Divided over new land laws, Jammu faces dilemma of identity

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Last year November, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prided itself in creating history when it passed the NCT of Delhi (Recognition of Property Rights of Residents in Unauthorised Colonies) Bill of 2019 to give property rights to more than four million residents of New Delhi’s 1,731 unauthorised residential colonies.

A week before New Delhi went to polls this year, in February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said: “People who never thought that they will ever be able to get their home registered in their lives, are now seeing their dreams come true. Now, those people have been rid of the fear of the sarkari (government) bulldozer.”

In Jammu and Kashmir, however, the BJP has seemingly chosen a different yardstick by reversing decades old protectionist laws with the imposition of new land laws that not only allow any Indian citizen to buy land in J-K but also empowered the government to take over any land for industrial or security use.

The BJP has chosen the fear of the government’s bulldozer and its first victims are likely those who stand to lose from a simultaneous development: the J-K administration’s process to take back lands, whose ownership was regularised under the controversial Roshni Act.

The fears are more pronounced in the Jammu division. For decades now, Muslim majority residential areas have been viewed with scorn by Jammu’s Hindu groups, perceiving their expansion – particularly on the peripheries of the Jammu city – as a demographic invasion to surround the Hindu dominated city.

The administration’s intent of retrieving the regularised lands – and the long history of sudden demolition drives and frictions between authorities and Muslim residents – through a process that is yet to be defined has put the region’s Muslims on the edge.

Who will stick their necks out?

The Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to Occupants) Act of 2001, commonly known as the Roshni Act, was intended to raise funds for investments in electricity infrastructure by selling over twenty lakh kanals of encroached land. In 2014, the year the BJP took over the Government of India, the Comptroller and Auditor General estimated that the Act had turned out to be the biggest scam in the erstwhile state, transferring lands at throwaway prices. Hindu groups have claimed that the beneficiaries were mostly Muslims, fanning fears of a “demographic change”.

In 2018, the Act was repealed by the former J-K Governor Satya Pal Malik. Back then, Mr. Malik’s administration had said that “any action taken under the provisions of the repealed act shall not be invalid.” On 31 October, this year, however, the J-K administration, in furtherance of court directions in a 2011 petition by Jammu based Professor S. K. Bhalla filed through advocate Sheikh Shakeel, announced that it will “work out the modalities and plan to evict encroachers from such state land and retrieve the state land within a period of six months.”

While directing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the complicity of government officials in the scam, the court had also observed: “We have not come across any such legislative State action legitimizing criminal activity at the cost of national and public interest with incalculable loss and damage to the public exchequer and the environment, without any financial (or other) impact assessment.”

Despite its ills, the Act was widely seen as having filled the gaps left behind in the land reforms after independence and its beneficiaries included a large number of agriculturalists besides those who had constructed residential properties on small plots of encroached land. “The demographic change theory has fallen flat, the facts are not in their favour,” said a Jammu based civil society activist, who did not want to be named. “Jammu benefited more from this [Act].”

“There is a sense of denouement,” the activist said, adding that no one was considering approaching the court. “The law that empowered them has been scrapped, leaving these people defenceless. It has jeopardised access to land for lakhs, everything was done as per the law but now the law has been turned against them.”

According to Mr. Shakeel, Muslims owned only about 1180 kanals of the 5,71,210 kanals of land regularised under the Roshni Act in the Jammu division. “There has been, historically, very poor documentation of land in Jammu and Kashmir. In many cases, the [encroachers] were in possession of the lands since generations,” the Jammu based activist said.

In Jammu, however, the BJP’s leader and former deputy chief minister, Kavinder Gupta, called it a “surgical strike” on corruption and asserted that “the BJP will fight tooth and nail to fail the nefarious design of the NC for carrying out land jihad”. In the past, authorities in Jammu have frequently carried out demolition drives in Muslim majority neighbourhoods.

The Hindu community in Jammu, the activist said, had faith in the Modi government, that he “has a big plan behind this, something historical. They are hoping for a big miracle.” The Muslim community, considering the Hindu community’s silence despite having a greater stake, were cautious. “Why should they stick their necks out?”

He solemnly noted: “The plan will be clear when the bulldozers arrive.”

Land jihad?

One of the prominent opinion leaders against the “demographic change” in Jammu, Ankur Sharma, an advocate who filed a Civil Miscellaneous Petition (CMP) in Mr. Bhalla’s 2011 petition, sees a grand conspiracy to flood Jammu with Muslims.

His efforts have taken the narrative of “land jihad” to different corners of the Jammu Division – and even primetime on Indian television. “We have brought this [narrative of land jihad in Jammu],” said Mr. Sharma, who is in the process of registering his own political party called Ikk-Jutt Jammu, or united Jammu. “We have coined this word.”

Mr. Sharma said that the Roshni Act “was a legislative arm of the demographic invasion” and that the CBI investigation into the irregularities would bring more clarity. Mr. Sharma’s Ikk-Jutt Jammu has been at the forefront of building this narrative, even calling for the boycott of Muslim milk sellers.

The group was formed in the days after the brutal gang rape and murder of a tribal Muslim girl by Hindu men – who wanted to “dislodge the Bakarwal community in Rasana” village of Kathua district, according to the chargesheet filed by the J-K Police – had brought to fore the bitter tensions between the two communities. Mr. Sharma represented one of the accused in the rape and murder.

In the initial days after the arrest of the accused men, all of them Hindus, local residents in the Kathua district rallied in their support – they were also joined by two sitting ministers of the BJP (who were later removed from the cabinet) and various other office bearers of the BJP and other parties.

“Rasana [case] acted as a force multiplier, it encouraged us. [After that] people began to understand the demography invasion,” Mr. Sharma said, adding that during that time an order by the J-K Tribal Ministry, preventing the eviction of the pastoralist Gujjar Bakarwals, “became the trigger point with which it struck people what they were doing. It was all abstractions before, based on data. Now [chief minister] Mehbooba Mufti was saying that no action is to be taken against Muslim encroachment. People understood then.”

After this, he said, there was a shift in the outlook of the Hindus in Jammu. “When we talk of demographic change, we talk about state sponsored Islamic hegemony,” Mr. Sharma told The Kashmir Walla. “We call Islamisation as demography change.”

The culture and identity of Jammu, said Mr. Sharma, was not at threat from outsiders settling in Jammu – which he says is unlikely given the lack of economic incentives. “Hypothetically, if people from UP [Uttar Pradesh] and Bihar or Rajasthan come, consider it a Sanatan hegemony, Hindu hegemony,” he said. “Ultimately Hindus have come but of different flavours — from UP BIhar, etc. Everyone is protected under a Hindu hegemony but no one is spared in Islamic hegemony, just like no one was spared in Kashmir in the 1990s.”

Is he opposed to Muslims living in Jammu? “We have absolutely no problem with that,” Mr. Sharma said at first. “We object to the 14 Feb 2018 [Tribal Ministry] order. We object to the Muslims who are encroaching on forest land, the entire Bhatindi [in Jammu] is a forest. 15-20000 Muslims live there exclusively.”

When contacted by The Kashmir Walla, the BJP’s Mr. Gupta, however, downplayed the alleged land jihad saying: “Only those who have [encroached government lands] will face problems but Hindus and Muslims have lived together here. There is no such thing as [land jihad].” 

Raw end of the deal

In addition to the more pronounced fears of the Muslim community, it is generally assumed that outsiders would settle down in the Jammu division’s more peaceful environs compared to the restive Kashmir Valley. Under a new notification on 26 October 2020, a dozen laws pertaining to land ownership and use in J-K, including laws that enabled the historic land to tiller reforms introduced by Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference government, were scrapped while 14 other laws were modified.

“It’s an encroachment on our [right to our] lands,” former Member of Legislative Council Surinder Choudhary said of the imposed land laws. “Domicile rule made people believe that no one [from the outside] would be able to buy lands here. Now, people are wondering if the domicile isn’t needed to buy land, why is it even there?”

The public in Jammu, said Mr. Choudhary, “are now forced to think about what is being done to them. The BJP has betrayed and ditched the people of Jammu, it said that it was introducing the domicile law to protect land and job rights [but turned back on its promise].”

Mr. Choudhary, who is affiliated with the People’s Democratic Party, is among those who fear land grab and demographic change in J-K would lead to a dissolution of Jammu’s Dogra identity. “Today, Jammu’s Dogra culture is at threat of being destroyed,” he said. “They [the BJP] talk about Dogra rulers but want to end that culture in Jammu. This law was given by the [Dogra] Maharaja.”

“The extent of discrimination with Jammu under the BJP has never been seen before,” said Mr. Choudhary. “They hide behind the tricolor, soldiers, and the border (nationalism) so that no one talks about the issues that concern the people on a daily basis.”

Resentment in Jammu was already brewing since the BJP first imposed the domicile rules – initially reserving only lower rung jobs for domiciles, not the natives – and reserved government jobs for domiciles, the definition of which allows for a large number of non-locals are eligible for domiciliary status and thereby jobs in J-K. “When our children will be unemployed and [outsiders] will capture our lands, an agitation will begin here like it did in Assam,” he said. “The people feel insecure.”

“There will come a time,” said Mr. Choudhary of the atmosphere being created in J-K by the BJP’s policies, “this anger [in Jammu] will explode. It will take time but it will happen someday.”

“Only representatives of the political parties are opposing this,” Mr. Gupta said, adding it was just “one percentage” of the public Jammu that “doesn’t understand” what the law meant. “Sometimes the Congress incites [protests], sometimes the NC [National Conference] does it.”

The BJP, said Mr. Gupta, “will not support the demand [for restoration of land rights].”

“If residents of J-K are allowed to settle in any part of India, why can’t [Indians from other states settle in J-K?]. The [abrogation] of Article 370 was in our agenda. It meant that how we live in all of country, so will they [be able to live here]. But no one will forcibly take away lands.”

“Just recently the government issued a clarification that 90 percent of the land is agricultural [and protected]. The remaining 10 percent [is utilised for investments] it will only benefit and not harm the people. The media has exaggerated it.”

The imposed land laws, said Ali Sagar of the National Conference in a statement, “has become a pivot which has united the people of Jammu and Kashmir.” However, forging a unity between the regions with a long history of bad blood and grievances against each other will not be an easy task, if at all it is on the cards for the Kashmir based leadership.

The activist from Jammu carefully noted the absence of Jammu leaders in the newly formed People’s Alliance in Kashmir – which met with Jammu based leaders more than a month after its formation. The entire sequence of events, the government’s imposed laws and the alliance’s distance from Jammu, he said, “have been engineered in a way that Jammu is completely dissociated with Kashmir.”

“The point is that there should be discussion before finding commonality. They should have asked everyone first, you can’t announce it sitting in [Kashmir],” said Gulchan Singh of the Dogra Sadar Sabha. “If they [the BJP] have made a mistake, so have you [regional unionist parties]. Where is the good sense in being only on one side. They have appointed themselves the sole advocates of [J-K’s rights], without consultation [with political leaders of Jammu].”

Mr. Singh said that though he was not opposed to the abrogation of J-K’s limited autonomy, he was still in favour of alternate protections and statehood to be granted to the erstwhile state. “The [BJP] is ill-advised, you should consult with the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The politicians who are with you, don’t know how sensitive this state is,” he said. “Today or tomorrow repercussions won’t be good.”

Mr. Sharma, whose influence is rising in the Jammu division, however, said that “old protectionism through land laws contribute to Islamisation of Jammu. The new lands will Indianise Jammu.” He also held a different kind of regret: “They [the BJP] are also secular these days.”

“The BJP central command is still following a Nehruvian policy — that JK has to be run through Kashmir,” he said. “Jammu has to be tied to Kashmir because it will go to Pakistan if it isn’t. You have basically indicted all Muslims — that they can’t be allowed to be free lest they go to Pakistan. That is the premise. If they believe in this, why don’t they act on it? Why are Muslims empowered and not the nationalist population, why is JK not being run through Jammu?”

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