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Friday, September 22, 2023

Polls in J-K can be held “anytime from now”, Centre tells SC but sets no time-frame for restoration of statehood

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NEW DELHI, Aug 31: Elections in Jammu and Kashmir can be held “anytime from now” as the work on updation of voters list is almost over, the Centre told the Supreme Court on Thursday but
remained non-committal about setting a time-frame for restoration of statehood to the union
territory (UT).

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told a five-judge constitution bench
headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud that the UT status of Jammu and Kashmir is a “temporary thing” and it is for the Election Commission of India and the union territory’s election commission to decide when the elections for panchayats, municipal bodies and the legislative assembly will be held.

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“The central government is ready to hold elections anytime from now… It is for the Election
Commission of India and the Election Commission of the UT to take the call on which election will
take place first and how. The updating process of the voters’ list is almost complete and will be over in a month,” he told the bench, also comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sanjiv Khanna, BR Gavai and Surya Kant.

The solicitor general said as far as restoration of statehood to the union territory of J-K is concerned, union home minister Amit Shah has already made statements in Parliament that it will be done in due course.

“The UT is a temporary thing in J-K. We are dealing with an extremely extraordinary situation. The
exact time frame for restoration of complete statehood in J-K cannot be given at the moment. It
might take some time. Various steps are being taken to restore the status of the state in Jammu and Kashmir,” Mehta said at the outset.

The central government made the submissions in response to the apex court’s August 29
observations on restoration of electoral democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.

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Mehta, on the 13th day of hearing on a batch of petitions challenging the abrogation of Article 370
which accorded special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, said, “Peace does not
merely come by policing.”

He told the court about the various steps the Union government has taken for restoration of
normalcy in the region.

“Large-scale investment proposals post abrogation of Article 370 have been received, which include Rs 28,400 crore of central sector schemes for industrial development, Rs 78,000 crore of private sector and the actual investment done in 2022-23 is Rs 2,153 crore,” he said.

Mehta said out of the 53 projects worth Rs 58,477 crore sanctioned under the Prime Minister’s
Development Package, 32 have been completed.

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Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for Jammu and Kashmir National Conference leader Mohd
Akbar Lone, objected to the bench recording the figures put forth by the central government, saying it should not be taken on record as it will “affect the mind” of the court adjudicating the
constitutional validity of abrogation of Article 370.

CJI Chandrachud assured Sibal that the data given by the solicitor general will not have any bearing on the adjudication of the constitutional issue.

Mehta added so far as elections in Ladakh is concerned, there are two areas of Leh and Kargil. The
elections for the Hill Development Council of Leh were already over and the exercise will be held in
Kargil next month.

He said terror-related incidents have gone down by 45.20 per cent compared to 2018. Infiltration,
which was one of the biggest concerns, was down by 90.20 per cent, Mehta added.

Citing more data, he said, “Law and order events reduced 97.20 per cent. Incidents of stone-pelting and ‘hartals’, which were 1,767 in 2018, are now nil. Casualty of security personnel has gone down by 65.90 per cent, organised ‘bandhs’, which were coordinated by secessionist groups, have gone down from 52 in 2018 to nil in 2023.”

Mehta said tourism, a major source of revenue for J-K, has seen improvement, with footfall of 1.88 crore in 2022, and in 2023, till date, over one crore people have visited the UT.

Sibal told the bench the petitioners will have to counter facts and figures put forward by the Centre.

“They are saying there were zero ‘hartals’. Five thousand people were put under house arrest. How will there be any ‘hartal’, when you don’t allow them to even go to hospital. The proceedings of this court are televised and these figures may aid in creating an opinion,” he said.

The bench told Sibal what the solicitor general has said was pursuant to the court’s query as to what steps were taken by the Union of India to restore electoral democracy.

“We should be fair to the solicitor general as he has only given the roadmap,” the bench said,
adding, “The nature of the development which the government says took place post August 2019
may not be of relevance to your constitutional challenge and, therefore, what they respond to
constitutional challenge has to be dealt with independently.”

The CJI told Sibal, “These are matters where there can be and should be policy differences but that can’t affect the constitutional arguments. We place these facts in the perspective of the roadmap to statehood of J-K. This isn’t a justification and cannot be to a constitutional challenge.”

Attorney General R Venkataramani, also appearing for the Centre, and senior advocates Harish Salve and Rakesh Dwivedi, representing the intervenors, defended the August 5, 2019 decision to
abrogate Article 370.

The hearing before the constitution bench remained inconclusive and will continue on Friday, which otherwise is a miscellaneous day usually reserved for hearing fresh cases. Making a departure, the top court had this Monday continued with the constitution bench hearing on Article 370.

On August 29, the Centre had told the top that it will make an elaborate statement on the vexatious political issue in the court on August 31.

The five-judge constitution bench, hearing the pleas challenging the abrogation of Article 370, had
asked the Centre to set a specific time frame for restoration of electoral democracy in the erstwhile state.

While hearing Mehta’s submissions on Tuesday, the court had told him, “Democracy is important,
although we agree that in view of the national security scenario, reorganisation of the state can be
done.”

The court, however, said lack of electoral democracy cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely.
“This has to come an end… give us the specific time frame as to when will you restore actual
democracy. We want to record this,” the bench said, and asked Mehta and the attorney general to
seek instructions from the political executive and get back to the court. (PTI)

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The Hills Times, a largely circulated English daily published from Diphu and printed in Guwahati, having vast readership in hills districts of Assam, and neighbouring Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur
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