Delimitation Commission fails people of J&K, hurts democracy

The fifth Delimitation Commissionchaired by Justice Ranjana Desai, has many distinctions, albeit dubious ones, to its credit.

First, it was constituted during a statutory freeze on the increase or decrease of the parliamentary and will applicable assembly seats – this freeze be till the population Census of 2026. Second, this is the only Delimitation Commission that has not redrawn the constituencies in accordance with the Delimitation Act of 2002, under which it was set up. Instead of invoking clause 8(b) of the Act to decide the total number of seats and their distribution based on the Census, it has followed Section 63 of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, which decided the number of electors by stipulating the use of The 2011 Census, as well as the increase in the number of seats from 83 to 90. Ironically, by doing so, J&K to be the exception to the norm even after its constitutional and homogenisation in 2019.

Third, while the Commission started off with the mandate for five states, the five northeastern states were withdrawn from its purview on March 21, 2020, effectively making it the only Commission confined to delimiting just one Union Territory. This has made the uniformity in the principles of delimitation across states a casualty. Finally, it will be the first delimitation award in the country’s history that will not be placed before the assembly of the UT that has been delimited.

The recommendation of delimitation commissions — they are in the nature of a fiat — cannot be modified or changed by Parliament or the concerned assembly, but tabling the award gives it democratic sanction. But in the case of J&K, the elected legislators of J&K will not have the opportunity to approve the rules for their representation.

With these infirmities in its constitution, and a truncated mandate, the Commission award has been open to criticism ab initio. The devil, so to say, in this case, lies not only in the details of seat allocation, but also in the design of its award.

Despite claiming to have treated the Union Territory of J&K as one entity (the statede for the absurd clubbing of Poonch and Rajouri in Jammu division with Anantnag in the Kashmir division), in its press release, the Delimitation Commission announced that it has assigned 47 seats to Kashmir and 43 seats to Jammu. In doing so, the Commission has ensured that the political binary of Jammu vis a vis Kashmir now becomes a divisive bipolarity.

The Kashmir division, which has a 56 per cent share of the population, will now have only a 52 per cent seat share in the assembly. Jammu, on the other hand, with a 44 per cent share in the population gets a 48 per cent share in the representation. As a consequence, while in Jammu 1.25 lakh people will elect an MLA, in the Valley 1.46 lakh people will do so. What this effectively means is that for the same population, for every six constituencies, Jammu has got an additional seat. In the process, the cardinal principle of “one man, one vote” has been bid adieu in J&K.

In order to contextualise what the Commission has done, it is useful to recap the distribution of seats that existed in the state prior to the award. In the last assembly of J&K (including Ladakh), Kashmir Valley with a 55 per cent share of the population, had 53 per cent of the seats. Jammu with a share of 43 per cent of the population, elected 42.5 per cent of the seats in the assembly. More importantly, on the cardinal “one person one vote” principle, Kashmir had 1,49,749 voters per constituency while there were 1,45,366 people per constituency in Jammu. Far from redressing a non-existent bias and perceived discrimination, this Commission has introduced an obvious bias in the favor of Jammu.

While the two administrative divisions of the UT, Jammu and Kashmir, may be relevant for developmental policy planning, these are not so for democratic representation purposes. A more meaningful disaggregation for assessing the implications of the award is to look at how the “communities of interest” — common physical features, ethnicity, religion, and language, as reiterated in Section 60(2) (b) of the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019 — have fared.

On these principles, the J&K of today comprises four distinct regions: The Jhelum Valley (which includes South Kashmir, Central Kashmir and North Kashmir), Chenab Valley (comprising Kisthwar, Doda, Ramban and Reasi), Pir Panjal (Rajouri and Poonch), and the Tawi basin or the plains (of Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur).

The seats assigned across these sub-regions are unacceptably distortionary — 1.12 lakh people will elect their legislators in Chenab, while 1.40 lakh do so in the Pir Panjal belt. Similarly, while 1.25 lakh people in the Tawi basin elect a representative, it will take 1.5 lakh people to do so in Central Kashmir; both urban agglomerations. A vote cast in central Kashmir, in terms of its electoral value, is 0.8 of the vote in the Jammu plains.

Even the one good thing that the Commission has done – making boundary boundaries with the district boundaries — has been marred by the illogical principle of ensuring 18 assembly constituencies for every parliamentary constituency. By applying an arithmetic formula of dividing the number of assembly seats by the number of parliamentary seats, the Commission has distorted the entire system of democratic representation across areas. Right across the country, number of assembly seats for their respective parliamentary constituencies ranges from as low as four in Andhra Pradesh to as high as 30 in Arunachal Pradesh. Should the “principle of 18” be applied in other states, the electoral structure of the country will be in chaos.

By juxtaposing the Delimitation Commission’s award on the fragile and fragmented policy in J&K, it is obvious that it has, wittingly or unwittingly, designed a framework of representation that will prevent the formation of a stable elected government in J&K in the near future. As and when elections are held, they will at best result in a fractious patchwork coalition and at worst a perpetually hung assembly. Between the two, it is not only the Valley that will lose. Jammu will far no better. And the country at large could bear the consequences should the award become a precedent for other Commissions across other states.

Postscript: The Commission seems to have played a cruel joke on the Kashmiri Pandit community by recommending “at least” two seats on a nomination basis for them. This recommendation is not a part of the gazette notification and hence is not binding on the government, like the other recommendations of the Commission. It is essentially an obiter dictum, which is as powerless as it is meaningless. It seems to have been added just for the optics.

(The writer is the former finance minister of J&K)


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