Guwahati: With the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) still triggering tensions amongst people in Assam resulting in continuous protests, the latest notification for the delimitation of electoral constituencies in states like Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur has been met with anger and is being termed as ‘untimely’ both by civil society and the opposition in Assam, especially in the context of the pending updating of the National Register of Citizen (NRC).
Delimitation involves the process of redrawing the boundaries of constituencies with the aim of equalising the electorate per seat. It is usually carried out with reference to administrative convenience and geographic and demographic factors.
The present delimitation exercise will be carried out on the basis of the 2011 census which had reported that Muslim demography has a major influence in electoral outcomes in Assam and forms 34.22% of the state’s total population. It also stated that Muslims formed a majority in nine of the total 27 districts (six more districts were formed after the census of 2011).
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders are wary of the Muslim demography which forms a major chunk of the electoral vote in the state assembly constituencies falling under parliamentary constituencies such as Barpeta, Dhubri, Nagaon, Kaliabor and Silchar. In the past and the present, right-wing affiliated politicians and ethno-nationalists leaders have been quite active in speculating that ‘Assam one day would have a foreigner as a chief minister.’ Their speculation was based on the ‘continuous influx of foreigners particularly Bangladeshis’ into Assam.
On February 28, the BJP-led Central government issued a gazette notification which stated that since ‘there has been a significant improvement in the security situation in the state, there has been a reduction in insurgency-related incidents and improvement in law and order of these states making the situation conducive for carrying out delimitation exercise.’
This notice was based on the cancellation of more than a decade old notification dated February 8, 2008, which had deferred the delimitation exercise back then on the basis of a ‘situation which had arisen that the unity and integrity of the country was likely to be threatened and there was a serious threat to peace and public order’.
The February 28, 2020 notification received a nod by the President Ramnath Kovind and read: “Now, the President, being satisfied that the circumstances that led to the deferring of the delimitation exercise in the State of Assam have ceased to exist, is pleased to rescind the notification number dated February 8, 2008, so as to readjust the division of the state of Assam into territorial constituencies for the purpose of elections to the House of the People and to the State Legislative Assembly in accordance with the provisions of the Delimitation Act, 2002.”
The BJP-led state government backed the delimitation exercise in the “interest of the indigenous people of the state and unless it is carried out, they would remain vulnerable”. The state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, over the weekend, told the media that, “The delimitation exercise should be carried so that 110 seats out of the total 126 should be meant for the indigenous people of the state. There should be not any addition to the existing number of constituencies, but the delimitation exercise should be carried out with the focus on the protection of the political rights of the native people of Assam.”
But both the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) stated that the exercise will raise complications. Debabrata Saikia, leader of the opposition in the state assembly, said, “With NRC completion still pending and the fate of those who were excluded still uncertain, delimitation will create more complications.”
The Telegraph quoted AIUDF general secretary Aminul Islam as saying, “It is a matter of concern. The ruling party may take advantage of the process ahead of elections. We are discussing the matter.”
In 2002, parliament had enacted the Delimitation Act 2002 under the provisions of Article 82 and 170 of the constitution as an amendment by the Constitution Act, 2001. The delimitation exercise was supposed to be carried out on the census of 2001, and a Delimitation Commission was also set up ‘to readjust the division of each state and Union territory into territorial constituencies for the purpose of elections to the Lok Sabha state Legislative Assemblies.’
Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM), an anti-influx body issued a statement on Saturday. The statement said that the notification for delimitation of constituencies in Assam and in other states of the northeast was detrimental to the interests of the indigenous people as it would create another set of complications. It also alleged that the exercise would be carried out in the context of the upcoming assembly elections slotted for 2021, and the BJP-AGP alliance is “not confident of retaining the indigenous votes which it had got in the earlier election, and therefore reduce the number of seats where the indigenous are in majority, which will correspondingly reduce the political clout of the indigenous.”
Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court lawyer and convener of PVM told The Wire, “The entire exercise will be flawed as the NRC is not complete. The law and order situation is volatile with the anti-CAA movement and agitation by non-Bodo groups in BTAD areas. The delimitation exercise is based on the number of voters in any constituency and some BJP leaders, while admitting that lakhs of foreigners have been included in the NRC and also demanding re-verification of NRC, on the other hand, are initiating delimitation exercise which has only exposed their duplicity. Doing this exercise without re-verification of NRC only implies that the government and its leaders have no interest in re-verification.”
Meanwhile, Dipanka Kumar Nath who is the president of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) told The Wire that “The delimitation exercise should have been done before. It is suitable as patterns have changed now. And we have been saying this that it should have been done before. Both delimitation and NRC can be done continuously. However, delimitation exercise should be carried out on the basis of maps and not on religion.”
Rejaul Karim Sarkar president of All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU) said, “We will have to wait and watch till we get a clear picture, and then only we can say anything about it.”