As Jammu & Kashmir Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission has submitted its interim and supplementary reports to the Government on reservations to Pahari speaking people, a final call is now expected to be taken by the Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
As per media reports Amit Shah is expected to visit J&K on October 4th and during his visit to Rajouri he might make this announcement during a public meeting. Once the Paharis get the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status it will make them eligible for political reservations as well, because the Delimitation Commission has reserved 10 % assembly seats for STs in 90 assembly segments of J&K.
I am personally against this reservation as Paharis don’t belong to a particular caste or a tribe. It is difficult to identify the Paharis as they live across the length and breadth of J&K and belong to all the religions, castes and groups. Paharis are Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. There are many Kashmiri castes like Dar, Mir, Bhat, Sheikh who speak Pahari and it will be very difficult for the authorities to identify them while granting them ST documents. We have smaller communities like Chopans instead who deserve to get scheduled tribe (ST) status, but they have been deprived of the same for the last many decades. The only reason is that Chopans are a minority in Jammu & Kashmir. It is estimated that only 3 to 3.50 lakh nomadic Chopans live in J&K, who have no political voice at all. They live scattered in every village ranging from 5 to 6 families at an average except a dozen villages which are dominated by them in Kashmir valley. Not even a single Chopan has been an MLA since 1947 in J&K. Only a handful of Chopans are in Govt service and the women from this community are educationally very backward.
Kashmiri shepherds are socially, educationally and economically an underdeveloped community. The job of Chopans is to take care of sheep which belong to farmers. Chopans hardly have their own sheep. Farmers pay them a fixed amount per sheep per season. 30 to 40 years back the farmers would provide corn or paddy to the Chopans instead of cash. Now the trend has changed with time. Aziz Chopan told me that he gets Rs 350 to 400 per sheep from the farmer per season which lasts for 6 to 7 months. The season starts from April and ends around October. In the month of April the sheep are taken to local grasslands of villages and with the increase in temperature, Chopan’s start moving to pastureland up on the hills. By June 1st week they reach their final destination which is called “Bahak” (Rangeland). Every village in Jammu & Kashmir has its designated Bahak or Rangeland which is registered with the Land Revenue Department.
As per 20th livestock census of 2018-19 sheep population was estimated to be around 3.2 million in Jammu & Kashmir. This population was a bit more i.e. 3.4 million in 2011-12 during 19th livestock census. Shepherds say that the population of sheep has been on the rise in Kashmir valley for the last 10 years and maybe there is some decrease in sheep population in Jammu region.
Challenges during migration
While Chopans start their seasonal migration around May along with herds of sheep, they face immense challenges on the way. They don’t have proper tents with them as the shepherds can’t afford to buy the same. They take shelter under trees or tarpaulins / polythene during rains. Farmers get subsidies from the Govt to buy sheep , procure tractors , tillers, spray machines and water pumps, but the Government hardly bothers to provide similar subsidies to the poor shepherds ?
If a tent costs Rs 4000, Govt could have easily provided Chopans 50 % subsidy which they provide to apple growers or sheep farmers, but this is a neglected community . During my visit to various bakahs (pasturelands) in summers I have seen how these people suffer on account of lack of proper shelter and other things , but the Govt has not done anything for this minority community. In forests and highland pastures wild animals like snow leopards , wild wolf’s (Bagaaid) attack sheep, but the poor Chopans don’t have proper fencing to keep their animals safe. Fencing is made of wild bushes like Juniper locally called “Wethhar” . This is used to guard sheep when they rest for night near the mud and wooden huts called Kothas.
After taking care of sheep from dawn to dusk, in rain, thunder storms and challenging weather conditions, Chopans hardly sleep during the night. They keep blowing whistles to create a pressure on wild animals. I am a personal witness to all this. Chopan’s hardly own good quality searchlights which could be of great help to them. Wild animals on the other hand continue to attack the sheep even in the paddock . For the whole night the poor shepherds are awake and sleep only for a few hours after dawn. They work almost 24 hours a day but still have no recognition. Framers continue to ridicule shepherds. They call shepherds liars and thieves. There are several Kashmiri folklores wherein Kashmiri Pohul is disgraced and dishonoured as he is called a liar and falsifier.
The pastoralist communities like Chopans or even Gujjars whose houses got damaged by winter snowfall and other reasons in the recent past, are awaiting clearance from the forest department to rebuild them. I met several affected families last year . The Gujjars and Chopans were living miserably in the pasturelands of Kashmir. In the absence of their kothas the affected nomadic groups sleep in the open in extreme weather conditions.
In Spite of the fact that Chopans are tribal in real sense, they have not been included under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category by the Government of India. The Kashmiri shepherds are similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or Gaddis, Sippi of Jammu or Himachal but Changpas , Sippis and Gaddi’s have been given ST status long back and Chopans continue to be discriminated against. J&K Legislative Assembly on April 10th 2000 passed a resolution for the inclusion of Chopan community under ST category but Govt of India never took that resolution seriously . Now again Govt is planning to do discrimination with this poor community by granting ST status to Pahris.
Injustice by successive Govts
The literacy rate of Chopan community is less than 30 % and this is again much lower among the females. If the Government really wants to do justice , then it must give ST status to Chopans instead of Pahadis. Infact I have taken up this demand at various forums. In the past also Chopan Welfare Association has done commendable work under the leadership of Gul Rahman, Abdul Ahad Chopan and many others for getting ST status but successive Governments were never serious about them. Infact I sought all the details under RTI Act about the communication made between J&K Govt and Tribal Affairs Ministry on grant of ST status to Chopans. The RTI reply revealed that lapses were made by J&K Govt especially Social Welfare Department who didn’t give the actual feedback of this community to Govt of India (Tribal Affairs Department).
During a national seminar on Forest Rights Act at Bhubaneswar a few months back which was organised by SC ST Department and Tribal Affairs Department Govt of India in association with UNDP, I took up the issue of Chopans during my speech. Infact Director SC, ST Research & Training Institute Bhubaneswar Dr A B Otta recommended enlisting Chopan’s as ST community. The NITI Ayog officials who were also present in the meeting also assured that justice will be done with Chopans of Kashmir.
If the Govt continues to discriminate against the Chopan community, time is not far when these people would get fed up with the work they do, and our whole sheep industry which is growing and expanding at a very good pace would collapse. Chopan community is tribal in real sense and instead of Paharis they should be brought under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. I appeal to Home Minister Amit Shah, LG Manoj Sinha and Chief Secretary Dr A K Mehta to look into this issue on merits and not take any hasty decision which will disempower this pastoralist community.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement and Anant Fellow for Climate Action.