Srinagar: The introduction of new land laws in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has sparked fears of dispossession among the locals who see these sweeping changes as a fresh assault on the region's identity, history and economic sovereignty.
Despite the state authorities assuring that the amendments in the land legislation will “aid economic growth and create jobs,” the regional parties are deeming the changes as an attempt to further disempower the residents of Jammu and Kashmir of their rights.
On October 26, the federal government repealed 11 land laws that were operational in the erstwhile state while arguing that these laws were “old, regressive and outdated" and needed to be replaced with a set of “modern, progressive and people-friendly provisions.”
“The repealed laws were made to serve the old agrarian-based economy and were required to be modified for modern economic needs. Besides, they were beset with ambiguities, contradictions and redundancies and in many cases, were clearly regressive,” UT government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said during a presser in Jammu.
With the fresh provisions, the land in the region has been “opened for sale” to non-Kashmiris--earlier referred to as non-state subjects in J&K’s context. The non-locals or non-state-subjects could not buy property including land before the revocation of the region’s “special status.” This decision comes a year after the region was stripped of its special status under Article 370 and 35A on August 5, 2019, paving way for the new land laws.
The government spokesperson said there are “safeguards” for locals in the new laws as no agricultural land – which they peg at a staggering 90% - can be transferred to any person from outside the UT of J&K.
But the authorities have since brought in provisions which enable conversion of agricultural land easily which was difficult as compared to provisions under the older laws, which are also perceived as stricter.
The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a conglomerate of regional political parties formed to restore J&K’s special status, in an official statement said that the real objective behind the repeal of the land laws and subsequent amendments to other laws is to “push in and implement the agenda of effecting demographic change and disempowering the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”
"The repeal of the Act now allows the land to be transferred to non-State Subjects, denuding the residents of Jammu and Kashmir of their most precious rights. The claimed protection of rights in agricultural land, it is stated, is a mere eyewash as the amendment introduced in Land Revenue Act provides for permission to sell the agricultural land almost at mere asking without difficulty,” PAGD spokesperson Sajad Lone said.
Following the withdrawal of British Raj from the Indian sub-continent, in April 1948, feudal institutions like jagirdars, maufies, and chakdars were abolished in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, which become part the Indian Union in the aftermath of partition of the Indian sub-continent. This marked the beginning of land reforms in Kashmir releasing Kashmiri kashtkars or peasants from century-old oppression and autocracy under the erstwhile Hindu Dogra rule (1846-1947).
Jammu and Kashmir, according to PAGD, was first in the country to implement the concept of “land to the tiller” by enacting Big Landed Estates Abolition Act 1952, followed by Agrarian Reforms Act 1976 restricting the landholding to twelve and a half acres and ending the exploitative practice of “absentee landlordism.”
“Whosoever calls it archaic would be guilty of ignorance of the history of Jammu and Kashmir,” the PAGD statement said taking a dig at government spokesperson.
Land Reform in Kashmir
The land to tiller reform introduced by the National Conference (NC), a part of PAGD, was a major breakthrough for the people in the region. The Kashmiri Muslims suffered massively under the Hindu Dogra regime. The peasants, most of whom were Muslims, were subjected to work on the land under extreme conditions with primitive agricultural practices that resulted in minimal produce. The taxes, on the other hand, were heavy and pushed the Muslim population into extreme poverty.
In the late 19th century, the Dogras appointed Sir Walter Lawrence, a civil servant in British India, as first settlement commissioner of Kashmir. Lawrence reported extensively on the land and demography of the region and measured the entire region in length and breadth in his extensive travel book The Valley of Kashmir (1895). The English official was amongst the first to report on the excesses committed by the Dogras and his revenue officials against the poor Kashmiri peasants.
The land of Kashmir was then designated under state land and revenue land. Based on the type of soil, the land was classified as Khalis-e-Sarkar or state land, and Maalkiat or revenue, Kahcharai or grazing land and so on based on the nature of the land. During the Dogra regime, however, the land was entirely possessed by the crown and was retained under strict laws and policing to avoid encroachment or illegal possession. Historians claimed that the Dogra laws were solely aimed at dispossession of Kashmiri people which, many says, happened over the century pushing them to live under severe conditions, especially in rural areas.
According to author NN Raina’s book Kashmir Politics and Imperialist Manoeuvres (1846-1980), of the thirty biggest landowners in the region, only six belonged to the Valley, two to Muslim shrines and three were Gompas in Ladakh. All others were non-Kashmiris including Muslims.
Despite that, Raina points out, Jammu landowners enjoyed the right to sell or mortgage their holdings, which those in the Valley could not.
Those who were able to – both Hindus and Muslims – slowly migrated from Kashmir towards greener pastures of pre-partition Punjab‘s Lahore and Amritsar.
Upon the land reform, by 1961, about 8 lakh acres of land was transferred to tillers, scholar Asra Hamdani writes in her paper ‘A Historical Study of Land Reforms in Jammu and Kashmir (1931-1988)’. Moreover, about 70,900 landless peasants, including mostly Muslims in the Valley and 25,000 lower-caste Hindus in Jammu region, became peasant-proprietors.
The results were illustrious.
After a century of subjugation and extreme poverty, life in rural Kashmir became healthier. The new land laws many in Kashmir believe have been brought to reverse that effect.
Issues with New Land Laws
An RTI activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat termed the amendments made in the Land Revenue Act as “disheartening”.
“The protected tenants are now called occupants, which means they have occupied land. All these decisions are being taken arbitrarily without the consultation of locals or local representatives,” Bhat said.
Expressing concerns, Bhat explained that the 1970’s Development Act has been amended and introduced with a provision that some areas can be declared ‘strategic’, a decision which can be made by an army officer of the rank of GOC. “Tomorrow what can happen is that any area of habitation or a village can be declared strategic and the locals can be evicted. Where will they go?” he asked.
The average landholding in Kashmir, according to Bhat, is much less than the national average landholding. “Now, in a state where landholding is so low, the government should rather save land than take it away. The transfer of land happening in favour of industries is another major concern,” he said.
Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of the National Conference (NC) party, which brought the early land reforms in Kashmir, said the changes made on land law is one of the most “regressive decisions taken by the bureaucratic Jammu and Kashmir government.”
“Land to Tiller, which was brought in by Sheikh Abdullah, was a revolutionary act. It brought people out of the misery, out of poverty and helped them stand on their own feet and it was distributed across without considerations of religion, caste or language, the effects of which are quite visible. How many farmer suicides are we witnessing today in Kashmir as compared to other parts of the country? None,” Dar told NewsClick.
Dar, like many Kashmiris, believes that the new land laws are aimed to undo what land reforms did for them. He also questioned the timing of these laws.
“The timing of bringing these laws is suspicious. There is an election going on in Bihar. These are very emotive issues and they know people fall for such kind of issues. They (the BJP) are playing to the gallery by propagating that everyone can buy land in Kashmir. The way Article 370 was used, the new land laws are being used similarly. The Kashmir narrative helps them to gain votes,” Dar said.
Stir in Jammu
The “land to tiller” laws did not just benefit Kashmir, it also benefited the people of Jammu and Ladakh. The land reforms are often believed to have brought about the economic as well as political emancipation of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. This has resulted in a consensus among the people from not only Kashmir, but from Jammu as well--something that did not happen hitherto on most issues like the restoration of Article 370.
People’s Democratic Party (PDP) workers held a protest rally against the land laws both in Srinagar as well as in Jammu even as its Srinagar protest was foiled by police.
Senior PDP leader, Surinder Chaudhary termed the new laws as an “assault on the Dogra identity.” He said, “No one will buy the land in Kashmir. Outsiders will come to Jammu and buy land here. Buyers will offer a huge price for the land and the poor people here will sell it to them. Jammu is going to pay a huge price for this land law.”
A protest was also held by the workers of National Panthers Party (NPP), a party vocal about Jammu nationalism. They protested against the decision by calling it a “betrayal by the BJP”. NPP chairman Harsh Dev Singh said, “BJP has, once again, cheated the people of Jammu and Kashmir over the protection of lands and jobs. The new land law enacted by the government is a breach of trust with people of Jammu and Kashmir, and Jammu region in particular.”
The fears of a demographic change exist among people in both Jammu and Kashmir even as the former is a nearly Hindu-dominated region. The Dogras take pride in their ethnic identity which they fear is at risk.
“As a youth of J&K, I feel disappointed because it was about politically empowering the people of Jammu and not robbing them of their cultural identity. The new land law is without any safeguards for ecology and the rich natural diversity of Jammu. If other states can have special provisions under Article 371 of Indian Constitution, then how extending a similar provision to Jammu and Kashmir hampers the idea of ‘One India’?” Kanwal Singh, a youth activist from Jammu, asked.
The new land law was announced on the day which marks the anniversary of last Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh’s signing of instrument of accession, a legal document he signed to accede to India against the decision of joining Pakistan. Against the government order, people in Kashmir observed a shutdown on October 31 on a call given by a separatist group All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) led by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq. This was the first such major strike call from any separatist party in the region since the abrogation move last year.
The new land laws also come at a time when the authorities have termed the Jammu & Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, also referred to as Roshni Act, as “null and void”. Under the Roshni Act, thousands of acres of land were transferred from the State to ownerships. The process to retrieve land, on which many have been living for decades, has already begun. Many influential individuals and families in Jammu and Kashmir have been accused of land-grab under the garb of the Roshni act. Many, however, have been living on the land vested under the act for decades since the Dogra regime, who gifted state-owned lands to their local collaborators, but also as the land became accessible with the end of the Dogra regime.
Both the moves are seen by many in the region as part of a larger plan to evict locals and dispossess them as the Dogras did during their reign.
Meanwhile, the political parties in the region are faced with another challenge as the UT administration has announced dates for holding an eight-phase election to 20 District Development Councils (DDCs) in the union territory from November 28. This is the first major electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 last year. What remains to be seen is whether PAGD will refuse to participate in the polls and provide a free-run to the BJP and its allies or participate in the polls and legitimise last year’s move and subsequent moves, including the introduction of new land laws, they are opposing profoundly.