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With delimitation over, a look at the slate for J&K

The Delimitation Commission’s redrawn map for Jammu and Kashmir’s Assembly election was notified a few days before the Supreme Court of India ’s judgment on sedition. As expected, Kashmir’s political parties oppose its results. Though they had raised critical queries on the commission’s draft during its consultation phase, most of their concerns were not addressed. Instead, the commission’s final report speaks glowingly of the enthusiasm and the support members received. Apart from Justice (retired) Ranjana Prakash Desai, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra and J&K State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma were ex-officio members of the commission.

There is a chasm

Perhaps the commission members did not read the innumerable news stories detailing criticism of their draft. Or, perhaps, they concluded that erstwhile legislators do not represent public opinion. Either way, the gap between the commission’s self-projection in the report, and the views of the Valley’s political leaders, is as wide as a chasm.

The commission’s establishment was controversial from the start. Initially, the Union Home Ministry had notified five States and/or Union Territories for immediate redrawing of constituencies while the remainder would undergo fresh delimitation after 2026. After protests, four of the five States were dropped from the list, leaving only Jammu and Kashmir. Fresh delimitation was necessary for Jammu and Kashmir, the Narendra Modi administration said, since the State had been divided into two Union Territories and elections could only be held under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019

The decision placed the Valley’s regional political parties in an impossible situation. Over 5,000 people, including three former Chief Ministers, had been taken into preventive detention days before the reorganisation act was passed, many of them charged with unlawful activities tantamount to sedition. The State’s Assembly had been dissolved a year earlier and it was under President’s rule. Four parties were in the Supreme Court of India challenging the act. If they cooperated with the delimitation commission, they would be seen as tacitly watering down their court challenge. If they did not cooperate, they risked their concerns being ignored. Given that non-cooperation might radically shift power balances within and between districts, most of Kashmir’s regional parties chose to submit written representations to the commission.

Gaps in the report

As it turns out, they must be wondering why they bothered. The commission’s report appends a long list of people who made representations and/or objections, but it does not summarise the objections nor address them point by point.

Also read | Left parties reject Delimitation Commission report, calls it politically motivated

The central question of why Jammu has gained six Assembly seats and the Valley only one has been brushed under general remarks on methodology with no explanation of how that methodology was applied. For example, the commission claims to have taken plus 10% of the average population at the patwari or ward level as a measure for redrawing constituencies in flat areas and minus 10% in hilly areas. But that does not answer the question of why Jammu province has more seats relative to its population than the Valley does, with a differential of as much as 20,000 people per seat. Nor does it explain why Jammu’s Muslim-majority seats now comprise less than a quarter of the province’s total seats, though Muslims comprise over a third of the province’s population.

What is more, as analysts point out, the majority of the six new constituencies that Jammu has acquired are Hindu-majority. One has a population of just over 50,000 people, but shares the same physical features as a Muslim-majority constituency of close to four times its population.

The commission’s recommendations further complicate the issue. They propose that the President nominate Pandit migrants to two Assembly seats — why is there no reference to Pandits who remain in the Valley? — and West Pakistani refugees to another, along the lines of reservation for Anglo-Indians in Parliament. But the reservation for Anglo-Indians lapsed in 2020 since it was not extended by the 126th amendment to the Constitution.

Indeed, the only overarching guideline which the report does describe in some detail is the commission’s desire to match the boundaries of Assembly and parliamentary constituencies. Why this is so important is unclear. There is certainly a logic to ensuring that Assembly and parliamentary constituencies match local administrative and police boundaries. But what is the logic of ensuring that no Assembly constituency falls under two parliamentary constituencies? How many local legislators found that a problem?

Also read | CEC says delimitation done with aspirations of J&K people in mind

Most of these questions were addressed to the commission during its consultation phase. Its members, therefore, had the opportunity to answer doubts in their final report. By choosing not to do so they lost a valuable opportunity to display transparency and dispel suspicion of bias. Instead, and breathtakingly, the CEC, Mr. Chandra, commented in his preface that the redrawing will overcome long-standing divisions between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley. How can seeming bias do anything other than exacerbate division?

Court hearing is next

So, what happens now? Perhaps the Supreme Court will start hearing the challenges to the reorganisation act after the summer recess. If the Court decides the challenges are valid, then the delimitation exercise will be nullified, as Justice Desai remarked when she undertook the task of chair.

In the meantime, with the redrawn constituencies now notified, there is no reason for the Election Commission to delay announcing dates for the long overdue Assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir. However unhappy Valley political parties might be, they will have no choice but to participate. The former State desperately needs an elected leadership after having been under the administration of non-local and inimical bureaucrats for four years.

Whenever it happens, this election will be as polarised as the last election over seven years ago. Indeed, with the redrawn constituencies, it is likely to be even more polarised. In the short term, the risk of violence will be high, unless armed groups yield to the unspoken consensus in the Valley that a smooth election is in their best interest.

The real challenge will come after. If, as anticipated, the election results reflect a sharp divide between Jammu and the Valley, it will be even more difficult to put together a coalition administration with the Bharatiya Janata Party as partner. The breakaway factions from the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party might, with the aid of dirty tricks, win enough seats to help the BJP helm a coalition. But they must by this time be well aware that while they will have little influence in a BJP coalition, they might have to shoulder all the blame.

Talking Politics with Nistula Hebbar | Why is J&K’s delimitation exercise significant?

Focus on freedoms

The only hope for a peace process in Jammu and Kashmir is if there is a clean election, statehood is speedily restored, and the new Assembly determines whether or in which form special status is required. But the cards are already heavily stacked against either, and the delimitation report has further tilted them in favour of further conflict. A wise leader would hold elections for existing constituencies and let the new assembly approve or query the delimitation report. In fact, the commission itself proposed that the report be placed before the legislative assembly, a recommendation that makes sense only if new delimitation comes into force after and not before elections.

Urgent as elections are, attention to fundamental freedoms is even more important. There are over a thousand Kashmiris in prison under charges that the Supreme Court has questioned in relation to sedition. Most of them have been denied bail or asked to furnish punitive sureties. The three Kashmiri students arrested in Uttar Pradesh for celebrating a Pakistani cricket victory had to deposit ₹1 lakh each for bail, whereas Jignesh Mewani paid the far more appropriate sum of ₹1,000 for a similar non-offence. Applying the Supreme Court’s interim orders to cases under similarly draconian legislation would be a true confidence-booster for elections.

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst


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Printable version | May 13, 2022 9:24:12 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/with-delimitation-over-a-look-at-the-slate-for-jk/article65408408.ece