Delimitation exercise

Motives behind the Union government’s delimitation exercise in Jammu and Kashmir under suspicion

Print edition : August 13, 2021

Members of Jammu and Kashmir’s political parties arriving to meet with the Delimitation Commission in Srinagar on July 6. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Retired Supreme Court Judge Ranjana Prakash Desai, the chairperson of the Delimitation Commission. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, one of the Delimitation Commission’s ex officio members. Photo: Kamal Singh/PTI

Jammu and Kashmir State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma, one of the Delimitation Commission’s two ex officio members. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Farooq Abdullah of the N.C., one of the Delimitation Commission’s five associate members. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Mohammad Akbar Lone, N.C. MP., one of the Delimitation Commission’s five associate members. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

(Right) Hasnain Masoodi, N.C. MP, one of the Delimitation Commission’s five associate members. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, one of the Delimitation Commission’s five associate members. Photo: LSTV/PTI

(Centre) Jugal Kishore Sharma of the BJP, one of the Delimitation Commission’s five associate members. Photo: PTI

As the Union government goes ahead with its delimitation exercise in Jammu and Kashmir, there is a near consensus among the people that it may be aimed at isolating and disempowering Muslims and depriving them of their political voice.

On March 6, 2020, less than a year after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked, the Union government constituted a Delimitation Commission to redraw the boundaries of the legislative Assembly constituencies in the erstwhile State. As per the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2021, the number of seats in the Assembly is to increase from 107 to 114.

Headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Ranjana Prakash Desai, the Commission comprises Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and Jammu and Kashmir State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma as it ex officio members and five associate members: National Conference (N.C.) MPs Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Hasnain Masoodi; Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office; and Jugal Kishore Sharma of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its tenure was extended on March 4 by a year.

Since the inception of the delimitation exercise, there have been consistent and deep-rooted apprehensions among Kashmir’s Muslim majority population that the underlying objective of the government was to alter the boundaries of Assembly constituencies in such a way that it would be easier for the BJP to register election victories, should it be able to consolidate the Hindu vote in Jammu and in the mixed demographics of the Pir Panjal pockets as it successfully did in the general election of 2019 and the Assembly election of 2014.

The apprehensions increased with time as the BJP kept pushing the idea that the geographical spread of the Jammu region should be given weightage in determining the number of constituencies to be allotted to it. This will no doubt benefit the Hindu majority electorate of Jammu by ensuring that it gets political representation disproportionate to its population. In June, when the Election Commission wrote to the Deputy Commissioners of all 20 districts in Jammu and Kashmir asking for fresh data on several heads, including population density and topography in all the districts and Assembly constituencies, people’s apprehensions mounted.

Also read: Kashmir: Centre’s iron hand in velvet glove

In terms of population, as per the census of 2011, of Jammu and Kashmir’s 12.5 million people, 6.89 million live in Kashmir, 5.38 million in Jammu and 2,74,000 in Ladakh. This translated into 46 seats for the Kashmir region, 37 for Jammu and 4 for Ladakh in the 87-member Assembly. As many as 24 seats were reserved for Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Prospects of a ‘Hindu Chief Minister’

However, the BJP has been advocating a formula that will take into consideration the geographical spread of the two regions, Jammu and the Kashmir Valley, in determining how many constituencies they each get, now that Ladakh is a separate Union Territory. In terms of geographical area, Jammu is about 26,293 square kilometres, whereas Kashmir is 15,948 sq. km. Clearly, any consideration of geographical spread would greatly benefit Jammu, and invariably, its Hindu majority population would be able to determine the electoral outcome if the BJP is able to repeat its sweep in the region, riding on its “Hindu Chief Minister” promise.

The public perception in Kashmir is that the delimitation exercise may lead to a scenario in which the number of seats from Jammu increases to 44. If that indeed is the outcome of delimitation, it will end the upper hand Kashmir has had in working out post-election permutations and combinations and essentially in determining who will rule the erstwhile State.

There has been a gradual erosion of the political voice and fundamental rights of the overwhelmingly Muslim majority population of Kashmir over the past six years. Ever since the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) joined hands with the BJP in March 2015 to form the government in the erstwhile State, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, has had a free hand in the Jammu region, as exemplified by its infamous arms rally in October 2015 wherein RSS workers held a march flaunting swords.

Also read: BJP scripts devious election strategies

The years leading up to the eventual abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, which guaranteed exclusivity to the people of the State in terms of jobs and purchase of immovable assets, the RSS and the BJP made sure that Jammu turned into its most lethal laboratory for wide-ranging Hindutva experimentation. When the gruesome Kathua rape and murder case hit the headlines in January 2018, an MLA of the BJP, Rajiv Jasrotia, allegedly attended a rally that was called in solidarity with the rape and murder accused. The PDP-BJP government later accommodated him in the Jammu and Kashmir Cabinet in a reshuffle. The Kathua rape case involved the abduction, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl by Sanji Ram, a temple priest, and his associates.

From 2015 to August 5, 2019, there was an exponential increase in night raids, detentions and alleged ransacking of residential houses in the hinterland of Kashmir by the security forces and a crackdown on clerics and pro-resistance leaders. The magnitude of the repression by the state was such that when Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was ended in August 2019, there were no wide-scale public protests even though the majority of the people disapproved of and felt betrayed by the Centre’s unilateral action. The BJP government went on to impose the world’s longest Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir. Against this backdrop, it is not hard to imagine why the ongoing delimitation exercise is viewed with suspicion and foreboding. As per early reports, it will also lead to a number of reserved constituencies based on Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) settlements. At the first reading, this appears to be a progressive step to emancipate disempowered communities, but it cannot be delinked from the underlying political objectives of the BJP.

Calculation in reserved seats

In any case, at the national level, delimitation commissions of the past have had a mixed track record when it came to addressing the question of political representation of the minorities. When in 2006, the Sachar Committee submitted its report on the socio-economic status of Muslims in India, it came to light that in a number of constituencies reserved for S.Cs, the Muslim population was higher than that of the S.Cs. On the other hand, there were many general (unreserved) constituencies with fewer Muslims and more S.Cs. According to some reading of the report, the Delimitation Commission in the 1970s may have deliberately reserved constituencies with a high proportion of Muslims to S.Cs in an effort to neutralise their numerical superiority and scuttle the chances of a Muslim getting elected. Whether this was an oversight or part of systematic state discrimination against the community is debatable.

Now, it is expected that post delimitation, the S.Cs and S.Ts will have up to 12 seats reserved for them. In the previous Assembly, 7 seats were reserved for the S.C. category: Chhamb, Domana, R.S. Pura, Samba, Hiranagar, Chenani and Ramban. After the fresh delimitation, Assembly seats will be reserved for the first time for S.Ts. Political analysts concur that in a Muslim-majority region, so far reservation for S.Cs has benefited only the minority community (Hindus). Similarly, reservation for S.Ts could also end up benefiting mostly Hindus. It is with such calculations in mind that the BJP’s State unit and the Modi government are adamant on delimitation and elections first and restoration of statehood later.

Also read: Changing tactics as political equations shift in Valley

Both the N.C. and the PDP have been vocal in making their reservations known. After the June 24 meeting between the Prime Minister and representatives of political parties from Jammu and Kashmir, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said: “On the one hand, the Centre claimed that the decision in August 2019 was taken [to facilitate] a complete merger of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India and, on the other hand, Jammu and Kashmir is [being] treated differently by bringing [in] a delimitation commission.”

Omar Abdullah was referring to the fact that delimitation in India will not happen before 2026. In 1976, Parliament passed an amendment freezing all the delimitation exercises done as per the 1971 census, up to the census of 2001. In 2000, another amendment postponed the exercise to 2026. In Jammu and Kashmir, Assembly seats were delimited in 1963, 1973 and 1995. The 1995 delimitation was based on the 1981 census. In 2002, the then Farooq Abdullah–led government brought in an amendment to the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, and Section 47(3) of the then Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir and froze fresh delimitation of seats until 2026. The Supreme Court upheld this freeze.

When the members of the Delimitation Commission visited Jammu and Kashmir from July 6 to 9, Sushil Chandra explained the government’s rationale behind delimitation while briefing the press. “In 1995, it [Jammu and Kashmir] was 12 districts; now it is 20 while the number of tehsils went up to 270. In 88 tehsils, there is more than one assembly constituency.” According to him, the public faces inconvenience because of this.

Political parties’ opposition

However, the Kashmir-based parties and even the Congress smell a political machination. The PDP refused to accept the commission’s invite for a deliberation. Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjura, general secretary of the party, said in a letter addressed to the Chief Election Commissioner: “Leave aside acting on suggested confidence-building measures, the Government of India has continued with its daily dictates to the people of J&K including the recent amendments and orders including those making every person a suspect and deepening the divide between the two regions [Jammu region and Kashmir Valley].” The letter stated that the PDP would “not be part of an exercise, the outcome of which is widely believed to be pre-planned and which may further hurt the interests of the people”. It further said that the June 24 meeting was merely a photo opportunity since “no effort has been made to ease the lives of the people”.

The Congress submitted a memorandum to the Delimitation Commission on July 8, which stated: “Until full statehood for Jammu and Kashmir as part of the Union of India is restored, there would be no meaning for the Delimitation Commission to undertake any exercise.”

Although a delegation of the N.C. led by Devender Singh Rana, its provincial president, Jammu, called on the visiting Delimitation Commission in Srinagar on July 8, its memorandum said in no uncertain terms that “any Delimitation process has a vital role in empowering each constituent to be an equal shareholder in the process of democracy so that each one feels empowered and not feels relegated, isolated, disconnected or disempowered”. Among the masses of Kashmir, there is a near consensus that the whole exercise may be aimed at isolating and disempowering Muslims and depriving them of their political voice.

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