Delimitation Commission Report A Step In The Right Direction
By Prof Gita Bamezai
The Delimitation Commission report has been received with mixed reactions, though the issue is of great significance in extending democratic representation to many disenfranchised population groups and geographical areas of Jammu and Kashmir. The recommendations of the Commission have brought under their purview not just the communities but geographical areas which had remained unrepresented because of their hard geographical terrain, distance, remoteness and proportional size of the population.
The pending demand of some communities and their regions’ development needs have remained unaddressed by successive state governments. The delimitation of both Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies can be looked at from a purely governance issue and as a step towards the democratic representation of people.
The process of delimitation in J&K was undertaken as per the Census of 2011, since no census took place because of Covid restrictions in 2021. Equally mandated for the Commission was the exercise of recognizing population groups which have remained unrepresented so far. It was also to ensure no undue advantage or over-representation of one group or region over the other. This procedure should adhere to the principle of ‘one vote one value’ as well and thereby abstain from any anomaly in the democratic process. Why has delimitation of constituencies been carried out and why has it riled some quarters, including Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC)?
To understand the need to set up the delimitation commission requires a good understanding of the delimitation process instead of seeking to view the issues from any political or partisan prism. Delimitation was carried out earlier under the mandate of the J&K Constitution and the J&K Representation of the People Act of 1957, whereas Parliamentary seats in the state were governed by the Constitution of the Republic of India.
With the abrogation of the Article 370, the delimitation of both Assembly and Lok Sabha seats was to be considered under the Delimitation Act of 2002 and as per the 2011 census data. The last delimitation exercise was done in J&K in 1995. This had led to a large-scale agitation in Jammu. . The charge was that the delimitation exercise had deprived the region of its due share of representation in the Assembly seats. Subsequently, Farooq Abdullah’s government had set restrictions on delimitation in the erstwhile state until 2026, thereby making any possibility of reconciliation of issues impossible.
The Delimitation Commission was set up GOI two years ago in 2020 under the Chair of the retired Judge of Supreme Court Ranjana Prakash Desai and two members. These included then Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra and State Election Commissioner (SEC) KK Sharma. The Commission had the mandate to decide how the territorial constituencies would be in consonance with the population under the Assembly and the Parliament seats.
Major Issues Before Delimitation Commission
Many issues had become preponderant in the changed circumstances in past 30 years since the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus and other displaced communities as a result of militancy. In addition, there was the issue of acknowledgement of refugees from POK, who had no status in the erstwhile state of J&K in terms of citizenship and representation.
The delimitation exercise was supposed to be done within a year. It took two years since work was disrupted by Covid. As per the report submitted by the Commission on May 5 this year, the total number of Assembly constituencies in J&K has gone up from 83 to 90, with seven additional Assembly seats.
Before bifurcation as two UTs in 2019, the state had 107 MLAs in the Legislative Assembly. This increased to 114 including 24 seats for POK, though effective strength would be just seven additional seats. This increase translated in increasing six seats in Jammu region, taking the total to 43; and one additional seat in Kashmir valley, taking the total to 47.
Various political parties from Kashmir region have alleged that the allocation has implications for reducing the gap in favour of Jammu. Seven Assembly seats proposed in the districts of Kathua, Samba, Rajouri Reasi, Doda and Kishtwar are part of Jammu region. Kupwara is the lone additional Assembly seat in Kashmir region. Legitimacy of additional seats in Jammu region is based on the principle of ratio of population and its geographical spread. In the past, this principle was ignored in favour of Kashmir.
The Delimitation Commission has tried to stay away from any divisive politics in the assembly seats under each of the five Lok Sabha seats. The Parliamentary constituencies have been reorganized in such a way that exactly 18 Assembly constituencies are under each parliamentary seat. An added feature of the reorganization which has missed many critics has been of bringing under each district all the Assembly seats therein.
Simultaneously, it became imperative for the Commission to reconsider the constituencies in the UT of J&K. The Commission has tried to do away with the old practice of dividing the state into two distinct divisions of Jammu and Kashmir by redrawing territorial representative boundaries and treating it as one. This approach is reflected in combining of Anantnag district in Kashmir with Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu to carve out Anantnag-Rajouri as a Parliamentary constituency.
Delimitation Has Agitated Political Groups
Delimitation has created unrest among people and parties in the past. It was made into an emotional and regional issue rather than one of governance. In the 90s, there was a large-scale uproar against the state government’s intrinsic policy of keeping Kashmir region over-represented in the Legislative Assembly.
The present delimitation has agitated political groups. They have alleged demographic implications to pitch Kashmir against Jammu. Omar Abdullah’s claim of six additional seats for Jammu region not based on 2011 census is belied by the population data. It shows that out of the six districts in question, four districts of Kishtwar (57.75 per cent), Rajouri (62.71 per cent), Doda (53.82 per cent) and Reasi (49. 67 per cent), are Muslim majority. Samba (86.33 per cent) and Kathua (87.6 per cent) are Hindu-dominated.
A significant change achieved by this exercise is reservation of seats for scheduled tribes. This is the first such initiative to bring balance in social representation. The plea for fair representation of scheduled tribes has been done by assigning nine Assembly seats to ST population in J&K for the first time – six in Jammu and three in Kashmir.
The step was welcomed by various tribal groups, especially Bakkarwals and Gujjars, in making the Legislative Assembly inclusive. In the erstwhile state, no such reservation was allowed. This is a step in rationalizing the distribution of seats among different groups of the J&K, which is as per the procedure and process followed in other states.
Political Empowerment Of Kashmiri Pandits
The Commission was apprised of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. They were dislocated despite a sizeable population, and had to be given representation in the Legislative Assembly. Many political groups from Kashmir opposed the step, since the Delimitation Commission does not allow representation based on religion. As such, two nominated seats for Kashmiri migrants have been recommended by the Commission with a plea that one of them be reserved exclusively for a woman, and with a right to vote – as is followed in the Pondicherry Assembly. We shall have to wait and watch how the government views this recommendation. This will be a significant step in recognizing Kashmiri Pandits as a political entity.
To ensure a consultative process, the Commission sought views of various representatives of political parties. On the panel of the Commission were five Lok Sabha MPs from J&K – National Conference MPs Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Hasnain Masoodi; Union Minister of State in PMO Jitendra Singh, and Jugal Kishore Sharma of BJP. They were nominated by the Lok Sabha Speaker as Associate Members.
The Commission invited representatives of the Election Commission officers of UT, and persons from different regional/national parties for bringing a consensus to any conflicting views that would cause dispute based on regional, political or social affiliation. Consequent to such discussions, the delimitation order changed the names of Assembly constituencies keeping in view the demands of local representatives. Tangmarg has been renamed Gulmarg, Zoonimar is Zaidibal, Sonwar is now Lal Chowk, Padder is Padder-Nagseni, Kathua North is Jasrota, Kathua South is Kathua, Khour is Chhamb, Mahore is Gulabhgarh and Darhal is Budhal.
The Delimitation Commission in India is a high-powered body with its orders not permissible for scrutiny once the President of India specifies a date on which the Commission’s report orders come into force. These orders are sacrosanct without scope for any modifications even when placed before the Parliament or in the state assembly since its report becomes law to be enforced. Despite this, a petition has been filed in SC challenging the delimitation exercise as not based on the Census 2011, since no such census was carried out in erstwhile state, and not constituting the Commission by the Election Commission.
There is speculation that GOI may hold Assembly elections before year-end in J&K. The Delimitation Commission has worked hard to give the people of J&K a roadmap of governance with participation from all sections of the society.
Professor Gita Bamezai is former Dean of Academic Affairs and former Head, Department of Communication Research at Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi