and end up not getting education and jobs. This also means that nine Assembly seats reserved for Gujjars and Bakerwals will no longer remain their exclusive domain.
“It’s an attack on a community that has historically been marginalized. Some of us were able to get an education and a job through reluctance. Now it looks like they’re taking it away after hitting the upper castes in the ST category. have recorded,” said Guftar Ahmad, a Gujjar activist.
According to the 2011 census, more than 12 lakh Gujjar-Bakerwals live in Jammu and Kashmir. Much of the two communities herd buffalo, goats and sheep. They are often en route from one grassland to another to graze.
The government has opened mobile schools for nomadic children. About 40,000 Indigenous students are enrolled in these seasonal schools, although critics say many such schools only exist on paper.
Tribes say that given their background, how can their children who receive an education while grazing livestock compete with upper caste people if they belong to the ST category?
Guftar Ahmad, who was part of a Gujjar-Bakerwal delegation, met Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his recent visit to the state. Mr Ahmed said the union minister assured the delegation that their rights will be protected. But at the same time, Mr. Shah announced ST status for Paharis and other groups.
“How can they give planned tribal status to higher castes based on their language?” Mr Ahmad asked as he led a march in Ganderbal district.
Ahead of possible parliamentary elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the ST status of Paharis and other groups is seen as an important political step by the Bharatiya Janata party to win maximum seats in the state. The region was stripped of its own state and special status in 2019 and has been without an elected government for more than four years.
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