The Election Commission’s delimitation exercise, and the Assam government’s decision to merge four districts and redraw administrative boundaries in 14 areas, have sparked fresh concerns among Bengali-origin Muslims. The fear is that these decisions will have an adverse impact on the electoral influence of the community in around 35 assembly constituencies.
BJP leader and Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s remarks have done little to assuage such fears. On the day he announced the decision to merge four districts with four others, Sarma said he could not publicly disclose the precise reasons. The next day, he told the media that the Assam Agitation and the NRC exercise did not “live up to expectations”. “Delimitation could be the exercise which would safeguard the state’s future,” he said.
But what’s behind the exercise? And why has it taken political overtones in Assam?
A stalled second delimitation
A process to fix boundaries of constituencies, delimitation is carried out by a , whose orders cannot be called in question before any court. In India, such commissions have been formed four times – in 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002 under the delimitation commission law.
However, in Assam, the first delimitation exercise in Assam was on the basis of the 1971 Census. And while another commission was formed in 2002, and several other states saw the redrawing of electoral constituencies in 2004, this attempt faced a roadblock in Assam after opposition from various quarters.
The opposition was largely centred on the updation of the National Register of Citizenship and curtailment of assembly constituencies in upper Assam. There was a demand to update the NRC before the delimitation exercise as there was an apprehension that a large number of “illegal foreigners” will make it to the voter list.
These apprehensions stemmed from a draft proposal prepared by the EC in 2008 and the methodology and guidelines applied in other states during the delimitation exercise in 2004. The draft had curtailed three constituencies in upper Assam, where the Ahom community holds electoral clout – it wields significant influence on Assam’s politics too.
Citing large-scale protests by political groups and student bodies, an order issued by the Union Ministry of Law and Justice on February 8, 2008, stated that the delimitation exercise was deferred as “a situation has arisen where unity and integrity of India are likely to be threatened and there is a serious threat to the peace and public order”.
The issued by the Delimitation Commission in 2004 state that each constituency in the state must have the same population and all segments in a district shall be confined within the territorial limits of that district. For this purpose, the state’s population of 2,66,55,528, as per the 2001 Census, should be divided by the total 126 seats – each with a population of 2,11,551.
The EC had also not finalised its guidelines and methodology for Assam. Even on January 1, chief minister Sarma said that this draft proposal was obsolete and the new exercise will not be based on it.
The exercise has also triggered a fresh set of concerns after the redrawing of administrative boundaries – amid the BJP’s push for the politics of the “indigenous” being seen as dangerous rhetoric by other parties.
There are apprehensions among leaders of the minority community. Ashraful Hussain, an AIUDF MLA from Senga, said, “The design is to bring down the number of Muslim legislators in the state….there are 31 Muslim legislators in the Assembly at present. They are doing all these to bring that number down to 25-26. They are on a mission of 100-plus seats in 2026.”
Opposition leaders say the government’s decision to redraw boundaries only confirms that it is trying to ensure that the Muslim vote is no longer a deciding factor in some constituencies.
“For example, if a small district has more Muslim population…new constituencies in a district shall be confined within the territorial limits of that district. So the game that cannot be played in a small district with three constituencies could easily be played in a bigger district with five constituencies….if there are 90 percent Muslims in one constituency, 60 percent will be kept in one and the rest will be sent to another,” alleged a senior Congress leader in the state.
A source in the state’s governing BJP-AGP-UPPL alliance hinted at the same. “Since the delimitation exercise is based on population and number of constituencies cannot be changed, there were high chances that the indigenous community would lose dominance in many assembly constituencies if the re-merger was not done.”
“For example, if Bojali district was not re-merged with Barpeta, the dominance of Khilonjia (indigenous) people in Patacharkuchi constituency would have ended as minorities from neighbouring areas would have been added to the constituency. So this was the logic behind the decision. Had that decision not been taken, the Khilonjias would have lost many constituencies like Patacharkuchi,” the source said.
However, Assam BJP spokesperson Rupam Goswami denied these allegations. “Delimitation is a continuous process. It was supposed to happen in 2008. Since it did not happen then, it is happening now. Both delimitation and redrawing of administrative units are two completely different things.”
The definition of Khilonjias, or “indigenous”, in Assam is a contested subject. However, in popular perception, Khilonjia refers to all residents except Bengali-origin Muslims and Hindus. In the majority and electorally significant, Khilonjias suspect their political influence may be affected due to the influx of Bangladeshis in the state – such concerns also formed the bedrock of the Assam Agitation. The BJP, on its part, weaves its political narrative in the state around such fears. Its rejection of the final NRC is part of the same effort.
There are concerns about constituencies too.
If the division of population formula is applied, “many districts in upper Assam are bound to lose a few assembly constituencies”, Bhasco De Saikia, executive president of Raijor Dal, told Newslaundry. “For example, the population of the Dibrugarh district was 11,85,072 in 2001. Now if we divide it by 2,11,551, we will get 5.60. So Dibrugarh may lose one constituency.”
Saikia said, “The CM’s assertion that the delimitation exercise is for the benefit of indigenous people is an utter lie. The interest of indigenous people can only be protected through a complete NRC, revocation of CAA and implementation of clause 6 of Assam Accord.”
Where other groups stand
The All Assam Students’ Union, who opposed the exercise in 2008, is now supporting the fresh push. The union said it had demanded this in 1986 and also after the anti-CAA protests to ensure the political rights of the “indigenous”. “The structure of the exercise at that time was not at all acceptable for the indigenous people. Even now, while we welcome the delimitation exercise, we will keep a keen eye on the whole thing,” Sammujjal Bhattacharya, advisor of AASU, told Newslaundry.
Bhattacharya said there have been several formal and informal discussions between the AASU and CM Sarma on the implementation of the Assam Accord, constitutional safeguards and delimitation. “The delimitation exercise should be done in a way that the dominance of indigenous people remains intact.”
However, Litul Gogoi, president of the All Assam Tai Ahom Students’ Union, smells a rat. “There is an apprehension that the delimitation exercise would divide constituencies where the Ahom community have long been dominating. Constituencies like Sivasagar, Nazira, Khumtai, and Mahmora have traditionally been with the Ahoms. But now we are hearing that many of these constituencies will no longer exist after the exercise. So we suspect a conspiracy to take away constituencies dominated by Ahoms by dividing or redrawing them.”
While the All Bodo Students’ Union welcomed the exercise, it expressed concerns over the reservation of the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha constituency which was put into a de-reserved category in the previous draft. “ABSU strongly opposes the draft and will not compromise on reserved seats, be it in assembly and parliamentary constituencies.”
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