Merger before delimitation: More questions than answers
SUBHASHIS MITTRA- Wide Angle
The recent decision to merge four districts of Assam with four others should be seen in the context of delimitation of constituencies. The two issues, that too back to back, raises doubts. And, the manner in which opposition parties are questioning the hasty move, the issue smacks of politics.
The Assam government, towards the fag end of 2022, decided to merge four districts with four others and changed the administrative jurisdiction of a few villages.
A fact that is significant is that the development came just a day before the Election Commission's freeze on redrawing administrative units came into effect.
After a meeting of the state cabinet, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the decisions have been taken with a heavy heart keeping in mind the interests of Assam, its society and administrative exigencies.
At the same time, he said the decision was only "temporary" but did not disclose the reason behind it.
But, his explanation was not palatable to the opposition parties. The All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu) burnt copies of the cabinet decision.
Two issues, however, have caused widespread apprehensions across Assam; the parties in opposition, critics and concerned people have raised their concerns after the declarations of the delimitation process in the state along with the decision to merge four districts with four others. These issues are woven together and can not be seen in isolation.
The Assam government notification of December 31, 2022, suggests that almost 100 villages have been realigned with different districts from the existing ones. The local people have also registered protests in several districts after learning about the realignments. The other part of the issue is the delimitation itself. There are more questions than answers. Why the sudden haste of conducting delimitation at this point? Why had delimitation not happened in Assam since 1976?
State Congress chief Bhupen Borah said if the party forms the government in 2026, one of the first cabinet decisions will be to revoke the decision which has all the ingredients to deepen the political faultlines.
The opposition parties are already questioning the decision to conduct delimitation of constituencies on the basis of Census data from 2001, and not 2011.
Reacting to the development, Debabrata Saikia, Leader of Opposition in the Assam Assembly, said the decision was political and meant to “balance” the Hindu and Muslim population in the districts. Two of the districts – Nagaon and Barpeta – have Muslim majority.
“It is very much a political decision to polarize voters so that they can carve out some seats with Hindu majority. The decision was taken a day before the EC’s ban, so one can easily draw the inference,” he said.
Balaji district (to be re-merged with Barpeta) was created on January 12, 2021, after the anti-CAA agitation in Assam, while Tamulpur (jto be re-merged with Baksa) was formed on January 23, 2022, to win Bodo votes.
Gaurav Gogoi, Congress MP from Assam, said the decision was “nothing but an insult”. Ever since the BJP has come to power, Assam is being changed by the whims and fancies of Nagpur, ignoring the aspirations of the local Assamese people.
Perhaps to sooth their ruffled feathers, the chief minister said the re-merger would be a “transition phase” and the government would “revive” the four districts as soon as possible.
While Biswanath district will be merged with Sonitpur, Hojai will be merged with Nagaon, Bajali will be merged with Barpeta and Tamulpur will be merged with Baksa. Assam had 35 districts until the merger.
The decisions had to be taken at the cabinet meeting on December 30 as the Election Commission has imposed a ban on creating new administrative units in Assam from January 1, 2023 as the poll panel will undertake the delimitation exercise in the state. The administrative jurisdiction of some villages and a few towns have also been changed at the state cabinet meeting.
The merged districts were mostly created in the recent past and Sarma said he wanted to apologise to the people of these districts but hoped that they would understand the importance of the decisions. Police districts will continue to exist in the four areas and the judicial set-up will remain unhindered.
The chief minister said a team of state ministers will visit these districts and interact with leading organisations and citizens to explain the reasons behind the decisions which can't be disclosed publicly. He, however, said the police and judicial districts of the four merged districts will continue as they are along with other offices and officers.
The Election Commission on December 27 had said that it initiated the delimitation of assembly and parliamentary constituencies in Assam and will use the 2001 census figures for the readjustment of seats.
The Commission said a ban has been put in place effective January 1, 2023 on the creation of new administrative units in the state till the exercise is completed.
Under the provisions of the Delimitation Act, 1972, the last delimitation of constituencies in Assam was effected on the basis of 1971 census figures by the then Delimitation Commission in 1976, the poll panel noted.
The move to redraw the assembly and parliamentary seats of Assam as per Section 8A of the Representation of the People Act, 1950, has been initiated following a request from the Union Law Ministry. Delimitation is the process of fixing limits or boundaries of the territorial constituencies in a country or a state with a legislative body.
During the delimitation exercise, the Commission will keep in mind the physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facility of communication and public convenience, and as far as practicable, the constituencies will be kept as geographically compact areas, the EC statement noted.
Once a draft proposal for the delimitation of constituencies is finalised by the Commission, it will be published in the central and state gazettes inviting suggestions and objections from the general public. "In this regard, a notice will also be published in two vernacular newspapers of the state specifying the date and venue for public sittings to be held in the state," the poll panel said.
"The Commission led by Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar and Election Commissioners Anup Chandra Pandey and Arun Goel has directed the Chief Electoral Officer of Assam to take up the matter with the state government to issue a complete ban on the creation of new administrative units with effect from January 1, 2023 till the completion of delimitation exercise in the state.
"As mandated under Article 170 of the Constitution, census figures (2001) shall be used for the purpose of readjustment of parliamentary and assembly constituencies in the state. Reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will be provided as per Articles 330 and 332 of the Constitution of India," the poll panel said in a statement.
The Commission will design and finalise its own guidelines and methodology for the purpose of delimiting the constituencies.
The term of the current Assam Legislative Assembly will end on May 20, 2026. The state has 14 Lok Sabha, 126 assembly and seven Rajya Sabha seats.