By Deepika Bhan
Recently, the Boundary Commission for J&K submitted its report to the Electoral Commission of India which gives Jammu a boost but fails to capitalize on the strategy of minimizing Pakistan in its game at Cashmere. The commission also fails to meet the aspirations of displaced Kashmiri migrants, especially Kashmiri pandits.
India has declared the whole of J&K including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin as an integral part of the country. The J&K Constitution, enacted in 1956, had reserved 24 seats in the Legislative Assembly for PoK. These were left vacant and uncontested in national elections.
When the J&K Constitution was abolished on August 5, 2019 and its status changed, the Government of India retained the seat arrangements of the PoK. Home Minister Amit Shah had told Parliament: “When I say Jammu and Kashmir, I am including PoK and Aksai Chin, both are included within the territorial boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Passive on PoK, Shaksgam and Aksai Chin missing
However, this spirit seems to be lacking in the Commission’s report. In the J&K Official Gazette of May 5, 2022, the Commission stated: “As provided for in Section 14(4) of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019 (34 of 2019), 24 seats are not have not been occupied for delimitation purposes.”
While it made no mention of the 24 Assembly seats allocated to the PoK, it also did not take over the other occupied parts of the original J&K – Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin. Both were illegally given to China by Pakistan.
The Commission has also not assigned Lok Sabha representation to these occupied areas. Interestingly, the Lok Sabha has never provided for a seat in Parliament for PoK, although India has declared PoK to be an integral part of the country and has reserved seats for it in the Assembly.
Mentioning and highlighting the Assembly and Lok Sabha seats for the occupied areas is strategically important as it reinforces India’s claims to the territories that it legally belongs to following the signing of the Accession Treaty by the last Maharaja of J&K, Hari Singh, in 1947.
Giving Voting Rights to PoJK Refugees
The Commission, in its press note, recommended some representation for refugees from PoJK areas, although the notification to the official gazette does not mention this.
The press note states: “The central government may consider giving IDPs from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir some representation in the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir by appointing representatives of IDPs from Jammu -and-Kashmir occupied by Pakistan.
The Commission should also have specified this in the gazette. The reason for not doing so is intriguing. As the government led by Narendra Modi has repeatedly talked about reclaiming all of Kashmir, the Commission could have gone deeper and deliberately talked about the occupied areas.
Although the 24 Assembly seats earmarked for the PoK are vacant, the government can actually hold elections by having the PoJK refugees vote in the areas where they lived before taking refuge in the J&K.
The Boundary Commission could have activated PoK seats by allowing these PoJK refugees to vote from their place of origin. This way, India could have tactical leverage to reach out to PoK people and also strengthen its claim and commitment.
The PoJK Refugee Forum, a joint platform of refugee families from PoK areas – Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, Kotli, Bhimber, Dev Batla, etc. – opposed keeping 24 seats vacant and holding elections for the other 83 states). The displaced POJK community is demanding their right to vote for the 24 vacant seats.
It is high time for the Center to wake up to this demand, which can be a game-changer for the Indian government against Pakistan and China.
Kashmiri pundits neglected again
The Gazette fails to mention the Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced to flee Kashmir in 1990.
A press note speaks of migrants and not specifically of Kashmiri pundits. The memo says: “The provision of at least two members (one of whom must be a woman) from the Kashmiri migrant community in the Legislative Assembly and such members may be accorded power equal to the power of the appointed members of the Legislative Assembly of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.”
This recommendation is not part of the Official Journal notification and is therefore not binding on the government.
Kashmiri Pandits, who constitute the majority of the displaced people in Kashmir, have once again been badly received. The Center has not offered any policy for their return and rehabilitation, nor has the Commission provided details on their representation in the Assembly.
Just like reserving seats in Parliament and National Assembly for SC/ST, the Commission should have reserved seats for the displaced Kashmiri Pandit community and mentioned it in the Gazette.
After the forced exodus, the community of more than seven lakh people spread all over the country and outside. Many did not vote from their place of origin in Kashmir and only a few thousand, who live in Jammu, were able to vote from the boundaries of their home assembly.
Having representation in the Assembly needs a representative character for which the Center should formulate a policy for the return and rehabilitation of the community in Kashmir. Thirty years after the exodus, none of the governments of the Center has developed a concrete policy.
Commission fails to respond to citizens’ aspirations
The Boundaries Commission was essentially aimed at redrawing the boundaries of the seats of the Assembly and the Lok Sabha. He did, but in sensitive places like J&K, the spirit of work matters more and this is where he failed.
It failed to meet the aspirations of many communities that had been discriminated against over decades and had felt that after a change in state status, their status would improve. The Commission should have taken into account the views of the Supreme Court, which had stated that “delimitation is not a mathematical exercise. It must reflect the political aspirations of a society linked to a particular geography”.
Being a border state with actively meddling Pakistan and China, J&K needs active interventions from the Center to pursue a policy of tactical leverage. By giving a voice to hundreds of thousands of PoJK refugees and displaced Kashmir Pandits in the new J&K dispensation, the government can defeat Pakistani-sponsored separatist elements and also strengthen its standing on the international stage. .