New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir Thursday is being seen as an important prelude to kick-starting political activity in the union territory (UT), which has been suspended since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019.
The meeting has led to speculation about the possible scheduling of elections in Jammu and Kashmir, thereby necessitating the completion of delimitation in the UT in the next few months.
Elections in J&K have been due since the alliance between the BJP and PDP fell apart in June 2018, after which the erstwhile state was brought under governor’s rule.
However, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state into the union territories of Jammu & Kashmir, which is to have an elected legislature, and Ladakh, which will not have one, the Modi government has repeatedly stated that elections in Jammu and Kashmir will be held after the delimitation exercise is concluded.
As the prospects of political resumption emerge in J&K, after over a three-year delay, ThePrint explains the crucial delimitation exercise — what it means, why it is controversial in Jammu and Kashmir, why it has been on the BJP’s wish-list for a long time, and the present status of the delimitation commission that was set up in 2020 to carry out the exercise.
What is delimitation?
Delimitation refers to the process of demarcation of the boundaries of parliamentary or assembly constituencies. The process is carried out every few years to ensure that each constituency has approximately an equal number of voters — the underlying logic being that a set number of voters have one representative in the Lok Sabha as well as in the state assemblies across the country. Therefore, the exercise is carried out after every census.
Given the political sensitivity of the exercise, no government — central or state — can carry it out, and after every census, Parliament enacts a Delimitation Act under Article 82 of the Constitution. Subsequently, a high-powered body known as the Delimitation Commission is constituted, which carries out the process of demarcation of constituency boundaries. The orders of this commission are legally binding and not subject to scrutiny of any court of law. Even Parliament cannot suggest modifications to an order issued by the commission.
The commission consists of a chairman — a retired or sitting judge of the Supreme Court — the chief election commissioner or any of the two election commissioners, and the election commissioner of the state in which the exercise is being carried out. In addition, five MPs and five MLAs of the state are chosen as associate members of the commission.
Since the commission is a temporary body with no full-fledged staff of its own, it relies on EC employees to carry out the long-drawn exercise. Census data for each district, tehsil and gram panchayat is collected, and the new boundaries are demarcated. The exercise can take up to five years.
How has delimitation been different in J&K?
A delimitation commission was first constituted for J&K in 1952. Subsequently, they were constituted in 1963, 1973 and 2002.
Delimitation in J&K has followed a slightly different trajectory than in the rest of the country, due to the special status it was accorded under Article 370.
While delimitation of Lok Sabha seats in J&K was governed by the Constitution of India, that of the erstwhile state’s Assembly seats was governed by the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution and specifically, the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957.
The last time a delimitation exercise was conducted in J&K was under President’s Rule in 1995 by the retired Justice K.K. Gupta’s Commission. The next exercise was due in 2005, but in 2002, the Farooq Abdullah government chose to freeze delimitation until 2026 by amending the Jammu & Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, and Section 47(3) of the Constitution of Jammu & Kashmir.
Why is delimitation so controversial in J&K?
The delimitation of J&K is a politically volatile issue since it is directly related to the representation of Muslim-dominated Kashmir and Hindu-dominated Jammu in the legislative assembly.
Political parties, which have been seeking greater representation for Jammu in the Assembly, including the BJP, have argued that the freeze enforced in 2002 has led to poorer representation for Jammu.
While the J&K Assembly, at that time, had 87 seats — 46 in Kashmir, 37 in Jammu and 4 in Ladakh — 24 were reserved for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
According to the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, the seats for Jammu and Kashmir Assembly will be increased by seven seats, in effect they will go up from 83 to 90 post-delimitation.
The concern for several mainstream political parties in the Valley has been that representation may be increased for Jammu after the delimitation exercise, and not Kashmir, thereby weakening their electoral fortunes.
The present status
A delimitation commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai, was set up by the government in 2020. While it was supposed to lapse on 5 March this year, it was given a year’s extension given the Covid-19 pandemic and the delays caused by it.
It is, however, learnt that the commission had resumed its work in full-swing in the run-up to the PM’s meeting with political parties in the state.
Earlier this month, the Election Commission had written to deputy commissioners of all 20 districts in J&K asking them to furnish information on issues such as population density and topography in all the districts and Assembly constituencies.
While mainstream political parties in Kashmir had earlier boycotted the meetings of the delimitation commission — calling the exercise “palpably unconstitutional” — there seems to be a rethink within the parties now, with several of them agreeing to engage in a dialogue with the central government over the political future of the UT.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)