PDP chief in fray, Azad’s flip flop, Paharis, delimitation — why Anantnag-Rajouri is a must-watch seat

PDP chief in fray, Azad’s flip flop, Paharis, delimitation — why Anantnag-Rajouri is a must-watch seat

Politics of Jammu has been so distinct from Kashmir that the last time a Kashmir-based party winning any of the two seats of Jammu was way back in 2002, when Chowdhury Talib Hussain of National Conference clinched Jammu in a bypoll. Hussain joined the BJP in 2014. Similarly, Mufti Mohameed Sayeed was the last candidate from a national party to win in Kashmir in 1998. Sayeed, who was with the Congress, formed the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a year later.

But now after the delimitation exercise, the Anantnag-Rajouri seat now stretches from one side of Pir Panchal range — dividing Jammu & Kashmir regions— to the Kashmir valley. The twin Muslim majority districts of Rajouri & Poonch have now been combined with South Kashmir’s erstwhile Anantnag constituency.

Political leaders argue that South Kashmir and Rajouri-Poonch have been very different in nature where except for the majority religion, there is barely anything in common.

The road connecting the two regions does not even remain open round the year. The Mughal road is closed due to heavy snowfall every year and was shut earlier this week as well. Yet, many claim that the seat will decide the politics of Jammu and Kashmir for next many years as the politics of two regions is set to spill on either side.

“As the first trans Pir Panjal political unit in the 178-year history of modern Jammu and Kashmir since its formation in 1846, the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency holds the key to the future of politics in the former state,” political analyst Zafar Choudhary write in The Dispatch. “This is the route the BJP wants to take to establish itself as a legitimate player in Kashmir. For regional parties National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, currently against each other, getting this constituency is a matter of survival.”

Also Read: Splintered Opposition, BJP consolidation & Article 370 — dynamics in play in J&K as Udhampur votes 

Dynamics in 2019

The seat consists of five districts — Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam in Kashmir, and Poonch and Rajouri in Jammu. However, one assembly segment each from Shopian and Rajouri is not part of this Lok Sabha. There are a total of 18 assembly segments in this Lok Sabha, up from 16 in 2019, after the delimitation.

Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam districts have a total population of 17.7 lakh residents, according to 2011 Census, of which over 98 percent are Muslims. Rajouri and Poonch districts have 11.2 lakh population. While the latter has over 90 percent Muslim population, the former has nearly 62 percent Muslim population.

However, the culture, language and issues are very different on the two sides. So is the voting pattern.

In the 2019 general election, Anantnag saw voting of mere 8.98 percent. At the time apart from the three districts that included 12 assembly segments, Pulwama was also part of the Lok Sabha constituency. On the contrary,  Rajouri and Poonch — then part of the Jammu parliamentary constituency — had 65 percent and over 70 percent voting, according to ECI data.

NC’s Hasnain Masoodi emerged victorious securing 40,100 votes in Anantnag. Out of the 12 assembly segments in the three Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam, the NC won six, the Congress four and the PDP two in 2019. The BJP had less than 2,000 votes. Now, with the addition of Rajouri and Poonch, the BJP becomes a player in the seat.

In 2019, the NC was in alliance with the Congress and the PDP did not field its candidates in Jammu, which included Rajouri and Poonch. 

Anantnag is also home to a significant population of Kashmiri migrants, who can vote from outside the parliamentary constituency in Udhampur, Jammu, and Delhi. Last time, out of 8,153 migrants who voted in the constituency , nearly 89 percent voted in favour of the BJP. This time, the Election Commission has eased out form requirements for Kashmiri migrants to vote.

Gujjar-Bakarwal & Pahari factor

While abrogation of Article 370 remains a key issue in the Kashmir Valley, an important issue for Paharis was the reservation they secured, given by the Modi government earlier this year. This is expected to have a significant political bearing for the BJP.

“We will vote for the BJP altogether. They have fulfilled our long pending demand,” said a Pahari leader closely involved in the movement for reservation since the 1980s. Though not associated with any party, he added, “In case BJP fields a proxy or an ally, the Pahari voter will not vote in a bloc, like they would for a BJP candidate.” 

There are nearly 10.2 lakh Paharis in J&K, according to the State Advisory Board for Development of Pahari Speaking People, based on the 2011 Census. While Rajouri and Poonch have 56 percent Pahari speaking people, they are 8 percent in Anantnag. In terms of numbers, Rajouri and Poonch have over 6.2 Lakh Pahari speaking population and Anantnag has 85,000.

“Pahari is a language. It is registered in Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution. People who speak this language are called Paharis, which include Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs,” 

Mohamed Iqbal Shah, a retired lecturer of English from the region, tells ThePrint. “It is also called Muzafarabadi. It is not that people who live in Pahar are called Pahari. There are also Pahari tribes on the other side of the border.”

However, the reservation to Paharis saw opposition from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community, which already enjoyed reservation since 1991, fearing dilution of their reservation.  The tribes of Gujjar and Bakarwal largely consist of nomads who follow Islam.

Amongst the two tribes, Bakarwals are more economically marginalised. Though a large number of Gujjars are backward too, some have been uplifted after the reservation quota.

Gujjar-Bakkarwals comprise 35 percent of the population of Rajouri (6.4 lakh) and Poonch (4.7 lakh) districts, according to the 2011 Census. Anantnag (9,73 per cent), Shopian (6.45 per cent) and Kulgam (5.39 per cent) also have a significant population. 

J&K Pahari Peoples Movement chairman Shebaz Khan, associated with the movement since his university days in the 1980s, tells ThePrint, “For reservation, we thank the Modi government, PM Modi and especially Home minister Amit Shah. It’s a matter of enormous celebration among our people. For the last 40 years, we faced injustice. We thank the government for fulfilling our dream.” 

“Yes there will be a political impact of reservation. We are committed.”

The Pahari teacher mentioned above said, “Govt. of India understood the pain of Gujjar-Bakarwal first, and gave them ST status. We are happy that it was given. But the Pahari tribe wasn’t given this; 2-3 generations had to struggle for this.“

Another Pahari and ex-president Rajouri municipal council Arif Mohd believes that denying Paharis reservation, created a divide for so many years among Paharis and Gujjar-Bakarwals.

However, Mohd Ali Choudhary, a Gujjar ex-sarpanch, believes that the move to give reservation to the Pahari community was a bid to divide the two communities adding that a “local candidate” will be elected.

Another Gujjar leader and chairman of Rajouri DDC, Choudhary Nassem Liaquat of NC, said “In this reservation, barring Gujjar Bakarwal here, with one stroke of pen, all have been declared Pahari”. This, he believes, will be detrimental for Paharis themselves because “ how will a Pahari from the  border area compete with someone from the city”.

Meanwhile, Javed Iqbal Choudhary, an ex-independent BDC member, believes that there is an attempt to divide the people in the name of Paharis and Gujjar-Bakerwal but that is not the case among masses. 

“It (Anantnag-Rajouri) is being seen as a hot seat. I think in coming 100 years, politics will be led by this seat,” Javed Iqbal says. 

Also Read: ‘Is Dogra identity less than others?’ Congress candidate Lal Singh bats for Article 371 for Jammu

Formation of seat questioned

Sharing his thoughts about the newly created Anantnag-Rajouri seat, former minister and PDP leader Naeem Akhtar tells ThePrint, “You see not only this seat but the entire electoral cartography in Jammu and Kashmir has undergone a change, and so far as assembly election is concerned, that’s already rigged 50 percent because of the delimitation.”

“It is bizarre. People are different. Language is different. Culture is different. People from there don’t know leaders here. Leaders from here don’t know people there,” a senior Apni Party leader from the region said. 

Even a senior BJP leader appears perplexed over the redrawing of the constituency.

“Don’t know why the two regions have joined…. The ones in Rajouri-Poonch have nothing in common with the ones in South Kashmir. Rajouri-Poonch people can better associate with people in Jammu, even though there is difference in religion,” the BJP leader tells ThePrint.

Voting percentage is a factor, too. While over 60 percent of the population of the seat lives in the Kashmir Valley, Anantnag saw a feeble turnout in 2019. Meanwhile, Rajouri- Poonch tends to see a much heavier polling. Despite a lesser population, the twin districts may turnout to be kingmakers in such a scenario.

Candidates in fray

While BJP has decided to stay out in Anantnag-Rajouri, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti has jumped into the fray. As an incumbent MP in 2019, she stood third. But with two INDIA allies in fray, the votes are expected to be divided in south Kashmir.

This is her first major election after the exodus of many top PDP leaders, led by Altaf Bukhari in 2020. 

Former minister Mian Altaf Ahmad is the NC candidate. While the NC has a base in south Kashmir, Mian Altaf draws his strength from tribals, especially Gujjars and Bakarwals, who form a sizable population in the five districts. 

Though he hails from Ganderbal in central Kashmir, the NC leader is from a family with religious and political influence, with sizable following among tribals. Between him and his father, the two have held the assembly seat of Kangan since 1967.

Meanwhile, Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP) has fielded DDC member Saleem Parray, an advocate. 

This was after Ghulam Nabi Azad back tracked there. In an interview to ThePrint, Azad had explained that while a section of the party wanted him to fight the Anantnag-Rajouri seat, he felt that he should not deviate from his commitment of working for the people.

The Apni Party has fielded a Pahari candidate —Zafar Iqbal Manhas from Shopian.

The BJP till now has neither endorsed nor supported any candidate directly. However, in a rally, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said Wednesday , “In this election, I have come to appeal to the voters of the valley — give vote to whoever you want to but don’t give it to these three dynastic parties. Farooq Sahab, Mehbooba ji and Sonia Gandhi, all three work for their sons and daughters.”

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: In J&K’s Udhampur, Congress demands Article 371 as BJP trumpets 370 abrogation


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