Newsmaker | Ghulam Ali Khatana: J&K Gujjar leader to get Rajya Sabha nomination worked with RSS Muslim Rashtriya Manch

Newsmaker | Ghulam Ali Khatana: J&K Gujjar leader to get Rajya Sabha nomination worked with RSS Muslim Rashtriya Manch

Ghulam Ali Khatana, a BJP leader from the Gujjar Muslim community, may not be the first Gujjar leader from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to make it to the Rajya Sabha, but his nomination to the Upper House by the BJP-ruled Centre seems to have enthused the tribal community in the Union Territory.

“This is recognition of our nationalistic character and sacrifices for the nation “ said Javed Rahi, founder general secretary of the Tribal Research Foundation, a prominent organisation working for Gujjars and Bakerwals in J&K.

The tribal Gujjar and Bakerwal community, which is mainly based in the border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, had been the victims of Pakistani tribals’ attack following the 1947 Partition and of the gun-wielding militants during the 1990s, apart from being on the receiving side of the periodic Pakistani firing and shelling. However, the community has always remained loyal to India, with Ghulam Din, a Gujjar from Poonch, awarded Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime gallantry award, for helping Indian troops against Pakistan in the 1965 war.

Prior to Ghulam Ali Khatana, a senior Congress Gujjar leader Chowdhary Mohammad Aslam from Poonch’s Lassana village too had been a Rajya Sabha MP from June 2006 to November 2008.

Khatana, 51, who has worked through the BJP ranks, has a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. By nominating him to the Upper House, the BJP leadership has sought to not only send out a message to the nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals belonging to the Muslim community — the third largest ethnic group after Kashmiris and Dogras in the UT — that it recognises their “nationalist” character, but also to its rank and file that party activists working silently would be rewarded.

By picking Khatana, who hails from Jammu’s Bhatindi area, the BJP, which has several prominent Gujjar leaders, has also sought to dispel apprehensions about it among the majority Muslim community in the UT. The move has come at a time when mainstream parties like the National Conference, PDP and Congress have been accusing the BJP of implementing its saffron agenda in the Muslim majority J&K. The NC and the PDP along with a few other Kashmir-based parties have even formed the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) to check the BJP’s rise.

During the recent delimitation of J&K’s 90 Assembly constituencies, nine seats have been reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs), which mainly comprise of Gujjars and Bakerwals. In a bid to achieve a majority, the BJP which has a strong support base in about 30 constituencies predominantly inhabited by Hindus across the Jammu region, is now looking for support from the Gujjars and Bakerwal community.

Gujjars and Bakerwals in J&K were declared as the ST by the then Congress-led Centre in 1991, but they have been given political reservation by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in 2022.

In April 2018, when the BJP was in power in J&K in alliance with the PDP, the party had got two of its cabinet ministers, Choudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, resign for publicly supporting the CBI probe demand of the families of the accused in the case of gangrape-murder of an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl in Kathua’s Rasana forests. Their resignation came after PM Modi expressed anguish over the incidents of rapes in Unnao and Kathua and described them as “shame” for the country.

BJP sources said an exercise to finalise a name for the Rajya Sabha nomination from the ST community had been going on in the party for the past two months. “A few names from the Gujjar and Bakerwal community were sent to the party high command, but finally Ghulam Ali was chosen as he has been a party activist for the past 14-15 years, from a time when no one had thought that the party would form a government on its own at the Centre and would have a coalition government in J&K,” sources said.

The BJP believes that Khatana’s nomination may also have some impact on other parts of the country such as Rajasthan, where Gujjars live in sizeable numbers. In J&K, Gujjars belong to the Muslim community, while in the rest of the country they are predominantly Hindus.

Khatana, who was felicitated by the BJP leaders at the party headquarters in Jammu following his Rajya Sabha nomination, had joined the saffron party in 2008 when the Amarnath land row had polarised the then J&K state on regional and religious lines, with the BJP in Jammu supporting the allocation of land in South Kashmir Himalayas to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) for creating facilities for the Amarnath pilgrims while the mainstream Kashmir parties like the PDP were opposed to it. The row had led to the collapse of the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Congress-PDP coalition government.

However, Khatana, who was then in J&K National Panthers Party, not only joined the BJP to the surprise of many among his own community, but also organised a number of programmes in support of the demand for allocation of land to the SASB, when many had seen it as a part of the “communal design” of the BJP-RSS in Kashmir.

Khatana had been a secretary in the central BJP’s tribal and minority wings, besides being the J&K party unit’s secretary twice.

He worked as the J&K BJP vice-president in-charge of Doda district too. He had also been a member of J&K Study Group constituted by former party president Rajnath Singh. Before joining politics, he was a prominent student leader associated with the Jammu Joint Students Federation (JJSF).

Khatana played a role in creating awareness among Muslims in favour of the Centre’s move abrogating Article 370, organising a national-level event at Jammu in which prominent Muslim leaders and intellectuals participated.

He had also mobilised many Gujjars and Bakerwals for their participation in the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s “Lalkar Rally” at M A Stadium in Jammu in December 2013, which had surprised many over the presence of Muslims in such large numbers at a saffron party rally. In the run-up to the 2014 J&K Assembly polls, he had posted four lakh post cards to members of the Muslim community appealing to them to vote for the BJP.

Khatana had also been a national co-convener of the RSS-affiliated Muslim Rashtriya Manch in-charge of North India, leading a campaign, “Hum Hindustani, Jammu Kashmir Hindustan Ka”, across the country, especially in Muslim areas.

Khatana had regularly organised awareness programmes for highlighting the grievances of the Jammu people over their representation in jobs and other spheres, especially for those belonging to the SCs, STs and OBCs. He campaigned for justice for a Dalit boy murdered in Nagrota and for a Hindu girl and her family who were attacked by some miscreants in Nowshera. He had also organised a protest against the killing of 13 nomadic families by militants at Hill Kaka in Poonch district in early 2000s, when he brought 500 buffaloes to block the busy bridge over Tawi river in Jammu city.