Haider Drabu used to love sitting on the floor. With a soft pillow to rest his back, he looked out of the massive window of his house in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir while sipping his noon chai—a pink-coloured, salty milk tea. “That used to relax me after a hard day’s work,” he said.
He confessed that after being bound to his house for a year, his spot on the floor repulses him. “Now, I have nothing to do but sit by the window and dream of a time when I can get to my shop,” he said. Drabu owns a textile shop in Srinagar and says he isn’t sure he has the money to keep it. To do so, he might have to sell some land.
Approximately 12 million people in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have practically lived in a lockdown for a year, sometimes with no telephone lines or internet. On August 5, 2019, the Government of India imposed a strict curfew on J&K and revoked the limited autonomy granted to the state under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
By virtue of being the only Muslim majority state in a Hindu-dominated India, J&K was protected by several laws under the Indian Constitution that gave it “special” status. This meant, most laws passed in New Delhi were not automatically applied in J&K until the state legislature approved them. Such autonomy was granted to protect the state’s unique identity and history.
Article 35A of the Indian Constitution gave the state government the right to define permanent residents — those eligible to apply for state government jobs and buy land. “The biggest blow to Kashmiri independence and security of land was caused by the repeal of Article 35A,” said Aijaz Ashraf Wani, Professor of Political Science at Kashmir University. Now, New Delhi defines who is entitled to such rights in Kashmir.
A year ago, people from other parts of India were not permitted to buy land or property in Kashmir. According to a businessman, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, New Delhi has deliberately kept the Kashmiri economy shut because a weak economy enables outsiders to grab land. “Nobody will have the financial power to resist a land takeover now,” he said, echoing Drabu’s fears.
“The deliberate destruction of J&K’s economy due to curfews has the effect of making people bankrupt and default on loans, so that their land may be auctioned,” said Shehla Rashid, a Kashmiri scholar and activist. “Earlier, it wasn't possible to auction land to outsiders even in the event of bankruptcy because of Article 370, but now that barrier has been cleared.”
Rashid is also referring to the application of India’s Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest (Sarfaesi) Act, 2002, which was previously unavailable to J&K. In case of a loan default, only permanent residents of the state would be permitted to bid for and own assets auctioned by banks. “So, anyone who defaults on a loan is at risk of having their land taken over by the Central Govt and auctioned to outsiders. This is the grand scheme of land grab,” said Rashid.
After nine months of curfew, just as J&K was opening up in March this year, the pandemic struck, bringing along with it a stricter lockdown. The state stands paralysed for close to a year now. In the middle of these restrictions, New Delhi has altered existing laws and passed new ones which observers say actively aid the grab for land.
Land ownership and possession are defined by several hundred laws across the country. Lands for community use, those owned privately, those earmarked for infrastructure projects, those in border areas all have different laws to govern their use. In short, land legislatures in India are a complex matrix.
Once 35A was gone, New Delhi had to simply make changes to several other laws to take the land. For instance, on July 17, the Department of Information and Public Relations of J&K released a short statement which said that New Delhi would declare certain areas “strategic” by amending two J&K land laws. These amendments would permit security forces to construct buildings beyond cantonments.
In Kashmir, there is an armed personnel for every seven civilians, making it one of the most militarised regions in the world. The last elected government of J&K, headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, wrote to the state legislature in 2018, confirming that close to 50,000 acres of land in the state is under “unauthorised occupation of the Indian Army.”
The Indian government also removed all references to the notion of a “permanent resident” in the J&K Property Rights to Slum Dwellers Act, 2012, thereby opening up smaller tracts of land for those from outside the state.
Wani believes this would affect Jammu more than Kashmir. Hindu-majority Jammu’s fate was sealed with Muslim-majority Kashmir during the latter half of the 19th Century. Since India’s independence though, the state’s politics has been dominated by leaders from Kashmir.
Jammu is a trading centre and is geographically connected to states such as Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. When New Delhi announced the revocation of Article 370, political leaders in Jammu came out in support. But, even the members of ruling BJP’s Jammu Unit opposed the revocation of Article 35A. When laws such as the Slum Dwellers Act allow people from other parts of the country to come and settle in the state, they are likely to come to Jammu because of easy accessibility and larger markets. “Jammu and Kashmir have different histories, demographics, geographies, requirements and demands, but they can stand together against the dilution of land laws,” said Wani.
In February this year, mineral blocks on the banks of the river Jhelum — that flows through Kashmir — were thrown open for mining. River Jhelum and its tributaries are Himalayan rivers and have large reserves of mineral-rich sand deposited on their banks. The call for bids was routine. However, this time the process was to be entirely online. The state government conducted auctions for mining tenders online this year so as to make the bidding process transparent, said Mirza Saaib Beg, a Kashmiri lawyer.
Kashmir, though, had no internet since August. “It was no surprise that an overwhelming number of tenders were taken by non-locals,” he said. In Srinagar and its neighbouring district of Budgam, all the tenders were given out to non-Kashmiris. “This is not just a takeover of Kashmiri land but of their resources also,” said Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh, Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, who works on Kashmir.
According to miners in the state, the reason why they have not “over-mined” with a view for profit is that they care about their lands. “We will not be greedy and wreck our backyard but we can’t say that about outsiders,” said a miner who hopes to gain a contract in another district and therefore requested anonymity. He said he wanted to bid in Srinagar, but the notice for auction of 10 mineral blocks in Srinagar was published on December 21, while there was no internet in Kashmir.
The laws relating to exclusive rights on land originated when the Hindu Dogra kings ruled the region. They wanted to prevent a takeover of the lands mostly by Punjabi settlers from the plains.
In 1950, the first Prime Minister of the state Sheikh Abdullah introduced land redistribution, making tillers owners of lands they worked on. These reforms transformed a brutal exploitation by the big landholders.
The Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950 capped land ownership at approximately 23 acres. Within a decade, ownership rights of around 230,000 acres were transferred to the tillers. This made people self-sufficient and overturned years of the region’s feudal landowning structure, said Ghosh. During long periods of strife and long harsh winters Kashmiris have enough land to grow their own food. Holding on to their lands meant survival, she added.
People’s pockets are becoming shallower and they will have to sell their lands to survive, said a Kashmiri businessman who lives in Srinagar.
“My father was a small businessman, but despite living through three decades of conflict, I managed to open two clothing stores because our lands fed us,” said Drabu, the shopkeeper, who owns eight acres of land. “If I sell my land to feed my family, I’m not sure how my sons will cope in the future,” he said.
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