Vinod Mubayi

One has read and heard about it, seen videos and pictures of it, and listened to people describing it. But nothing quite prepares one for the deeply jarring experience of seeing it up close in person. Especially to an older viewer who has been absent for over half a century from the area where a good part of his early years was spent. All military occupations are brutal assertions of political authority. Each checkpoint whether in the city or countryside is a symbol of raw power; the occupier humiliating the occupied. The rolls of barbed wire, the masked soldiers cradling their Uzis, stopping vehicles and ordering their occupants to dismount reminded the viewer driving the 40-50 km from Srinagar to Sopore of nothing so much as a drive across the West Bank fifteen years ago from the Jordanian border to Ramallah and Jerusalem. Despite differences in history and context, what India is doing in Kashmir is little different from what Israel does in Palestine.

This has become more obvious after the Indian Government of Prime Minister Modi dissolved the state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019 and replaced it with two Union Territories ruled directly from Delhi. The elected government of J&K state had been ousted a year earlier in 2018 and replaced by President’s Rule under the Governor of the state. Now that Modi and his cohorts have been ruling the erstwhile state directly for almost 5 years, the resemblance to what Israel has done and continues to do to implement its settler colonial project in Palestine is becoming clearer. First, the Modi regime abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution that, when originally adopted, provided for a special status to J&K under the Indian Constitution. Even though the content of these Articles had been eroded considerably over the years, they had a symbolic value attached to their presence that the Modi govt felt a need to erase to advance its apparent long-term plan of changing the demographics of J&K. A year after 370 and 35A were removed from the statute books, the Home Ministry under Amit Shah issued two major orders that related to laws governing land in J&K. Ownership of land was hitherto restricted to the residents of J&K state since the time of the Dogra monarchical rule and that continued under the special status that J&K had under the Constitution. (It may be noted that similar restrictions on ownership of landed property also operate in other hill states such as Himachal Pradesh). However, on October 26, 2020, the Home Ministry’s orders gave a free pass to any Indian citizen to buy landed property in J&K. In addition, another of those orders, viz. the Union Territory of J&K Reorganization (Adaptation of State Laws) Fifth Order, 2020, repealed as many as twelve state laws relating to land, in particular the iconic and historic land reform laws of the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950, perhaps the most radical land reform in favor of the peasantry undertaken anywhere in India until now.

This fact is likely less known even among progressives in the rest of India. This land reform occurred on the basis of the Naya Kashmir document of 1944 that sketched an extraordinarily progressive socialist future of Jammu & Kashmir at a time when the feudal rule of Maharaja Hari Singh was still in place. In the Routledge Handbook of Critical Kashmir Studies (Taylor and Francis, 2023), Suvir Kaul in his article “On Naya Kashmir” presents an incisive account of this document that is eminently worth quoting at length. He tells us that:

“The document was initiated by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the head of the National Conference party and the first Prime Minister of the state after its accession to India in 1947. Naya Kashmir was an extraordinarily progressive manifesto of change; its acute diagnosis of the impoverished lives of the peasantry, by far the majority of the population, was as bracing as its revolutionary vision of the future. It demanded an end to the exploitation and oppression that defined Maharaja Hari Singh’s kingdom, and mandated transformative constitutional, political, social, and economic changes. In 1944, it must have made startling reading; even today, elements of it hold out the promise of a future more egalitarian, communitarian, even feminist than those imagined by any other political party. However, after 1947, when the National Conference came to power, its modes of governance repeatedly failed the promise of its own manifesto, but the vision, hope, and resolve enshrined in this text remain potent reminders of the work to be done.”

Even though Sheikh Abdullah’s luster has diminished considerably among the population of the Kashmir Valley due to his and his family’s perceived role as a facilitator of Indian occupation and control, the vision of Naya Kashmir can remain a goal despite the fact that it is a mere dream in the current reality. As Suvir Kaul admits: “The primary reason [for recalling Naya Kashmir] is historical: even if Kashmiris today are not in sympathy with Sheikh Abdullah or the National Conference and see in him and the party the collaborators who linked Kashmir’s future (along with that of Jammu and Ladakh) to India, it is still important to build a robust understanding of all those moments when a Kashmiri leader or intellectual or political organization developed a program of action centered on the people of the state.”

Regarding the origin of the land reform that was implemented under the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950, Suvir Kaul writes:

“Article 15 of Naya Kashmir … was an early announcement of the “land to the tiller” policies that reshaped the agricultural hinterland in Kashmir and elsewhere in the state. No matter how unevenly these policies were implemented in the 1950s, their impact on landless peasants was incalculable: it allowed many of them to own land, and even when their parcels of land were not large enough to support their families, it shifted their perception of themselves. No longer did they need to think of themselves as virtually the serfs of jagirdars and big landlords, but– however uncertainly and haltingly– as property-owning citizens, in greater control of their destinies than before. It is no wonder then that large landowners, particularly those possessed of land titles from the Maharaja, did all they could to destabilize these reforms, including by portraying them as an effort to seize Hindu land and hand it over to Muslims.”

The false and specious arguments used by Modi and his cohorts to justify the August 2019 events as measures for the economic uplift of the inhabitants of J&K lacked credibility at the outset as J&K was already one of the more well-off states of the Indian Union. The erasure of J&K’s status in 2019 coupled with the repeal of progressive land laws by the Modi regime suggests instead that the ground is being prepared for the military occupation to morph into a settler-colonial regime where progressively larger blocks of land will be put in the hands of “developers” from outside the area as a prelude to effecting demographic change. As the Kashmiri Advocacy Organization Legal Forum for Kashmir (LFK) has pointed out in a report entitled: “Fact Sheet: The Great Land-Grab”, under the Reorganization Act of 2019 the central government “repealed and amended more than 200 laws” that safeguarded the land rights of the inhabitants of J&K.

What is more sinister and, indeed, more revealing of the government’s intentions is the so-called anti-encroachment drive to snatch parcels of land alleged to belong to the state from people who were settled on these lands for many decades and even possessed titles under various previous land laws that were repealed in 2020. LFK’s published report referred to above states that the “region is witnessing a new trend of state persecution under the pretext of alleged anti-encroachment drive in 20 Districts of Jammu & Kashmir identifying State land measuring 178005.213 acres in Kashmir region and 25,159.56 acres in Jammu encroached by the residents who basically owned the said land and properties under the Big Landed estate Abolition Act (Agrarian reforms act) , JK State land vesting of ownership Act 2001, JK Evacuees (Administration) of Property Act, Jammu and Kashmir Tenancy Act 1980, Jammu and Kashmir Common Lands(Regulation) Act, 1956 and other numerous orders passed by the erstwhile State government in favor of Landless peasants.” LFK writes that “This fact sheet report exposes the occupying state’s Israeli model of systematic settler colonial process in IOJK by allowing alleged ‘Antiencroachment drive’ against the civilian population of Jammu Kashmir with the aim to dislodge them from these Agricultural and non-agriculture properties which would lead to their economic disempowerment.”

This anti-encroachment drive using bulldozers to demolish small shops and other commercial and non-commercial properties in both urban and agricultural areas began in the dead of the Kashmiri winter in January 2023. These actions of course reflect what has been happening in the BJP-ruled states like UP, Gujarat, and MP as well as Delhi over the last couple of years where bulldozers have been used to demolish the properties of minority Muslims on the same pretext of “encroachment”. Most of these have happened in in outright defiance of the law that mandates prior notices to alleged encroachers to enable them to legally challenge any demolition order. In fact, these demolitions of the businesses and homes mainly of minority Muslims have become so notorious that UP’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath has been given the satirical title of “Bulldozer Baba”. Aakar Patel, chair of the board for Amnesty International India is reported to have stated: “The ongoing demolitions appear to be an extension of the brutal human rights violations the region of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority region of India, has historically witnessed. These demolitions could amount to forced evictions which constitute a gross violation of human rights.” (as reported by Syed Rakshanda Suman, in an article “Analyzing The Land Eviction Campaign in Jammu and Kashmir”, Feminism in India, Feb 23, 2023). The bad publicity generated by this demolition drive in the peak of winter has led to its temporary stoppage though it could be resumed at any time.

Meanwhile, thoughts about the long-term political future of the region tend to linger beyond the straitjacket confines of the Indo-Pak binary where they have remained entrapped for the last 75 years. While these must necessarily remain in the realm of pure speculation for the moment, what is more palpable and real is the possible environmental future of this supposed Firdaus (paradise) if present trends are allowed to continue. The drive from Srinagar to Sopore and beyond revealed an unbroken line of discarded filthy plastic garbage bags and wrappers along the side of the road stretching for tens of kilometers. The same pollution is evident along the road on other drives out of Srinagar like Chrar-e-Sharief and other areas. This environmental degradation appears to co-exist with the groves of apple and almond trees on the sides of the road but how long before they pollute groundwater and agricultural land is anybody’s guess. Moreover, intensified settler colonial activity with its attendant “developmental” projects of road construction, buildings, dams and hydro projects, industries, and so on is likely to have the same devastating impacts as are now being witnessed in Uttarakhand with the sinking of the town of Joshimath and other areas. Climate change that is already negatively impacting glaciers in the upper Himalaya is bound to exacerbate this destructive impact. Whether and how environmental trends determine whether there is a political future of the region to discuss remains to be seen.

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