The Election Commission’s draft delimitation proposal to redraw assembly and parliamentary constituencies in Assam panders to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s majoritarian agenda, Opposition leaders and political scholars have said.

At the heart of the criticism is the abolition of several Muslim-majority assembly seats as they exist. Many of those constituencies are currently represented by legislators from Opposition parties who belong to the state’s Bengali-origin Muslim community, often vilified as “illegal” migrants.

The draft proposes that those seats be either merged or subsumed under other newly-created constituencies – many of them with significant Hindu populations.

Three assembly constituencies where Muslims play a decisive role have been reserved for candidates belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes, effectively debarring minority leaders from contesting.

The draft proposal is “an attempt by the government to reduce the number of Muslim legislators”, political scientist Apurba Kumar Baruah said.

A long-running wish of the BJP

The Election Commission’s draft proposal, published last week, follows years of political rhetoric by the BJP in favour of a delimitation exercise that would help Assam’s “indigenous” communities gain the upper hand in the electoral process.

In the last assembly election in the state, held in 2021, the party had promised a delimitation exercise to “protect the political rights of the people” in its manifesto. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma even put a number to it: he said “at least 110 seats” should be kept for the “indigenous” people of the state.

Soon after the draft proposal was released, Sarma was quick to give it a resounding thumbs-up. He said if the draft proposal was implemented, Assam will be “politically saved”.

Pabitra Margherita, a BJP MP and political secretary to Sarma, called the draft a “protective shield for the Assamese community”. “The overall draft has ensured political domination of [people of] Indian and indigenous origins over 90 to 100 assembly seats in Assam,” he said.

How the numbers add up

Assam has a total of 126 assembly seats and 14 Lok Sabha constituencies. The state also has seven Rajya Sabha seats.

According to the 2001 Census, based on which the delimitation is being carried out, Muslims make up 30.9% of Assam’s total population. In the subsequent Census of 2011, the community’s share in the 3.12 crore population of the state went up to 34.22%.

There is no official break-up of the Muslim population by ethnicity. However, local estimates peg the Bengali-origin Muslims to be nearly three-fourth of the total Muslim population in the state. The community settled in Assam in the late 1890s after they were brought by the British for commercial farming.

Political parties and observers say they play a decisive role in about 35 assembly seats and six of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in Assam. Currently, Assam has 31 Muslim legislators – none from the BJP.

What the draft proposes

In the draft published by the Election Commission on June 20, the overall numbers of legislators and parliamentarians remain the same. However, the commission has proposed raising the number of assembly seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes from eight to nine, and for the Scheduled Tribes from 16 to 19.

Since assembly constituencies are spread across districts, it is difficult to map the changes on the ground with precision. But, broadly, if the draft proposal goes through, the number of assembly constituencies in Muslim-majority districts will decrease while those in areas inhabited by communities considered indigenous to Assam will increase.

For instance, the commission has recommended increasing the number of seats in the areas within the jurisdiction of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Region from four to five, and in Bodoland Territorial Region from 12 to 15. Both regions are administered under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that provides certain safeguards to tribal communities in the North East.

The draft also proposes an increase of one seat each in three Upper Assam districts, where ethnic Assamese communities are in large numbers.

On the other hand, consider the Muslim-majority district of Barpeta. Currently, eight Assembly seats predominantly span the district of Barpeta. But the draft recommends that the number of assembly seats within the district now be reduced to six. Among them, one would be earmarked for a candidate from the Scheduled Caste community, if the draft proposal is accepted.

In the state’s Bengali-majority Barak Valley, too, the draft recommends a reduction in assembly seats: one each in the Muslim-majority districts of Karimganj and Hailakandi.

The proposed changes haven’t come as a surprise for Assam’s Muslim leaders.

“We had feared that the delimitation would be done in a way which would decrease the minority representatives in Parliament and the assembly,” said Md Imtiaz Hussain, general secretary of All Assam Minority Students’ Union, an outfit that represents the interests of the Bengali-origin Muslim community. “The draft proposals have proved our apprehension.”

Questions over methodology

The perception that the delimitation draft is favourable to the ruling BJP has led to questions being raised about the Election Commission’s methodology.

In a press note, the Election Commission offered an explanation. It said that the number of seats in each district was calculated based on population, but it also took note of several representations it had received about the “uneven population growth pattern” in the state.

However, Muslim leaders allege that the poll panel has gone out of its way to favour the BJP.

“They have even broken the panchayat units just to ensure BJP’s interest,” said Barpeta parliamentarian and Congress leader Abdul Khaleque.

Consider, for instance, the Haldia Gaon panchayat in Barpeta. It comprises ten villages, all currently part of the Jania constituency. But under the draft proposal, the panchayat will be divided into three different constituencies.

In its press note, the commission clarified that it had considered a “village” the lowest administrative unit in rural areas and “ward” the equivalent in urban areas. “Village and ward have been kept intact and have not been broken anywhere in the state,” the poll panel said.

The Election Commission’s own guidelines, however, state that “in delimiting the assembly constituencies, efforts will be made to ensure that, as far as practicable, sub-divisions/tehsils are kept intact and not unnecessarily broken”.

There are also allegations that the commission has disregarded other guidelines such as the one that states “physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience” be taken into consideration while carrying out delimitation.

Mansur Talukdar, a 32-year-old resident of Bahmura gaon panchayat, complained that the proposed changes made little logistical sense. Talukdar is currently a voter in the Barpeta assembly constituency and eponymous Lok Sabha seat. But according to the draft proposal, he will be part of the Mandia assembly seat and Dhubri parliamentary constituency.

“My home is 3 km from Barpeta district headquarters while Mandia is 15 km away,” he said. “I am a resident of Barpeta district but I am being made a voter of Dhubri Lok Sabha which is about 150 km from my home. There is no logic here.”

What the Opposition says

Opposition parties have also called into question the Election Commission’s role in this matter.

Assam Congress chief Bhupen Kumar Borah called the commission’s decision to publish the draft proposal despite the exercise being challenged in the Supreme Court “astonishing”. “We have never opposed delimitation,” he said. “But while the matter is sub judice, it [the draft proposal] is a direct affront to the Supreme Court without waiting for the judgement. Doesn’t this show that the ECI is acting like an extended arm of the BJP?”

Borah was also dismissive of the BJP’s claim that the delimitation would protect indigenous interests.

Raijor Dal chief and Sibsagar legislator Akhil Gogoi spoke along similar lines. The constituencies, he said, had been realigned so that “Bengali Hindus will win more seats”.

He cited the example of Barak Valley where two Muslim majority seats have been done away with. “Currently, the Bengali Hindus can win seven seats out of 15 seats,” he said. “But the draft proposals will now ensure that nine seats out of 13 seats are won by the Bengali Hindus.”