Jammu & Kashmir

Jammu & Kashmir: The hidden agenda behind the delimitation exercise

Print edition : April 08, 2022
The Delimitation Commission’s proposals, which were published on March 14, appear to confirm the fears of Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population that the Centre’s underlying objective was to alter the boundaries of Assembly constituencies to make it easier for the BJP to win elections.

THE Delimitation Commission, which had been tasked with redrawing the Assembly and parliamentary constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir, published its proposals on March 14 in the Gazette of India and the Gazette of Jammu and Kashmir. It held on to its allotment of six of the seven new constituencies that are being added to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly even as the political class in the Kashmir valley accused it of blatantly tilting the electoral scale in favour of the Hindu-majority Jammu region. As far as the Lok Sabha constituencies are concerned, the commission has not made any changes in their number though they have been redrawn.

Dissenting views

The commission also made public the dissenting views of Farooq Abdullah, Akbar Lone and Hasnain Masoodi, the National Conference (N.C.) Lok Sabha members from the erstwhile State who were associate members of the commission along with Jitendra Singh and Jugal Kishore, their counterparts from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A notification issued by the commission reads: “Any objection/suggestions in regard to these proposals should reach the secretary, Delimitation Commission, Nirvachan Sadan, Ashoka Road, New Delhi, 110001 on or before 5 pm on March 21.”

The Delimitation Commission has evoked considerable scepticism among not only the political and intellectual elite of Kashmir and but people in general, with questions repeatedly being raised over why the exercise of redrawing electoral constituencies was being undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir when it was on hold in the rest of India until 2026. The Srinagar-headquartered parties raised this point when Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting with Jammu and Kashmir’s political leaders in June 2021.

They had emphasised that it would not be in the democratic spirit to carry out any delimitation of Jammu and Kashmir’s electoral map before elections were held in the erstwhile State. But as their plea fell on deaf ears, they vented their exasperation in the media loud and often. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah categorically pointed to the discriminatory policies of the Centre vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir: “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.”

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

In 1976, Parliament passed an amendment freezing all 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.

So, it was in an atmosphere of jarring opposition that the commission visited Jammu and Kashmir in July 2021. It was headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai and comprised Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and Jammu and Kashmir State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma as its ex officio members.

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.

BJP’s formula

The BJP has been advocating a formula that takes into consideration the geographical spread of the two regions of Jammu and the Kashmir valley in determining how many constituencies they each get now that Ladakh is a separate Union Territory. This would be an obvious departure from the principle of giving weightage to population when determining the number of constituencies in a given region. 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. After Ladakh became a separate Union Territory, Jammu and Kashmir was left with 83 seats. This is being increased to 90.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) did not accept the commission’s invitation 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 N.C. met with the commission’s members but told them in no uncertain terms: “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.”

Also read: BJP game plan to consolidate its position in Jammu and Kashmir

However, when the draft proposal became public knowledge in December 2021, it was clear that the commission had not been receptive to any of their suggestions or concerns. It had proposed six additional seats for Jammu and only one for Kashmir, leaving mainstream political players in the Kashmir valley fuming. Omar Abdullah tweeted: “The draft recommendation of the J&K delimitation commission is unacceptable. The distribution of newly created assembly constituencies with 6 going to Jammu & only 1 to Kashmir is not justified by the data of the 2011 census.” Sajad Lone of the Peoples Conference said the latest development was a “shock for those who believe in democracy”. Mehbooba Mufti, president of the PDP, said the whole exercise served the BJP’s political interests.

The commission is slated to visit Jammu and Kashmir once again, on March 28 and 29; the objective is to hold anchor meetings with representatives of a cross section of society and hear their opinions on the proposal. The Delimitation Commission’s term was recently extended by two months to May 6.

Questions are being raised about what many described as a “haphazard mingling” of different Assembly segments. A cursory look at some of the newly drawn constituencies upholds that point of view. For example, Budgam district, which was part of Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, has been redrawn and merged with Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency. New Assembly seats such as Kunzer in North Kashmir has been created by splitting some areas of Budgam, which is in Central Kashmir. Likewise, Sangrama Assembly seat in North Kashmir has been fragmented and made part of other Assembly seats. Barring the Khanyar, Sonwar and Hazratbal Assembly seats of Srinagar district, all other seats have been redrawn and merged with new Assembly seats that have been carved out such as Channapora and Srinagar South, the officials of the commission said.

In a development that has been a letdown for Kashmiri Pandits, the Habba Kadal Assembly seat has been dropped. Habba Kadal is a Kashmiri Pandit bastion. Several other reorganisations have taken place, such as incorporating Pulwama, Tral and some areas of Shopian, which were part of the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, into the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat.

Also read: Escalation of violence in J&K leading to alienation of Kashmiri Pandits

Significantly, the Muslim-majority pockets of Jammu, which were part of the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, have been incorporated into the Anantnag constituency. Rajouri and Poonch districts in Jammu region, which are Muslim dominated, are now part of the Anantnag constituency of Kashmir region. The political class in Kashmir is of the view that this has only sharpened the religious divide between the Kashmir valley and the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

It is expected that elections will take place in the Union Territory five to six months after the Delimitation Commission submits its report to the government. The BJP has been pushing for a Hindu Chief Minister in Jammu and Kashmir, and it is believed that the Delimitation Commission awarding six of the seven new Assembly seats to the Jammu region is a part of that design. By chipping away at all the Muslim-majority pockets of Jammu, the BJP appears to be attempting to make the region a formidable Hindutva playground where it can sweep elections, which is imperative if it has to install a Hindu Chief Minister.