Union Home Ministry’s decision to introduce four bills in the Parliament intended to roll out a new set of affirmative action policies for a number of communities in Jammu & Kashmir has sparked a political controversy in the erstwhile state.
Although levels of violence in the region are at an all-time low, (thanks to robust anti-militancy campaigns), the Union Territory (UT) continues to be a powder keg on account of sensitive structural changes that have been implemented post-August 2019.
The people in the Valley are yet to react to those changes, either through streets (as such mobilisations have been forestalled through punitive actions), or through ballot (as elections have been elusive).
The Legal-Political Contraption
In these four years, the BJP-led Union government has attempted every conceivable stratagem up its sleeve to rewire the entire political, electoral, social, and economic arrangements in the UT.
Just a few months after the revocation of Article 370, we saw top political leaders splitting from their parent parties and coalescing around new formations that sprang up overnight. We saw senior politicians going around trying to start a discourse about "new realities” and underscoring the need to "reconcile” with them.
Then in 2020, the polls for the District Development Council (DDCs) were held in J&K and the exercise was hailed as an act of rebooting the stalled political process in the erstwhile state.
Many analysts believed it was an attempt to allow the Centre to prevaricate further on, or prolong and indefinitely defer, the question of holding elections to the State Legislature.
Introduction of New Bills Garner Mixed Reactions
The Assembly polls hold an enormous significance on account of the crossroads at which the UT finds itself today. The very decision to rescind Article 370 was hinged on the concurrence from such an Assembly, and because a consent like this was not first ascertained, or obtained in a manner reflecting "non application of mind”, as the Constitutional Expert Gautam Bhatia recently suggested, it is likely to have serious implications as far as the legal challenge to the validity of J&K Reorganisation Act 2019 from which all these changes stem, is concerned.
It is into this treacherous legal-political contraption that the introduction of four bills on 26 July, branded as efforts to improve conditions of weaker and vulnerable sections, can be situated.
But as honourable as the intentions of the BJP-led Union government are, the latest move appears to have ruptured the social fault lines in J&K. It is also a reminder that as the Union government's policies alienate people in the Valley, the BJP is willing to tap into the region's social and class divisions to compensate for the lack of goodwill. Indeed, close scrutiny of the steps indicates they hew closely to the BJP’s electoral and political calculations in the UT.
"How can you introduce bills keeping in view that the J&K Reorganisation Bill 2019 and its legality has already been challenged in the apex court of India,” Hasnain Masoodi, a Member of Parliament (MP) from Anantnag constituency in J&K, said about the bills as they were scheduled to be tabled.
Reserving Two Seats for Kashmiri Migrants and West Pakistan Refugees
The first 'Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2023’ seeks to award political representation to ‘Kashmiri Migrants’, ‘Displaced Persons from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in the Legislative Assembly of J&K UT “so as to preserve their political rights as well as for their overall social and economic development.”
Incorporating new sections 15A and 15B, the bill seeks to nominate two members to the Assembly, one of whom shall be a woman, hailing from the Kashmiri Migrant community and Displaced Persons from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
The move has been made possible by the Delimitation Commission which was convened in March 2020 to redraw electoral constituencies in J&K. It increased the region’s seat share from 83 to 90 in 2021.
Six of those seats went to Jammu, and only one was awarded to Kashmir. Around 28 assembly seats were renamed and 19 dissolved by either splitting them between other seats or absorbing them wholly into different constituencies.
The bill cites 46,517 families of Kashmiri Hindus and Pandits along with some Muslims and Sikhs who were displaced from the region with the onset of militancy in 1989 and were as a result scattered around different parts of the country. In another set of data presented in the bill, the government says there are 31,779 families that migrated from PoK to the erstwhile state of J&K amid the first India-Pakistan war in 1947.
Of these, 26,319 families settled in J&K whereas the 5,460 families relocated to other parts of India. The bill further explains that 10,065 more families were displaced during the military conflagrations between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. That brings the total number of displaced families who migrated to J&K during all these years to 41,844.
It is instructive to bear in mind that this figure also includes those 5,460 families who, although they first arrived in J&K after their displacement from Pakistani-controlled areas, didn’t necessarily make Kashmir their domicile.
The bill says that the Delimitation Commission had recommended the representation of these communities in the Assembly by way of nomination.
Already, the Delimitation Commission has been criticised for the “skewed” ways it resized the Assembly constituencies in J&K. As the dissent note attached to the final report observed, “The population of Dooru almost equals the population of three constituencies – Paddar, Shri Mata Vaishnav Devi and Bani constituencies of Jammu," it read. "While a little less than 2 lac population of Dooru will have one member in Assembly an almost equal population from aforementioned 3 constituencies shall have three members in the Assembly. The people of Dooru, therefore, cannot not be equal stakeholders in decision-making and equal participants in governance.”
The Bills Expand the List of Castes Entitled to Reservation Benefits
The second bill 'The Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023’ which amend the J&K’s Scheduled Tribes Order, 1989, to include the communities of ‘Gadda Brahmin’, ‘Koli’, ‘Paddari Tribe’ and 'Pahari Ethnic Group’ in the list of Scheduled Tribes in the UT, taking the total number to 15.
The third bill 'The Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Castes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023’ proposes to consider 'Valmikis’ as being synonymous with ‘Chura, Bhangi, Balmiki, Mehtar’ categories in the list of Schedule Casts (SCs) in the states.
The fourth bill ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023’ proposed to change the nomenclature of “Weak and underprivileged classes (social castes)” to “Other Backward Classes.”
‘Political Calculations Weigh on the BJP’
At present, the social classes in J&K get 4 percent reservation in J&K but the change of appellation, the OBCs will be entitled to 27 percent reservation which is what is available to them at the national level.
“A lot of arithmetic appears to have gone into all this,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, a political scientist who has taught at the Kashmir University. “It looks like certain segments of the population are being cultivated so that the electoral base is expanded. Whether it works or not is a different question.”
The immediate fallout has been the public protests by the Gujjar community, arguing that opening reservation benefits to Pahari-speaking people will reinforce the economic subjugation that they have been trying to fight back for decades.
“The ST status was given to Gujjars so that we can match the higher castes. But this move allows those classes to encroach upon the benefits that should ideally come to us,” said Zahid Parwaz who heads Gujjar-Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference, a tribal action group.
“Now corporate, rich people, and upper castes avail the caste benefits. The caste-based affirmative action cannot have an economic or linguistic basis. Pahari has no definition. In J&K, 300 castes will directly enter into ST status after Paharis are offered these benefits,” he said.
Old Rivalries Are Resurfacing
The competition between the Gujjars and Paharis over the benefits of the reservation is as old as 1991 when the government notified the communities of Gujjars, Bakarwals, Gaddis, and Sippis as STs.
This inclusion fast-tracked their access to educational institutions and public service and heightened their representation across governing structures.
As the economic and social situation of the Gujjars improved drastically as a consequence of awarded ST status, similar demands were articulated by other communities such as the Paharis.
As part of the Delimitation, nine of the seats were reserved for ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (STs) majority of which are in the Pir Panjal region where a substantial number of Paharis live. The region has not been very electorally clement for the BJP in the past.
During the Assembly elections in 2014, the party won only two of the seven assembly seats in the region. In the (DDC) elections, the chairpersons elected to the Poonch and Rajouri DDCs were associated with non-BJP parties.
Possible Social Frictions
By trying to lure Pahari-speaking persons, the BJP hopes to engineer a political base for itself.
But in doing so, the party might also end up prying open new wounds. “ST status for Paharis is part of an overall restructuring of social identities,” said Zafar Choudhary, an editor, author, and political analyst based in Jammu. “This will have bearing on existing J&K specific reserved categories such as Residents of Backward Area (RBA) and Area Adjoining Actual Line of Control (ALC), and Weak and Under Privileged Classes/Social Castes (OSC).” Choudhary said that since all reservations have to be kept under a 50 percent ceiling, it is likely that there will be alteration within these preexisting quotas. “This means the concentration of traditional beneficiaries could shift from existing areas to newer ones.”
Kashmiri Pandit leaders in the Valley have also taken a very adverse view about awarding reserved seats. “It’s for the vote bank politics of BJP," said Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti in Srinagar. “Why are they giving us nominated seats, why not elected seats? Nomination means whichever party comes to the Centre, it will nominate two persons who will effectively be BJP ideologues and the LG will endorse that.”
Tickoo said that such a reservation was not helpful to the whole community, also adding that “Our elected representatives would have given a voice to the Pandit community rather than play second fiddle to the BJP.”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)