It defies belief, but several among the separatist ranks are pleased with the way the delimitation commission wants to realign seats in Jammu and Kashmir.
Consider this: the only new constituency they’ve created in the Kashmir Valley comprises people who, by and large, have been pro-Pakistan.
The very name of the constituency sends a tingle of excitement down the spines of ‘azadi’ walas. For, that name, Trehgam, is associated with the most prominent son of the place, Maqbool Butt. A founder of the JKNLF (later JKLF), Butt was hanged in Tihar jail in 1984.
Some locals wonder if the daughter of Bilal Lone, who has been a member of the Hurriyat Conference executive, could possibly contest for the proposed Trehgam seat.
Next, consider Karnah. As the crow flies, it isn’t far from Trehgam. But it has been a bastion of pro-army, pro-India sentiment. People in the area are up in arms over the commission’s proposal to add Kralpora to their constituency. For, if Karnah gave some of its sons to the army, areas around Kralpora gave many to the Al Barq militant outfit in the ‘90s. That outfit was linked to the Lone family.
Adding Islamist to Islamist
Then, take the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. So far, Shias in Budgam and Gujjars in Kangan have often had a decisive say in who won that seat, especially whenever the city boycotted an election. Both groups have not been enamoured by Pakistan.
Now, two whole districts (Pulwama and Shopian) are to be added to what will become a (geographically and demographically) gargantuan constituency. The broadly pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami has huge influence in both.
So far, this sentiment was partially balanced by the strong Communist influence in Kulgam district (and constituency) and Anantnag’s vibrant intellectual tradition — for Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam, and Anantnag districts formed the Anantnag parliamentary constituency. Now, the Jamaat influence will instead be added to the strong pro-Pakistan sentiment of Srinagar’s Downtown, and its other crowded areas such as Batmaloo and Natipora.
Meanwhile, the commission proposes to do away with the city’s Habba Kadal constituency, the only one from which Pandits sometimes won an assembly seat in the past. Even after their mass migration in 1990, Pandits influenced electoral outcomes in Habba Kadal through postal ballots. It would seem that all the talk of restoring Pandit rights has been given the go-by.
Independence plans re-energised
Let’s consider the proposed Anantnag parliamentary seat next. The erstwhile Anantnag constituency is being halved. While Pulwama and Shopian join Srinagar, Anantnag and Kulgam districts are to be joined with Poonch and Rajouri districts. Rather, Poonch and Rajouri are being removed from the Jammu division’s matrix, to make the Udhampur constituency more decidedly Hindu.
But the BJP already got twice the votes of its nearest competitor in 2019. And a shearer cuts both ways. The converse of a more Hindu Udhampur is a more Muslim Valley — and that has excited many in the Valley since the proposals were revealed. The Valley’s Muslim bloc, they say, will now be enhanced by other Muslims — a putative enhancement of separatist ranks.
A Kashmiri-Pahari line-up would be quite likely during elections — which would please separatists no end. They hope that administrative units too will be reorganised on this pattern to give them more influence on those border areas in Poonch and Rajouri.
For 70 years, separatists have proposed adding Muslim-dominated areas of the Jammu region to the Valley, and (along with areas such as Muzaffarabad on the other side of the Line of Control) giving these areas an independent status.
This was once called the Dixon Plan — proposed by the UN and backed by western powers around 1950-52. Sheikh Abdullah advocated it as ‘Greater Kashmir’ in 1964. And, backed by a slew of US legislators, it was refurbished as the Kathwari Plan around the turn of the millennium.
Social media was abuzz on Monday with influential Kashmiris excitedly talking of the Dixon Plan, or Greater Kashmir, being handed to them on a platter.
Though that may be wishful thinking, the potential for Valley sentiment to spread to those boundary areas farther south — areas that have historically resented the Valley — could certainly increase.
The most distressing aspect of this putative boost to separatism is that it must have popped up inadvertently while the commission sought to promote political, even perhaps nationalist, objectives. That is the most charitable explanation. For, the geographical disjointedness of some of the new constituencies indicate that the commission went through some strange convolutions to come up with these proposals — almost like some entertainer mimicking an acrobat mimicking a yogi. Constituencies stretch and loop in the strangest ways.
Some include areas far away from other parts of the same constituency, even though delimitation act says that, “all constituencies shall, as far as practicable, be geographically compact areas, and in delimiting them regard shall be paid to physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience.”
There is no physical link between Anantnag and the Poonch-Rajouri region, which lies across the Pir Panjal range, in the Jammu region. The closest link from Anantnag to Rajouri is over the Mughal Road through Kulgam and Shopian districts. But that road is often non-functional in winter near the mountain top. Even in summer, most travellers prefer to go all the way through Banihal and Ramban to Jammu, and then on to Rajouri via Akhnoor.
If at all a part of south Kashmir was to be joined with areas across the snow-clad Pir Panjal, it should have been Shopian and Pulwama. Even better, Anantnag (and perhaps Kulgam district too) could have been joined with the geographically sprawling Kishtwar. For, the Synthen and Margan roads connect Anantnag district directly with Kishtwar. Both those alternatives would have made at least some geographical sense.
Even within Anantnag district, the commission has proposed to realign constituencies in such a way that Tailwani village, for example, is part of the proposed Anantnag assembly constituency, but one can’t make out any direct physical link between that village and the main part of the constituency. Is it to be an island between the new Muttan (which ought to be called Martand) and Larnoo constituencies?
Areas of the erstwhile Sangrama constituency are being merged with others in such a way that Baramulla District Development Councillor Irfan Lone says that his village, which is almost walking distance from Sopore and more than an hour’s drive from Tangmarg, finds itself a part of the redrawn Tangmarg constituency.
The proposed Karnah constituency is particularly odd, for it lies on two sides of a Himalayan range connected only by the 10,000-foot high Sadhna pass, which is barely penetrable in winter. Since it’s tough enough to travel across the spread of hills and dales within the Karnah bowl, one wonders how candidates will campaign on both sides of the mountain.
The bottom line is that these proposals seem to have been reached through some pretty convoluted redrawing. The commission may have had the best intentions, but one hopes that all this maneuvering won’t end up boosting separatism.
(David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.)
[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by the author are personal.]