Inside the Delimitation Pandora’s Box 

The next general elections will be even more important for the country and the issue of delimitation may become a sensitive electoral issue in South Indian states

By Haris Rashid

THE new parliament building that is currently being built by the Narendra Modi led government has raised eyebrows since it can accommodate a larger number of members (more than 700) than the current parliament building. Considering the timing and the speed at which the construction was taken up, it is a significant development. It comes closer to the year 2026 when the moratorium on the delimitation will end.

Delimitation is the exercise of redrawing boundaries of Lok Sabha and State Assembly constituencies to represent changes in the population. Article 81 of the Indian Constitution mandates that the population-to-seat ratio shall be the same for all the states.

The last delimitation was carried out by the Third Delimitation Commission in 1972 on the basis of the 1971 census after which there was a temporary freeze. In 1976, the Indira government through the 42nd Amendment, 1976 had put a moratorium on the delimitation of constituencies for elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies till the 2001 census.

Later, the Constitution 84th Amendment Act, 2001 extended the freeze on the delimitation till the publication of the first census figures after 2026. This means the next delimitation, if not postponed, will be based on the 2031 census.

The freeze on the delimitation was necessitated by the fact that there was uneven population growth among states. From 1976-to 1990, there were states that successfully controlled their population growth and would lose political power if the delimitation was carried out.

Similarly, states that did not control their population growth would be given more representation and hence more political power in the parliament. If the delimitation is carried out in 2031, it will open a pandora’s box for Indian federalism.

Given the pattern of the population growth rate of different states in the country, it is not just about different states getting more political voice in the parliament, it is about northern and Hindi speaking states of India dominating the parliament.

The decadal growth rate (2001-2011) for northern states was - Bihar (25.4), Uttar Pradesh (20.2), Uttarakhand (18.8), Rajasthan (21.3) and NCT of Delhi (21.2).

Now consider the decadal growth rate (2001-2011) for South Indian states- Kerala (4.9), Karnataka (15.6), Tamil Nadu (15.6) and the undivided Andhra Pradesh (11.0).

If the delimitation is carried out under these circumstances, South Indian states will be at a disadvantage as they will lose some seats in the parliament relative to northern states while for the northern states, there will be a significant increase.

The current distribution of seats in the parliament is already skewed in the favour of northern states- UP has 80 seats and Bihar has 40 seats while Tamil Nadu has 39, Kerala has 20, Andhra Pradesh has 25 and Telangana 17. This also assumes significance as most of the states with significant population growth are BJP ruled or those states where BJP has a greater vote share.

These states are set to gain a large number of seats in the delimitation exercise which will thus electorally favour the BJP. The way BJP rushed with the construction of the new parliament building in the midst of a pandemic and based on the recent history of BJP using its brute majority in the parliament to pass contentious legislations, there are speculations that BJP might bring a constitutional amendment to enforce the delimitation as early as 2026.

Hence, the general next elections will be even more important for the country and the issue of delimitation may become a sensitive electoral issue in South Indian states. And given how Kashmir has once again become New Delhi's primary political lab, coming events have already started casting their shadows.

Kashmir Experiment

Defying the 2026 deadline for Kashmir, the Delimitation Commission recently proposed an overhaul of assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir in its draft report which has been handed over to five associate members from the Union Territory for their suggestions.

The voluminous report has proposed redrawing of the Anantnag Parliamentary seat by including Rajouri and Poonch from the Jammu region, besides carrying out massive changes in the Kashmir division.

Many of the assembly seats in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state have vanished that include Habba Kadal, a seat that was seen as a traditional bastion of migrant Kashmiri pandits.

Barring Khanyar, Sonwar and Hazratbal assembly seats of Srinagar district, all other seats have been redrawn and merged with new assembly seats being carved out like Channapora and Srinagar South. Voters from Habba Kadal will now be part of at least three assembly seats in the new proposed report.

Similarly, Budgam district, which had five assembly seats, was redrawn and merged with Baramulla Parliamentary constituency besides splitting some of the areas and carving out new assembly seats like Kunzer in North Kashmir. Sangrama seat in North Kashmir has been merged with other assembly seats. Pulwama, Tral and some areas of Shopian, which formed part of the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, will now be part of the Srinagar Parliamentary seat.

The report was sent to the five associate members Farooq Abdullah, Hasnain Masoodi and Akbar Lone (Lok Sabha MPs from the National Conference) and Jitendra Singh and Jugal Kishore (BJP MPs). They were asked to submit their views before the report would be put in the public domain.

The report has ignored the objections filed by the National Conference on December 31 last year rejecting the proposal to increase six Assembly seats in the Jammu region as against just one in the Kashmir division.

The Commission headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Ranjana Desai with Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and state election commission K K Sharma was set up on March 6, 2020 and was granted an extension of a year on March 6, 2021, which will come to an end next month.

The Delimitation Commission has held two meetings with the Associate Members on February 18 and December 20 last year. While the first meeting was boycotted by the three National Conference MPs, they attended the second meeting.

The NC had vociferously opposed the draft proposals which will increase the number of Assembly seats in the Jammu division from 37 to 43 and in Kashmir from 46 to 47.

The party, in its objections, had termed the Reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir Act as "Constitutionally suspect" and questioned the recommendations of the delimitation panel especially its rationale behind increasing six seats in the Jammu division as against one in the Kashmir region.

In its reply to the Commission, the NC argued that there were question marks over the Constitutional propriety of the panel especially when the party along with several others had approached the Supreme Court challenging the action of August 5, 2019 by the Centre of revoking the special status and bifurcating the erstwhile state in two Union territories - Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.

The party said the Commission has been formed because of the Reorganisation Act of Jammu and Kashmir 2019 which is under judicial scrutiny and the Supreme Court is yet to deliver its order. "The panel's recommendations are borne out of an Act which is a "Constitutionally suspect" law," it said.

According to legal parlance, if any Act is under judicial custody and the apex court is seized of the matter, it can be termed as a Constitutionally suspect law.

The party said the principle of Constitution propriety demands that such a law should not be implemented and all the limbs of the state and their institutions should, out of deference to the top constitutional court, desist from implementing such law till its constitutionality is determined.

The National Conference also challenged the theory of Commission that the seats had to be extended in the Jammu region because of difficult terrains and geographically remote areas.

It highlighted that several areas in Kashmir remain cut-off for months and are equally arduous when it comes to the remoteness of an area.

The party highlighted several areas in Anantnag, Kupwara, Baramulla, Kulgam and Uri in Kashmir division to compare remoteness and tough terrain.

The major objection of the party was about the formula that had been adopted by the Commission by throwing the concept of population to the wind and said Kashmir division, despite having a higher number of people compared to Jammu, got only one seat.

After the completion of the delimitation exercise, the number of Assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir will go up from 83 to 90. In the erstwhile assembly of Jammu and Kashmir state, Kashmir had 46 seats, Jammu 37 and Ladakh four.

Amid flak, the Ministry of Law and Justice on February 22 granted two-month extension to the Delimitation Commission. Government of India reportedly asked the panel to complete its work by May this year and share its report.

The Delimitation Commission will put its final draft along with the objections of the associate members in public domain and will start to seek objections and opinion from the public and political parties for a specified time, probably in the month of March. After receiving objections, the panel will start working on the final report which will take upto a month.

Last Word

If the delimitation is held at the national level, it will politically punish all those states that adhered to and implemented the family planning programs while rewarding those that failed to do so.

It is also set to drive a wedge between the southern and the northern states and therefore will raise questions on Indian federalism.

Since there has been a freeze on delimitation since 1976, there is no gainsaying the fact there is a need for delimitation.

However, since different states have different populations growth rates, using population for increasing or decreasing the number of seats of a particular state will be discriminatory.

Till a uniform rate of population growth is attained, the government, as has been done previously, should only alter the boundaries of parliamentary and state assembly constituencies to equate the number of voters in each constituency without altering the number of seats in each state.

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