The dramatic reorganisation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories after a change in its constitutional status has reopened the delimitation question that otherwise would have remained dormant until 2031. A fresh delimitation is necessary due to the change in borders, introduction of reservation for Scheduled Tribes in the assembly, implicit extension of the right to vote in assembly elections to West Pakistan refugees and increase in the number of assembly constituencies. It is not, however, necessary to conduct delimitation just before the next census, that too in the middle of a pandemic when public hearings are difficult to hold.
Even otherwise, the government should not rush, as the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir was a complex state. Consider, for instance, “vacant” constituencies. The last delimitation was carried out in 1995 ahead of the 1996 assembly elections. It changed the overall strength of the legislative assembly from 100 to 111 adding five, four and two seats to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions, respectively. However, 24 out of the 111 seats were left vacant “until the area of the State under the occupation of Pakistan ceases to be so occupied and the people residing in that area elect their representatives”. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 misallocates the vacant constituencies.
The revised Political Map of India and the map of the Union Territory of Ladakh issued by the Survey of India assign Gilgit and Baltistan (GB) to Ladakh. As per the earlier distribution of constituencies, 24 seats were set aside for all the territories under the occupation of Pakistan. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 (Sec 14(4)) assigns all the 24 seats, including those of GB, to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. So, GB is territorially included in Ladakh that does not have a legislature, while it falls in Jammu and Kashmir for legislative and electoral purposes.
Denying seats to GB could have been interpreted as withdrawal of claim to the disputed territory. This perhaps explains the awkward solution of mapping GB to two different administrative units, but it means that the people of Ladakh are denied a right that has been extended, even if notionally, to the people of GB. (In passing note, that the revised map betrays ignorance of the cultural and administrative history of the erstwhile state.)
There are other difficulties, too, in conducting delimitation. The 1991 Census could not be conducted in the state and the 2002 delimitation was deferred by the state government. So, the existing distribution of seats is based on the 1981 Census, when Kashmiri Pundits were present in Kashmir in large numbers, Scheduled Tribes were not yet recognised in the state and West Pakistan refugees could vote only in parliamentary elections but not in assembly elections as they were not “permanent residents”.
The proposed exercise is, therefore, not a routine delimitation in which seats are adjusted to account for the natural growth of population. The next delimitation will have to deal with entirely new categories of population because of which the change in seat allocation will not be a linear extrapolation of past allocations.
What does the government intend to achieve?
Given these complexities, one wonders what the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), intends to achieve through the delimitation process. Ideally, the government would, on the one hand, want the exercise to be seen as fair in the demography-conscious Kashmir. On the other, it should transparently address longstanding concerns about underrepresentation in the Jammu region and ensure adequate representation to Scheduled Castes (including among the West Pakistan refugees) and Scheduled Tribes (including the smaller tribes such as Gaddi, Sippi and Shina). The decision to use the 2011 Census data for delimitation will, however, compound the difficulty of addressing the concerns of all sides.
The erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir comprised of three regions – Kashmir (Muslim majority), Ladakh (Buddhist-Shia) and Jammu (Hindu majority). Kashmir region (55% of the population), Kashmiri-speakers (53%) and Muslims (68%) accounted for the majority of the erstwhile state’s population as per the 2011 Census. In the erstwhile state meta-electoral conflict over delimitation was limited to Jammu and Kashmir regions, which were locked in a zero-sum competition that affected census operations too because winning censuses was seen as key to winning the inter-regional battle for the chief minister’s office. All the chief ministers of the state were Kashmiri-speaking Muslims of Kashmir, except for Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Jammu region complains that its seat share has almost always been less than its share of population and electorate. And, that the census is not reliable for the post-1991 period as Jammu region’s reported population share has declined despite heavy outmigration from Kashmir. There has been a massive exodus of Hindus and, to a lesser extent, Sikhs out of Kashmir Valley due to the insurgency. Muslims too have migrated out of the Valley in large numbers in search of employment and education. Many Muslims have also settled in Jammu to escape the disturbed conditions in the Valley. Moreover, Kashmir has suffered relatively higher conflict-induced mortality.
Armed forces were relocated from other states to Kashmir in the 1990s and thereafter only the levels were adjusted. Moreover, there was a similar deployment in the hill districts of Jammu too. So, the changes in the deployment of armed forces cannot explain the unexpected spike in Kashmir’s population share, particularly, during 2001-11.
Jammu argues that all these should have tilted the demographic balance in their favour, whereas their population share has declined, which is counterintuitive. Further, Gujjars and Bakerwals claim that their actual population share is higher than suggested by the census because their community was not recorded as belonging to the Scheduled Tribes in many places where they were a minority. Likewise, the Scheduled Castes doubt the census as their population share should have grown owing to their relatively poorer socioeconomic conditions. However, their population share has been decreasing in Jammu and Kashmir since 1981, contrary to the trend observed in the rest of the country.
Most of these anomalies are explained by abnormal changes in Kashmir’s population. For instance, during 2001-11 population share of Kashmir increased due to, among other things, an unexpected increase in the child population contrary to improvements in socioeconomic indicators such as literacy that should lead to a fall in fertility.
The government is aware that the use of the 2011 Census will decrease the seat share of Jammu and Scheduled Castes. The strength of the assembly seems to have been increased from 107 to 114 to assuage concerns about the decrease in seat share by increasing the absolute number of seats. This will, however, not address the concerns of Jammu that is complaining against the use of flawed census data and the fact that delimitation based on population overlooks the fact that constituencies in Jammu are larger in size than in Kashmir and their terrain is also more difficult.
If Jammu region and Scheduled Castes, in whose name the state was restructured, are going to lose in relative terms, why is the government rushing? Is it to assuage Kashmir and secure a toehold there through the reservation of seats for Scheduled Tribes as Jammu alone cannot bring the BJP to power? Or, is the government going ahead as it hopes that the delimitation commission will relax the population criterion in Jammu as happened in case of select districts of Uttarakhand in the 2002 delimitation?
Whatever may be the motives behind delimitation in Jammu and Kashmir, a rushed exercise could instead of furthering peace and reconciliation end up as another instance of top-down imposition that deepens the communal and regional divides. It is, therefore, advisable to postpone the exercise and accommodate the views of all stakeholders through dialogue and public hearings.
Vikas Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is co-author of Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics, Cambridge University Press (2020).