The demarcation of new electoral boundaries in Kashmir was already a contentious exercise, to begin with. Before the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, efforts to delimit the electoral constituencies in the former state were governed under the Jammu & Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957. Indeed, as per this law, the number of Assembly seats in Jammu & Kashmir was increased from 75 to 87 in 1995.
The basis for this redistricting was the population census of 1981, because the count in the year 1991 could not take place amid the raging insurgency and breakdown of state machinery.
In 2002, the ruling National Conference (NC) put a freeze on any new carving up of electoral units. The move was supposed to mirror a similar moratorium put in place across the rest of the country. It may have caused annoyance to a few Jammu-based parties who dragged the matter to Supreme Court, but much to their disappointment, the judiciary upheld the freeze.
A Complex Bureaucratic Exercise
In August 2019, however, Article 370, the mother lode for all Jammu & Kashmir-specific laws, was extinguished, and almost all its provisions were rendered inactive, including the one that underwrote the pause on further delimitation.
The new Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, made it necessary to have expanded electoral constituencies. The rules mandated the new 83-seat Assembly (the remaining four seats went to the Union Territory of Ladakh) to have 90 seats in total. The meaty part of the delimitation was to oversee how these seven additional seats would be redistributed.
There are further layers to this dizzyingly complex bureaucratic pursuit. The delimitation of Jammu & Kashmir was supposed to be held alongside similar redistribution of Assembly seats for the four northeastern states. But surprisingly, in March, as the Commission was granted a one-year extension to file its report, the other four states were withdrawn from its purview. There were allegations that such an exercise in these states was “unconstitutional and illegal”. Questions have since been raised, that why what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.
Additionally, even as Article 82 of the Constitution makes the population of the state the “main basis” for allocation of seats (which is also a universally accepted rule), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been quite fastidious in underscoring the need for the inclusion of geography as a significant criterion.
That is because Jammu, while having a smaller population than Kashmir, has a larger land area.
'Participation Doesn't Matter': J&K Parties
Even the official release from the Commission on Monday notes, “Section 9 (1) (a) of Delimitation Act, 2002, read with Section 60 (2) (b) of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, which specifies that all constituencies shall, as far as practicable, be geographically compact areas, and regard shall be had to physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communications and public conveniences.”
Earlier this year, Sushil Chandra, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, also noted, “Though the population forms the base (for delimitation), the Commission shall take into account constituencies’ practicality, geographical compatibility, topography, physical features, means of communication and convenience available.”
However, legal experts tend to look askance at this line of reasoning. “Population is always the main criteria. Others are secondary factors,” said Dr Sheikh Showkat, a legal scholar. “But it appears as though their plan is to disempower the majority community of Jammu & Kashmir. Even the legal mechanisms behind the exercise are malafide.”
A few days ago, the National Conference, in a surprise move, announced its willingness to participate in the scheduled meeting of the Delimitation Commission, a major departure from its long-held belief that any parleys on the redrawing the Assembly units “will be tantamount to accepting the events of 5 August 2019, which the NC is unwilling to do”.
Other constituent parties of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a major political venture seeking a reversal of the annulment of Article 370, have been obstinate about their boycott of the Commission and its meetings.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP) has consistently refused to participate in the meetings, saying that the Commission “lacks constitutional and legal mandate” and is geared to accelerate the political “disempowerment” of the people in Kashmir.
The abstinence from the Commission’s meetings was also justified by the parties on the grounds that their participation “would not matter”. The PDP reasoned that the party at present had no incumbent Member of Parliament (MP) or a Member of Legislative Assembly. “The way the Commission has been designed, only the elected representatives are entitled to participate in the exercise,” it said.
As for those parties who do have elected members, there’s a separate predicament. Here’s an interesting observation by Hasnain Masoodi, who is one of NC’s three MPs from Kashmir. “We are associate members in the Commission and have no right to dissent, no veto power, our disagreement won’t be recorded and our viewpoint won’t be registered as well,” he told the press this summer.
The Draft Reeks of 'Foul Play', Say Parties
On Monday, at last, news came in that the first draft of the Commission’s report was shared with its associate members. The contents of ‘Paper 1’ have filtered out into the press and have sparked a major political controversy in Kashmir, with politicians across the spectrum accusing the Commission of foul play. According to the draft, six of the seven new seats will go to Jammu, while only one will be allocated to Kashmir. Further, nine seats will be reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST) and seven for Scheduled Caste (SC) categories.
Essentially, it would mean that Kashmir will struggle with a diminished seat share (52.2 per cent) in the proposed Assembly despite having a population share of 56.2 per cent in all of Jammu & Kashmir. Jammu, on the other hand, will be overrepresented in the Assembly – its seat share (47.8 per cent) is going to be considerably larger than its population share (43.8 per cent).
It had become a catchphrase for the BJP and its functionaries to suggest that restoration of statehood will be contingent upon the redrawing of the Assembly seats. There were complaints that the Centre had failed to break the political deadlock in the former state as a result of the events of 5 August 2019.
The first attempt probably came in January 2019, when a number of former legislators met the then-Lt Governor GC Murmu. The delegation was led by Altaf Bukhari, a former Minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government, which came apart in the summer of 2018.
Shortly afterwards, Bukhari formed his Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party, which is among the new political groups whose agenda eschews voicing demands for restoration of Article 370.
Whither the 'Grassroots Democracy'?
Later, the Centre embarked on more experiments. Last year, the Modi government amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, to clear the decks for the creation of District Development Councils (DDC) and form new units of governance in Jammu & Kashmir.
For its part, the Union Territory administration also amended the Jammu & Kashmir Panchayati Raj Rules, 1996, to provide for the establishment of elected DDCs in Jammu & Kashmir, marking the implementation of the entire 73rd Constitutional Amendment.
Local politicians criticised the move of creating overlapping administrative structures “to sow confusion, reduce the role of MLA’s and constitute a tokenism in the name of democracy since people’s ability to frame their own laws has been literally torpedoed”.
A year since the elections that the BJP lauded as proof of “grassroots democracy” were held in Kashmir, chairpersons of DDCs say that over-bureaucratised power patterns in the Valley have undermined their decision-making abilities. They complain of non-budgetary powers and inadequate accommodation.
During a visit to Jammu & Kashmir by members of the Commission in July, almost all major political parties had voiced some reservation about exercise and suggested things to be taken care of.
But it appears that the Modi government managed to tranquillise the resistance using its most preferred approach: the day PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti boycotted the meeting with the Delimitation Commission in July, the Enforcement Directorate issued a summons to her ageing mother in Srinagar. “ED sent a summon to my mother to appear in person for unknown charges. In its attempts to intimidate political opponents,” she wrote in a tweet. “GOI doesn’t even spare senior citizens.”
(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)