ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Politics of Delimitation in Assam

The delimitation exercise in Assam has not only redrawn the boundaries of the constituencies but also political fault lines of the state. Hailed by a section as a step to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities and critiqued by another for ensuring skewed representation, the act may have multipronged impact on the state politics ahead of elections.

As the entire country awaits delimitation to begin in 2026, which will see an increase in the number of constituencies, there has been a hurried exercise in Assam which plans to redraw the boundaries of constituencies while keeping the total number of constituencies intact. The delimitation of constituencies, which was due in 2006–07, could not be undertaken in Jharkhand, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Nagaland. The reason cited was the alleged presence of illegal immigrants and a deteriorating law and order situation. Hence, a completed and correct National Register of Citizens (NRC) was made a precondition. The President gave a go-ahead after all these years, citing a substantial improvement in the law and order situation (Kalita 2020).

In Assam, we still await a complete and correct NRC. The fate of 19 lakh people left out in the final NRC is still in a limbo. In such a situation, a delimitation undertaken by the Election Commission of India (ECI) as the term of delimitation commission has ended, has caused much political stirring in the state. The Election Commission undertook the exercise of delimitation for the first time and published a draft on 20 July 2023.1 It should be noted that the total number of legislative and parliamentary seats cannot be increased prior to 2026. Amid such situation, constituencies have still undergone massive changes in terms of boundaries as well as nomenclature.

In a democratic set-up, representation is of key importance. To ensure that the concerns of the citizens are not overlooked, the number of constituencies are increased from time to time to respond to the change in demography. With such an agenda, the last Delimitation Act was passed in Parliament in 2002. The 2006–07 delimitation was carried out on the basis of the 2001 Census. However, in Assam it was not carried out. As a result, after more than one and a half decades, delimitation is being carried out on the basis of 2001 Census in place of 2011 Census. The increased population will be deprived representation, which is a cornerstone of democracy. S K Mendiratta, the Election Commission’s former legal expert, has questioned the legality of the very procedure of delimitation for these states (Chopra 2020).

Political Permutation and Combination

With a ceiling on the total number of seats, the Election Commission has redrawn the boundaries and made significant changes to the constituencies. A total of 29 old constituencies were eliminated and in its place around 27 new constituencies have been created. Table 1 (p 23) shows the proposed constituencies in different districts of Assam.

It should be noted that an alternative or new constituency has been created in places where an earlier constituency has been eliminated. Few constituencies, however, have been merged with surrounding constituencies.

While, on the one hand, reserving some new constituencies will increase the representation of Scheduled Castes (SCs), on the other, it will lead to the social disenfranchisement of other tribes. Here one can take up the example of Dimoria in Karbi Anglong. Dimoria is reserved for SC, while the tribes Bodos and Karbis are a majority there. Similarly, Naoboicha, Hajo and Bihali have been reserved for SC. Bihali was one of the two constituencies which has a substantial population from the tea tribes. Reserving this constituency as SC will deprive the tea tribes of being decisive electoral factors and reduce their capacity of political bargaining with the elected representatives. Amguri constituency’s case is also worth noting. The constituency has been completely broken and merged with neighbouring constituencies—Nazira, Dimou and Siv­sagar—leaving ally Asom Gana Parishad’s Pradip Hazarika with no alternative as Dimou already has a sitting member of the legislative assembly (MLA) Sushanta Borgohain from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Similarly, West Goalpara which is represented by Congress’s Abdul Rashid Mondal has been reserved for SC. Boko, which was earlier reserved for SC and represented by Indian National Congress’s (INC) Nandita Das, has been now reserved for Scheduled Tribe (ST). While this will give an opportunity to the local tribe of Rabhas to contest, they will depend on linguistic and religious minorities for victory. A skewed equation has been put into place. Barpeta, which was an unreserved constituency, has now been reserved for SC. Muslim voters often played a deciding factor in this constituency and have also represented the constituency from time to time.

Such permutations also have important ramifications for the Bodo Territorial Region (BTR). Delimitation has changed the boundaries of constituencies in the BTR as well. A new unreserved constituency, Gobardhana, has been created in place of Chapaguri. The United People’s Party Liberal’s (UPPL) Urkhao Gwra Brahma has been elected from Chapaguri. In the upcoming election, he will have to contest in an unreserved constituency which may create newer challenges for him. Another constituency Dotoma has been reserved for STwhich has a large Muslim population. A new constituency has been created in BTR called Parbotjhora. This constituency is unreserved but Muslims are not a deciding factor here. This could be interpreted as an attempt to curtail the representation of Muslims and other non-Bodo communities in the BTR.

Similar changes have been noticed in the Barak Valley as well. Interestingly, the very house of the BJP leader in Barak Valley is divided on the issue of delimitation. While the president of BJP in Cachar, Bimalendu Roy has welcomed the delimitation draft, his son Sujit Roy wholeheartedly supported a bandh called by the Barak Democratic Front (BDF) against the proposed draft citing that it reduces the representation of Barak Valley. This even led to his expulsion from his own home.

Like the rest of Assam, Barak Valley also feels that the delimitation has failed to live up to the expectation of the people of the valley. The draft reduces the number of constituencies in the Barak Valley from 15 to 13. Proposed name changes and redrawing of boundaries have also met opposition. Dholai constituency will be renamed as Narasinghpur. One part of Dholai has been attached to Borkhola which is 40 km away. Apart from this, the Election Commission has proposed to reserve the Silchar constituency as an SC constituency and make Karimganj an unreserved constituency. It should be noted that Silchar has earlier had Muslim MLAs like Nurul Huda and Rashida Hoque (Purkayastha 2023).

Skewed Representation

The BJP has welcomed the draft proposed by the ECI. Mincing no words, the chief minister has hailed the draft as khilonjiyar ayux rekha or the lifeline of the indigenous community. A cabinet minister in Assam has stated in an interview that the aim of the draft was to safeguard the political rights of the indigenous people. When questioned on the alleged discrimination of the Muslims of East Bengal origin popularly addressed as Miya Muslims, whose representation stands reduced, he stated that in their view Miya Muslims are not indigenous to Assam.

Here, the alleged issues of deprivation raised by various organisations become pertinent. While delimitation from time to time is indispensable in a representative democracy, can it also be used to curtail the very representation it assures? Many organisations like the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU), the political party All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), have called it a ploy to reduce the political power and relevance of Muslims. Earlier, Muslim voters were a deciding factor in more than 30 constituencies, while in the new draft they will be reduced to around 24 (Zaman 2023). Interestingly, the draft has also not succeeded in safeguarding the interests of indigenous Muslims who are often pitted against the Miya Muslims.

Many Muslim-dominated constituencies like Barpeta, Hajoetc, among others have been reserved. The Dhubri parliamentary constituency has been redrawn in such a way that right now it is spread over five districts and an area of 300 km. Chenga, Mandia and Manikpur have been included in Dhubri. While this will not make any change to the demographic make-up of Dhubri which has a high concentration of Muslims, it will largely reduce the Muslim population’s electoral relevance in Barpeta constituency. The Barpeta parliamentary constituency was represented by Muslim candidates in the past. With this proposed draft, it will be challenging for a Muslim candidate to be elected as a member of Parliament (MP) from Barpeta.

Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi’s constituency Kaliabor will also undergo massive change. Renamed as Kaziranga, it will have the following MLA constituencies—Kaliabor, Barhampur, Binnakandi, Hojai, Lumding, Golaghat, Dergaon, Bokakhat, Khumtai and Xorupathar. Out of these, Kaliabor, Dergaon and Bokakhat have AGP MLAs. All other constituencies except Binnakandi have BJP MLAs. Hence, nine out of 10 constituencies have AGP or BJP MLAs, making it doubly difficult for Gogoi to continue his winning streak. The earlier constituencies which were under Kaliabor and had MLAs from AIUDF and Congress have been attached to Nagaon constituency, which could benefit INC leader Pradyut Bordoloi’s electoral prospects.

The Opposition’s Take on Delimitation

The entire state of Assam has been riling with criticism of the draft proposal prepared by the ECI. Along with the opposition parties, various civil society groups have spoken strongly against the proposed changes. Noted scholar Hiren Gohain and Rajya Sabha MP Ajit Bhuyan have also filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court against the commencement of the delimitation process. The opposition parties have also filed an intervention application against the implementation of the proposed draft. The opposition parties have raised a few points of conflict that emerges from the proposed draft.

Articles 80, 81, 82 and 170 clearly lay down the procedures of delimitation. According to Akhil Gogoi, the president of Raijor Dal and MLA from Sivsagar, the ECI has blatantly bypassed these recommendations. Article 170(2) clearly states that territorial constituencies in a state should have a similar distribution of voters as far as practicable. The Representation of the People Act, 1950 also lays down the procedures of delimitation of constituencies.

The opposition parties are questioning the grounds of preparing a draft on the basis of the 2001 Census when we already have a completed 2011 Census. The population of Assam according to the 2001 Census was 2.66 crore and, in 2011, it went up to 3.12 crore. Preparing a draft will leave out a large section of the people. However, the ECI and the government have retorted that as the delimitation is being carried out according to the Delimitation Act, 2002, the census year is 2001. This can be changed only with an amendment to the delimitation act.

Second, the delimitation of Assam was not carried out in 2008 because opposition parties like the BJP, civil society organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) stated that delimitation cannot be carried out before a correct NRC was completed. A complete and correct NRC will ensure that political power does not pass to people who are of dubious citizenship. While Assam was denied delimitation on this very basis, the NRC is yet to be completed. The fate of 19 lakh people who were left out in the final draft is yet to be decided. In such a scenario, a hurried delimitation raises many questions.

Third, another issue of contention is that instead of carving constituencies in proportion to population, the ECI took population density as the basis. The ECI categorised the districts into three categories:

Category A: Districts having population density less than 304 persons per sq km.

Category B: Districts having population density between 304 and 372 persons per sq km.

Category C: Districts having population density more than 372 persons per sq km.

This bypassed the theory of equitable distribution of population which is one of the crucial bases of delimitation. Justifying this, the ECI stated that as some districts have a low rise of population, some other districts have witnessed a higher growth of population and to ensure that districts with lower population growth are not put at a disadvantage, this was done. Interestingly, it seems that the ECI has overlooked the socio-economic reasons of population growth which may create a higher density among communities which are lagging behind on various markers of development. Another reason for higher density is also the yearly loss of land to flood and erosion which pushes displaced people to nearby towns. Instead of addressing these multi-pronged concerns, the ECI has proposed constituencies which have a huge concentration of people from particular communities but whose representation has been limited.

This categorisation has created constituencies with varied population. Category A district constituencies will have a population of 1,90,397, Category B will have 2,11,552 and Category C will have 2,32,707. This discrepancy is worrisome as similar amount of development funds are allocated and this might deprive people of their rights.

While the administrative units of panchayats are maintained as the units of delimitation to ensure geographical contiguity and accessibility, the ECI has stated that they have maintained villages or wards as the lowest unit. It has further been raised that villages have been broken down and merged with different constituencies making it difficult for people to access their representatives.

The government has time and again stated that the main aim of delimitation is to safeguard the interests of the indigenous communities, but a large number of organisations speaking for various indigenous communities stated that they are not satisfied with the draft. The AASU has welcomed the delimitation but has made another absurd demand that the next delimitation should take the Census of 1991 as the basis. Commentators have maintained that such demands will deprive Assam of an increased number of constituencies. It will further deprive smaller tribes and communities of representation.

As the ECI has started public hearing on the draft publication, various organisations have come forward with their demands. Citing a clear communal polarisation as the aim, Akhil Gogoi stated that while the number of constituencies where Muslims played a crucial role have been reduced from around 34 to 24, the same has been increased for Bengali Hindus. His contention is that religious polarisation has deprived indigenous communities of their rights. He cites the example that reserving Dimoria in Karbi Anglong for SCs will deprive the Karbis and Bodos living there. Similarly, Morigaon which has a substantial presence of Tiwa community is not reserved. The redrawing of constituencies in Dhubri which has a concentration of deshi Muslims will also further reduce their decisive power in elections.

In Conclusion

The draft has been finalised on 11 August 2023 and was approved by President Droupadi Murmu. The final list only made minor changes to the nomenclature of the constituencies. This comes amid the matter of delimitation being subjudice. The final delimitation report which is prepared by an independent and impartial ECI is mired with controversies because it has been accused of safeguarding certain vested political interests. Delimitation’s main aim is to ensure equal political representation to the people to delegate decision-making power. The ECI, however, tweaked the constitutional provisions and justified these changes by citing the issue of indigenous rights. In Assam, indigeneity is a contested issue and NRC has not yet brought the question of alleged illegal migrants to its logical conclusion. In such a situation, a hurriedly done delimitation which will not increase the total number of seats but will impact the upcoming 2024 parliamentary elections and 2026 assembly elections is bound to be questioned as politically motivated.

Note

1   ECI draft highlights published by Press Information Bureau, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1933736.

References

Chopra, Ritika (2020): “Explained: Why Questions Have Been Raised about the Move for Delimitation in the Northeast,” Indian Express, 19 June.

Kalita, Prabin (2020): “President Assent to Resume Assam Delimitation 12 Years After It Was Put on Hold,” Times of India, 29 February, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/president-approves-resumption-of-delimitation-exercise-in-assam/articleshow/74407251.cms.

Purakayastha, B K (2023): “Here’s Why Assam’s Barak Valley Is Angry with ECI’s Delimitation Draft,” Quint, 26 July, https://www.thequint.com/news/politics/why-assam-barak-valley-is-angry-with-eci-delimitation-draft.

Zaman, Rokibuz (2023): “Why the Election Commission’s Assam Delimitation Proposal Is Being Seen as Communal,” Scroll.in, 27 June, https://scroll.in/article/1051522/why-the-election-commissions-assam-delimitation-proposal-is-being-seen-as-communal.

 

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Or

To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Updated On : 26th Sep, 2023
Back to Top