Assam, India witnesses huge protests over rearranged constituencies

Muslim Population in Assam based on district maps and census of India 2011. Image via Wikipedia by SPQR10. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Muslim Population in Assam based on district maps and census of India 2011. Image by SPQR10 via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

In December 2022, the government of the northeastern Indian state of Assam requested the Election Commission of India to review the boundaries of its electoral constituencies, as the delimitation process had not been carried out since 1976. Consequently, on June 20, 2023, the commission published a draft proposal to delimitate the Assembly and Parliamentary Constituencies for Assam that provoked a lot of protests from opposition parties. The process will redraw the geographical boundaries of an electoral seat either by merging districts or adding an electoral seat to form a new district. Critics allege that the process may be conducted in a way that could reduce electoral seats in areas predominantly populated by Muslims.

At present, the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds the majority of seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly. The national opposition parties, primarily the Indian National Congress (INC) and the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) are known for their liberal and secular stance. Additionally, the regional party, The Raijor Dol party, combines a left-leaning ideology with Assamese nationalism, while the Assam Jatiya Parishad strongly advocates for Assamese nationalism. The delimitation will also affect many ruling BJP lawmakers in the state, but the opposition claims that it will bring more loss to the opposition parties.

What is delimitation?

Delimiting constituencies means reshaping them so that each seat has an equal number of voters. This is usually done after a census by an independent delimitation commission formed under the provisions of the Delimitation Commission Act.

The first delimitation process was carried out in 1952 following the census of 1951. Subsequently, four other delimitation exercises happened throughout the country in 1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002. The 2002 delimitation exercise excluded Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland, citing security reasons. On March 6, 2020, the BJP-led central government restructured the commission for these four states and the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

Currently, Assam has 126 state assembly constituencies and 14 Lok Sabha (parliamentary) constituencies. The recent process won't change the number of seats for either but proposes a reshaping of some constituencies and increased seats for scheduled castes. The Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are the communities that are officially designated as the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups in India.

The proposed delimitation has been done based on the 2001 census. Many claim that it has been done purposely to exclude the Muslim population, which has increased from 29 percent in 2001 to 34 percent in 2011 in the state.

According to the 2011 census, Assam's population is recorded at over 31,205,000. Among them, Hindus account for about 19,180,000 (61.47 percent), while Muslims make up roughly 10,679,000 (34.22 percent). The state has a long-standing history of controversies surrounding population, religion and citizenship tensions.

In the 1980s, the student-led “Assam Movement” (anti-foreigners agitation) tried to identify “illegal foreigners” in Assam and exclude them from electoral roles. Numerous Indigenous organizations in Assam assert that there has been an unlawful influx of individuals from Bangladesh seeking a better life. In response to these concerns, the Hindu nationalist BJP, upon assuming power in 2016, initiated the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The final draft of the NRC resulted in 1.9 million people in Assam being excluded, triggering a significant citizenship crisis and dilemma.

Effect on the opposition and various stakeholders

According to reports, Muslims will likely suffer the most from this delimitation. The AIUDF says the draft proposal reduces the number of Muslim-majority seats to 22, which is seven less than the earlier 29 seats. Out of those 29 seats, three Muslim majority seats are being reserved for candidates from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

The AIUDF has threatened to move to court if the proposal is not discarded. Meanwhile, the Assam Jatiya Parishad from the united opposition filed a lawsuit opposing the delimitation on July 4, 2023.

Journalist Rokibuz Zaman tweeted:

The Tribal People’s Confederation, Assam (TPCA), a newly-formed tribal body in the state, has expressed disagreement over the proposal and claimed that more seats need to be reserved for tribals.

The INC staged a massive protest in the town of Barpeta because two seats were eliminated in the undivided Barpeta district, which is a Muslim-majority district.

Mohammed Fujail Ahmed, the Vice chairman of the Assam Pradesh Kisan Congress, tweeted:

However, the ruling BJP has welcomed the draft proposal. Assam’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a tweet that it reflects the sentiments of the indigenous people of Assam.

One's motherland is superior and more beloved than the heavens

Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a statement that if the draft proposal is implemented, the INC “will not be able to return” to power in the state soon. He has also said that the delimitation could do what the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) could not — namely identify illegal citizens in Assam.

In the Barak Valley of Assam, the proposal has reduced the number of seats from 15 to 13, triggering widespread protests across the valley.

The Barak Democratic Front called for a 12-hour bandh (an event similar to a general strike) in the entire Barak valley on June 27th, backed by the Trinamool Congress and the INC.

Susmita Dev, a member of the upper house of parliament and leader of the Trinamool Congress, tweeted:

The protests have also touched upper Assam, which has a large number of Indigenous people. Akhil Gogoi, the leader of the Raijor Dol, has said that it will cause severe harm to Indigenous people.

Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the president of the Assam Jatiya Parishad, joined the united opposition parties in Sivsagar and pledged to protest against the move.

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