Modi regime moves to dispossess Kashmiris of land

The Indian government has enacted new laws that allow non-residents to buy land in Kashmir. It’s a move seen as a blatant attempt to push settler colonialism in the region.

Kashmir being turned into “another Palestine” through settler colonialism has been a long-standing fear of its residents. This looming threat to alter the disputed region’s distinct Muslim character is now fast becoming a reality, with the Hindu-nationalist regime of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopting aggressive policies that appear to be aimed solely at dispossessing and disempowering the local population.

In the past year, Modi’s government has not only stripped the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and split the state into two union territories ruled directly by Delhi but also eliminated various institutions and legal provisions that guaranteed certain safeguards to Kashmiris, related to job and land rights. These changes executed through a slew of executive orders – often drafted by bureaucrats without consultation locally – are in essence, according to critics, designed to erase the state’s history, culture and self-reliant economy.

In its latest move, the Indian government has introduced new lands laws that many say reek of discrimination against locals and effectively reduce Kashmir’s territory to a colony. The decision has intensified the trepidation of Kashmiris, who are likening the new arrangement to the occupied Palestinian territories, with empowered settlers living in guarded compounds among disenfranchised locals.

29 October 2020: Security forces detain a People’s Democratic Party member for taking part in a protest against new land ownership laws in Kashmir. Several leaders of the party were arrested.

On 26 October, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs released new land laws for J&K that make it possible for any Indian citizen to buy land in the disputed region. The 111-page notification of the new rules replaces 12 existing laws and amends 14 other legislations, some of which regulated the sale and inheritance of land. The new laws allow Indians to purchase land and the Indian army to claim any land, remove ceilings that prevent large landholdings and empower state authorities to take over any land for “industrial” use.

The laws that the ministry repealed included the J&K Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, popularly known as the “land to tiller act”, though which historically exploitative feudal structures were dissolved and land redistributed to impoverished farmers. J&K was perhaps the first non-socialist state in the world to implement radical redistributive reforms by enacting the J&K Big Landed Estates Abolition Act. 

By 1961, about 70 900 landless people, including mostly Muslims in the Kashmir valley and 25 000 lower-caste Hindus in Jammu, had become proprietors. This was followed by the Agrarian Reforms Act 1976 restricting landholding to 12.5 acres and ending the exploitative practice of “absentee landlordism”.

Weakened land regulation

Under the new laws, a provision allows an Indian Army officer not below the rank of corps commander to declare an area strategic “for direct operational and training requirements of the armed forces”. It has raised concerns that the provision paves the way for easy land grabs by armed forces. Critics say these “security zones” are being created without “oversight by expert bodies, environmental activists and civil society groups”, and are bound to negatively affect ecologically fragile areas.

Soon after the amendments were made, the Central Reserve Police Force, an Indian paramilitary unit, directed the state administration to earmark land to establish permanent camps across the valley. This reinforced the belief that the military establishment will occupy large chunks of land and develop infrastructure that will restrict public mobility and access.

Additional amendments say government “development zones” will not be subject to existing land laws that require permission for changes in land use. The term “being permanent resident of the state” as a criteria is “omitted”, paving the way for anyone not living in J&K to buy land in the state. Previously, no land could be given for residential purposes to anyone who was not domiciled in the state.

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The government may now also allow the “transfer of land for the purpose of promotion of healthcare or education” to people or institutes for “senior secondary or higher or specialised education in J&K”. Additionally, only agriculturists of the state can buy agricultural land, restricting the sale of agricultural land to other locals.

The Indian authorities claim the decision was made to encourage development. “I want to say this forcefully and with full responsibility, that agricultural land has been kept reserved for farmers,” said Manoj Sinha, Delhi’s top administrator in Kashmir.

Fear and resentment

Kashmiris, however, see these changes as another assault aimed at dispossessing them of their land to pave the way for Indians to settle in the area. Many contend that while Kashmir’s land is being made available to non-residents, other Indian states continue to enforce strict restrictions on the sale of land to non-domiciles and reserve local jobs for permanent residents. To oppose the new land policy, people in the valley observed a day-long shutdown.

Pakistan, which disputes India’s claim on Kashmir, said India’s actions are “another clear violation of the UN Security Council resolutions, bilateral agreements between Pakistan and India, and international law”. And regional parties across the state’s political spectrum said the amendments are “anti-people” and aimed at bringing material demographic changes to the disputed state to complete the disempowerment of the local population.

Pro-independence group the Hurriyat Conference, led by Kashmir Muslim cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has said the government’s decision to ratify land legislation is aimed at the “intimidation and psychological torture” of residents. “A policy of permanent demographic change is aggressively being pushed, to snatch our land, destroy our identity and turn us into a minority in our own land,” said the Hurriyat (M) chairperson.

29 October 2020: President of the People’s Democratic Party Mehbooba Mufti talks to the media at her residence in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, an amalgam of seven pro-India parties in J&K, called the Modi government’s move a huge betrayal, grossly unconstitutional and a massive assault on the rights of the people. “The repeal of Big Estates Abolition Act, first ever agrarian reform in subcontinent, is an insult to the sacrifices of thousands of freedom fighters and farmers who fought against an autocratic and oppressive rule and a crude attempt to rewrite history,” the alliance said.

The move has also angered people in Jammu province, who perceive the changes as disempowerment of locals and an assault on cultural identity. 

In the wake of growing public resentment, the J&K administration has said the new land laws “will afford protection to over 90% of the land” in the state, as the previous laws were “anti-people”, and that negative reactions stem from misinformation or lack of clarity. Government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said the previous land laws were “old, regressive, intrinsically contradictory and outdated” and that the new land laws are modern and progressive, “while affording adequate protection against alienation of land to outsiders”.

The latest assault

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party introduced the new domicile laws, allowing Indian citizens to buy property and become permanent residents in the contested Himalayan region, in March. Within months, Indian authorities had granted residency rights to more than two million Indians and eased the rules for granting domicile rights in the process.

31 October 2020: Men sit outside closed shops in a marketplace in Srinagar during a protest against laws seemingly designed to erase the state’s history, culture and self-reliant economy.

On 18 July, the state administration approved a new housing policy that promotes public-private partnerships for affordable housing, projects to rehabilitate jhuggi jhopri clusters and integrated or special townships, and to build 100 000 homes over the next five years. In addition, the government amended the J&K Property Rights to Slum Dwellers Act by deleting references to “permanent residents”, which makes it easier for those from jhuggi jhopri clusters outside the area to gain property rights in the region. 

The Modi government is imposing new laws that grant domicile rights on land, jobs and education to Indian citizens at a rapid pace. Kashmiris are completely disempowered and the state is effectively under a state of emergency, making a pushback appear inevitable even if it pushes the region into civil and geopolitical turmoil.

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