India redrawing Kashmir assembly seats to ‘disempower Muslims’?

Politicians and experts say the delimitation of constituencies will make the Muslim vote ‘irrelevant’ in India’s only Muslim-majority region.

India Kashmir election map
An Indian policeman walks past people queueing to cast their votes outside a polling station in Anantnag, Indian-administered Kashmir [File: Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has released a list of redrawn electoral constituencies in Indian-administered Kashmir, giving greater representation to the Muslim-majority region’s Hindu areas and drawing condemnation from political parties in the valley.

On May 5, a government-appointed delimitation commission announced 90 assembly constituencies for the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding Ladakh, with 43 seats for Jammu and 47 for Kashmir.

Earlier, Jammu had 37 seats and the Kashmir valley 46.

The alteration of the region’s electoral map has angered opposition politicians – many of them former allies of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – who accuse the delimitation commission of “gerrymandering” the region and “disempowering Muslims”.

Gerrymandering is the political manipulation of electoral seats with the intent of creating an undue advantage for a party or group within the constituency.

Kashmir election
A Kashmiri woman casts her vote at a polling station during India’s 2019 general elections, at Kapran, Indian -administered Kashmir [File: Mukhtar Khan/AP]

The main criteria followed in the delimitation process is that the population of the area should correspond to the changes suggested.

According to the 2011 census, Indian-administered Kashmir has a population of 12.5 million people, 68.31 percent of them Muslims and 28.43 percent Hindus. A majority of those Muslims live in the Kashmir Valley while Hindus predominately live in Jammu.

In the new electoral map drawn by the delimitation commission, the average population of an assembly constituency in the Muslim-majority Valley will be 140,000, while it will be only 120,000 in Jammu.

While the BJP has not won a seat in the Valley, the party enjoys considerable influence in the Hindu-majority areas of Jammu where it won 25 of 37 assembly seats in the last elections held in 2014.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan but is claimed by both in its entirety.

In 2019, Modi’s government split Indian-administered Kashmir into two federal territories in order to tighten New Delhi’s grip over the region. The move was followed by a series of legislative and political moves which residents say are aimed at changing the region’s demography.

The latest delimitation exercise is being seen as part of the same strategy by the Hindu nationalist BJP, which is now trying to make inroads into the Valley.

Controversial changes

Among the controversial recommendations of the delimitation commission is reserving two of the Valley seats for “Kashmiri migrants”, who would be nominated to the assembly by the government.

“Kashmiri migrants” refers to the region’s Hindus – known as Pandits – who had to flee the Valley after an armed rebellion against New Delhi started in 1990.

In another recommendation likely to cause friction with the Valley’s Muslims, the commission has suggested nominating displaced people from Pakistan-administered Kashmir to the legislative assembly.

Shortly after India’s independence and partition of the subcontinent to form Pakistan in 1947, a war erupted between the two newly-formed nations, causing thousands of mostly Hindus to migrate to the Indian side of Kashmir.

The state assembly in Indian-administered Kashmir had been traditionally allocating 24 “vacant” seats for “areas under illegal occupation of Pakistan” – read Pakistan-administered Kashmir – where New Delhi cannot hold elections.

But the delimitation commission has now suggested nominating members from the displaced communities to some of these vacant seats, without specifying how many.

Kashmir election
Voters line up to cast their votes as an Indian officer stands guard outside a polling station during assembly polls in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2014 [File: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters]

Residents in the Valley and political observers say the panel’s recommendations will benefit the BJP electorally.

Hasnain Masoodi, one of the five Kashmir-based parliamentarians consulted by the delimitation commission, told Al Jazeera “the very exercise is unconstitutional because the law under which it was done is under question in the court”.

“It is an assault on the constitution,” he said, adding that his objections to the panel’s proposals were not heeded.

‘To disempower Muslims’

For the last seven decades, Indian-administered Kashmir has mostly been ruled by Kashmir-based political parties and has had a Muslim chief minister who enjoyed political dominance over the region.

However, since coming to power in 2014, Modi’s government has promised its supporters a Hindu chief minister in the region.

The redrawing of the disputed region’s assembly constituencies could also pave the way for new elections.

In January this year, federal Home Minister Amit Shah said elections would be held in Indian-administered Kashmir soon after the delimitation process was completed. He had also promised to restore the region’s statehood once the “situation became normal”.

Modi with Kashmir leaders
Indian PM Narendra Modi, right, greeting politicians from Indian-administered Kashmir before their talks in New Delhi on June 24, 2021 [File: Prime Minister’s Office via AP]

Jammu-based political analyst Zafar Choudhary said the number of seats where Muslim candidates stood a chance of winning will come down after the delimitation commission’s recommendations are implemented by the government.

“Out of the six new constituencies allocated to Jammu, five contain a predominantly Hindu population. Two constituencies which have been dissolved had Muslim candidates winning the last election,” Choudhary told Al Jazeera.

Indian-administered Kashmir is the only region in India that was handpicked by the government for the delimitation exercise, which has been frozen in other parts of the country until 2026. The last delimitation exercise in Indian-administered Kashmir was carried out in 1995.

Muhammad Yusuf Tarigami is a former Kashmiri legislator and spokesman of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a coalition of pro-India parties in the region formed to seek restoration of the region’s special status scrapped by Modi’s government in 2019.

He accused the delimitation commission of violating the basic norms of redrawing electoral constituencies.

“[Some] areas in Jammu were given the benefit of [geographical] terrain while those in Kashmir having the same terrain were denied. The BJP’s agenda is to increase its seats. It thinks Hindu-dominated areas are their political base… Given the population of Muslims, they are not getting proper representation,” Tarigami told Al Jazeera.

Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of the region, said the delimitation exercise is aimed at a demographic change in the Muslim-majority Valley. She said the Modi government is trying “to disempower Muslims everywhere” in India.

Mufti said the redrawing of assembly constituencies in Indian-administered Kashmir will “make the Muslim vote irrelevant”.

“In Jammu, they have scattered Muslims in such a way that their vote has lost significance,” she told Al Jazeera.

The BJP claims the new electoral map in the region is based on “genuine factors” and “does not discriminate against Muslims”.

“The delimitation panel had experts as members and they did not discriminate against Kashmiri Muslims in any way. Kashmir, which has majority of Muslims, still has more seats than Jammu. How is this discrimination?” BJP politician Ashok Kaul told Al Jazeera.

But academic and political analyst Siddiq Wahid thinks the BJP government’s motive is “to get a Hindu chief minister” in the region.

“The aim is very simple: to make Kashmiris alien in their own land,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera