The recent increase in terror attacks on the Indian Army in the Poonch-Rajouri region has raised alarms in the Indian security establishment.
The thickly-forested, mountainous Poonch-Rajouri region, which is very close to the Line of Control (LoC) — sometimes as close as 15 km — with ridgelines reaching as high as 7,000 feet, is dominated by the Gujjar-Bakarwal tribal communities.
The twin border tribes of Gujjars and Bakarwals, overwhelmingly pro-Indian, have borne the major brunt of the India-Pakistan conflict since Independence.
From the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars to the insurgency since the early 90s, they were always at the forefront of the trouble. From the beginning of the insurgency, they have acted as the eyes and ears of the army, often providing intelligence about terrorists' movements in these hard-to-surveil hilly forested region.
Against any movement of terrorists in their traditional grazing grounds, although, they are forced to help the terrorists, often at gunpoint, giving their goats or sheep for food and horses for transportation.
Gujjars and Bakarwals have shown nationalist tendencies even after being hounded by the Islamists in the Kashmir Valley, who toe Pakistan's line, so much so that the term 'Gujjra' has unfortunately become a derogatory slang.
Although Pakistan uses pan-Islamism and the perceived step-brotherly treatment by Indian Hindus to evoke a sense of alienation among the Muslims of the Kashmir valley, the Gujjars and Bakarwals are largely remained cut off from this 'Azaadi' bandwagon of the Islamists.
Due to their largely nomadic way of life and the second-class behavior of Kashmiri Islamists towards them, these groups have found India's secular constitution to be their best bet at getting equal rights.
Pakistan's allies in the Kashmir Valley have branded these groups as collaborators and traitors, discriminating against them, preventing inter-caste marriages between the two tribes and Kashmiri Muslims.
That is why there was largely no support for separatism and Pakistan's agenda in the Poonch-Rajouri region during the large-scale stone-pelting incidents of 2007-08, 2010, and 2016, when the Kashmir Valley saw massive unrest.
They have also given full support to the abrogation of Article 370, which has freed other parts of the erstwhile state from the dominance of the Kashmir Valley.
The last time the Army conducted a large-scale offensive against terrorists in the area (in 2003-04) — Operation Sarp Vinash — the Gujjars and Bakarwals helped the Army not only by providing intelligence, but also by physically taking part in the operation.
Some, witnessing the killings conducted by Pakistani terrorists, came back from foreign countries, leaving their jobs in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, joining the Village Defence Committee (VDC) where they were provided weapons.
However, the intelligence they provided to the Army from the ground was the most valuable asset in Operation Sarp Vinash, as it allowed the Army to successfully conduct intelligence-based ambushes of the terrorists.
However, according to analysts, recent incidents suggest that their support for the Army may be waning. This could create an opening for Pakistan's nefarious agenda in Kashmir. The fact that a small group of terrorists has been able to operate in the Poonch-Rajouri region for more than two years (since 2021) without being flushed out indicates that they are receiving local support.
The twin communities now have also started to show some signs of discontent with certain policies implemented by the government.
The granting of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the 'Pahadi Ethnic Group' is one such issue. The Pahadi Ethnic Group comprises 50 heterogeneous communities with overlapping identities, including upper-caste Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.
The Gujjars and Bakarwals fear that granting tribal status to the Pahadi Ethnic Group will result in a loss of their quota of reserved seats in jobs and education. Unlike the Gujjars and Bakarwals, who migrate bi-annually between Kashmir's high-altitude green pastures and Jammu's forested plains, the Pahadi Ethnic Group leads a settled life.
They are concerned that this change will force them to share the welfare grants provided under Article 275 (1) of the constitution with the Pahadis.
Additionally, they have lost their traditional grazing grounds due to border conflicts and face ostracisation by both Hindus and Muslims. In Hindu-majority areas of Jammu, they are often seen as Muslims while in the eyes of Kashmiri Muslims, they are kept isolated as collaborators of Indian state.
This coupled with the recent deaths of three civilians in Army custody and an allegedly leaked video of the incident, could be easily exploited by Pakistan to turn these communities against India.
Pakistan could exploit these faultlines between the Gujjars/Bakarwals and Pahadi tribes, and the recent death of three civilians, as descrimination due to their Muslim identity by the 'Hindu' Indian-state.
Pakistan has used this playbook extremely well in the Kashmir valley, fueling separatism highlighting perceived injustices of the Indian state, which allowed it to keep the the terrorism pot boiling for three decades.
However, it appears that the government is reaching out to them to ensure the discontent among Gujjars and Bakarwals does not turn into desperation.
Perhaps Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's visit to Rajouri and his meeting with the families of the three civilians killed in Army custody, where he promised action against those responsible, was an attempt in this regard.
Editorial Associate at Swarajya. Writes on Indian Military and Defence.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!