The case for elections in Jammu and Kashmir

Holding an Assembly election soon can build confidence, as prior experience shows, and also stem the alienation that has spread across the former State

Updated - September 06, 2023 09:01 am IST

Published - September 06, 2023 12:16 am IST

At a polling station, in 2014

At a polling station, in 2014 | Photo Credit: AFP

The Narendra Modi administration’s recent announcement of a committee to look into simultaneous State and Union elections indicates that Jammu and Kashmir is unlikely to go to the polls anytime soon, despite assurances that the administration is ready whenever the Election Commission of India (ECI) decides. Meanwhile, the ECI remains bafflingly silent though Jammu and Kashmir’s Chief Electoral Officer has stated that panchayat, municipal and Lok Sabha elections will all be held this ‘financial year’. If those elections can be held, why not Assembly elections? The reason cannot be security: panchayat elections have to be conducted on a much larger scale as they involve over 30,000 posts.

In March 2023, a delegation of 13 political parties, led by Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference, met ECI officials to urge that Assembly election dates be fixed. Any further delay, their memorandum said, ‘would amount to denial of fundamental and democratic rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and a breach of constitutional obligations’. The delegation was assured that its request would be considered, but no action has been taken to date.

Distortions in representation

Jammu and Kashmir has not held legislative elections for the past nine years. The last Assembly election was in 2014, and the last elected administration fell in June 2018. After almost a year of President’s Rule, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 divided the State into two Union Territories. Like the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir is entitled to an elected Assembly with curtailed powers (for example, law and order remained with the Union Home Ministry and security with the Lieutenant-Governor); Ladakh is not.

The ostensible reason for the election delay was the reorganisation Act’s requirement of a fresh delimitation of constituencies following their expansion to 114 from 107. Jammu and Kashmir’s delimitation had earlier been frozen till 2026, in tandem with other Indian States. In 2019, it was added to four other States to be delimited; the process was later postponed for the four other States, leaving only Jammu and Kashmir. The Delimitation Commission submitted its final report in May 2022. Its recommendations raised two concerns: it gave six of seven new seats to Jammu and only one to the Valley, derogating from the democratic principle of equal representation. With 56.15% of the erstwhile State’s population, the Valley was allocated 47 seats as compared to Jammu’s 43 with 43.85% of the population. Former State Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu likened the award to weighting Kashmir’s voter at 0.8 to Jammu’s 1.

The commission’s rearrangement of political constituencies concentrated minority voters in fewer districts or spread them across multiple districts, vitiating their vote share. In Jammu division, for example, Hindu-majority Padder with a population of just over 50,000 was allotted an Assembly seat, while thrice as numerous Muslim-majority Surankote was not. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called it a ‘tactical process of rigging before the elections’.

Changes in residency rules further skewed constituency balance. Prior to 2019, non-permanent residents were not eligible to vote in Assembly elections. After the reading down of Article 370 and withdrawal of Article 35A, any person ‘ordinarily resident’ in the former State became eligible to vote, including any person resident for more than 15 years; any person who had studied there for more than seven years, and any person registered as a migrant by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (Migrants). As a result, a staggering 7.7 lakh new voters (net figures, after accounting for deletion of four lakh voters) were added to the existing voter pool of 78.4 lakh.

Pitting one against the other

Proposed fresh reservations will further narrow the number of seats available in the general category and/or expand competition within reserved categories. Of four new Bills proposed by the Union Law Ministry, the first, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, reserves two seats for ‘Kashmiri migrants’ (one woman), and one for people displaced from Pakistani-held territories of Jammu and Kashmir. All three seats are to be filled by nominees of the Lieutenant-Governor.

The second Bill, the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023, includes the Pahari community and a handful of small tribes in Jammu and Kashmir’s list of Scheduled Tribes. Paharis will now be able to contest reserved seats which were previously dominated by Gujjars and Bakerwals. The most affected area will be the Pir Panchal range along the Line of Control with Pakistan, which includes Rajouri and Poonch, where Paharis are in a majority in seven out of eight Assembly segments. It has four seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes.

The third Bill, the Constitution (Jammu and Kashmir) Scheduled Castes Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023, includes the Valmiki community, earlier considered non-permanent residents, in Jammu and Kashmir’s list of Scheduled Castes.

The fourth, the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, adds 15 more ‘other backward classes’ (OBCs), including West Pakistan refugees and Gorkhas. The electoral impact of these two Bills will also be mostly in Jammu, which has the largest number of Scheduled Castes and OBCs.

At face value, there can be little objection to these provisions. Effectively, it is another matter. Pandit migrants have been elected without reservation for decades, even during the insurgency and after their exodus. They do not need reserved seats, they need security when elected. Gujjars accept Pahari reservation if it does not cut into their quota but have received no assurance of that. Long-term residents such as refugees, Gurkhas and Valmikis should be entitled to vote, but does the former require a reserved seat? Given these gaps, the Bills risk entrenching caste- and community-based voter polarisation in a region of many castes and communities.

Division versus confidence-building

Successive reports from the ground suggest that alienation has spread across the former State. In Muslim-majority areas, people note that the number of their representatives will shrink. In Jammu, they suspect that fresh reservations are directed towards creating new support for the Bharatiya Janata Party where the party is fading. In Kashmir, Home Minister Amit Shah’s repeated attacks on political leaders and repeated assertions that ‘future legislators’ will emerge from panchayats, signal that the Union administration seeks supplicant legislators.

Despite their fears, most people now desire a speedy Assembly election. The unilateralism, nepotism and inaccessibility of Jammu and Kashmir’s centrally-directed administration has led to higher than ever unemployment and loss of land and resource rights, leading even supporters of the August 2019 actions to believe they will do better with elected representatives, especially since Statehood will only he restored after elections, according to Mr. Shah.

Meanwhile a welter of discontent is brewing in Ladakh, where the powers of the elected Hill Councils have been whittled to puny by the Lieutenant-Governor’s office. Here too, the demand for Statehood is gaining ground.

Holding an Assembly election before the year-end can build confidence, as prior experience shows. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration held elections in 2002, at a time when insurgency had taken a heavy toll. But that election ushered in 12 years of peace-building, with two free and fair elections. By contrast, the attempt to rig the 1987 election led to over a decade of armed conflict. The lesson is plain to see for all but the intentionally blind.

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst

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