Redrawing maps of assembly seats raises fears in Kashmir

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Iftikhar Gilani

Four months after India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire along the Line of Control (LoC), the latest meeting of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with nine political parties from Jammu and Kashmir had sparked hope that concrete steps may follow to ensure the course of justice in the region.

But, analysts and politicians in the region be-lieve the Indian government’s insistence on the delimitation of assembly constituencies, rather con-fidence building, has raised fears that the Muslim population in the region may be further disempow-ered by granting more seats to Hindu areas to bene-fit the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir that comprised of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh was the only Muslim-majority state in post-independence India.

The leaders of nine mainstream or pro-India po-litical parties had arrived in New Delhi on June 24 at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to convince him to reverse or at least modify the deci-sions taken on Aug. 5, 2019.

Modi’s government had not only revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, but also divided the region into two centrally adminis-tered territories, thus accepting a half-a-century-old demand of hardline Hindu nationalists led by the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh (RSS), who wanted a complete merger of this Muslim-majority region into the Indian Union.

Therefore, the priority for these political leaders, who were put under detention soon after these measures, was to seek the return of statehood, resto-ration of a semblance of autonomy, putting a stop to alleged demographic changes in the event of abro-gation of local citizenship law, restoration and elec-tions to the regional assembly so that a political structure is allowed to govern the region rather than leaving it to the mercy of non-local bureaucrats.

But at the meeting, Home Minister Amit Shah clearly spelled out to them a road map, which in the order included: undertaking an exercise of delimita-tion for assembly constituencies; conducting elec-tions based on new demarcations; and allowing the new assembly to adopt a resolution requesting the Indian parliament to return statehood to the region.

Once this exercise is completed, the Indian Home Ministry will draft and then present legisla-tion to the parliament.

Truncated powers Observers say that even if statehood is restored, it will be with truncated pow-ers, where law and order and the transfer of bureau-crats may remain in the domain of the central gov-ernment.

Therefore, they believe that Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, which used to hold the seventh rank under the official protocol list of the Indian government, will be pushed to rank 15.

For the return of the revoked provisions of Arti-cle 370 that ensured a degree of autonomy and Arti-cle 35A that ensured a separate citizenship law for the region under the Indian Constitution, Shah con-veyed that since the Supreme Court of India has already admitted petitions against the government’s decision, the matter was sub judice and therefore prohibited from the discussion.

While in the rest of India, the exercise of fresh demarcation of electoral boundaries will take place in 2026, the government set up a commission under former Supreme Court Judge Ranjana Desai in March 2020 to redraw the boundaries of provincial assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir, along with northeastern states of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland.

When the commission’s term was extended for another year in March 2021, northeastern states were removed from its terms and references, mean-ing it will now only demarcate the boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir.

The move has created suspicion that the central government, under the influence of Hindu national-ists, has singled out the region to reduce assembly seats of the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley or equalize it with the Hindu majority Jammu region — a demand propounded by Hindu groups since 1950.

Legal luminary and opposition Congress party leader Kapil Sibal said an exercise of delimitation of constituencies tends to favor the ruling establish-ment even though it is being headed by a distin-guished judge.

“If the delimitation process takes place in a non-transparent manner to ensure that the BJP’s political presence has greater chances of success, the confi-dence sought to be built will be eroded,” he said.

Government defends delimitation However, government circles argue that delimitation is re-quired because the parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act on Aug. 5, 2019, increasing the effective strength of the assembly from 87 to 90 members.

Ladakh, now a separate central-administered territory, had four seats in the erstwhile assembly. The new assembly will also keep 24 seats vacant for the areas currently under Pakistan’s control.

Jammu and Kashmir’s assembly boundaries were last redrawn in 1995, based on the 1981 cen-sus, when the state was still governed by its own constitution.

The Delimitation Commission was unable to conduct its work because the major political party National Conference (NC), which has three mem-bers in Lok Sabha, or the lower house of Indian parliament, had boycotted its proceedings.

The lawmakers were ex-officio members of the commis-sion. The biggest achievement of the June 24 meet-ing was the NC’s consent to participate in the fur-ther proceedings.

In parliamentary democracies, the worldwide practice is to demarcate electoral constituencies based on population distribution. The official 2011 census recorded a population of 6.8 million in the Kashmir Valley and 5.3 million in the Jammu divi-sion.

Based on population distribution, the Kashmir division had 46 seats — nine more than Jammu which used to have 37 representatives in the assem-bly.

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