In Kashmir's struggle between 'national integrity' and 'identity', land has remained a quiet catalyst around its politics

When politics around ‘identity’ and ‘development’ has juxtaposed in Kashmir, land would always be the centrepiece.

Muzamil Yaqoob and Aijaz Ashraf Wani January 01, 2021 09:22:22 IST
In Kashmir's struggle between 'national integrity' and 'identity', land has remained a quiet catalyst around its politics

View of the Pahalgam Valley in Jammu and Kashmir. Image courtesy KennyOMG/Wikimedia Commons

Land has always been integral to politics in Kashmir. While it has immensely shaped the political developments in the erstwhile state; it continues to hang high on recent developments as well. It won’t be surprising to see the future political formations being shaped around the issues concerning land. The debate intensified recently when the Central Government notified the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third order, announcing a plethora of changes to the existing land laws, thereby heralding a new era in the land politics of Jammu and Kashmir.

Much has been talked about how politics in Kashmir has drastically changed after Article 370 was read down from the Indian constitution last year. While alterations with the federal structure have been numerously enumerated upon, however, such analyses of Kashmir politics would rather give it only a perfunctory treatment if we don’t understand how intimately has been land linked to different epochs of post-1947 politics.

In order to understand how land issues have shaped the politics in Kashmir throughout modern history, it is imperative to reflect upon the recent changes which would potentially change the agrarian relations in Kashmir forever. However, that would in no way diminish the importance land holds in Kashmir politics and we believe that land would remain a preponderant feature of how we analyse the regional political dynamism from within and without.

The recent changes

The central theme running through the recently notified legislations, such as the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third order, the Big Landed Estates policy, and the newly formed Domicile Rules, is that they have massively liberalised the criteria for not only acquiring the residency rights but also for acquiring property anywhere in the erstwhile state. These changes invited a mixed response.

While the political parties and civil society groups from Kashmir have unequivocally condemned the move which they argue are aimed at ‘disempowering’ the ‘domiciles’ and aimed at altering the demographics of the region. Even in Hindu dominated Jammu region one does not see overwhelming enthusiasm to these changes, although the region continues to vote for BJP (recent BDC elections is a case in point).

The mainstream Indian response, on the other hand, has been cordial to such changes with the ruling government realizing its electoral promises to opening the gates of ‘paradise’ to them. However, what was common to these narratives is that they have personified land as something integral to ‘identity’ in the former case and ‘national integrity’ in the later, thus reiterating and upholding the tradition of land-centric populist politics in Kashmir.

Revisiting how land issues shaped politics post-1947

The agrarian history of Jammu and Kashmir has never seen a day of stability. In order to understand these nuances, it is important to reflect upon the backdrop of how different epochs of history have witnessed a sharp contestation over how land relations were structured.

After 1947, redistribution of land was probably the most powerful method to ameliorate the crises which the agrarian sector in Kashmir was engulfed with. Pre-1947 saw political mobilisations around land issues against the Dogra oppression and the regressive taxations being followed.

In such a political milieu, the historic Big Land Estate Abolition Act, 1950 was introduced which radically reshaped the agrarian politics and ended feudal landlordism. How much prosperity did the peasantry witness under the changed conditions is however another debate? (see Aijaz Ashraf Wani, What happened to governance in Kashmir, OUP, 2019). It is, however, important to note that lakhs of acres of land were gradually transferred to landless tillers, thus ushering a new era in the agrarian history of the state.

Different populist trends have marked the Kashmir history differently. In a situation where more than 90% of the Muslim population was landless, the possibility of any land restructuring was bound to benefit the Muslim peasantry directly, wrote David Devdas in The Wire.

However, it does not mean that non-Muslim landless peasantry did not benefit. After the early redistributions, the significance of land and politics over the issue further intensified. It is in this direction that during the Sadiq’s liberalisation era, the progressive taxation system was introduced to liberate the small land-owning class from the payment of land revenue.

Another phase in land politics was witnessed during Mir Qasim’s rule. The introduction of the Jammu and Kashmir Reform Act 1972 redefined the land ownership and ceiling rights.

Sheikh Abdullah after resuming the charge in 1975 again resorted to the earlier strategy and resultantly the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms Act 1976 was passed; abolishing the absentee landlordism and redistributing the surplus land. This opened another chapter in the history of land reforms in the state which not only helped Sheikh to restore his lost glory to some extent but fashioned the future politics to operate within the populist frame which was crafted decades ago.

Why study history?

If language can shape the way we think, history should in every way fashion our understanding of the present. It becomes necessary to perceive the Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act —also named Roshni Act 2001 — in the backdrop of various historical trajectories which have shaped the counters of state politics since 1947.

The Act was originally passed in 2001 during Farooq Abdullah led NC-Congress coalition government. However, further amendments were introduced by Mufti Syed led PDP-Congress coalition government in 2007. In the changed political milieu of the state, it was first repealed in 2018 and transaction made under the scheme were probed after Article 370 was read down in 2019.

The story however doesn’t end here, propaganda over ‘land jihad’ and later the petitions to review the terms of judgement by the government was peddled in the wake of DDC elections in the region. This again reified the age-old tradition of populist politics in Kashmir.

With such historical baggage, land issues in Kashmir reached new ascendency, thus stretching out their influence over the decades. If we appraise the major political developments since 1947, land has in one or the other way been the focal point of all the regimes to materialise their ‘legitimation crises’, no matter what the circumstances.

Approaching to investigate and understand history in this way becomes more important now like never before, when politics around ‘identity’ and ‘development’ has been juxtaposed, making land the centrepiece.

Muzamil Yaqoob is a post-graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New-Delhi and Aijaz Ashraf Wani is a senior Assistant Professor of political science in the University of Kashmir and the author of What Happened to Governance in Kashmir? published by Oxford University Press, 2019.

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