After declaring war on Article 370 and Article 35(A), provisions meant to give Jammu and Kashmir autonomy and special protections under the Constitution, the Bharatiya Janata Party has raised the question of delimitation, or the redrawing of assembly constituencies. For years, the party has held that the Kashmir Valley was overrepresented in the state assembly, leading to the marginalisation of Jammu and Ladakh.

Early in June, as the freshly minted home minister, Amit Shah, met Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik, rumours that the government was planning the delimitation of assembly constituencies started doing the rounds.

This gave rise to such a public outcry that the Centre and the governor’s administration currently in charge of the state had to issue a disclaimer: delimitation was not on the cards, it had not even been discussed.

But the matter did not rest there.

Last week, the BJP state unit passed a resolution demanding delimitation to correct the “gross injustice to Jammu and Ladakh”, ensure reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the defreezing of at least eight of the seats historically reserved for Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Displaced people from those areas would vote for a representative this side of the Line of Control, the party resolved. These seats would go to Jammu, where most of them have lived for decades.

The reign of the Valley?

The BJP’s demand taps into long-running resentments in Jammu and Ladakh, where it is felt that the Kashmir Valley dominates the state’s politics and corners the greater share of resources because of its outsized presence in the assembly. While Jammu is the winter capital for the state government, it is Srinagar which is the real power centre.

Historically, chief ministers of the state have been from the Valley and Muslim. This has prompted rightwing complaints about “Islamisation” of the bureaucracy and discrimination against non-Muslims in the state. So the fresh push for delimitation has also resurrected an old project of the Hindu Right, to instal a Hindu chief minister in Jammu and Kashmir.

The politics of the state may have been shaped by Kashmiri concerns. But the claim that the Valley is numerically overrepresented does not seem to hold water. According to the 2011 Census, the population of the Kashmir Valley was 68,88,475, which amounted to 54.93% of the state’s total population. It has 46 seats, or 52.87% representation, in an assembly consisting of 87 elected members.

Ladakh has 2,74,289 inhabitants accounting for 2.18% of the population. It has four seats in the assembly, or 4.59% representation. The larger number of seats is possibly to compensate for the remoteness of certain areas.

Jammu, with 53,78,538 inhabitants or 42.89% of the population, has 37 seats, or 42.52% representation in the assembly. But while the average population per assembly is close to 1.5 lakh in Kashmir, it is just over 1.45 lakh in Jammu.

A voice for the marginalised?

The BJP also appears to predicate its demands on greater representation for marginalised groups: displaced families from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir settled in Jammu for decades and Scheduled Tribes in the state. But it is not clear that delimitation would solve their political and social marginalisation.

After Partition, the number of seats in the state legislature was fixed at 100, with 24 seats left vacant, waiting for representatives from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir across the Line of Control. In 1988, a delimitation commission in the state raised the total number of seats to 111, with elections held for 87.

The displaced families who fled to Jammu from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir are considered permanent residents of the state and vote for representatives in the areas where they are currently settled.

In recent years, they have grown increasingly disenchanted with the BJP. The party had come to power at the Centre and then in the state with promises of elaborate rehabilitation packages but failed to make good on them. Starting late last year, they held protests demanding, among other things, the reservation of eight assembly seats for displaced families from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. In the months leading up to the Lok Sabha election, the refugee committee had even fielded its own candidates against in Jammu.

The delimitation plan appears to be a nod to the demands of the protestors. The BJP also believes it will strengthen India’s claim on Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir.

Of the second group that the BJP claims to speak for, Scheduled Tribes, who account for 11.9% of the population but have no reserved seats. In 2011, out of 14.9 lakh, 9.8 lakh were Gujjars and another 1.1 lakh Bakarwals. These largely Muslim nomadic tribes are among the most vulnerable groups in the state, dividing their time between Kashmir in the summer and Jammu in the winter.

Could reservation for Gujjar Bakarwals address their plight by ensuring better political representation? Possibly.

But if the BJP claims to champion their cause now, it fails to convince. For some years now, party leaders have run election campaigns promising to evict Gujjar Bakarwals from Jammu. Since 2015, when the BJP formed a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party, eviction drives have systematically targeted Gujjar Bakarwal settlements. Members of the community faced lynchings, and when an eight-year-old Gujjar Bakarwal child was raped and killed in 2018, BJP leaders attended rallies in defence of her killers.

What explains the BJP’s sudden change of heart, apart from electoral considerations?

Winning Jammu and Kashmir

Two possibilities have been suggested. First, with Jammu and Kashmir under President’s Rule, there is no state assembly to deal with, which makes it easier for the BJP an opportunity to push through changes to constituencies.

While delimitation is supposed to take place after each decadal census, a 25-year freeze on the number of seats in Parliament and state legislatures was put in place in 1976. This was to make room for family-planning programmes and population control, implemented with more alacrity in some states than in others. In 2001, the Parliament extended the freeze to 2026, when it was hoped the population would have stabilised.

In keeping with this, in 2002, the Jammu and Kashmir government amended the Jammu & Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, and Section 47(3) of the state Constitution, so that the freeze applied to the state as well.

On the recommendations of the Delimitation Commission set up in 2002, most constituencies across the country were redrawn by 2009. However, the commission was not empowered to increase the number of seats.

It also did not cover the state of Jammu and Kashmir, protected from Central rule-making by its special status under Article 370. The last time constituencies were redrawn was 1995, when the state was under President’s Rule. Now, the governor’s administration, which has not been shy of legislative action so far, could reverse the amendments made by the state government in 2002, though it would need to be ratified by Parliament.

Second, the BJP has made considerable headway in Jammu and Ladakh – in 2015, it formed the government for the first time as junior partner in a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party. But it still may not have the numbers to form a government on its own or even emerge as the single largest party.

As one commentator points out, in the Lok Sabha elections this year, the BJP secured a lead in 30 assembly seats from Jammu and Ladakh combined. Its ally, Sajad Lone’s People’s conference, had a lead in two seats in the Valley. That is well short of the 44 seats needed to form the government.

Defreezing assembly seats reserved for territories across the Line of Control could open up more opportunities for the BJP. And the party may hope that redrawing other constituencies will work to its advantage.

Commentators have made a persuasive case for delimitation in general. The number of seats are frozen according to the 1971 Census. Since then, population growth has been rapid but not equally spread out across the country. This has tampered with the idea of one person-one vote, it is argued, as constituency sizes vary wildly. Redrawing other constituencies may ensure more uniform representation. It could also mean that vulnerable groups have better political representation.

If the BJP has these lofty goals in mind, it needs to make a better argument. So far, delimitation seems to be an attempt to polarise Jammu and Kashmir even further along religious and regional lines and helping the BJP to power.