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J&K Delimitation: Will It Really Help BJP? Will It Further Alienate Kashmiris?

With J&K Delimitation Commission's final report, all decks have been cleared for elections in the UT.

Published
India
6 min read
J&K Delimitation: Will It Really Help BJP? Will It Further Alienate Kashmiris?
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With the redistricting of electoral boundaries in Jammu and Kashmir complete, all decks have been cleared for the commencement of elections in the former state. The UT may go to polls nearly four years after the BJP-PDP coalition pulled a plug on the alliance, heralding a long spell of direct Centre rule that was a precursor to the abrogation of article 370.

On Thursday, the Delimitation Commission headed by Justice Ranjana Prakash, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, and State Election Commissioner Kewal Kumar Sharma, signed off the final report on the basis of which the new electoral jurisdictions will come into force in J&K.

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J&K Delimitation is a Bone of Legal Contention

The demarcation of new voter units in the UT has been a contentious issue because the move overturns a lawful freeze on delimitation in J&K that was to be observed “until the figures for first census taken after the year 2026 have been published”.

Critics of the move argue that the legitimacy of J&K Reorganisation Act, which split the former state into two UTs and engineered a new governance architecture for J&K, is under judicial scrutiny. Until the court decides on its finality, any new measures—such as delimitation—arising out of the parent law will undermine the faith in judiciary.

Last week, a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justice Hima Kohli agreed to consider listing pleas challenging the Union government’s decision to abrogate provisions of Article 370 after summer vacation.

Others fear that the BJP government is gerrymandering the political constituencies in J&K to its own advantage by skewing the electoral arithmetic in favour of the Hindus in a Muslim majority region.

The Unenviable Task of Delimitation Commission

The Commission released their first draft in December 2021 which recommended adding seven new seats to the J&K legislative assembly. Six of those seats were recommended for the Jammu region (53.3 lakh population) and only one was recommended for Kashmir (68.8 lakh population) despite the Valley’s numerical dominance over other regions of the UT.

Essentially, it means that while voters are diffused loosely across the constituencies in Jammu (1.23 lakh per constituency), they are concentrated tightly in Kashmir (1.46 lakh per constituency), constituting what critics call a serious violation of ‘one person, one vote’ – a cardinal principle in electoral democracies.

In February, another working draft released by the Commission put forth its suggestions, outlining the nitty-gritty of how and where the new electoral boundaries will meet.

The Commission said it has considered parameters such as geography, remoteness and public inconveniences, alongside population, as stipulated under Section 60 (2) (b) of J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, as basis for such wholesale reshuffling of seats.

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Why Kashmir Parties Fear Delimitation

Kashmir’s mainstream parties, however, believe that this is exactly the grey zone that BJP has exploited to run roughshod as far as the redistribution of seats is concerned.

Now Jammu region’s seat share will grow from 37 to 43 seats whereas Kashmir’s will grow from 46 to 47. This introduces a new political asymmetry between the two regions of J&K that BJP hopes to leverage to produce electoral dividends for itself.

Consider this — the population of Dooru, an Assembly segment in Kashmir is roughly the same as the population of three constituencies, Paddar, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi and Bani in Jammu. Yet, Dooru will have one member in Assembly representing it whereas an equal number of people from the three Jammu seats will have three MLAs representing them.

While there are six Assembly segments with population of less than one lakh in Jammu (Paddar, Inderwal, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, Bani, Basohli, and Kishtwar), the number of such constituencies in Kashmir is just three (Gurez, Karnah and Kunzer). Around 20 Assembly segments in Kashmir have a population of more than 1.5 lakh. Same for Jammu is just 8.

Is Reorganisation of Assembly Seats Set to Hurt Local Parties?

In the February draft, the Commission had also proposed renaming 28 assembly seats and dissolving 19 either by breaking them between other seats or absorbing them into different constituencies.

In Kashmir valley, mainstream politicians have accused the Commission of indiscriminately dissolving long running constituencies where the traditional parties have spent decades investing political capital and nurturing their political bases.

For example, in Srinagar, seats like Amira Kadal, Batamaloo or Zadibal which were won by traditional parties in Kashmir no longer exist on paper. Areas falling under these seats have been split between new constituencies.

Similarly, seats such as Kulgam, Noorabad and Hom Shali Bugh that have historically been the political preserves of the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference have been scrubbed from electoral maps. The Commission proposes a new seat, DH Pora.

Another shock comes in the form of clubbing of Anantnag Parliamentary seat of South Kashmir with Poonch and Rajouri regions of Jammu. The two regions are separated by the mighty Pir Panjal mountain range whose undependable terrain is rendered further inaccessible by the inclement weather for most part of the year.

And because the bulk of the 9 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) are likely to fall in this region, some quarters have also raised concern that the move to club the two distinct regions is motivated by “ulterior interests” as the Anantnag-Rajouri Parliamentary constituency could likely be reserved for STs in next round of nation-wide delimitation as and when that happens, thus neutering the Kashmiri Muslim preponderance on the Lok Sabha seats as well.

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Dissent on Delimitation

Currently, out of total five Parliamentary seats from J&K, three are in Kashmir and all three Parliamentarians who won from those seats are Kashmiri Muslims.

Similarly in the Jammu region, the Commission has cut out seats such as Padder, Doda East, Sunderbani-Kalakote and Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, from the erstwhile constituencies making them entirely Hindu-dominated new units. Some of them have a population of just 70,000. No assembly seat in the Kashmir region is populated so sparsely.

As Parliamentarians associated with the National Conference—who are also the associate members of the Commission—observed in the strongly worded dissenting note attached to the draft report, “The present Delimitation exercise...is neither in tune with the Constitution nor in consonance with law. The criteria, be it allocation of 7 increased Assembly constituencies or delimiting the constituencies and drawing boundaries of the constituencies is arbitrarily fixed and selectively applied.”

The Commission still rejected most of the reservations raised by the NC Parliamentarians while accepting 15 suggestions pertaining mostly to the changing of names of proposed assembly and parliamentary constituencies.

The Commission agreed to rename Larnoo constituency as Kokernag and Anantnag as Shangus Anantnag. Likewise, Habba Kadal assembly seat which was previously subsumed into South Srinagar has also been restored.

Will BJP Really Benefit from Delimitation in J&K?

The 5 May final report is pretty much a replica of the February draft barring minor corrections.

Yet for all the allegations of “partisanship,” there are reasons to believe that producing pre-decided electoral outcomes will be far from easy for BJP. Out of 90 total seats in the new J&K Legislative Assembly, there are 50 such seats that fall in districts where Muslims comprise more than 90 percent of the population.

Meanwhile in Kashmir, all political parties except for BJP have rejected the final report. “The delimitation report is a repeat of the past. Same traditional entities are calling the shots behind the scenes. Kashmir has been discriminated against as in the past. No change. Only the degree of disempowerment is greater,” a spokesperson for J&K People’s Conference said in a statement.

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Fear of Further Alienating Kashmiris

Mohit Bhan, spokesperson for PDP said that the Commission has made one person in Jammu equivalent to 1.3 persons in Kashmir. “The process defies all logic. No fixed set of benchmarks have been followed. It looks like they have opened a Google map in the AC office and cut new seats,” he said. “Also the matter is still sub judice. Tomorrow if the Court nullifies the August 5 move, the entire delimitation will go for a toss.”

Bhan adds, “We have seats like Shangus and Kokernag where our leaders have worked for decades which have now been splintered. You are simply disenfranchising people here. And more worryingly, you are bulldozing institutions which will cause lasting damage. When you do that, you reverse years of hard work. When you undermine the reputation of institutions, people stop believing in those institutions. Rather than involving people in the process, you end up alienating them. Something similar happened in 1987 and the consequences are before you,” he said.

Imran Nabi Dar, state spokesperson for National Conference said that the Commission consistently rejected the recommendations suggested by three Lok Sabha members from Valley all of whom belong to the NC. “It’s a political report,” Dar said.

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)

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