Srinagar: With the Election Commission of India (ECI) expecting more than two million voters to be added in J&K before the assembly elections, a crucial meeting of all the political parties has been called by the National Conference president Farooq Abdullah at his Gupkar residence on Monday.
Farooq is also the president of the Gupkar Alliance, a regional conglomerate fighting for the restoration of Article 370. He personally spoke with the leaders of all the parties, including his party’s rivals like the Peoples Conference headed by Sajad Lone and Altaf Bukhari of the Apni Party to decide on the “course of action” in the light of the possible inclusion of new voters in J&K.
The meeting comes in the backdrop of the chief electoral officer (CEO) of Jammu and Kashmir Hirdesh Kumar’s announcement in a press conference in Jammu on Wednesday, August 17, that any citizen of India who is “ordinarily” residing in J&K can become a voter after the Representation of the People Act (RPA) became applicable to the Union Territory (UT).
Under the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of People Act, 1957, only the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir as defined by the state subject law were entitled to get voting rights before the reading down of Article 370. The special status also made owning property such as a house or land in the erstwhile state or applying for government jobs the exclusive right of the state subjects.
J&K’s former law secretary Mohammad Ashraf Mir said that with the RPA, a Central law, becoming applicable after August 5, 2019, anyone from any part of the country can register as a voter under certain conditions – including the “intent to settle permanently” in a particular state or UT to make them an ‘ordinarily resident’ of that place and deleting their name from the electoral rolls of the native constituency.
“The Electoral Registration Officer has the authority to approve or decline requests for making a person ‘ordinarily resident’ of a particular place after inquiry. But, even though I may own a house in Delhi or Mumbai, that doesn’t make me ordinarily resident of those places,” Mir said.
According to a 2019 research, there are around 11 lakh migrant workers in Kashmir, most of whom arrive in the spring and leave before the winter sets in. Besides, there are armed forces numbering between 4-8 lakh who are stationed permanently in J&K. Their number neared the one million mark in 2019, when a security lockdown was imposed after the reading down of Article 370, but it has since gone down.
Mir said that under the RPA, the armed forces can claim voting rights only when they are deployed in peace stations and J&K is covered under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an emergency law imposed in disturbed areas. “They can’t claim voting rights in J&K,” he said.
23 lakh voters may be added
With the ECI announcing the schedule of the Special Summary Revision of the electoral roll in Jammu and Kashmir ahead of the assembly elections, the administration is expecting the addition of 23 lakh voters since the last revision had January 1, 2019 as the qualifying date.
“According to the Registrar General of India’s population projection, J&K’s 18+ population will be about 99 lakh on July 1, 2022 whereas the registered electors in J&K are only about 76 lakh. It is this gap of 23 lakh which forms the basis for tentative expectation of new voters after the electoral roll is revised,” a J&K government official said.
However, the announcement has triggered a political storm in Jammu and Kashmir. With about 76 lakh registered voters, political parties fear that adding 25 lakh “ordinarily resident” voters, an ambiguously worded term, could alter the electoral balance in favour of the BJP and lead to a massive demographic change in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Does it mean that a tourist who comes to J&K can register as a voter here? There are apprehensions that people from other parts of the country will be brought to Kashmir and made to vote here. The government should clarify its position. It looks like part of a plan to change the demography of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Tanvir Sadiq, National Conference chief spokesperson.
Former law secretary Mir said that a person should be carrying out his day-to-day activities in a particular state or UT to make him ‘ordinarily resident’ of that place. Mir, however, fears that the government may manipulate the RPA or misuse it.
“Kashmiri Pandits have been living in Jammu for more than three decades. Has the Government of India registered them as ordinarily resident in Jammu? No, because they know it will affect the electoral balance of the assembly constituencies in Jammu, which does’t suit their interests,” Mir told The Wire.
Terming the revision of the electoral roll a “move to disenfranchise the people of Jammu and Kashmir”, the president of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Mehbooba Mufti linked the process to the 1987 J&K assembly elections, widely perceived to be rigged, which prepared the ground for armed insurgency in Kashmir.
“The policy decisions taken on J&K are only in BJP’s interest. Kashmir has been turned into a laboratory where the BJP experiments its tricks and policies which are later implemented in other parts of the country. The move to give voting rights to non-locals is aimed at rigging the elections well before they are held. It will have dangerous consequences,” the former chief minister told reporters at her residence.
Jammu and Kashmir is without a popular government since 2018, when the BJP pulled out of a coalition government with the PDP. The ECI had earlier announced that the J&K electoral rolls would be revised by October 31, opening a window of possibility for holding elections in the UT this year.
However, the commission has delayed the exercise to November 25, by which time the winter normally sets in, triggering angry reactions from the political parties based in Kashmir. Senior CPI(M) leader and spokesperson of the Gupkar Alliance M.Y. Tarigami said that the delimitation process, under which the electoral roll is being revised in J&K, is an attempt to “change the demography” of the UT.
“In the absence of popular government, the Union government is resorting to the use of unbridled powers so that its interests are served in J&K. Including non-locals in J&K’s voter list is a brazen assault on the legitimate aspirations of our people,” Tarigami said.
Mir said that the RPA is a “good law” but it looks like the intentions of the government are “not good”. “If the law has to become applicable, they should start with Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu,” said Mir.