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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 29, New Delhi, July 3, 2021

Political Dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir at Last Welcome Step but are Intentions Clear: Delimitation and Election | Gautam Sen

Friday 2 July 2021

by Gautam Sen*

Government of India has initiated a dialogue with the mainstream political parties of the country operating in Jammu & Kashmir (J& K) with a view to initiating the exercise for delimitation of its increased number of 114 legislative constituencies. Prime Minister Modi has held a meeting on 24th June, 2021 with 14 top political leaders of J&K including Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and Ghulam Nabi Azad. This is a welcome development after the reduction in status of J&K from that of a full-fledged state to an Union Territory (UT) in 2019. The parties in the Gupkar Declaration group (a political combine intended to restore the political status of J&K and rights of J&K people consisting of National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, and Congress); and other recognized parties like CPI (M), BJP, have joined the dialogue. It appears the Union Government is keen to undertake the exercise of delimitation of electoral constituencies and thereafter, hold an election for a J&K legislative assembly with its reduced status within the present framework of an UT, and then initiate measures for upgrading the status of J&K to its original status of a state of the Indian Union. Election to a new legislative assembly of the UT of J&K cannot be held without delimitation and drawing up the territorial jurisdiction of the increased number of legislative constituencies from 107 to 114. The atmospherics emanating from New Delhi seems to indicate as such. No re-consideration of the earlier Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, is on the table.

The delimitation exercise and election to a new legislative assembly, should not be withheld for long. Expression of the people`s will through a democratic election process are required to be conducted at the earliest. Election for constituting a J&K legislature, however truncated its powers be, could be the first step towards restoration of a democratic process in the real sense, provided this is done with a proper intent. The present political climate in the UT, is not at all conducive for a democratic society and J&K`s economic development. The present political dispensation at the Centre, despite all its public relations exercise and protestations, may have realized this backdrop. While the conducting of an election based on earlier demographic status within the state may not seem realistic and appropriate theoretically or based on a prima facie view from the legal standpoint, the underlying fears of the Kashmir Valley people of being overwhelmed or contested by the people of the Jammu region with support from the Union Government, with more constituencies added to the plains and hill region of Jammu, cannot be ignored. After the reorganization in October 2019, the total number of legislative constituencies have been increased by seven, with five for Jammu region and two pertaining to Kashmir Valley. However, the apprehensions of the people and political parties which are basically Kashmir Valley based, cannot be counteracted by withholding or delaying an election and putting off the delimitation exercise. The reduction in status of J&K in October 2019 and formal indication of increasing the strength to 114 from the present 107 (with 24 legislative seats kept vacant for Pakistan occupied Kashmir portion), was patently wrong without conducting a delimitation exercise. The very purpose of delimitation is to ensure a balanced and equitable distribution of the electorate among the legislative constituencies. The basis of the increase in the number of constituencies was not at all well founded in October 2019 with J&K `s reorganization.

What is worrisome is that, the issue of reversing the status of J&K to that of a full-fledged constituent state of the Indian Union, may still be a long way off. Downgrading the constitutional status of J&K in 2019 was one of the most retrograde measures enacted by a union government since the inauguration of the Indian Constitution in 1950. It was such a glaring negative action when compared to earlier action taken by different union governments Congress and non-Congress, like creation of the states as per recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission, the states of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand and also Telengana. Arun Jaitely, a sagacious BJP parliamentarian, had most appropriately mentioned once in the backdrop of the Andhra-Telegana controversy which was brewing just before the bifurcation of former Andhra state and the then UPA government was delaying a decision in the matter, that, there was a `celebratory atmosphere` all around when the three new states of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand were created. Jaitley had opined that, people of these new states felt elated that, with protection of their culture and way of life, unique attributes, economic development would henceforth be enhanced within a democratic Indian Union. There was no animosity towards the people remaining in portions of the undivided states. J&K has an undeniable unique status by virtue of its culture, ethnicity and history, which perforce should find expression within the fold of a full-fledged state of the Indian Union. The issue of Article 370 should not be mixed up with this fundamental requirement.

The decision of then union government in 2019, was basically an assault of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. The problems of militancy in J&K could have been contained by overriding the then state government and even declaring an emergency within the territorial jurisdiction of the state. Instead, the people of the entire province consisting of its three regions of Jammu, Kashmir Valley and Ladakh, were placed in a different reduced constitutional status. It is of utmost essence that, this action of 2019 be reversed at the earliest by evolving a political consensus within the Indian Union as a whole including the mainstream political parties of the J&K and its people. In the fitness of things, restoring the status of J&K with both the Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley included, to a full-fledged state, and then holding the delimitation exercise with some reasonable and not-too-long time-gap, would have been more appropriate politically and a logical course of action. Ladakh may remain an UT, again considering its different ethnic, cultural and geographical context.

The Gupkar political group should be astute enough and not create any hindrance in the conduct of a delimitation exercise. The last sitting of the present delimitation commission in February this year, was virtually boycotted by National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party. They should simultaneously continue a proper political effort within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, for restoration of J&K`s pre-2019 constitutional status. All the political parties should ensure that, the delimitation exercise is fair, reckons all relevant data on present demography, and the infrastructural issues like connectivity, etc, so that, any deliberate imbalance in laying out the geographical boundaries of legislative constituencies and population content of the constituencies are not allowed to get institutionalized. This is a sensitive exercise, more so in J&K`s context, with likely efforts of different political parties to get population concentrations favourable to them included in constituencies where they dominate. A fundamental aspect which the delimitation commission must ensure is that, the constituencies must not be widely varying in their population content.

There is also a contrasting view to delay the delimitation till 2026 as in the case of other states of the Indian Union. The Constitution of India (84th Amendment) enables this. However, the delimitation process vis-à-vis a full-fledged state of the Indian Union is not on par with that of an UT. Thus a case is not straightaway made out for pending the delimitation till 2026 based on Census of 2011. This will only be feasible with restoration of status of J&K pre-October 2019. A grouse of the Kashmir Valley people and political parties is that, a differential approach is being adopted on delimitation in J&K vis-a-vis other states of the Indian Union and J&K.

The best way out would be to restore J&K to its status pre-October 2019, hold immediate elections to J&K thereafter, and then proceed with the delimitation exercise by the Delimitation Commission headed by retired supreme court of India`s Justice Ranjana Desai and arriving at a political consensus to implement the decision of the delimitation commission by the time next legislative assembly elections are held in 2026.

*(The author is a retired Civil Service officer of the rank of Special Secretary, who has served in senior appointments in North Eastern States and Jammu & Kashmir. The views are personal.)

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