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Govt hints at early elections to realise vision of new Kashmir

Home Minister Amit Shah

In his first interview to a television channel during the current campaigning for the Assembly elections in 5 States, the Union Home Minister Amit Shah revealed to News18 on Monday, 21 February, that the President’s rule could end in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir “in 6-8 months after completion of the delimitation process”.

“The delimitation exercise is about to get over. After this, whatever will be the reasonable timeframe – about six-eight months – the elections will be held. There should be no confusion about that”, Shah said in reply to a question. The question of when exactly would the Election Commission of India (ECI) hold the next Assembly elections—the first after creation of the UT in August 2019—looms large in every conversation about the erstwhile State.

Even in the last two years, Shah has invariably asserted that the Assembly elections in J&K would be conducted quickly after completion of the delimitation process. What a common man gathers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister’s statements is that the Centre was committed to hold the Assembly elections after delimitation of the constituencies which would be followed by formation of the first popular government in the UT. Both the leaders have indicated that thereafter the Statehood would be restored.

Shah has given the time-frame of 6-8 months after the delimitation process. However, nobody knows when exactly the delimitation process would be completed. This leaves room for political uncertainty as nobody can lawfully dictate either to the Delimitation Commission or the ECI with regard to the timeline of any elections.

As a legal and constitutional requirement under the Jammu and Kashmir (Reorganisation) Act, 2019, a Delimitation Commission, headed by Justice (retired) Ranjana Prakash Desai, was constituted in March 2020. Its job was to draw fresh boundaries for the UT’s 90 Assembly segments and 5 Lok Sabha constituencies as a result of the deletion of 4 Assembly segments of Ladakh and proposed addition of 7 segments to the J&K UT. It is an extraordinary constitutional exercise ahead of the next general Parliamentary delimitation which would become due after 2026 and would be held on the national census of 2021-22.

The Desai-headed Commission is holding the exercise on the census of 2011. Close to expiration of its one-year term in March 2021, its life was extended by a year to March 2022. On Tuesday, it was extended for a further period of two months.

The Commission has lately shared its final draft with its five associate members—National Conference’s 3 Lok Sabha members from Kashmir and the BJP’s 2 Lok Sabha members from Jammu. After staying away from its initial deliberations, Farooq Abdullah’s NC attended at least two meetings with the Commission. However, at the end, it turned down the proposed draft, alleging that only the ruling BJP’s electoral interest and aspiration had been accommodated.

Interestingly, even the BJP’s J&K chapter came out with a host of reservations, raising objections to termination of a large number of the existing constituencies. Even in Kashmir it demanded exclusion of Shopian from the Srinagar Parliamentary constituency and its inclusion in the Anantnag-Rajouri-Poonch seat.

Congress party as well as Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have also rejected the Commission’s proposed final draft. It is required to be notified for the general public and to be finalised after suggestions from the electorate. If all goes well, the new constituencies would be delineated before June 2022. Subject to other factors, including the law and order and the security scenario, the UT’s first Assembly elections are expected either in November-December 2022 or in March-April 2023.

But there could be many slips between the cup and the lip as the Valley’s peace depends largely on the infiltration, movement and manoeuvrability of the insurgents from Pakistan. As of now, security forces and the Police appear to be in good command of the situation and the number of the active militants is believed to be less than a hundred–for the first time after 2014. Significantly, there has been no major incident of stone pelting or a clash between the people and the government forces after abrogation of Article 370 and the erstwhile State’s bifurcation into the two UTs in August 2019.

Nevertheless, the fear of the gun has not evaporated completely. Authorities have gained some sort of control on the unbridled social media but there has been little contesting of the separatist narratives from the intelligentsia, the civil society and the mainstream politicians.

Many of the serving and retired Police officials and politicians insist that some recent developments, including seizure of the Taliban armour at the LoC in northern Kashmir, were an indication of Pakistan’s “ill intensions”. “They are very much in a position to sabotage a democratic exercise in the valley. They are in a do-or-die situation, knowing well that formation of the UT’s first popular government would be an epitaph on the 32-year-long militancy and virtually an end of Pakistan’s Mission Kashmir”, said a retired Police officer.

Significantly in the television interview on Monday, Amit Shah virtually ruled out any talks with Pakistan, asserting that Kashmir was India’s integral part and there was no room for negotiating it with any other country. It is a clear indication of Delhi’s toughening stand.

The Centre has not been under any constitutional obligation to hold elections within a specific period and form a government either in the erstwhile State or in the extant UT even as efforts must be made for the democratic exercise within 6 months of the dissolution of the Assembly. J&K has been under Governor’s/President’s rule for as many as 8 intervals of various periods since 26 March 1977.

Since technical creation of the UT on 31 October 2019, it has been under Lieutenant Governor’s/President’s rule. The longest spell of Governor’s/President’s rule was for 6 years and 9 months from 19 January 1990 to 9 October 1996.

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