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Delimitation shows India’s democracy continues to struggle in the face of Kashmir challenge

The Delimitation Commission’s mapping of electoral constituencies for the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has reopened the communal wounds of the Dogra century.

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Long-haired goats, six female and six male, three pairs of shawls, and a horse, given in tribute each year, and seventy-five lakh Nanakshahi rupees up-front: In 1846, Imperial Britain gave possession of Kashmir to Maharaja Gulab Singh. The new ruler made pilgrimages to Amarnath and Haridwar, endowed the Raghunath temple, and closed butchers on Dussehra and Diwali. He ended giving alms of rice and oil to the shrine at Aishmuqam, while the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar fell into ruins.

“They sold farmer and cornfield, river and garden” poet Muhammad Iqbal wrote of the Treaty of Amritsar, “they sold a people, and at a price so cheap.”

Gulab Singh and his heirs plundered the peasants savagely, imposing taxes and forced labour — like feudal rulers across India. There was one important difference though: Kashmir’s rulers were Hindu, their subjects Muslims.

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Elections and communal inequity

The Delimitation Commission’s mapping of electoral constituencies for the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has reopened the communal wounds of the Dogra century. Kashmir’s politicians have pointed to the inequity of representation. The Muslim-majority province’s 68.88 lakh residents, based on the 2011 census, will be represented by 47 legislators, while the Jammu region’s 53.78 lakh people will have 43.

Even though 34.1 per cent of Jammu’s population is Muslim, the region’s Muslim-majority seats have fallen from 13, to 10. Kashmir has one seat more over its earlier representation; Jammu has six. To many in Kashmir, this is evidence the Bharatiya Janata Party is undermining democracy, in a bid to institutionalise Hindu-majoritarian rule.

Fears like these might be overblown—but the evidence is disquieting. The commission hasn’t made public exactly how it arrived at its decision. In public statements, though, it claims to have ensured representation for thinly-populated remote, underdeveloped regions. The principle isn’t new. Karnah, with a population of just 87,627 people, has long been an assembly constituency. Gurez, with just 37,992 people, was also a constituency.

Largely-Hindu regions, though, seem to have been the principal beneficiaries of the commission’s decision. Hindu-majority Padder, for example, home to 51,279 residents, has become a new assembly segment. Even though it has similar disadvantages of terrain, though, largely-Muslim Surankote remains a single constituency, with 188,154 residents.

The overwhelmingly-Muslim border district of Poonch, which ought to have benefitted from the commission’s criteria of protecting vulnerable areas on the Line of Control, hasn’t received an additional constituency. Ramban, with 146,859 residents, over 70 per cent of them Muslim, hasn’t got an additional seat either.

Kishtwar district, which had two Muslim-majority assembly seats, now has three, two of them Hindu-majority. The adjoining district of Doda, which also had two Muslim-majority constituencies, similarly now has two Hindu-majority seats out of three.

Each Lok Sabha constituency is now made up of 18 assembly constituencies. In the case of Anantnag, that led the commission to merge it with Rajouri—regions separated by a 100 kilometres of road running from Shopian to Bufliaz, cutting through 4,000-metre mountain ranges, and closed for several months a year.

It is possible the commission had a formula that accounts for these oddities, but it hasn’t been made public—and that’s feeding dangerous tensions.

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The making of a communalised Kashmir

For a sense of the depth of communal fissures in Kashmir, the debate must be anchored in history. The identity of the Dogra monarchy, historian Chitralekha Zutshi has shown, was enmeshed with the faith of its rulers—much like Islamic rulers in the princely states of British India which had Hindu populations. The Dogra kingdom presided over an elaborate network of trusts and institutions devoted to the perpetuation of its Hindu identity.

Gulab Singh wasn’t, at least in any simple sense, a bigot. The colonial adventurer Godfrey Vigne noted that Jammu was for a time “the only place in the Panjab where the Mulahs may call the Musulmans to prayers.” Even Ranjit Singh, the Sikh emperor Gulab Singh helped the British depose, allowed a degree of religious freedoms within Kashmir, and patronised the shrines of Hazratbal and Maqdoom Sahib.

The language of power, though, was distinctly Hindu—as was a significant element of the bureaucracy and landowning class. As the Dogra State sought to legitimise itself through its patronage of Hinduism, historian Mridu Rai has argued, it inexorably sharpened the opposition of its Muslim subjects.

Late in the 19th century, however, sweeping land reforms also stripped elite Muslims like the Khwaja Naqashbandis of lands they had held for centuries, replacing them with Punjabi and Dogra administrators.

From the late-1890s, signs became evident that religion was providing an idiom for Muslim opposition. In Arnia, Muslims denied the right to call out the azaan rioted. Rumours that of cow-slaughter—spread, one official account had it, “by some sort of wireless telegraphy”—proliferated across Kashmir.

Shia Muslims also began to assert their identity fiercely. In 1922, mourners demanded that Srinagar’s movie theatre be close down to show respect for the month of mourning. The Maharaja denied the request.

Walter Lawrence, a British-colonial official who served in Kashmir from 1889-1894, reported that so-called Wahabbi preachers had become active, challenging the authority of folk-Islamic leaders and notables acquiescent with Dogra rule.

Even early in the last century, though, communal consciousness was not fully formed. In his 1912 poem, Greeznama, the religious-revivalist poet Maqbool Shah Kraalwari lamented Kashmir’s peasants, who, he wrote, “regard the mosque and the temple as equal; seeing no difference between muddy puddles and the ocean.”

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Politics and communalism

The build-up to Independence saw religious polarisation sharpen, as mass politics evolved. Srinagar’s Mirwaiz Rasool Shah, the grandfather of the current Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, set up the Anjuman Nusrat-ul-Islam in 1899, as a platform for Muslim grievances. Led by Sayyed Husain Shah Baktu, the neo-fundamentalist Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith made its appearance at around the same time.

Kashmir’s Pandits—well entrenched in the bureaucracy, and relatively affluent—were, perhaps inevitably, drawn into the conflict. In 1923, a dispute broke out in Srinagar’s Mallah Khan quarter, after claims were made that the construction of a new temple was damaging Muslim graves.

From the first decades of the century, communalism gained traction in Kashmir. In 1931, after Dogra troops killed 28 protestors in Srinagar, Hindu-owned businesses and homes were targeted. More communal violence broke out that September, involving mobs which massed with weapons.

Even though Kashmir itself saw no Partition violence, the violence cast a toxic shadow. “There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur,” Independence movement leader and prime minister Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah ruminated. Kashmiris, he added, feared “the same fate lies ahead for them, too”.

In one speech, he claimed that the Jana Sangh-linked Praja Parishad was part of a project to convert India “into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised.”

In the 1963-1964 period, these communal anxieties exploded in the form of anti-India protests after the alleged theft of a religious relic from Hazratbal; ten years after that, an image of the Prophet Muhammad drawn in a colonial-era encyclopaedia led to massive riots.

Kashmir’s religious Right-wing has capitalised on these chasms. The Jama’at believed, scholar Yoginder Sikand has written, “that a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris.” At a March 1987 rally in Srinagar, candidates of the Jama’at-linked Muslim United Front dressed in the white robes of the pious, and declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state.

These strains, scholar Navnita Behera Chadha has shown, polarised entire communities and regions—laying the social foundation for the long, brutal insurgency which erupted in 1988, and still rages on. Ever even, though terrorism levels have remained low since 2008, Kashmir has witnessed multiple eruptions of mass violence on issues of religious identity.

From the 1950s to 1987, New Delhi sought to contain these tensions by deepening Kashmir’s democracy-deficit—arresting dissident leaders, manipulating politics and rigging elections. The delimitation process is the latest to show that India’s democracy continues to flail in the face of its Kashmir challenge.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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