The act of redrawing electoral boundaries is disruptive by definition and politicians are always wary of being short-changed by the process. In Muslim-majority Jammu & Kashmir, where the demand for delimitation has emanated from Jammu and is seen as reflecting the communal polarisation along regional lines in the erstwhile state, the redrawing of constituencies was always going to be a fraught exercise. The draft proposals of the J&K Delimitation Commission, set up in March 2020, seem to have confirmed the fears of the regional parties that the exercise was aimed solely at increasing the number of seats in Hindu-majority Jammu, to benefit the BJP. The five associate members — three parliamentarians from the National Conference and two from the BJP — have been told that its findings support an increase of six seats for the Jammu region, and one in the Muslim-majority Valley. This takes the seats in Jammu from 37 to 43, and in Kashmir, from 46 to 47. In the last Assembly election held in 2014, the BJP’s 25 seats were all won in Jammu. Delimitation is thought to have one criterion — population. On the basis of the last census conducted in 2011, according to which the population of Kashmir is 6,888,475 and that of Jammu 5,350,811, the proposal presents an anomaly — a population of 1,46,563 in Kashmir per constituency, and 1,24,437 in Jammu. But the Commission seems to have taken other factors into consideration, including voters’ lists, geographical and communication contiguity, and a margin of plus or minus 10 per cent population in each constituency. It has also proposed the first-time reservation of nine seats for Scheduled Tribes, in addition to seven seats for Scheduled Castes.
All the regional parties, including NC, PDP, and People’s Conference, have criticised the proposal as a move to disempower Kashmir further after the 2019 reorganisation of the state that bifurcated it into two Union Territories, and stripped it of its special status. Indeed, the plan to increase the number of Assembly seats is contained in the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019. But in Kashmir, where the Centre has sought to curtail free speech and the freedom of association and attempted to silence dissent for more than two years through imprisonment of politicians and political workers, journalists and others, and tried other experiments to restrict electoral democracy, it was inevitable that the motives behind this delimitation exercise would be questioned, especially as it has been postponed in other parts of the country until the new census enumeration. The aspirations for a Hindu chief minister of the BJP, which for the first time became part of a ruling coalition in the state in 2014 with the PDP, and a change in the rules of domicile and land ownership, have created a situation in which the people of the Valley view the Centre’s moves to be deepening the crisis. The delimitation exercise could add to those anxieties.
All parties must keep in mind, however, that these are draft proposals. The Commission has invited the views of the public and political parties until December 31. For its own credibility, and in the larger interest, it must set out in detail the rationale behind its proposals.