ON Wednesday, the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir was shaken by a statement the J&K Chief Electoral Officer (‘CEO’) made during a press conference in Jammu, saying that any person living ordinarily in the region could vote in the next Assembly elections.
The statement precipitated a political storm 300 km away in Kashmir valley, with the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (‘NC’) president and former J&K Chief Minister (‘CM’) Dr. Farooq Abdullah calling an all-party meeting on Monday.
Local newspapers remained plastered with stories denouncing the CEO’s statement. The move will pave the way for the addition close to 2.5 million voters to the electoral rolls.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration spokesperson Mohamamd Yousuf Tarigami said that the move would change the electoral demography of the region.
NC leader and former J&K CM Omar Abdullah Omar Abdullah said that the Bharatiya Janta Party was unsure about the support of genuine voters and now wanted to take the support of imported voters to win assembly slots.
Another former CM, Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti addressed the media and billed the move as the last nail in the coffin of electoral democracy of the region.
The Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone has also sought a clarification from the Union Government on the issue.
The statement owes its roots to August 5, 2019, when the Central dispensation scrapped Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India, which guaranteed special position to Jammu and Kashmir. With the demise of this special constitutional position of the region, the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (‘RPA’) became applicable to the now union territory, thereby making outsiders eligible to vote.
The CEO in his statement invoked the RPA while making his point about giving voting rights to those temporarily residing in Jammu and Kashmir.
Prior to August 5, 2019, only permanent residents of the erstwhile state were eligible to cast their votes in the Assembly elections, while outsiders living in the region could vote in the Lok Sabha elections.
For this reason, a significant population of West Pakistani refugees, who migrated to the Jammu region from West Pakistan during the Partition in 1947, were not eligible to cast their ballot in the Assembly elections.
Prominent Srinagar-based lawyer and columnist, Adv. Syed Riyaz Khawar told The Leaflet that the statement of the CEO had no legal basis. “For this purpose, the government has to make the new rules. His statement has no legal justification and has unleashed a bedlam among the people”, Khawar said.
Fear among local residents
The CEO’s statement has fuelled fears among local residents in both the regions of Kashmir and Jammu.
Fearing a complete change in the electoral landscape of the region, Javed Ahmad, a businessman, said that now people from the Indian mainland would decide on the developmental and other issues confronting the people of J&K.
“It is bizzare that outsiders will now decide about our local governance “, he said.
A university student from Jammu told The Leaflet that the move would completely disenfranchise the local residents.
There are apprehensions among the local populace that the move would enable the non-local workforce and security forces stationed across Jammu and Kashmir to become eligible for voting.
A large chunk of local voters in Kashmir, particularly those living in urban areas, have been boycotting the polls since the first assembly elections in Kashmir were held in 1996, after reeling under President’s rule for nearly six years.
In these elections, only 47.31 per cent of electorate voted in the Valley, while the overall percentage in all the three regions – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – stood at 53.92 per cent. In some urban territorial constituencies like Amirakadal, Zadibal and Khanyar, the voter turnover was as low as 13 per cent.
Even during the last Lok Sabha elections, the Srinagar parliament constituency witnessed a scant voting percentage of 13 per cent.
Voters usually would steer clear of polling booths in the Valley due to the boycott calls given by both separatist leaders and militant organisations.
Under such circumstances, the native residents fear that non-locals, if given a chance to vote, will decide the electoral fate of the contestants.
Apart from the security forces, every year, according to unofficial figures, more than 3 lakh labourers from different states of India move to Kashmir to work in different sectors.
“Will they all become voters?”, asked Suhail Ahmad, a young entrepreneur.
Allaying the fear
Former Lok Sabha member, Deputy CM of J&K and eminent lawyer Muzaffar Hussain Baig on Friday said that the statement of the CEO has caused chaos among the public. Addressing the media, he termed the statement as irresponsible and illegal.
Baig said that he thought that the CEO had spoken about the new voters. “He has spoken without authority and legal jurisdiction…the government must seek an explanation from him”, Baig said.
He added that the CEO has made Article 309 of the Constitution as the basis of his statement, but it deals with service and employment and not elections or voting.
The government, on Saturday, came up with a clarification saying that the media reports about the inclusion of 25 lakh new voters in the revised electoral rolls is a misrepresentation of facts spread by those with vested interests.
“This revision of electoral rolls will cover existing residents of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the increase in numbers will be of the voters who have attained the age of 18 years as on 1.10.2022 or earlier,” said the J&K government’s Directorate of Information and Public Relations.