The New Voters?

While the elections to Jammu and Kashmir’s skirted assembly are not taking place soon, the special summary revision of voters is expected to be over by the 2022 end. Though the process is yet to start, the CEO’s press conference triggered a storm, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

With Chief Electoral Officer, Hirdesh Kumar’s announcement that Jammu and Kashmir is likely to get around 25 lakh new voters including non-locals living ordinarily’ in the erstwhile state, heavens started falling in the political class. In 2019, when the Lok Saba polls were held, Jammu and Kashmir (including Ladakh) had 78.4 lakh registered voters.

An Interesting Presser

Addressing a news conference at Jammu, Kumar said after the abrogation of Article 370, many people who were not enlisted as voters in the erstwhile state are now eligible to vote. Anyone living ordinarily in the UT can get enlisted as a voter in accordance with the provisions of Representation of the Peoples Act as is the rule across the country, he said.

“An employee, a student, a labourer or anyone from outside who is living ordinarily in Jammu and Kashmir, can enlist his or her name in the voting list,” Kumar said. “The special summary revision (SSR) of electoral rolls is taking place for the first time after January 1, 2019, to ensure that all the eligible voters including those who will attain the age of 18 years on October 1, 2022, or earlier are enrolled.”

Kumar said there is no need for a person to have a domicile certificate to become a voter. “In the past, many residents of Jammu and Kashmir who are working in armed forces and paramilitary forces and are posted outside the UT had an option to get themselves registered as service voters and can avail the facility of postal ballot to register their choice at the time of the elections,” he added. On the same pattern, he said, those from different parts of the country who are posted here have the same option available to them. “Jammu is a peace station and anyone from outside posted in armed forces in the city can avail the option to enlist as a voter.”

On Kashmir Pandits, Kumar said there is already a special provision for such displaced populations. “They are registered as voters in their home constituencies. Special camps are being organised for them at different places including Delhi, Jammu and Udhampur for registration of new voters and all of them will be given voter ID cards,” he said.

The projected 18-plus population of Jammu and Kashmir is around 98 lakhs, while the number of enlisted voters is 76 lakh. “We are expecting an addition of 20 to 25 lakh new voters in the final list for which 600 polling stations have been added and now their total number across Jammu and Kashmir has gone up to 11370,” Kumar said.

Political Commotion

Within hours, it triggered fears of “demographic flooding” and “political disempowerment” within the political class. PAGD called for an all-party meeting including those who are not part of the PAGD like the People’s Conference, the Apni Party, and Congress.

“It is a matter of survival and identity of people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Mehbooba Mufti, the PDP president said in a high-pitch presser. Ms Mufti said the announcement followed “egregious gerrymandering” tilting the balance in BJP’s favour and now allowing non-locals to vote is obviously to influence election results. The real aim, she claimed is to continue ruling Jammu and Kashmir with an “iron fist” to “dis-empower natives”. She termed it “the last nail in the coffin of democracy” in “Jammu and Kashmir laboratory” as the ruling party was “importing” “25 lakh BJP voters”.

“If you are saying 25 new lakh voters will be registered, where are these people coming from,” Mohit Bhan, PDP spokesman said. “If the intention of government is not to influence the democratic process and bring demographic change, they should clarify the mechanism of calculation.”  Seeking a definition of the ‘ordinarily living’ voters, Bhan asked if it would mean anyone coming to Kashmir for 15 days can register here, vote and leave. “So in a gap of five years, he will keep electing governments in different states. So are you creating a bogey of 25 lakh voters and later shift them to influence elections at some other places,” he said.

Only PAGD was not alarmed. “This is dangerous,” said Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference Chairman, Sajad Lone. “I don’t know what they want to achieve. This is much more than mischief. Democracy is a relic, especially in the context of Kashmir. Please remember 1987. We are yet to come out of that. Don’t replay 1987. It will be as disastrous.”Altaf Bukhari, who heads the Apni Party said it has instilled confusion rather than clarity. “How can someone who lives outside Jammu and Kashmir vote at two places? Is it an attempt to change demography? Our children who study in Maharashtra, Punjab or Bangaluru, I do not think they are given the right to vote there. So, how are they saying this? The Government of India should come clean on this,” he said, seeking a clarification.

The NC

NC’s senior Jammu leader Ajay Sadhotra said the CEO statement has triggered apprehensions. “Firstly there is ambiguity on when the elections will be held. Secondly, the inclusion of 25 lakh voters will lead to mass rigging and it will be detrimental to democracy,” Sadhotra said, insisting the statement was blatantly anti-democratic which can add to the alienation of people. “Earlier they did delimitation and now this move,” he said. “Does this means anyone can be dragged from the neighbouring city of Pathankot and asked to vote?”

In Srinagar, NC chief spokesperson, Tanvir Sadiq said that the statement triggered apprehensions. “Does that mean anyone from other states can come as tourists, register here as voters and deregister when their states will go for elections? They will vote here and then deregister later,” Sadiq said. “How can service men register as a voter when the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in is place. Jammu and Kashmir is a disturbed state and there are no peace stations. Can I go to another state, fight an election and take my workers along with me?”

NC Vice President, Omar Abdullah tweeted: “Is the BJP so insecure about support from genuine voters of J&K that it needs to import temporary voters to win seats? None of these things will help the BJP when the people of J&K are given a chance to exercise their franchise.”

 Congress

The crisis-hit Congress could not keep calm either. Terming the move politically motivated, disappointing and very unfortunate, Ghulam Ahmad Mir said that Delhi should respect the emotions of people rather than disempower them by allowing non-locals to vote.

“I would suggest the Government of India desist from doing such undemocratic experiments and focus on the development and the empowerment of people,” Mir said.

“We have strong reservations over the move to enrol 25 lakh new voters, especially outside voters, under the misplaced interpretation of the category of ‘ordinarily residents’ of Union territory,” Raman Bhalla, Congress’s new Working President in Jammu and Kashmir said.  “How come the chief electoral officer knows the exact number of outsiders, entitled to become voters in Jammu and Kashmir when they have yet to apply?”

CPI (M)

CPI (M) leader Mohamad Yousuf Tarigami said that in the absence of any representative government, the Government of India has been exercising undiluted control in the region through a bureaucratic structure since June 2018. “It is a brazen assault on the legitimate aspirations of the people and amounts to disenfranchising the people of Jammu and Kashmir further,” he said.

BJP

All the top BJP leaders did not react to the statement. In Srinagar, however, Altaf Thakur talked. “We are living in UT and it is the right of any citizen of India to cast vote in Kashmir. We believe in Ek Vidhan, Ek Nishan, Ek Pradhan,” Thakur said. He said the new voters will be disaffected kids of 2010 and 2016 when Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba were at the helm of affairs.

“They showered bullets and pellets and canned them,” Thakur said. “This generation will now have the right to vote is creating insecurity and frustration in them.” Insisting that after the scrapping of Article 370, self-rule, and autonomy are not possible. “The people of Jammu and Kashmir living outside Kashmir are able to avail facilities in other parts of India, why not those from other states?”

Govt Clarifies

Following the furore, over the CEO statement, the Jammu and Kashmir administration issued a clarification. A Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) advertisement stated that the summary revision was to enable eligible young people to register themselves as voters. “This increase is mainly due to the new voters, who attained the age of 18 years. There is no change in the special provisions for Kashmiri migrants for their enrolment in the electoral rolls of their original native constituencies,” the DIPR said. “They will continue to be given the option of voting at their place of enrolment or through postal ballot or through specially set up polling stations at Jammu, Udhampur, Delhi, etc.”

The SSR, it said, allows a person who has changed his residence to enrol at a new location by getting his name deleted from the electoral rolls at the earlier location. Besides, it stated that there is no change in rules for buying property and getting jobs in Jammu and Kashmir and “have no link to the representation of voters or otherwise.

Soon after the statement, PAGD called for an all-party meet that was not attended by Sajad Lone and Altaf Bukhari.

PAGD Meeting

Terming it as totally unacceptable, Dr Farooq Abdullah, PAGD Chairperson, said that if needed they will approach the court to oppose the move.

The fall-out of voting rights to non-natives according to him will be that tomorrow “Assembly will be in the hands of outsiders,” Abdullah said.

According to him, the identity of the erstwhile state is facing a direct assault as Dogra’s, Kashmiris, Sikhs and other communities are losing their identity. “At present, the number of non-residents who have been given voting rights is 25 lakh. Tomorrow the number may go up to 50 lakh or 1 crore,” Senior Abdullah said after the meeting that was attended by NC, Congress, PDP, Awami National Conference (ANC), Shiv Sena, CPI(M), JDU and Akali Dal.

Hunger Strike

However, Sajad Lone, said he will hold a hunger strike in front of the Parliament to oppose any move to change the electoral demography. “We will wait and watch. If there is an attempt to change the demography, we will go on hunger strike,” Lone told a news conference. “The law (Representation of the Peoples Act 1951) is not a threat to us but the intentions of the government are a threat to us.”

Regarding the clarification issued by the government, Lone said that he neither accepts nor rejects it.

As the storm was triggered by the election official’s statement, Apni Party Chief  Altaf Bukhari thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union Home Minister for the issuance of prompt clarification.

Counter Meeting

BJP also convened a counter meeting of its leaders in Jammu on Monday to chalk out a “counter-strategy” against the meeting PAGD over the issue of “inclusion of non-local voters” in the new electorate of Jammu and Kashmir.

Ravinder Raina, BJP President, asked PAGD members to explain how Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had contested and won the 1989 Lok Sabha election from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. He also said that in two Lok Sabha elections senior Congress leader GhulamNabi Azad had won, were both from Maharashtra.

According to him, the law is equal for all and the Right to Equality has been enshrined in the Indian Constitution as a fundamental right as we are all citizens of India.

Meanwhile, Lt Governor, Manoj Sinha said that there were 32000 outside voters registered in Jammu and Kashmir in the last Lok Sabha polls in 2019. “You can check the electoral rolls. After all these years, not even 100 outside voters have enrolled themselves,” Sinha was quoted saying. “There is just propaganda about change in demographic character. How it can be changed when additional registered outsider votes have not increased beyond 100?”

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