Kashmir’s feudal lords must share the blame

Migrants who  mortgaged their land to landed families in rural areas almost never got it back
Migrants whomortgaged their land to landed families in rural areas almost never got it back

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after maintaining a strategic silence on the month-long bloodshed, appealed to the syncretic consciousness of Kashmiriyat to deal with a zone of perpetual tensions between adolescent Kashmiris and Indian armed personnel. Sadly, there is total denial of the root causes of a crisis located in poor governance, crisis of transparency and accountability, and the disorientation of economic policies and priorities.

There is also a set of root causes located in the designs of local feudal aristocracy, rise of landless labourers, and alienation of poor peasants from their land. The agrarian-cum-feudal economy of the state, the nerve centre of Kashmir, is under stress. The 73 percent rural population of the state is facing the brunt. This is despite the least rural landlessness when compared with other Indian states as per the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011. Conversely, there is also an increase in households with no land, close to 23 percent. Fifty-three percent of land is non-irrigable and thus of no great use. The situation is also not very fair in terms of average landholding and operational land areas (as per the report of Agriculture Census 2010-11 published in 2014) which paints a picture of unequal, disproportionate distribution.

Adding to the grief, more than 67 percent of the population has a household income of less than 5,000 per month, of which the source is agricultural; allied activities like dairy development, fisheries, livestock, sericulture and horticulture are also linked with land. Only 20 percent households have family members in government jobs, while very few are with the private sector. Rich farmers in the Valley have switched from farming to cash crops like walnut and apple, while the poor still lack the required land, technical know-how and finances. The under-performance of agriculture and shift towards horticulture is both a welcome and disturbing trend as it has the potential of disempowering the poor farmers even as it incentivises the rich farmers.

Arguably, it is feudal manoeuvring that gave Kashmir the culture of protest, conflict and confrontation. For instance, if we look closely at the ‘people’s movement’ agitation against the Dogra regime in 1930-31, we find that it was the outcome of exploitative land relations between rich landlords and land tillers, labourers and artisans. Contrary to common belief, the agitation was less communal or political, more economic and agrarian. Nonetheless, the agitation finally culminated in the formation of a political party by Sheikh Abdullah named the All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference. Apart from other socio-political demands, the party put forth the issue of redressing the grievances of landowners as well as landless with a promise of land reform to eliminate the ruthless exploitation of jagirdars. In this regard, the New Kashmir (Naya Kashmir) manifesto came out in 1944 with a promise of land reforms including abolition of landlordism, land-to-the-tiller programme, and to alleviate the poverty of peasants, artisans and workers.

However, when land reform appeared imminent in the early 1950s, landlords played the game of linking land reform with majoritarian communal sentiment. It is also being played now by the ‘neo-feudal’ in the name of azadi or separation of Jammu and Ladakh from Kashmir.

Be that as it may, the so-called radical reforms took place in Kashmir beginning with legislation in 1948 amending the State Tenancy Act, 1924 which aimed to remove jagirdars, muafidars and mukkarraris to free people from serfdom, including granting of occupancy rights to landless tenants and poor peasants to break the monopoly of rich non-cultivating landlords. Next year, a land-to-the-tiller committee was constituted in 1949 to look into other related problems of peasants and their chronic indebtedness. A Conciliation Board tried to bring about a settlement between debtors and creditors, but failed.

In October 1950, the Big Landed Estate Abolition Act was passed, which is often referred as the Magna Carta of Kashmir. In 1953, tenants were allowed to sell their surplus grain to government directly. Another milestone in the direction of land reforms was the Agrarian Reforms Act, 1972 which ended the landlord-tenant relationship but adversely affected the orchards. It was amended in 1978 in the form of the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms (Amendment) Act. This defined land as agricultural land excluding orchards, along with new provision for compensation to those whose lands were taken over by the government.

Land reforms failed because they were not implemented in their true spirit. Bureaucrats shrewdly increased their holdings. Landgrabs took place with political patronage

Another important dimension of this Act was the right given to displaced persons cultivating evacuee land to transfer their right of occupancy by sale, mortgage, or gift. The State Assembly also passed Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to Occupants) Act, 2001 which later got amended in 2007 and is commonly referred to as the Roshni Scheme to ensure verification of occupation rights by the revenue officer, fix compensation from the occupants and so on. As of August 2016, there is another piece of land reforms proposal pending in the State Assembly called Land Transfer Bill to prevent transfer of land in Jammu to non-state subjects.

These legislative attempts were revolutionary in principle but not on the ground. The reforms failed as they were not implemented in their true spirit: nexus of landlords with bureaucracy, most particularly of Revenue Department, vested interests of ruling party workers, high-level corruption, goondaism of local land mafia and rank ignorance of poor peasants and landless labourers. In many cases, large landholdings remain intact with the landlords by simple legal manoeuvring like changing deeds, false gifting, renaming themselves as tillers, sub-dividing land within family and in some cases their relatives and servants to skip the ceiling. The semi-rich and petty peasants become richer by acquiring more lands at the cost of poor cultivators at the lowest level. Bureaucrats took advantage of land reforms by shrewdly increasing their landholdings.

Most importantly, landlords and semi-rich peasants were advised to join and fund ruling parties if they wanted to keep their land and privileges intact. Land was also acquired in the name of social, educational and welfare purposes but used for personal and commercial purposes with the complicity of revenue officers. The government’s surplus and forest lands were acquired by the land mafias by fraudulent means across the state, setting aside the claims of poor landless people. This was not possible without covert support from the government.

Migrant workers who mortgaged their land to landed families hardly ever got their land back. Natural disasters, crop failure, insurgency and militancy also inflicted heavy burdens on the land, not only in terms of land encroachment but also putting the life of every Kashmiri at stake.

On top of that, poor farmers and cultivators sold their land not only to afford the education of their children outside Kashmir but to bribe officials and intermediaries to get jobs. The ultimate result is humiliation, alienation, and frustration which results in the call for ‘national self-determination’ in the hope that life would be better in an independent Kashmir.

This is not to deny that land reforms did not empower some in Kashmir. It did. But the rich-poor gap widened. Hopefully, feudal exploiters will face the heat sooner or later.