The Delimitation Commission’s proposed changes to the electoral cartography of the Pir Panjal region, one of the most underdeveloped in Jammu and Kashmir, has sparked discontent and anger in Poonch and Rajouri districts.
Residents told The Kashmir Walla that they were expecting that the delimitation panel would suggest adding at least two more seats to the twin border districts, given their size and population. However, the panel has carved out just one new assembly constituency, Thana Mandi, in Rajouri district, taking the district’s tally to five seats, while Poonch’s tally will remain unchanged at three.
Citing neglect in official policies, for the past 30 years, Paharis have been seeking Scheduled Tribe status since the same was granted to Gujjars and Bakarwals two decades back. In this light, a senior leader of the National Conference, the erstwhile state’s oldest party, resigned earlier this week. Former minister Syed Mushtaq Ahmed Bukhari resigned stating that he was being told to stop his fight for Scheduled Tribe status to Pahari-speaking people in the twin border districts.
The revocation of the limited-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, in August 2019, set the ball rolling to increase the number of electoral constituencies in the union territory under Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act 2019.
The second draft proposal of the panel, which is headed by Justice (Retd.) Ranjana Prakash Desai, has made major changes in both the divisions, Jammu and Kashmir. The draft report proposes that the electoral boundaries of 28 existing constituencies should be modified to increase the number of assembly constituencies in J-K from the existing 83 to 90. Ten constituencies in Kashmir Valley and nine in Jammu region will cease to exist while all the five Lok Sabha constituencies in the Union Territory have been rearranged.
The Delimitation Act 2002 lays down that the electoral constituencies are to be redrawn based on population, public convenience, administrative boundaries, and geography. As per the Act: “All constituencies shall, as far as practicable, be geographically compact areas, and in delimiting them regard shall be paid to physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience.”
On Wednesday, the government extended the tenure of the Delimitation Commission by two more months until 5 May. Union home minister Amit Shah, in a recent interview, stated that the elections would be held within six to eight months of the conclusion of the delimitation exercise.
Although the districts of Poonch and Rajouri are expansive in area and more populous, they aren’t going to benefit much from the delimitation exercise. According to the draft report, only one seat has been proposed to be added to the border district of Rajouri, which is the second most populous district in Jammu division with a population of 6,42,415, according to the 2011 Census. The number of assembly seats in Poonch district, one of the most underrepresented and underdeveloped regions of Jammu and Kashmir, will remain unchanged.
On the other hand, the panel has proposed to carve out one more seat in a comparatively smaller district of Samba which has population of just 3,18,898, even though Poonch is more populous — 4,76,835 — and larger in area with 1,674 sq kilometer than Samba that pans over 904 sq kilometers.
The draft report also recommends the merger of seven assembly segments of Poonch and Rajouri, which were earlier part of the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, with the new Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency of Kashmir.
The proposal has triggered intense backlash from the people of Pir Panjal who term it a “bad experiment” and “divisive approach” of the Union government.
“This decision is unthoughtful and irrational,” said Advocate Mahroof Khan, senior PDP leader from the border area of Mendhar in Poonch. “Anantnag remains disconnected from Poonch for more than six months. Moreover the politics of Kashmir division and Pir Panjal are starkly different. Pir Panjal deserves its own Lok Sabha seat which is the only way to empower our people.”
Both the hilly districts of Poonch and Rajouri don’t share a border with Anantnag. For the leaders of Pir Panjal to propagate their politics in Anantnag, they will have to take the Mughal Road to reach Shopian first before reaching Anantnag, both districts in south Kashmir. Political leaders and activists from Pir Panjal believe that the proposal will create an “imbalance” in the politics of the new Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency.
Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, NC’s member of Lok Sabha Hasnain Masoodi explained that the purpose of the delimitation in Jammu and Kashmir was to provide better representation to the underrepresented areas.
“But with the current proposal this purpose will not be achieved. Besides, the shuffling of villages under constituency segments in Poonch and Rajouri has been very random against which people have expressed their grievances,” he added.
The political representation of Pir Panjal region in the parliament has always been weak. A seat in the Lok Sabha could have given the region a voice in the parliament, “leaving parts of Rajouri and clubbing the rest with Anantnag Lok Sabha seat along with Poonch will create a representational imbalance within Rajouri district,” added Hasnain Masoodi.
Strangely, the Kalakote assembly segment of Rajouri has been clubbed with the Jammu Lok Sabha seat. According to locals, the “haphazard” distribution of areas and villages of Poonch and Rajouri districts in Anantnag and Jammu Lok Sabha seats beats all logic.
“The shuffling of villages amongst constituencies is absurd and the repercussions of this proposal will surface during the execution of developmental projects. Not only that, the local political governance will fall short in keeping a balance. The areas that are 30 kilometers away and have no connectivity with each other have been brought together,” Advocate Mahroof Khan said.
In the last few days, several joint press conferences have been organised by leaders of Poonch and Rajouri, who are affiliated with different political parties to express their frustration with the draft report of the delimitation commission. Former MLAs Ajaz Jan and Shah Mohammad Tantray among several leaders have vented their anger against the panel’s recommendations.
Another issue that has sparked concern in Pir Panjal is the reservation of seats for Scheduled Tribes (ST). The draft report proposes reservation of nine seats for STs but the tribal activists and political leaders have criticised the move. The seats have been proposed to be reserved in areas — for example, Surankote, Larnoo, and Kangan — where the ST population still has some representation.
Guftar Ahmed Chowdhary, a Gujjar political activist from Rajouri, questioned the proposal, saying it “exposes the BJP’s intentions” for the tribals of J-K. He reasoned that if the BJP wanted to uplift Gujjars and Bakarwals, then the seats should have been reserved for STs in Udhampur, Kathua and Samba, where Gujjars live in significant numbers but lack representation.
Besides, the panel has proposed reservation of all the three assembly seats of Poonch for STs. With more than half the population of the district being Pahari speakers who are struggling to get recognised under Scheduled Tribe list since decades this proposed move is seens as a conscious step to disempower the Paharis of Jammu and Kashmir. The Paharis of Poonch have termed the proposal of the delimitation panel as “unfair”.
“Pir Panjal is the only region in divided Jammu and Kashmir where Paharis have majority population. Now with five out of eight seats being reserved for STs, who will represent the Paharis of Jammu and Kashmir? This proposal will further increase fault lines amongst Gujjars and Paharis with the whole ongoing reservation conundrum,” explained Mahroof Khan.
Senior journalist and Jammu-based political analyst Zafar Choudhary has also speculated about it in his recent writings on the Delimitation proposal. On the contrary the proposal to reserve as many seats of Pir Panjal has evoked hope amongst some Pahari leaders, who are hopeful that the ongoing struggle for receiving ST recognition by Paharis might see a positive result finally.