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J-K Parties Up In Arms Over Move To Give Voting Rights To ‘Outsiders’ Before Assembly Polls

In Jammu and Kashmir, it has become a routine: The government each month issues an order. The order creates a political storm. The government ignores political protestation and issues another order and moves debate in a different direction.

J-K Parties Up In Arms Over Move To Give Voting Rights To ‘Outsiders’ Before Assembly Polls
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In Jammu and Kashmir, it has become a routine: The government each month issues a controversial order. The order creates a political storm. The government ignores political protestation and issues another contentious order and moves debate in a different direction.

On August 17, Chief Electoral Officer of Jammu and Kashmir Hirsh Kumar said after the abrogation of Article 370 every citizen of the country who stayed ordinarily in J&K, for labour work, education, and business purpose, can register as a voter in J&K and cast vote in the next assembly elections. Kumar said he expects an increase of 20 Lakh to 25 lakh voters after the completion of the special summary revision of the electoral rolls whose final announcement will be made on November 25, 2022.

The announcement created a political ruckus in J&K and despite the government issuing different orders like increasing the rent of Waqaf properties and the police raiding different places, the debate around the CEO’s statement of adding 25 lakh continues.

According to the schedule, Integrated Draft Electoral Roll would be published by all Electoral Registration Officers on September 15, 2022. The time between September 15 and October 25 has been earmarked for filing claims and objections and all disposals in this regard will be completed by November 10.

Checking of health parameters and obtaining the Commission’s permission for final publication, updating the database, and printing of supplements is to be done by November 19, 2022. The final electoral roll would be published on November 25. The CEO’s announcement gave a clear indication that anyone who lives in Jammu and Kashmir ordinarily can now avail of the opportunity to get enlisted as a voter making domicile certificates redundant.

Kumar says the decision was taken in accordance with the provisions of Representation of the Peoples Act 1951 – an Act to provide for the conduct of elections to the Houses of Parliament and to the House or Houses of the Legislature of each State.

After the announcement, all regional political parties, including those who are seen as close to the BJP opposed the move and called it "dangerous". On August 22, Dr. Farooq Abdullah chaired the All Parties Meeting to oppose the government's move to grant voting rights to outsiders in Jammu and Kashmir. Sajad Lone-led People's Conference and Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party stayed away from the meeting.

With leaders from Congress, CPI(M), People’s Democratic Party, and Shiv Sena, sitting beside him, Dr. Abdullah after the All Parties Meeting said the new move to provide voting rights to outsiders in Jammu and Kashmir would make a lot of people vulnerable in Jammu and Kashmir.

“We have expressed concern over the recent killings whether of Kashmiri pandits, outside labourers, Kashmiri Muslims, policemen or Army personnel,”  Dr Abdullah said. “We have apprehensions that they (outsiders) would be attacked. They should carefully take decisions. I called Lt Governor (Manoj Sinha) a few days ago and asked him to call the All Parties Meeting. Previously, he had called a meeting about Shri Amarnath Yatra and we all went. This time I requested him to call all political parties for a meeting. But there was no response to my request from Lt Governor,” Dr. Abdullah said.

Dr. Abdullah said they called the All Parties Meeting and a similar such meeting will be held in Jammu. “We will make people aware of what the government is planning to do. We are going to the Court also. We are thinking on all kinds of avenues,” he added. Dr Abdullah asked why only Jammu and Kashmir have been chosen for giving voting rights to outsiders.  He said there are differences of opinion within political parties but on this issue, they will fight it together.

Shiv Sena leader Manish Sawhney said their demand is in sync with other parties of J&K as they are opposing giving voting rights to outsiders. “Repeatedly people of Jammu and Kashmir are being stabbed in the back. First, the government removed the permanent resident certificate and asked everyone to get a domicile. Now that people after remaining in long queues have got domicile certificates, they are now being asked that outsiders are now eligible to vote in Jammu and Kashmir.”

On August 5, 2019, the Centre amid siege, lockdown, and arrests of nearly 8000 persons, abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution, bifurcated and downgraded J&K into two Union Territories, J&K and Ladakh.  While the government extended and adapted around 800 state and central laws to J&K, it hasn’t extended a single law to the UT of Ladakh.

Under Article 370 Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh had a separate constitution called the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir and also Article 35A was prohibiting people from outside from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir and ensuring job reservations for residents and voting rights to J&K citizens only. Article 35A would empower the Government of J&K to define a class of persons as constituting “permanent residents” of the erstwhile State. Also, it would allow the government to confer on these persons’ special rights and privileges with respect to matters of public employment and acquisition of immovable property in the State.

Later on March 31, 2020, the government discarded the permanent resident clause and replaced it with domicile law. Under the law, the domiciles have been defined as those who have resided for a period of 15 years in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir or have studied for a period of seven years and appeared in Class 10th, 12th examination in an educational institution located in J&K. The domicile law has no time bar indicating anyone appearing in class 10th or 12th in any period of time since 1947 is eligible for the domicile.

The government has made it mandatory for every citizen of the erstwhile State of J&K to secure a domicile certificate though they possess mandatory State subject certificates and thus equate them with the new domiciles.  Now in the case of voting rights domicile has been discarded with “ordinarily living in J&K.”

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The BJP says those who are ordinarily living in J&K whether they are for services like in case armed forces or business or education or labour, can exercise their right provided they delete their electoral roll in their native place.  The BJP says the regional parties are playing politics over it.

The political parties fear if the 25 lakh outsiders or those ordinarily living in J&K get enrolled in the voting list, they will change the voter demography of the region forever. Though the BJP says the number of people ordinarily living in J&K is not far higher and the political parties are not realising the definition of ordinary residents, political parties fear the current BJP government is capable of adding 25 lakh voters from outside to J&K.

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‘Ordinarily Living’ voters, 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 to influence elections across India,” says the PDP leader Mohit Bhan. For long regional political parties have been talking about the dangers of demographic change in J&K. Now it looks real.

Sajad Lone says: “We will not protest before the current administration. We know the current administration in Delhi or in Srinagar doesn't hold the political parties of J&K in very high esteem. In fact, they display contempt and disdain for them.”

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“We think the final test is on October 1 when it (the summary revision) will be out. We don’t think the law is a threat to us but we are scared of those implementing the law. We will wait to see what they will do. If they did it (including 25 lakh outsiders as voters) we will sit on hunger strike in front of India. This war cannot be fought here. We will wait till October 1,” Lone says. 

By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar

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