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How J&K Delimitation Proved Advantageous to Jammu Region

Rashme Sehgal |
The redrawn political constituencies have opened new vistas for controversy which signal that the Assembly election could take place later than expected in the erstwhile state.
Srinagar, May 05 (ANI): Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission signs the final order for restructuring the Assembly seats in the Union Territory, in Srinagar on Thursday.

Srinagar, May 05 (ANI): Jammu and Kashmir Delimitation Commission signs the final order for restructuring the Assembly seats in the Union Territory, in Srinagar on Thursday.

Well-known political and social commentator on Jammu and Kashmir, Zafar Choudhary, speaks to Rashme Sehgal about the recent award of the Delimitation Commission for the erstwhile state. He says the Centre read down J&K’s special status not as a “one-day mega event” but to mark the beginning of political and constitutional processes to change its status in practical terms. While no delimitation process can make each and every stakeholder happy, yet, he says, the redrawn political constituencies have troubling aspects. For example, the “nominated members with voting powers will potentially tilt the balance in favour of the government,” Choudhary predicts. Edited excerpts.

Delimitation was under the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, and not the Delimitation Act, 2002, which called for the 2001 Census as the basis for the remapping constituencies. Your comments?

When the government of India read down the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on 5 August 2019, it was not a one-day mega event but the beginning of a package of processes—political and constitutional—to change the status quo practically. The Delimitation Commission has to be seen as part of that package to map new political realities in Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, a number of processes in and about Jammu and Kashmir are being carried out through a new set of legal and constitutional tools, away from the existing principles.

The Population Census was to be completed in 2026, and the people and political parties of J&K had wanted delimitation deferred until then, but this did not happen. 

This demand has been limited to certain sections of the Jammu region that had doubts about the 2011 Census. The latest decadal census, which had to begin in 2021, has not taken off as yet due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the census takes off later this year, its certified figures may take another couple of years to tabulate. Delimitation after the latest census would have taken another year, at least, which means no elections before 2026. It has already been four years since Jammu and Kashmir had an elected government. I don’t think the government and also the stakeholders could wait for that long.

Traditionally, the population in a state forms the basis of this exercise. But the Commission ignored the size of the population in different areas. As a result, the Jammu region, with 44% of the people, got 48% seats, raising its tally to 43. The Valley, with a population share of 56%, got 52% seats. So its seats are down to 47 in a House of 90 seats. How do you understand this?

It is because of this outcome that political parties and people in Kashmir are highly critical of the final delimitation award. The population has always been central to India’s agreed and accepted principle for all previous delimitation processes. Even the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 mentioned population as the basic criteria. The Commission under Justice Ranjana Desai, by its own admission, devised a methodology of its own. More weightage to the topography and factoring in the difficulty of life along the International Border proved to be of disproportionate advantage to the Jammu region despite being smaller in population than Kashmir by over a million heads.

The allocation of two nominated seats is intriguing. Are they for Kashmiri Pandits, as some indicate? How will this exercise be conducted?

The Commission recommends nominated seats for ‘Kashmiri migrants’, not exactly ‘Kashmiri Pandits’. Migrants could include Muslims and Sikhs also, but by using the terms such as ‘exile’, it is clearly understandable that it is about the Kashmiri Pandits. The displaced Pandit community certainly deserved empathy and special provisions for their inclusion in the legislative process, as had been in the case of Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha, but such a recommendation was not in the mandate of the Delimitation Commission. Neither the Reorganisation Act nor notification to constitute the Delimitation Commission asked the panel to make such recommendations. Now, it is for the government to take a call. Once accepted, it is the government’s prerogative to decide on nominations. On the floor of the House, when the Assembly is constituted, nominated members with voting powers will potentially tilt the balance in favour of the government.

Regarding the representation of those from PoK. Is this purely a symbolic move? 

For anyone knowing the status of PoK refugees, this recommendation for their nomination is a huge surprise. For all practical reasons, they have been ‘State Subjects’ of the erstwhile state (and now its natural domiciles) and are, as such, eligible for contesting elections. Several notable legislators and ministers in the past have been the refugees. Since none of the PoK refugees lives in Kashmir, they do not suffer the same security risk as Kashmiri Pandits.

My early assessment is that the BJP and the government intend to bring the PoK refugees, their displacement and struggles under a renewed political spotlight with ramifications crossing the Line of Control. Over the past couple of months, there has been massive organisational activity of PoK refugees in close coordination with BJP and RSS. One could not ignore the speech of the Home Minister in Parliament on 5 August when he spoke about reclaiming PoK. This has the potential of escalating hostility with Pakistan. The timing and speed of escalation will depend on the prevailing geopolitical realities.

Since the reorganisation, there has been a feeling amongst political parties that the exercise has been done to ensure a Hindu chief minister is sworn in after the state election. Is that now a distinct possibility? Is this an attempt to further isolate Muslims living in the Valley?

Once the elections are held following the award of this delimitation exercise, a chief minister from the Hindu community actually appears to be a greater possibility despite the fact that the Muslim population is above 65%. A constituency-wise analysis would suggest that in at least 32-35 constituencies, a Hindu candidate would stand a better chance of winning. All Hindus may not come from the same party, for example the BJP, but many Muslims, mainly from Kashmir, would be willing to be part of such a government. Following this entire delimitation scenario, a Hindu chief minister looks certain.

In the Jammu region, Assembly constituencies have been carved out with smaller Hindu populations, such as Doda. But such a preference was not given to places with a larger Muslim population. Why do you think this happened?

As I said above, the Delimitation Commission methodology has been to the advantage of Jammu. If we look on the ground, we can see that nineteen constituencies in the Kashmir Valley are of the population size of 1.5 lakh and above, while this number for Jammu is only six. Similarly, 25 constituencies in Kashmir are in the population range of one to one and a half lakh. This number in Jammu is, however, 30. While the Jammu region now has seven constituencies with a population of less than one lakh, this number in Kashmir is only three.

Why do you think the Jammu regions of Poonch and Rajouri have been included in the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, given these areas are not geographically contiguous and the Pir Panjal mountain range divides them? 

On this decision, there is a massive uproar in Kashmir. They have called it a bid to disempower Kashmiris. But on the Jammu side, the award appears to have created a feeling of satisfaction. The Pir Panjal region has been historically ignored by the political elites of both Kashmir and Jammu. Since the first Lok Sabha election in 1967, a contestant from this region has won a seat only once. The erstwhile Jammu-Poonch Lok Sabha constituency, of which Rajouri and Poonch were part, has always been about the Jammu district. Now, with a history of poor polling percentages in South Kashmir, many in Rajouri and Poonch think it is a chance for their voice to finally get heard in the Lok Sabha.

Even as the Commission has balanced its exercise by allocating 18 Assembly segments to each of the five Lok Sabha seats, the Anantnag constituency does have a problem. It is that the only road link between the two regions (Rajouri-Poonch and South Kashmir) remains shut for almost eight months. Despite displeasure in Kashmir and the accessibility problem, the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat also offers the opportunity to enhance understanding between the Kashmir and Jammu regions.

Delimitation has embittered people in the Valley even more. Are people in Jammu satisfied with the outcome of this exercise?

I would like to look at this question going beyond the usual prism of Kashmir versus Jammu. In my view, no delimitation exercise ever leaves all people happy. Delimitation is all about challenging the existing political landscape. In Jammu, too, many existing players, including popular faces, have lost their constituencies. New boundaries lead to the emergence of new stakeholders. 

Now that this exercise is over, do you see elections later this year, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured last year when he interacted with Kashmiri leaders?

I have serious doubts about this. A couple of months ago, the Home Minister had said that elections could be held five to six months after completing the delimitation process. But the Delimitation Commission has opened up new questions regarding reservations for Kashmiri migrants and PoK refugees. The allocation of additional seats may not run through Parliament, but it will take time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jammu recently, his first public visit after 5 August 2019. He made no mention of elections. 

(Rashme Sehgal is an independent journalist.

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