After four hours of closed-door deliberations, the much-hyped meeting of June 24, 2021, between the Centre and the dethroned politicians of the Kashmir region ended with the Prime Minister’s bland assurance that elections would be held after the ongoing delimitation exercise is concluded. There was no mention of a time limit for the proposed elections; the meeting turned out to be a diplomatic exercise to gauge the mood of the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) as the government mulls over the roadmap ahead.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphatically ruled out restoration of the status quo ante, namely, restoration of Article 370 and Article 35-A, undoing to Union Territory status of Jammu and Kashmir, and re-unification with Ladakh. While the promise of full Statehood to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir remains, there will be no hasty return to full Statehood.
The meeting belied the fears of agitated intellectuals and activists of the Jammu region, some of whom were not invited: far from being betrayed, they are likely to get Justice in terms of Assembly constituencies based on population. The Union Territory of Ladakh was unperturbed about the meeting as its leaders did not fear New Delhi succumbing to the demands of the Kashmir-based leaders.
At the meeting, former chief minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah urged the restoration of full statehood of J&K as a trust-building exercise from New Delhi. National Conference vice president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah wondered why J&K was being singled out for delimitation. This is disingenuous. As the original State of Jammu and Kashmir had been bifurcated into two Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, delimitation is inevitable before elections can be held in either UT. Omar Abdullah said his party would continue to fight for the restoration of Article 370 in court.
Senior Congress leader and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told media persons that his party raised five issues at the meeting, viz., restoration of Statehood; Assembly elections; protection of the land rights of the people of J&K; honourable and dignified return of the Kashmiri Pandits, and immediate release of political prisoners.
A day ahead of the meeting, on June 23, 2021, the Congress party had lambasted the Centre for “selectively inviting” political parties to the all-party meeting, especially excluding socio-political groups from Jammu and representatives of the Kashmiri Pandit community. The party also criticised the non-inclusion of displaced people from Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) and West Pakistan refugees. But these issues were not raised at the meeting.
People’s Conference leader and former deputy chief minister Muzaffar Baig said almost everyone at the meeting demanded restoration of Statehood for Jammu and Kashmir and restoration of Article 370. His former boss and People’s Democratic Party leader, Mehbooba Mufti, seems to have refrained from pressing for talks with Pakistan. However, her uncle and senior PDP leader Sartaj Madni was released from detention on June 18, 2021, to prepare congenial grounds for the talks.
The Gupkaris will be returning to Kashmir with a clear understanding of the writing on the wall. As Jammu intellectual Prof Hari Om prophesied on June 23, 2021, five of their seven demands, namely, reversal of Article 35A, Article 370, return of special status, the reunification of Ladakh with J&K and restoration of statehood, fall within the jurisdiction of Parliament. It was thus never realistic to imagine that the Modi Government would agree to scrap the Reorganisation of J&K Act 2019, their greatest political achievement. The remaining demands, viz., to release terrorists (Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik and Masarat Alam) and talk with Pakistan vanished.
The road ahead is via delimitation and fresh elections. The last delimitation exercise in the undivided State was accomplished by the Justice (retd) K.K. Gupta Commission in 1995, under President’s rule. The militancy in Kashmir region from 1990 onwards triggered a mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits and other groups, to Jammu region. But the rise in Jammu population did not reflect in Census 2011, which was viewed with suspicion by large sections of the people.
On June 16, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Jammu and Kashmir unit demanded fresh delimitation of Assembly constituencies and de-freezing of at least eight of the 24 seats reserved for Pakistan occupied territories. The BJP lamented the undue weightage given to the Kashmir valley by previous National Conference governments, and urged that the eight seats be allotted to the Jammu region for families that fled Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) in 1947-48, who are currently estimated at 12-13 lakh persons.
At independence, the State Constituent Assembly was constituted under the Maharaja’s 1939 Constitution, but Sheikh Abdullah used the political weightage bestowed upon him by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to unilaterally declare the first delimitation: Kashmir (43), Jammu (30) and Ladakh (2). Subsequently, this was only tinkered with: Kashmir (46), Jammu (37) and Ladakh (4). Abdullah reserved 25 seats for the occupied regions, which was later reduced to 24. Except for Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was born in Doda, this retained the ethno-religious supremacy of one community, resulting in every chief minister in the State being a Muslim from the Kashmir region.
The Prime Minister’s meeting with the Gupkar parties aims to end this artificial division and treat the reconstituted Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir as a single unit, with delimitation on the basis of population.
Fresh delimitation will address the long lingering issue of political reservation for the Scheduled Tribes (Gujars, Bakarwals, Gaddis and Sippis) who were given ST status in 1991 but not allocated reserved seats in the Assembly. This is an unfinished agenda of the BJP.
Moreover, the seven Schedule Caste seats in the undivided State were confined to Jammu and frozen since 1996: Chhamb, Domana, RS Pura (Jammu district); Samba, Hiranagar (Kathua district); Chenani (Udhampur district) and Ramban. As a result, the Scheduled Caste population in other constituencies of the Jammu and Kashmir regions was denied representation in the Assembly.
The Delimitation Commission met on February 18, 2021 and will address these anomalies while demarcating new Assembly constituencies. The successful election to the District Development Councils (DDCs) was the first step towards return to popular government in the UT. Assembly elections will complete the process.
In his Independence Day address on August 15, 2020, the Prime Minister had said the Centre wanted “early completion of the delimitation exercise so that there are early elections, there should be Jammu-Kashmir MLAs, its own cabinet, its Chief Minister so that it can march towards development with a new vigour. India is committed to it and is making all efforts in this regard.”
Experts expect the delimitation exercise to increase Assembly seats in the Jammu region that has long claimed to be more populous. Should this happen, it will balance the hitherto artificial weightage given to the Kashmir region and one community since 1947. This might pave the path for a Hindu to become chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, thus marginalizing the valley’s subtle separatism and hardline Sunni Muslim dominance.
Organiser, 25 June 2021