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Delimitation in Jammu and Kashmir: Divide to rule?

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-

Delimitation Commission for J&K, comprising Justice (retd.) Ranjana Prakash Desai, ex-officio members CEC Sushil Chandra (left) and State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma (right) with the final Delimitation order in New Delhi, May 5.

The mainstream parties in the Valley cry foul as the Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission comes up with its recommendations, including six more Assembly segments for Jammu, that are designed, it is suspected, to make it easy for the BJP to win elections.

T he Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission’s report, which recommended the creation of six additional Assembly segments for Jammu and only one for Kashmir, threatens to deepen the long-standing fault lines between New Delhi and mainstream political players in the erstwhile Himalayan State. The latter’s drift towards belligerence was outlined in peevish remarks and frowns on television alleging that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was whipping up a politics of division and hate, and that the Commission’s essential aim was to create conditions for stifling the political voice of Jammu and Kashmir’s salient Muslim majority.

“It will disempower the people of Kashmir,” said Tanvir Sadiq, principal spokesperson of the National Conference (N.C.), sounding his party’s warning yet again. Mehbooba Mufti was truculent: “The Delimitation Commission has become an extension of the BJP.... We reject it, we have no faith in it.” What form of action their combative rhetoric will translate into is unclear. But there is a general agreement within the Gupkar coalition, a conglomerate of five political parties including the N.C. and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), that an electoral alliance is necessary to thwart the BJP’s ascent to power in Jammu and Kashmir.

The BJP maintains that the Commission worked in a “transparent, unbiased manner”. A spokesperson of the party in Jammu, Y.V. Sharma, drew attention to new constituencies “which will provide populations living in diverse geographical areas [of J&K] an equitable opportunity to exercise their democratic rights”. The Commission has proposed reserving nine seats for Scheduled Tribes—six in Jammu (Budhal, Gulabgarh, Surankote, Rajouri, Mendhar, Thanamandi) and three in the Valley (Gurez, Kangan, Kokernag)—and seven for Scheduled Castes. It altered the boundaries of 21 Assembly constituencies and renamed 13. Notable examples are Mahore in Reasi district, which now will be called Gulabgarh, and Sonwar in Srinagar district, which has been replaced by a new constituency, Lal Chowk.

The Commission has made provision for at least two members, one male and one female, from the Kashmiri migrant community in the Assembly and they are to be vested with the same powers as the nominated members of the Puducherry Assembly. Although the number of Lok Sabha constituencies will remain the same—three in Kashmir and two in Jammu—a trans Pir Panjal Lok Sabha constituency has been created by merging the Assembly segments of Anantnag district in Kashmir with those of Poonch and Rajouri districts, which were earlier part of Jammu. Critics aver that this reconfiguration has effectively diminished the representation of Kashmir Valley in Parliament.

Since the inception of the Delimitation Commission in March 2020, there have been deep-rooted apprehensions among Kashmir’s Muslims that the real objective of the government is to alter the boundaries of Assembly seat in such a way as to make it easy for the BJP to win elections, should it be able to consolidate the Hindu vote in Jammu and in the mixed demographics of the Pir Panjal pockets. It did that successfully did in the Assembly election of 2014 and the general election of 2019.

Over the past year, as the BJP pushed the idea of using geographical spread rather than population density as a metric for determining the number of constituencies to be allotted to Kashmir and Jammu, respectively, stakeholders in Srinagar bellowed with rage, but to no avail. In terms of population, as per Census 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 four for Ladakh in the hitherto 87-member Assembly. In terms of geographical area, Jammu is about 26,300 square kilometres, whereas Kashmir is 15,948 sq km. Clearly, any consideration of geographical spread would be an advantage to Jammu and, invariably, its Hindu majority population would be able to influence the overall election outcome. Jammu now has 43 seats in the Assembly’s increased tally of 90 members. Kashmir is marginally ahead at 47.

A focal point of controversy around delimitation was its timing. In 2002, the then Farooq Abdullah–led government brought 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. This was done in keeping with the general freeze on delimitation in the rest of the country until 2026. 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.

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is among those who have questioned the rationale for delimitation. “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,” Abdullah said on the sidelines of an all-party meet with the Prime Minister in New Delhi in June 2021.

The Commission argued that since 1995, the number of districts in Jammu and Kashmir has increased from 12 to 20, while the number of tehsils has gone up to 270. “In 88 tehsils, there is more than one Assembly constituency,” Sushil Chandra, a member of the Commission, said, adding that this created administrative roadblocks. The Commission was set up on March 6, 2020. Retired Supreme Court judge Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai headed the Commission, which had Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and Jammu and Kashmir State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma as ex-officio members. There were five associate members: National Conference 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 BJP. It released its report on May 5.

As New Delhi and Kashmir’s mainstream players engage in provocations rather than in repairing ties or working on areas of agreement, the State election will be an important landmark in the politically fractious Union Territory. With delimitation accomplished, it is expected that the Assembly election will be called this year and Statehood restored at the end of it.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah stated earlier this year that Jammu and Kashmir would be upgraded to a State “once the situation becomes normal”. The BJP is hopeful that its limning of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as the sole protector of the national interest, along with the reiteration of its commitment to remake Kashmir into something resembling its idealised past, will act as a magnet for Jammu’s predominantly Hindu voters.

In Kashmir, the party is allegedly relying on a band of “proxies”, who, it hopes, will clinch enough seats to help it reach the magic number of 46 in the now 90-member Assembly. There is a perception that a blueprint has been readied to splinter the N.C.’s top ranks and facilitate the rebels’ entry into either Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference (P.C.) or Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party.

Both P.C. and Apni Party are seen as vehicles of the BJP in the Valley. Though both parties deny any complicity with the saffron forces, developments of the past one year seem to betray a tacit understanding. Devender Rana, once the N.C.’s heavyweight leader from Jammu, quit the party to join the BJP. The N.C.’s Hilal Rather switched allegiance to P.C. Ishfaq Jabbar, an N.C. leader from Ganderbal, is among those who are resisting the Abdullahs internally. Several other leaders from the N.C. have forayed into either P.C. or Apni Party.

But defection is not the mainstream’s only worry. It faces a quixotic, unengaged electorate before whom its inability to offer a unified, concrete resistance to the Centre’s actions has been paraded. No amount of berating the BJP can erase the magnitude of the challenge it faces in reclaiming its space in the Kashmir valley.

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