J&K delimitation: Everybody is unhappy, except BJP

J&K delimitation: Everybody is unhappy, except BJP

Rise in seats for Jammu, seat reservations for STs will force us to go beyond simplistic understandings of the J&K discourse

Kashmir valley’s population is nearly 1.6 million more than Jammu’s. Credit: AFP File Photo

The first draft proposal of the delimitation commission, shared with five MPs from Jammu and Kashmir who were associate members of the body during its meeting in New Delhi, is on expected lines, including accentuating the regional divide as it has left most of the stakeholders, with the exception of the BJP, displeased. 

The commission has allocated six new Assembly constituencies to Jammu and one to Kashmir. Currently, Jammu province has 37 seats and Kashmir Valley 46.  Ladakh, which was part of Kashmir division, had four seats. Now, as per the draft proposal, Kashmir valley will have 47 seats, and Jammu 43. 

The optics are revelatory as they indicate regional polarisation on the issue. Ethnic Kashmiri leaders rejected the proposal and called it divisive. According to them, the proposal is a negation of the mandate of the commission, which was to consider population as the criterion in the process of delimitation of Assembly segments. Kashmir valley’s population is nearly 1.6 million more than Jammu’s.

The leaders of the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, an alliance of varied parties whose leaders are all ethnic Kashmiris, have decided to jointly protest on January 1 in Srinagar — though the winter capital of J&K is Jammu, thus implicitly conceding the regional gulf.

In Jammu, except the BJP, parties whose constituency is in the region, particularly the plains, have expressed displeasure. Their argument is that the area of Jammu is nearly double the size of the Valley and it should have been given the same seats as the Valley. According to them, some of the J&K Assembly segments, particularly in the urban parts of Jammu, are bloated. The two largest Assembly segments in J&K are in Jammu city, with 1.6 lakh voters in Gandhi Nagar and 1.5 lakh voters in Jammu West, whereas the third-largest Assembly segment is Batamaloo in Kashmir, with 1.2 lakh voters. 

As both regions are engulfed in a war of words, the commission seems to have factored in the criteria of arduous geography and inaccessibility. The proposed increase in seats is in the hilly and remote districts, namely Kishtwar, Doda, Reasi and Kupwara, that often escape the public glare. The districts that have areas near the International Border in Kathua and Samba have also seen an increase in representation. The commission has incentivised the political contestants to reach out to remote areas as earlier they would concentrate only on densely populated areas. Without going into the debate whether the commission’s proposal is fair or not, it is not unexpected that there is general dissatisfaction about the proposals. 

The root of the problem lies in the structure of J&K. Jammu & Kashmir, created in the 19th century by merging diverse cultural and geographical units, saw a major change in 1947. The population of Jammu was, as per the 1941 Census, 1.9 million whereas that of Kashmir was 1.7 million. The bifurcation of J&K in 1947 kept the Kashmir Valley more or less intact while dividing the more populous and religiously diverse Jammu. The fact is that the Valley is relatively more homogenous than Jammu geographically, and by religion and ethnicity. It has an advantage of plain geography as compared to hilly and inaccessible areas in Jammu. 

Earlier, the homogeneity provided an edge to the winning political party from Kashmir Valley as it was able to win some seats in the Muslim parts of Jammu as well. This is no longer true as a variety of political forces are active now in Kashmir Valley. Thus, at the macro level, there is heterogeneity in both regions, and this has made government-formation a more competitive exercise. This has exposed the system to a greater regional, ethnic and even religious polarisation at the macro-level. The solution was to have devolution of powers with checks and balances at every layer of the power structure. 

In the past, after considering the urges and aspirations of diverse stakeholders, a concrete proposal of regional federalism had been in the offing for at least six decades. Keeping in mind the peculiarity of J&K and by incorporating best practices of similar contexts from across the world, the proposal argued for a five-step devolution of power from the state to the regions to districts to blocks and panchayats, while upholding the integrity of secular identities of the three regions. Each layer in the five-step devolution structure should get allocation as per a given fair formula that factors in population, area, accessibility, public amenities and socio-economic indicators. 

However, the narrow impulses of a section of the former ruling elite scuttled the proposal, sowing the seeds of regional, ethnic and religious division. This has progressively created a situation where the former state is now heading towards many layers of de-facto division. 

Meanwhile, the delimitation draft has also suggested the reservation of nine seats for the Scheduled Tribes (STs). The main beneficiaries will be the Gujjars and Bakerwals. They are spread across J&K. In the last Assembly election, Gujjar candidates were elected in Lolab and Kangan Assembly segments in the Valley. In Jammu, the Assembly segments of Surankote, Mendhar, Rajouri, Gulabgarh, Darhal, Kalakote and Gool Arnas were represented by Gujjar candidates.

As per the 2011 Census, the population of Gujjars and Bakerwals is around 9% of the total population of the former state. They had 10.8% representation in the previous J&K Assembly. Bakerwals are nomads and have flocks of goats and sheep, whereas the bulk of the Gujjars are settled and dairy farming is the main occupation for a part of the community. As per 2017 official figures, nearly 32% of the Gujjars and Bakerwals have nomadic and semi-nomadic characteristics. In this context, the political reservation for the Scheduled Tribes will permanently and constitutionally diversify the power structure of J&K. This will force us to look beyond the simplistic understandings of the Jammu and Kashmir discourse.

(The writer is the author of two books on J&K, including ‘Across the LoC’, Columbia University Press)

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