The Delimitation Commission, appointed by the Election Commission of India on the instructions of the NDA government is in the last stages of finalizing its report on Jammu & Kashmir. Although the leaders of ‘Gupkar Alliance’ have opposed the delimitation exercise, the New Delhi government strongly hopes that this exercise will be fair in giving due representation to every stakeholder of J&K and hence will rehabilitate peace and democracy in the troubled State. But if fears and objections raised by the community of displaced persons from Pakistan Occupied J&K (POJK) come true even partially, this exercise is doomed to nullify all the gains Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have promised the nation from their historic step of dilution of Article-370 and removal of clause 35A from the Indian Constitution.
Despite repeated requests of the members of the community of displaced Indians from POJK the Commission has refused to even entertain their request that the old practice of keeping 24 seats, assigned for POJK should be changed and these seats should be filled from among the members of this community.
The POJK community’s argument is that by keeping 24 seats vacant in an Assembly of 111 seats and holding elections only on the remaining 87 seats over the past 70 years, the nation had surrendered the fate of the entire population of J&K to the Kashmiri leadership who have been holding the State as well as the nation to ransom on the strength of 46 seats for Kashmir Valley alone. Out of the remaining 41 seats, leaving 37 to Jammu and just 4 for Ladakh had left no chance for the State to live in peace. And after the near-complete ethnic cleansing of the Kashmir Valley for over three decades now, it will be living in a fools’ paradise to hope for any improvement.
In his written answer of 21 August 2020 to the ‘POJK Refugee Forum’, a common platform of Indian families from Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, Kotli, Bhimber, Dev Batala and Ali Beg etc which have been lying under illegal occupation of Pakistan since 1948, the Secretary of the Delimitation Commission has taken shelter under the Section 14(4) of the ‘Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019.’ Quoting this Section he writes that, “until the area of the Union Territory of J&K under the occupation of Pakistan ceases to be so occupied and the people residing in that area elect their representatives……. 24 seats … shall remain vacant…. And shall be excluded in delimiting the territorial constituencies as provided under Part-V of the Act….”.
Reacting to this terse response of the Commission O.P. Dutta, the Co-Convener of the Forum and a senior journalist with his family roots in Muzaffarabad laments, “It is shocking that the Commission has not only rejected the right of POJK community of displaced persons in India to the 24 Assembly seats which are kept vacant in the name of their own homeland. But it is more shocking that the matter has been left pending infinitely till the day POJK returns to India. Unfortunately, this is what suits the separatist and anti-Indian forces of Kashmir to maintain their constitutionally gifted hegemony over the State. ”
In 1951 when the rest of India went through a well-organized exercise of delimitation to carve out Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies, Sheikh Abdullah the ‘Prime Minister’ of J&K was given a free hand to decide the structure of the State Assembly. In an Assembly of 100 seats, he introduced the idea of keeping 25 seats vacant in the name of POJK and assigned a lion’s share of 43 seats to the Kashmir Valley, 30 for Jammu and just 2 seats for Ladakh.
The latest composition of the State Assembly was adopted in 1995 when J&K went in for the second reorganization exercise. Later in 2002 when the rest of India went in for the fourth delimitation, the National Conference government headed by Dr Farooq Abdullah refused to participate in it in the name of ‘autonomy’ the State enjoyed under Article-370. Rather, using its absolute majority in the State Assembly the Farooq government introduced the 29th amendment in the State constitution to ensure that the composition of the State Assembly could not be changed until 2031.
The Kashmir dominated State government was also known for the social engineering in its delimitation exercise of 1995 which manipulated constituencies like Rajauri, Punch Haweli and Kalakot to keep the tilt in favour of Muslim voters. The worst example is the Buddhist dominated Padum-Zanskar constituency within which far away located Muslim dominated areas of Lankarche (194 km), Barto (213 km) and Barso (213 km) of Kargil were integrated to ensure that Muslims constituted 60 per cent of the voters. When challenged by the Zanskar Buddhist Association the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi refused to take up the case on the ground that Article-370 kept the issue out of its jurisdiction.
What worries the people from POJK about the provision of keeping 24 Assembly seats vacant is the misuse of the resulting brutal majority by Kashmir Valley. This majority was used in adopting and imposing laws over the entire population of the State which were illogical, inhuman and detrimental to the interests of a federal India. For example, in 1982 the National Conference government of J&K passed a law which opened the gates for the return of those residents of J&K who had migrated to Pakistan between 1947 and 1954. The law even offered them to come and take possession of their ancestral properties in the State along with all rights due to a ‘State Subject’.
There were a plethora of laws which barred various communities, living in J&K for ages from enjoying even basic rights like voting or contesting in the State Assembly or any kind of civic elections; taking up State government jobs; getting their children admitted into State-run institutions of higher education; owning immovable property in the State, or even taking loans from State cooperatives and banks. These communities included refugees from Pakistani Punjab who had settled in Jammu in 1947; the ‘Balmiki’ community of scavengers; Gorkha families of soldiers of the Army of erstwhile Maharaja who are living in the State for generations; POJK ‘displaced persons’ settled outside J&K and even family members of Indian civil services, banks and scientific institutions who worked all their life in J&K.
Another law took away all civic rights, including government jobs and rights in their parental property, from the young women citizens who married outside the State. In the case of the Balmiki Samaj, the Punjabi scavengers (earlier known as ‘Bhangi’) the birth certificate of a new child in such families were obliged to be stamped to announce that the person was qualified to take up no State government job other than a ‘Bhangi’. To add insult to the injury to these communities, the State government quite liberally bestowed all citizen rights to those Muslims from Tibet and Xinjiang who had taken refuge in Kashmir following the occupation of their countries by China in the early 1950s.
Although the Delimitation Commission is trying to sell its draft report by referring to the juggling of some constituencies and forking out some additional seats to the SC and ST communities, critics of the draft report have shrugged it off as just a cosmetic exercise. The real fear of those who want to see an effective end to Kashmir Valley oriented separatism is a genuine exercise in Delimitation which is free from old constitutional manipulations aimed at keeping the final power in the hands of Gupkar gang and those powers who have vested interest in keeping the State on a permanent boil.
Keeping the 24 Assembly seats vacant till POJK returns to India is a sure recipe for undoing all the gains that the dilution of Article-370 and abrogation of 35A have achieved or the Modi-Shah duo intended to achieve for integrating J&K as a peaceful and prosperous member of the Indian Republic.