With the working draft of the Delimitation Commission out, the Modi government has set the ball rolling for the most decisive move in Jammu & Kashmir.
The moratorium on redistricting Assembly constituencies in Jammu & Kashmir, which was implemented by former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to mirror a similar nation-wide ban until 2026, had ceased to exist in 2019 with the passing of the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act.
For the past two years, the Modi government has been remaking the entire administrative apparatus of the Union Territory and pushing drastic changes with respect to land ownership, resource extraction and residency rights.
Yet, there has been speculation that once the civilian government replaces the gubernatorial regime in Jammu & Kashmir, a lot of these new mechanisms would be reversed.
But if the recommendations made in the second draft of the Delimitation Commission are any indication, the Centre has managed to steal a long march on regional political parties and is cementing its efforts to thwart any return to power arrangements that existed before August 2019.
The Grey Zones
The first draft, which was released in December last year, recommended adding six new assembly seats to Jammu and only one to Kashmir, the Valley’s numerical preponderance notwithstanding. As expected, the draft fired up a political storm.
The second draft now outlines the ways in which the new constituencies would be redrawn. It has proposed renaming 28 assembly seats and dissolving 19 by either splitting them between other seats or absorbing them into different constituencies.
Additionally, the Commission proposes a new parliamentary seat by amalgamating areas under border districts of Poonch and Rajouri in Jammu with Anantnag district in Kashmir, sparking both curiosity and suspicion.
At the very outset, the Commission had clarified that it was putting a premium on criteria such as geographical continuity, facilities of communication and public inconveniences as specified under Section 60 (2) (b) of J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, even though both universally as well as constitutionally (as per article 82), population alone has been an overriding determinant in redrawing new electoral seats.
It seems that those factors may have precisely become the grey zone that the Commission needed in order to actualise a host of new changes. And that has attracted allegations of gerrymandering.
The one new assembly seat allocated to Kashmir has gone to district Kupwara, a stronghold of Sajad Lone’s party. In Baramulla, the Commission has lopped off Gulmarg and Sangrama constituencies, in which the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had won in the 2014 Assembly election. The units under these seats have been reallocated to two new constituencies, Tangmarg and Kunzer.
Important Seats Expunged
In Srinagar, important seats such as Amira Kadal, Zadibal, Habba Kadal and Batamaloo, which were won by parties like the PDP and the National Conference previously, have been expunged. Instead, we now have South Srinagar, Chanapora, Zoonimar and Central Shalteng.
In South Kashmir’s Anantnag, seats like Kokernag and Shangus, won by the PDP and the Congress last time, have been scrubbed and replaced with Larnoo, Anantnag East and Anantnag West. Larnoo is one of the nine seats proposed to be reserved for Scheduled Tribes, who form 34.17 per cent of the total population.
Kulgam, Noorabad and Hom Shali Bugh, the political preserves of the PDP and the NC, have disappeared from the map. The Commission has proposed a new seat, DH Pora.
“This is an agenda-driven report aimed at dividing people and pitting regions and people against each other,” said Imran Nabi, spokesperson, JKNC. He added:
“A lot of seats that were sure shot victories to NC have been scrubbed from maps like Hom Shali Bugh. Some areas like Khiram, where we had a lot of NC supporters, have been realigned. Similarly, the Commission has played fast and loose with Devsar, Qazigund belt, Laram Qandipora, Damhal, Brinal Lammar. They are all NC bastions. Our leaders have invested political capital in these regions for decades. The rapport that existed between people and the leader has been dismantled. We were expecting that the commission would act in an unbiased way.”
The realignment of seats in Jammu, especially in its Muslim-dominated areas, is even more interesting. The new seats, like Padder, Doda East, Sunderbani-Kalakote and Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, have been excised from erstwhile constituencies, making them entirely Hindu-dominated new units. Similarly, the internal cartography of Rajouri has been realigned in a way that confers a tactical advantage to Hindu voters.
An analyst from Jammu said, “The demography of Muslim regions of Jammu is such that even if Muslims form the majority, urban centres are dominated by Hindus,” he said.
“Rajouri and Poonch are 68 and 90 per cent Muslim, respectively, yet urban centres are predominantly Hindu. In 2002 polls, a Hindu contestant, Yashpal Sharma, bagged 28,000 votes in Poonch and lost to a Muslim by the margin of only 700 votes. That’s because when your cities and towns are inhabited mainly by Hindus, it’s them who exercise significant control over the economy, microfinance and transport. And that solidifies their sway over the Muslim vote also," he added.
This pattern is visible throughout Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley. “Kishtwar and Doda now have three constituencies each, where Hindus will now have better chances of winning. Rajouri has five, of which two have been reserved for ST [Scheduled Tribes], and in the remaining three, Hindus will have better chances of winning. Reasi district has three seats but internal cartography has been changed in a way that a Muslim candidate will have chance of winning in only one. Traditionally, two Muslims and one Hindu won from Reasi. But now, with Mahore seat reserved to ST, Reasi realigned and a new seat, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, carved out, only one Muslim candidate is likely to win – an ST contesting from Mahore.”
Another surprise from the working draft pertains to the clubbing of areas under Rajouri and Poonch with the Anantnag constituency. For the first time, Assembly constituencies have been equitably distributed (18) to each Lok Sabha seat. However, some glaring odds have stuck out.
For example, in the Udhampur parliamentary seat, the population works out to 20.98 lakh. For the Jammu Lok Sabha seat, it is 22.83 lakh. But for Lok Sabha seats in Kashmir, it is 26.20 lakh for Anantnag-Rajouri seat, and 26.77 lakh and 25.86 lakh for Srinagar and Baramulla seats, respectively.
“The excess population of 17 lakh could have become a new seat for Kashmir but, since population as criteria took a backseat, that couldn’t happen,” said Zaffar Choudhary, a senior journalist from Jammu who heads Dispatch, an online news venture.
Effectively, new assembly segments in Jammu will have a mean population of 1.25 lakh as against 1.46 lakh in Kashmir, an arrangement that experts have called a violation of the principle of “one person one vote”.
“Now that you have merged Poonch and Rajouri with Anantnag, will the Assembly seats of these districts come to Kashmir Valley, in which case we have 56 seats then? Or alternatively, are you saying that Anantnag is part of Jammu, in which case, they get 57 seats and we get 35?” asks Haseeb Drabu, an economist and J&K’s former Finance Minister.
“You have made 1.3 persons in Kashmir equivalent to one person in Jammu. Now, will you go to other states with the same yardstick? There’s no precedent for this practice. Imagine a constituency with the population of 70,000 people [Shri Mata Vaishno Devi] and another with 1.26 lakh [Srinagar] in the same region? How does all this square up? This has more to do with incompetence than ideology.”
A Different Yardstick for Muslim-Dominated Regions
Experts say it has been common practice in the rest of the country for successive government to blunt Muslim representation by reserving Muslim-dominated seats to Scheduled Castes. For example, the in Uttar Pradesh, seat where Muslims comprise 43 per cent of the population, is reserved to Dalits (22 per cent), whereas the nearby seat of Dhuririya, where Dalits make up to 30 per cent of population, figures in general category.
“When system perceives a certain area to be hostile in their voting calculations, it’s annexed to a larger area to dilute its capacity to represent it. Take the Barzula area of Srinagar, for example. It was put with Hazratbal constituency, bypassing the entire city,” said Dr Sheikh Showkat, a legal scholar, pointing to more examples like Kishtwar, Gool Gulabgarh and Banihal.
He added, “They were part of Anantnag and Kulgam regions during the pre-Partition era. Today, they are annexed with Udhampur, even though both of these regions have significant Kashmiri-speaking populations,” he said.
The practice of selectively deploying benchmarks to resize electoral boundaries is not new. For instance, Ladakh is a Lok Sabha constituency despite having a population of just 2.97 lakh. Yet, an excess population of 17 lakh in Kashmir did not merit a new Parliamentary seat as per the Commission’s proposal.
“When we ask them about this variance, they say area is also important, but they don’t apply the same yardstick to Chenab Valley in Jammu,” Showkat said. “The region has a huge area. The fear probably was that Muslims would get a Lok Sabha seat of their own, and hence, it was clubbed with Udhampur.”
A Reversal of Historical Trends
Kishtwar is very close to Anantnag, and once the Singhpora-Vailoo tunnel, which shortcuts the jagged mountainous route, is operationalised, the distance will shorten further.
Yet, these regions are part of the Udhampur Lok Sabha seat. “Similarly, Shopian was adjacent to Poonch Rajouri via Mughal road, but the region has found itself annexed with Srinagar in the latest report, whereas Anantnag, which is distant, has been merged with Poonch and Rajouri,” Showkat said.
The latest numbers are exactly the reverse of the trends that have historically prevailed. The State Assembly in Jammu & Kashmir was first convened in 1952, and the first delimitation thereafter had caused a political flutter over the uneven electorate share in Jammu, where the population per constituency stood at 75,000, against 55,000 in Kashmir.
But this data may have been misleading as the delimitation was based on the 1941 Census, before the drastic population transfer took place amid Partition in Jammu in 1947.
The next two delimitations in 1963 and 1973 worked in favour of Jammu as more seats were allocated to the region. Yet, political consternation persisted over unequal share of voters, which worked out to 66,956 voters per constituency in Jammu and 57,992 in Kashmir.
The Justice Janki Nath Wazir Commission
To address these concerns, the government constituted a Delimitation Commission in the 1980s under Justice Janki Nath Wazir. But that decade was punctuated by a series of political disruptions.
Wazir passed away in 1983 before a report could be drafted. The Commission was reconstituted under Justice Mian Jalaluddin, which recommended allocating 11 seats to the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly.
Following Jalauddin’s recusal in 1991 under controversial circumstances, the Commission was reconvened under Justice KK Gupta, who put out his report in 1992, recommending 46 seats to Kashmir and 37 to Jammu. It was a version of this draft that was finally implemented in 1995, before a moratorium was enforced seven years later.
'BJP Wants to Change the Rules of the Game'
“It seems like no fixed parameters have been followed in the delimitation,” said Najam Saqib, spokesperson for PDP.
“They had spoken about such criteria as geographic compactness and connectivity. Those parameters have been thrown to the wind when it comes to carving out the Anantnag-Rajouri seat. If there are elections in winters, how would any candidate even go there to campaign? Additionally, all three seats in Poonch have been reserved to STs, even as over 60 per cent of the remaining population in the region remains Kashmiri-speaking. What becomes of them?" said Saqib.
Saqib added that the new seat of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi has a population of 70,000. Yet still, somehow, the Khanyar constituency in Srinagar was not allowed to retain its 60,000 population. More areas have been added to the Khanyar to take the population per constituency to 1 lakh. "BJP wants to totally change the rules of the game and alter the political landscape of Jammu & Kashmir as we know it."
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)