The New Year has arrived with a fresh challenge for the Election Commission of India (ECI), which has begun the process of delimitation of the Parliamentary and Assembly constituencies in Assam. This comes after a request from the Union Ministry of Law and Justice to the ECI to conduct the exercise in the State. Delimitation has not been conducted in Assam since 1976.
In 2020, the Ministry of Law and Justice notified the constitution of a Delimitation Commission to handle the exercise in the four north-eastern States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Nagaland, and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The commission, however, halted work when it was pointed out that the delimitation exercise in the four north-eastern States was to be carried out by the ECI in accordance with Section 8A (1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1950.
Assam has 126 Assembly constituencies and 14 Lok Sabha constituencies. According to the Constitution (84th Amendment) Act, 2002, there is a freeze on readjustment of constituencies until the first Census after 2026. As such, there will be no increase in the number of Assembly or Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam following the latest delimitation. The exercise will only lead to a redrawing or readjusting of the boundaries of constituencies to equalise population as far as practicable in accordance with the 2001 population data, says an ECI release.
Assam’s population increased from 2.66 crore in 2001 to 3.12 crore in 2011. The last delimitation was conducted in 1976 on the basis of the 1971 Census. The State’s population in 1971 was 1.49 crore and the total area at the time was 99,610 sq km.. The population density was 150 per sq km. This included 21,087 sq km of Mizo land that was part of Assam in 1971. Mizoram became a Union Territory in 1972 and a full-fledged State by 1987. Assam’s area was determined to be 78,438 sq km as of the 2011 Census and the density of population was 398 per sq km, which was higher than the national average of 382 per sq km.
The ECI said it would design and finalise its own guidelines and methodology for the latest delimitation. It would consider each area’s physical features, the existing boundaries of administrative units, communication facilities, public convenience, and try to keep the constituencies geographically compact if it was practicable to do so, according to an official release.
“Once a draft proposal of delimitation of constituencies in the State of Assam is finalised by the commission, it shall be published in the Central and State Gazettes for inviting suggestions/objections from the general public,” the release said.
The complexities of readjusting constituency boundaries in Assam, however, have been overshadowed by the need to settle pending issues, which include the expansion of the Scheduled Tribes list and a clear determination of citizenship in Assam. The actions taken to redraw the electoral map risk throwing into further relief the State’s existing ethnic and religious fault lines.
Opposition parties have objected to the use of the 2001 data for the delimitation exercise since the 2011 Census is available. The 2021 Census was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is set to resume in September.
Rushed abolition of districts
Significantly, the ECI instituted a ban on the creation of new administrative units with effect from January 1 this year until the completion of the delimitation exercise. However, just a day before the deadline, on December 31, 2022, the State government seemed to rush to abolish four districts—Bajali, Hojai, Biswanath and Tamulpur—at an emergency meeting of the State Cabinet held at Assam House in New Delhi, reducing them to sub-divisions of the respective districts from which they were carved out. The government decision sparked protests, with agitators demanding the immediate restoration of the districts. The Cabinet also gave its approval for the transfer of certain areas within 120 villages—including various revenue circles, development blocks, municipal bodies and town committees—from one district to another, which involved 14 districts.
While Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and other parties in the ruling coalition—the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the United People’s Party Liberal—maintained that these administrative changes were temporary and that the districts would be restored after the delimitation was completed, the Registrar General of India banned the creation of new districts across the country with effect from July 1 for the duration of the Census operation.
Sarma said the administrative moves were to protect the interests of the indigenous people and that the police jurisdictions and judicial districts would continue as usual. The Cabinet cited the benefits of the abolition of the four districts: “better administrative convenience, better maintenance of law and order, access to the justice delivery system, better disaster management, the smooth conduct of elections and geographical advantage”.
The Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation demanded the cancellation of the latest delimitation exercise and said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had opposed the exercise in 2007 on the grounds that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was not updated, but it was now pushing for delimitation to serve its “narrow political interest”. The Left parties further said that the recent abolition of four districts and the readjustment of 120 villages in the Assembly’s recent winter session without consultation with parties or organisations had demonstrated the BJP’s ploy.
Assam Pradesh Congress Committee President Bhupen Bora said that the party would support the delimitation if it was carried out in accordance with the usual modalities but would oppose it if there were deviations. The Congress and the All India United Democratic Front have formed committees to give suggestions to their respective parties.
The BJP, the AGP and the AASU were among those who opposed the 2007 delimitation during the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress rule. They had opposed the fact that it was being done without updating Assam’s NRC and without deleting the names of “illegal Bangladeshi voters” from the existing electoral rolls. An all-party meeting convened by the AASU at that time demanded a halt to the exercise until the NRC was updated based on the Assam Accord.
An all-party meeting convened by then Assam Assembly Speaker Tanka Bahadur Rai on May 11, 2007, expressed apprehensions that the volatile situation in the State following the publication of the draft delimitation proposal could lead to ethnic clashes and cause serious law and order problems. The meeting resolved that the first step should be to update the NRC so that it reflected the latest population patterns in the State.
The final draft of the updated NRC list was published on August 31, 2019, which excluded the names of 19.06 lakh applicants, but the BJP, the AGP and the AASU continued to maintain that it included “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”. They demanded the re-examination of the final draft before notifying the final updated list. The State’s BJP-led government, however, did not file an affidavit before the Supreme Court to seek the re-examination. The Assam Public Works, an NGO whose petition in the Supreme Court led to the court-monitored process of updating the NRC, has been pushing for a 100 per cent reverification, saying that the updated NRC included lakhs of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”.
Meanwhile, the State government has promised to protect the political interests of indigenous people during the latest delimitation. The AASU welcomed the move and said it would monitor the process so as to ensure the “supremacy of the indigenous people”. A crucial question, however, needs to be answered: Who exactly can be considered an indigenous person in Assam?
The Committee on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, constituted by the Central government during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act movement in Assam recommended that seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly and in local bodies be reserved for ‘Assamese People’ to the extent of 80 per cent. This included the seats that were already reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Three AASU members on the panel placed on record their demands for 100 per cent reservation of seats for the ‘Assamese people’.
In its report, the committee defined ‘Assamese People’ for the purpose of Clause 6 as “all citizens of India, who are part of the Assamese community, any indigenous tribal community of Assam, any other indigenous communities and all other Indian citizens residing in the territory of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, and their descendants”. The committee recommended a special delimitation in Assam to ensure that reservations for ‘Assamese People’ had the intended effect in constituencies of districts that had undergone demographic changes. The committee also recommended that the ECI consider the demographic changes in 11 districts and constituencies when carrying out the exercise and readjust the seats accordingly.
The panel’s report said that the demographic changes in 11 Assam districts had deepened the fear of indigenous communities of being rendered a minority in their home state. The committee noted that 100 per cent of the seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly would have been occupied by representatives of the ‘Assamese People’ if there had not been large-scale migration to the State over the years. The report said: “Now that the immigrants from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) up to March 24.03.71 have been granted citizenship causing demographic changes at the cost of the ‘Assamese People’, the committee is of the view that the quantum of seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly represented by ‘Assamese People’ be such that those representatives will have the final and controlling say in the Assembly in respect of major decisions pertaining to the State and the ‘Assamese people’ in the areas of their culture, language and identity. It is in this context that the committee is of the view that at least 80 per cent of the seats, including the seats already reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, be reserved for ‘Assamese People’.”
The report said that the definition of ‘Indigenous person of Assam’, which was mentioned in the 1951 Census report pertaining to Assam, Manipur and Tripura, presented by then Director of Census R. B. Vaghaiwalla, was explained as: “Indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the State of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any other tribal dialect of Assam or in the case of Cachar the language of the region.” It is on the basis of this report that the National Register of Citizens, 1951, was prepared, it said.
Infiltrators versus refugees
While the Assam Accord required the identification and deletion of names from electoral rolls and the expulsion of all “illegal Bangladeshi” migrants who had come into the State after March 24, 1971, irrespective of their religion, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar pushed the narrative that the “illegal Muslim migrants” from Bangladesh and erstwhile East Bengal were “infiltrators” and “Hindu and other non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh” were to be treated as “refugees”. According to them, the demographic threat to indigenous communities was posed by “infiltrators” through illegal migration and population explosion. In the book Assam Assembly: 2016, Understanding the Choices of Two Communities (published by Akansha Publishing House, New Delhi), noted social scientist Dr Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed wrote: “The Muslim community as a whole is an important player in Assam’s politics, more particularly at the time of every election. The Muslim electorate could be regarded as a decisive factor in the victory or defeat of candidates in as many as 23 out of 126 constituencies, where they constitute the majority of voters. There are seven more constituencies where Muslims constitute 40-49 per cent of the total electorate.”
The State Cabinet in July last year approved the identification of five Assamese Muslim communities —Goriyas, Moriyas, Jolhas, Deshis and Syeds—as “indigenous Assamese Muslim communities” to draw a demarcation with Muslims whose origins were linked to erstwhile East Bengal. Of the 34.22 per cent total Muslim population in Assam (2011 Census), Muslims of erstwhile East Bengal origin account for about 30 per cent and Assamese Muslims account for about 4 per cent. Chief Minister Sarma, a Cabinet Minister in the previous BJP-led Sarbananda Sonowal government, had dubbed the 2021 Assembly election as a “clash between two civilisations”, one that represented 65 per cent of the population and the other the remaining 35 per cent.
The 2023 delimitation process has been initiated even as petitions seeking 1951 as the cut-off year for determination of citizenship in Assam are pending before the Supreme Court and the Central government has got an extension for the seventh consecutive time to frame the Citizenship (Amendment) Act rules. The Supreme Court has stated that the NRC in Assam should be updated subject to a Constitution Bench deciding petitions on the constitutionality of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955. Section 6A was added to the Citizenship Act, 1955, following the Assam Accord to include the provision that pre-1971 migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan should be accepted as citizens.
Reservation of seats for SCs/STs
Under Section 9(1)(d) of the Delimitation Act, 2002, seats for STs and SCs are to be reserved in constituencies with the highest percentage of their population in comparison to the total population. Assam’s ST population in 2001 was 12.4 per cent of the total population; it increased marginally to 12.45 per cent in 2011. The SC population in 2001 was 6.9 per cent, which increased to 7.15 per cent in 2011.
Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) enjoys autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and now comprises four revenue districts—Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgui. After the abolition of the newly created Tamulpur district, the ST communities account for 33.5 per cent of the total population. The 2011 Census showed that of the total population of 31,51,047 in the BTR, the ST population was 10,55,732. The BTR includes 12 Assembly constituencies and partially includes the areas of four adjoining Assembly constituencies.
The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Amendment Bill, 2019, tabled by the Central government in the Rajya Sabha on January 9, 2019, sought to expand the list of Scheduled Tribes in Assam and grant ST status to the Koch-Rajbongshis, the Chutias, the Tai-Ahoms, the Morans, the Mataks, and the Adivasis (Tea Tribes). Community organisations have revived this demand. The ST population will obviously increase if this is done, but there is some apprehension that these communities will also be eligible to contest for reserved seats in the Assembly, Lok Sabha and local bodies. This has led to some ST groups taking the stand that expanding the ST list should not affect the rights and privileges given to existing ST groups. A Group of Ministers was constituted in January 2019 to suggest modalities for expanding the ST list. They are yet to submit their report, which has left the Bill stranded in the Upper House.
- Taking on the task of readjusting Assam’s constituency boundaries has raked up the need to settle pending issues
- This includes the expansion of the Scheduled Tribes list and a clear determination of citizenship in Assam.
- The Assam government rushed to abolish four districts at an emergency meeting of the State Cabinet in New Delhi
- It reduced them to sub-divisions of the respective districts from which they were carved out.
- The BJP, the AGP and the AASU were among those who opposed the 2007 delimitation during the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress rule.
- “The Muslim community as a whole is an important player in Assam’s politics, more particularly at the time of every election,” wrote social scientist Dr Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed.