INTENSE speculation abounded in the Kashmir Valley about the upcoming Assembly election and the possible erosion of the Valley’s supremacy in the politically factious State of Jammu and Kashmir following news reports that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre was planning to redraw the existing constituencies with the express purpose of increasing Jammu’s share in the Legislative Assembly and its chances of forming the government on its own. The State has 87 Assembly constituencies, 46 in Kashmir, 37 in Jammu and four in Ladakh.
Although Governor Satya Pal Malik dismissed reports about delimitation, the people of Kashmir and the political leadership are far from convinced because of the BJP’s provocative behaviour with respect to the State’s constitutional provisions and its political and electoral manoeuvring in Jammu along communal lines. Both the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have warned that any curtailing of Kashmir’s share in a future government or a stifling of its political voice was fraught with danger at a time when home-grown militancy is resurgent and youths are ready to take to the streets at the slightest provocation. They have made it clear that they would challenge politically and legally any move aimed at delimitation, which they describe as an attempt to inflict “emotional partition on communal lines”.
The former Chief Minister and PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti tweeted: “Distressed to hear about GoI’s [Government of India) plan to redraw assembly constituencies in J&K. Forced delimitation is an obvious attempt to inflict another emotional partition of the State on communal lines. Instead of allowing old wounds to heal, GoI is inflicting pain on Kashmiris.”
N.C. leader Omar Abdullah was more vocal about his party’s course of action. He tweeted on June 4: “When delimitation takes place in the rest of the country the BJP is welcome to apply it to J&K until then we in the @JKNC_ will oppose, tooth & nail, any attempt to make changes without a mandate from the people of the state.” The bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal reacted on the same lines, warning the Centre that such an exercise would be seen as “manipulative and will have dangerous consequences” for the State. “This is giving an impression that the Central government is out to further disempower and alienate Kashmiris and there is no value for Kashmiri lives. Rather than taking steps to bring peace to the region it seems that arrangements are being made to turn it into a war zone,” he said.
Reports about delimitation surfaced soon after Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a meeting, attended by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba and senior officials of the Kashmir division in the Home Ministry, to take stock of the law and order situation in Kashmir. The meeting took place three days after Satya Pal Malik met him on June 1. The reported delimitation drive, which has long been an agenda of the BJP’s Jammu unit, aims to effect a change in the composition of the Assembly through reservation to Scheduled Tribes who form 11 per cent of the State’s population. The last delimitation exercise was in 1995 when the State was under President’s Rule. The current move is seen as politically motivated as the Farooq Abdullah government in 2002 put a freeze on delimitation until 2026 by amending the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, and Section 47(3) of the State Constitution.
As the State drifted towards belligerence, with youths in the Valley opposing the purported drive on social media, Satya Pal Malik attempted to play down the reports. “There is a rumour about delimitation. It is not something that can be done overnight as it is a constitutional matter. The Home Ministry has not confirmed it,” he clarified at a press meet in Srinagar on June 12.
Constitutional experts based in the Valley say that it will not be easy for the Centre to lift the freeze on delimitation. Delimitation can be undertaken only if an amendment is made to Section 47 of the State Constitution. Such an amendment needs to be ratified by the majority of the elected legislators. Senior journalists in Kashmir aver that the Governor does not have the power to effect an amendment since he is acting currently as the delegate of the President.
However, the BJP’s Jammu leaders have kept the pot boiling. The party general secretary for the State, Ashok Kaul, told the media that the issue of delimitation was not a new one; it was part of the agenda of alliance the BJP had with the PDP when the two parties formed the government in the State. “We had sought the establishment of a delimitation commission to delimit the Assembly constituencies as required by law. Unfortunately, that was not done, but it is never too late,” he said. A section of the local press in Kashmir believes that the BJP may be floating the idea to consolidate its success in Jammu in the Lok Sabha election.
An informed source in Raj Bhavan said: “While there is no denying that the BJP ultimately wants to increase Jammu’s share in the Assembly, obviously to maximise its own chances of coming to power, it cannot be done immediately. There is no such design going on, at least not which the Raj Bhawan is aware of, or is involved in.” The source added that the belief in the State’s administrative circle was that the BJP wanted to send out a strong message of reassurance to the people in Jammu and Ladakh that their political interests would be second to none. “This is more of a posturing done with the aim of triggering a sentiment [in Jammu],” the source explained. Despite the PDP and the N.C. not fielding a candidate in Udhampur, the BJP’s Jitendra Singh defeated the Congress’ Vikramaditya Singh by 3.57 lakh votes, the highest margin of victory for any candidate in Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP also retained the Jammu and Ladakh seats. In terms of Assembly segments, this translates into a lead of 28 seats for the BJP, three more than its tally of 25 in 2014.
The party is planning to capture power in the State on its own strength by executing a “35 + 9 formula”, that is a minimum of 35 seats from Jammu and Ladakh, and nine from the Valley to secure a majority (“Operation Kashmir”, Frontline, June 21).
The plot is unravelling. The administration created a political storm on June 8 by sacking the J&K Bank Chairman Parvez Ahmed on charges of financial irregularities, corruption and nepotism. While “backdoor recruitment” in the public sector bank had always been a focus of conversation in Srinagar’s public jaunts, in particular among unemployed youths, the decision to relieve Ahmed, four months before his term was to end, is seen as the saffron party’s attempt to hollow out Kashmir’s institutions. The developments that followed have been counter-productive. On June 12, five Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed when militants attacked a joint naka party of the State police and the CRPF on Khanabal-Pahalgam road. According to a report published in Greater Kashmir, a spokesman of Al-Umar Mujahideen called up a local news agency to claim responsibility for the attack. The attack took place on the main route for the upcoming Amarnath yatra. Al-Umar Mujahideen is headed by Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, who was one of the three terrorists released by the A.B. Vajpayee government in a hostages-for-militants swap following the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 in December 1999.
Kashmir’s rights bodies and civil society groups are finding it difficult to operate under Governor’s Rule. The administration denied permission to Amnesty International India to hold its news briefing titled “Tyranny of a Lawless Law” in Srinagar on June 12. The briefing was meant to show how the sweeping provisions of the Public Safety Act were being applied to detain people, often minors, without charges or a trial. A senior officer with Amnesty International India told Frontline: “We were told by the District Magistrate’s office that this would create a law and order problem. There was no explanation of how a peaceful gathering inside a hotel premises can trigger violence or lawlessness. This is nothing short of a summary rejection, a denial of space to law-abiding citizens to express their dissent democratically.”
During the PDP-BJP rule (2014-18) in the State, deliberate and consistent efforts were made to sideline the Hurriyat Conference. The movement of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leaders was blocked, Hurriyat cadres were arrested, and their activities were curtailed by denying them the required police permits. On December 10, 2018, the APHC was barred from holding a seminar in its Rajbagh office in Srinagar.
This denial, besides the high-handed crackdown on civilian protesters and continued incarceration of separatist leaders, is bound to push the youths to militancy as well as encourage existing militants to carry out deadly strikes.
The APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told this reporter during a conversation in March that the stifling of democratic voices and barring separatists from travelling to the hinterland had led to the transfer of the pro-independence leadership from them into the hands of village youths, fundamentally shifting the political and religious calculus of the struggle, as is manifest in the emergence of some jehadi terror outfits such as the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir, which considers itself an offshoot of the Islamic State (I.S.); the Lashkar-e-Islam, which carried out attacks on telecom towers in northern Kashmir in 2015; and Al Badr. These are different from traditional militant outfits in that they draw ideological motivation from the I.S. and view Kashmir as a part of the larger Islamist revolution.