Assam: Delimitation of Assembly, Parliamentary Seats, Merging of Districts Raise Apprehensions
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma during a press conference in New Delhi. Image Courtesy: PTI
Two issues have caused widespread apprehensions across Assam; the parties in opposition, critics and concerned people have raised their concerns after the declarations of the delimitation process in the state along with the decision to merge four districts with four others. These issues are woven together and can not be seen in isolation.
On the eve of the New Year, Assam's chief minister (CM), Himanta Biswa Sarma, declared the merging of the four districts: Bajali, Biswanath, Hojai and Tamulpur, with Barpeta, Sonitpur, Nagaon, and Baksa. He, however, said that the decision is temporary. Sarma was in Delhi along with the cabinet ministers, and the press conference happened after the Assam cabinet meeting held in Delhi.
As told by Sarma, the reason for the decisions was to comply with the EC (Election Commission) notification that has banned creating new administrative units in the state until the delimitation exercise is completed. The EC ban has been effective from January 1, 2023. The question that emerges immediately is why the districts created earlier have to be merged. Even if the EC ban is effective, how do the existing districts violate the norms? They are anyways no new administrative units.
Notably, the CM declared that several villages had been separated from the districts they used to come under and included with other districts. For example, six villages in the Barpeta districts are now part of Bongaigaon.
The Assam government notification of December 31, 2022, suggests that almost 100 villages have been realigned with different districts from the existing ones. The local people have also registered protests in several districts after learning about the realignments. The other part of the issue is the delimitation itself. There are more questions than answers. Why the sudden haste of conducting delimitation at this point? Why had delimitation not happened in Assam since 1976?
Delimitation is a periodical process conducted throughout the country, where the Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies of the states are reframed. The last delimitation in India started in 2002, and the basis was the census report of 2001. Till 2008, most of the states witnessed the completion of the delimitation process, baring Assam and a few other states of the northeast.
Coming to the context of Assam, the delimitation of 2002 was opposed in unison by various regional organisations, civil societies and political parties. Protests on the street also reverberated inside the state Assembly, and a resolution was taken not to continue the exercise. Notably, the then speaker of the Assam Legislative Assembly, Tanka Bahadur Rai, sent a letter to the chairman of the delimitation commission on May 16, 2007. The letter, based on the all-party resolutions taken on May 11, 2007, urged the commission not to continue with the exercise.
The point of disagreement was that without upgrading the NRC (National Registry of Citizens), the delimitation of constituencies does not have any meaning. Speaking to NewsClick, Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the president of AJP (Asam Jatiya Parishad) and a former AASU (All Assam Students' Union) general secretary, said, "On May 5, 2005, there was a meeting with the then PM Manmohan Singh. AASU was also a part of it, and the concerns of the people of Assam were raised there. Why the delimitation would be futile without the NRC being updated was clearly conveyed to the PM."
Lurin also said that there had been pilot projects at Chaygaon and Barpeta.
"But as the NRC upgradation process also started at that time, a consensus was built up that first the NRC and then the delimitation. The foreign immigration issue has been at the centre stage of Assam's politics since the 80s, yet it has not been resolved," Lurin said.
Santanu Borthakur, a senior advocate at the Gauhati High Court, said, "The delimitation process started in 2005 was contested at every level in Assam. The primary concern was the NRC, which has not been resolved yet. There was also a case at the high court that later went to the supreme court and a stay order over the exercise was in place. The supreme court recently removed the stay order, and the process restarts. However, it will again be based on the 2001 census report. Stay order over delimitation was also in place in Nagaland."
Foreigner issues and the NRC occupy much of Assam's politics even now. However, there need to be visible signs of getting the issues resolved. Pertaining to these, the delimitation process was halted in Assam. The delimitation commission even produced a draft in 2007, and protests and bandhs intensified hereafter, and the Assembly also came out with a resolution to not continue with the exercise. Thus, Assam could not see the delimitation during 2007-08. Since then, the process has been stalled.
The Present Conundrum
With the declaration of the delimitation and merging of districts, debates have reemerged in Assam. However, few protests or movements could be seen this time, though citizens of the concerned districts and villages have organised demonstrations. The apprehensions revolve around certain points—first, the delimitation will be based on the 2001 census. Then how will it be different from the earlier one? Second, the NRC has not been finalised yet, so the basis of opposition to delimitation in 2005 has not been withered. Third, will the exercise safeguard the indigenous people, as CM Himanta Biswa Sarma said?
Yes, these points still hold. Notably, the AASU has not been so vocal this time. It was the main force of movements in 2007 after the draft was produced.
According to a report in the leading Assamese daily newspaper, Amar Asom, Himanta Biswa Sarma said that he informed AASU before the declaration of delimitation. However, Samujjal Bhattacharya, the chief adviser of AASU, declined this.
Nevertheless, there have not been any organised protests led by AASU this time. It is also worth mentioning that AASU was invited to a meeting with the CM and other ministers last year. Allegations are there that even the media was not informed about this meeting. And it is not quite known what was discussed.
Opposition parties feel something is fishy about the re-initiation of the delimitation process.
"This move is purely politically motivated," said Suprakash Talukdar, the Assam general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)).
Talukdar further questioned the dubious stand of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), saying, "In 2005, BJP was also opposing the delimitation process. Their arguments also hovered around the NRC and the 2001 census. Have those changed? Won't the delimitation this time be based on the 2001 census? The NRC is still in limbo. Then how come BJP supports this time? The BJP's double standard has been exposed this time."
"It is now well known that BJP has unprecedented control over the organs of the state machinery. The election commission is also in favour of them. Can we be sure that the process does not involve any vested political interest?"
Borthakur also said that the delimitation could be crafted so that the constituencies where the minority has a decisive role will be reframed. "The process may benefit the BJP in the short term," Borthakur said.
On the other hand, before initiating the process, there was no referendum or process involving the people's opinions. Assam's case has been particular, and even after the exercise was pending for such a long time, taking people's opinions was not even considered. "The entire process has undermined the democratic ethos," Gogoi commented.
"It is being carried out hastily, only targeting the 2024 general election. The BJP will try to advance their political agenda through it. We reaffirm that if delimitation has to be carried out, then it should be for the benefit of Assam's people, not for the benefit of BJP."
"And see how hundreds of villages have been reassigned with different districts overnight. And why have they merged the districts? There are financial issues as well. The state's economic condition is really poor, and running district administrations involve money, which the government may have tried to reduce," Gogoi said.
The opposition leader of the Assam Assembly, Debabrat Saikia, also raised similar concerns. Apart from demanding a clean process, he reiterated the pain and agonies of people involved in movements for separate districts.
"Districts have complicated historical facts involved and long struggles of people. The Bajali district was announced during Sarbananda Sonowal's regime. Before the anti-CAA movement, a young guy lost his life in a protest demanding a separate district. How can they forget that? The Bajali district and others were declared to please people during the CAA movement," Saikia commented.
CM Himanta Biswa Sarma is trying to put forward the 'protection of indigenous people's sentiment. In his press address in Delhi on December 31, he said that the entire exercise of delimitation and merging of districts had been done with a heavy heart but for a larger cause.
On this point, Sushanta Talukdar, a prominent journalist of Assam, commented, "I think the ruling BJP wants to advance its electoral strategy of using the Delimitation exercise by trying to create a perception of protecting indigenous communities even though the exercise being just readjustment of constituency boundaries has a limited scope of redrawing boundaries on ethnic lines. Reservation of constituencies post Delimitation will create more complexities which will be difficult for the ruling coalition to ignore."
"That is obvious given the oft-repeated statement by BJP to push the campaign that demographic threat to indigenous communities has come from erstwhile East Bengal origin Muslims. It remains to be seen what modalities the EC notifies for delimitation. Readjustment is not going to be permanent as a number of constituencies will go up after 2026," Talukdar said.
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