A section of government officials and functionaries cutting across party lines and civil society groups feel that delimitation can be a tool to check the debilitating impact of the rapid demographic change in Assam.
Delimitation of constituencies in Assam, which was stalled more than a decade ago following objections by the state government and civil society groups, could be completed ahead of the assembly polls next year.
In 2008, the election commission had notified that the exercise would remain postponed till “such time as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is updated to reflect the true population configuration in the state.” The NRC has been completed and there are other factors that would motivate the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to change the map of the constituencies in Assam.
Delimitation is the process of determining the boundaries of territorial constituencies to represent the change in population and to provide equal representation to different segments of a population. So far, the exercise has been completed four times in India, which was accomplished after the constitution of the delimitation commission. Along with Assam, delimitation was stalled in Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.
In Assam, the committee appointed to suggest recommendations for implementation of Clause-6 of the Assam Accord has submitted the report. This clause stipulates safeguards to the indigenous communities in the state which had remained unimplemented so far.
Although the contents of the report are not yet known, a spate of news stories in the local media has revealed the gist of the recommendations that will include reservation of seats in elected bodies and greater rights over land to the indigenous communities, among other policies. However, there was no consensus among the members of the committee on the percentage of seats to be reserved in the elected bodies, with the recommendations varying from 67 to 100 percent.
Sources claimed that the report has broached the importance of delimitation as a measure to ensure that more seats in the assembly remain with the indigenous communities. This proposal is in sync with the views of a section of government officials and functionaries cutting across party lines and civil society groups who feel that delimitation can be a tool to check the debilitating impact of the rapid demographic change in the state.
These views of checking the political clout of Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley would be welcomed by an overwhelming majority of the indigenes. The rise of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is viewed with alarm, and the recent statement by one of its legislators, Aminul Islam, that the Ahoms are not indigenous people has sparked an adverse reaction across Assam.
Delimitation is also an opportunity that the BJP is unlikely to let go off since a reduced political space for Muslims in Assam serves its political interests.
The implementation of this report is considered vital by the BJP ahead of the assembly polls next year to recover lost ground among the Assamese in the wake of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). To a certain extent, the BJP has managed to shift the focus from Bangladeshi Hindus to Muslims and the agitation against the CAA has also lost steam in many districts.
However, occasionally BJP leaders and ministers are still being greeted with black flags and a long stretch spanning the eastern districts continue to be hostile to the party. No wonder that the home ministry had told the Clause-6 committee to amend the report since selective acceptance by the government could again trigger protests and allow the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) to score over the BJP.
In all likelihood, the final outcome could make Assam somewhat similar to the system already in existence in the border states, where citizens from other states are not allowed to purchase land, acquire trade licenses or contest elections. Such a provision would necessitate an amendment to Article 371 of the Constitution, which specifies the special provisions of the North-eastern states.
How the government plans to implement the report is unclear and whether all the recommendations of the committee would be accepted. The committee’s recommendation of 1951 as the cut-off year for definition of ‘Asomiya’ and ‘Khilonjiya’ (indigenous) in Assam could fuel unrest if implemented by the government.Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a Guwahati-based senior journalist. Views are personal.