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Manipur Delimitation Raises Old Concerns Around Power Sharing and BJP's Agenda

The Centre’s earlier attempt to roll out the delimitation process based on the 2001 Census was met with severe contestations between tribal and non-tribal groups, ending in a litany of legal battles.

New Delhi: Early this week, while visiting the Kashmir Valley, Bharatiya Janata Party national general secretary Ram Madhav categorically stated that the legislative assembly of the recently carved out union territory would be formed after the completion of a delimitation exercise. This would redraw the existing assembly and parliamentary constituencies of the erstwhile state.

That the BJP is pushing for the delimitation exercise in J&K – most likely to dim the existing electoral sway of the Muslim-majority Valley over the Hindu-majority Jammu region in the subsequent assembly polls – has already been a talking point in some sections of media. The move is possibly to enable voters in Jammu to have more assembly seats and thus be influence the selection of the chief minister. The only chief minister elected so far from the Jammu region was Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad.

With many Valley-based political leaders still under detention, the political opposition to the BJP government’s move to alter the status quo is understandably feeble.

Even though the 84th amendment to the constitution had frozen any change of status of the assembly and parliamentary constituencies till the Census of 2026 was conducted, the Narendra Modi regime initiated the delimitation process this March. The Delimitation Commission of 2002 was reconstituted under the chairmanship of a former Supreme Court judge, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai. Its mandate is not only to redraw the constituencies in J&K in proportion to the population range of the UT, but also in four north-eastern states – Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

Also read: Delimitation Commission for J&K, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal, Nagaland Formed

In the case of J&K, the government is going ahead under the provisions of the recent Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, and the exercise will take the nearly-decade-old 2011 Census into cognisance – even though the 2021 Census is due just a few months from now. It certainly indicates that the government is in a hurry there to bring the legislative assembly – kept in suspension since last December – back to operational mode, but not before giving Jammu an edge over the Valley.

However, in regard to the four north-eastern states, the Modi regime is going ahead by rescinding an earlier presidential notification of February 8, 2008 that had deferred the delimitation process in these states. A new order was passed dated February 20, 2020.

Interestingly, while the exercise was stalled by then President Pratibha Patil citing security risks in these NE states which have been under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Modi government has rescinded it to push forward the delimitation exercise even while extending AFSPA in all these states (partially in Arunachal Pradesh).

Significantly, since the Delimitation Act 2002 has not been amended, the process will be carried out in these states under Section 3 of the Act. It means the demarcation of the constituencies would be based on 20-year-old data from the 2001 Census.

This adherence to the 2001 Census has, in turn, reactivated a diverse and longstanding set of complications in the north-eastern states – primarily in Manipur, Nagaland and Assam.

While in Manipur and Nagaland, the 2001 data was widely questioned, leading respective governments to reject it, in Assam, the state government didn’t support the Centre’s earlier move because the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was yet to be updated, which could significantly alter the number of voters in a constituency.

This time around too, opposition to the fresh delimitation move could be heard in these states from various quarters. However, in Manipur particularly, the Central move is threatening to reignite – yet again – the ‘hill-valley divide’. Going by public statements, various civil society bodies and political parties have already firmed up their stand in support, or against, it.

It was in this state that the Centre’s earlier attempt to roll out the delimitation process based on the 2001 Census was met with severe contestations between tribal and non-tribal groups, ending in a litany of legal battles.

One such group – United Committee Manipur (UCM) – is a prominent civil society body in the state hinged on the majority non-tribal Meitei community interests. Speaking to The Wire from Imphal, Khuraijam Athouba, the general secretary of UCM, argued, “What the people of Manipur have been raising in the past few weeks in regard to the Centre’s recent move is also our stand. We are not opposed to the delimitation process as such. It is to provide proportionate representation to the population in the state assembly, which is welcome in a democracy. But the issue here is, we want the exact, real population of the state to be counted.”

“Also,” he asked, “when the 2021 Census is due shortly, what is the logic behind redrawing constituencies based on the old 2001 Census? What is their political interest there? As per the delimitation order, a constituency should have 35,000 people but as per estimates, our population in each constituency would likely go up by over 50,000. So what is the logic behind redrawing the constituencies without increasing the number of seats?”

He said, “If after a proper recount, the valley loses some seats to the hill district, so be it. But the process should be transparent.”

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In the 2017 assembly polls, the BJP, for the first time, won 21 seats in the state. While the Congress picked up a majority of its seats from the valley areas, the BJP pocketed more numbers from the hill districts along with its ally, the Naga People’s Front (NPF).

Athouba referred to “a very bitter experience between 2005 and 2008 when the Centre had tried to go ahead with the process based on the Census of 2001”.

“In Manipur, there were claims and objections to the population number in the 2001 Census. As an example, I would like to mention that in nine sub-divisions of Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel districts, the population growth was recorded in that Census in such a way that one mother was giving birth to four children in a year, which is not possible biologically. Naturally then, the high population growth in these districts was deliberately manipulated for vested interests. The then state government tried to review the data but it was unsuccessful.”

A January 19, 2005 order of the Gauhati high court (Manipur bench) had sought a fresh counting of the people of the state. Since the delimitation exercise began in 2008 without taking that order into cognisance, the state CPI and CPI(M), among other groups, had filed a contempt petition in the court. The case is still pending.

Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel, that Athouba referred to, are among the hill districts of Manipur populated mostly by the Tanghkhul Naga besides some other tribes. While in terms of land, Manipur is more hills than valley, in terms of population, the valley areas hold more. As of now, only 19 of the 60 assembly seats are in the hill districts, which make many tribes feel disadvantaged with respect to the majority community in their political say on various issues, including development issues. The rest of the 41 seats are scattered across the valley areas. The Meiteis reside in the Valley areas.

Some of the scheduled tribe reserved seats – in Thoubal and Kackching districts and one in Jiribam in the reserved Lok Sabha seat – have non-tribals as majority population but they can’t contest elections from those constituencies.

Athouba referred to the 2014 directive of the Supreme Court where the two-judge bench comprising Justices R.M. Lodha and Kurian Joseph had asked both Nagaland and Manipur to file fresh pleas to restart the process. The Supreme Court had stated that the president can rescind the 2008 orders to restart it and decide which Census the government would like to go ahead with. The Modi government has taken a cue from there.

Aside from the petition in the Supreme Court by these states to restart the process, stating that the security situation has since improved, between 2005 and 2008, there were a couple of petitions filed in the Manipur bench of the Gauhati high court whereby the court had put a stay on the exercise. Tribal groups too filed counter petitions to restart the process. The state’s valley-based politicians had also petitioned the Centre then to stall the process.

This time too, there is a replay of these actions. Aside from UCM’s stand, five organisations of the valley areas – Pandam, Ipsa, Acoumlup, Ipak and KSA – have issued a joint statement demanding that it should not be carried out on the basis of the 2001 census. Also, the state’s opposition members, including Okram Joy and Okram Ibobi Singh, have tried to put the N. Biren Singh-led government in the dock over maintaining a “silence” over the issue that concerns the political interests of the majority community to which they all belong.

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Meanwhile, the tribal groups have issued statements demanding that the process be allowed to continue. In a press note on July 3, the Manipur Tribals Forum for Delimitation (MTFD) welcomed the Centre’s move and appealed to “all rule following individuals and justice-loving citizens of India to support the deferred delimitation exercise”.

Speaking to this correspondent, Shelmi Sankhil of MTFD said, “This faulty notion about the 2001 Census is a red herring. I ask, when that data set can be used in various studies and government programmes and schemes, why can’t it be used in the delimitation exercise?” He added, “The real reason is, the majority community doesn’t want to share power with the tribal population, give them adequate representation.”

On July 2, the MTFD submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “ensure smooth functioning of the exercise, free from political interference and without discrimination to the tribal people of Manipur.” It stated, “the voice of the tribal people living in the hill districts of Manipur, which comprises more than 40 per cent of the total population and occupying 90 per cent of the total land mass of the state has not been represented in a fair manner.”

Shelmi added, “It is time the Meitei people show their large heartedness towards us and give us our due to really feel a part of the state.”

Meanwhile, Athouba stated, “If the government doesn’t listen to the voices of the people, then people will be forced to protest, to come to the streets.”