Srinagar: On 4 February 2023, the Jammu and Kashmir administration seized a four-storey commercial building owned by Shuaib Wani in the Rampora, Chattabal area of Srinagar city, the summer capital of J&K, claiming the shopping complex was built on State-owned land.
Wani, 38, was at the high court in Srinagar when he received a call saying the tehsildar (revenue officer) of tehsil Sheltang, Srinagar, was seizing the building. Wani rushed there to find his complex sealed.
The land on which the complex stood had been allotted in 2004 to Adnan Manzoor Ahangar, Wani’s maternal cousin, by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), through an open auction. In 2008, Ahangar signed a partnership deed with Wani’s father, Zahoor Ahmad Wani. Both partners had disposed of other assets to construct the complex in 2019.
Three days after Wani’s building was seized, 60 km south of Srinagar, at 9.30 am on 6 February, Junaid Ahmad Bhat, 26, and his elder sister had just finished breakfast when a giant yellow backhoe loader made its way to their house in Arampora, in Dooru village of South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
“My heart started beating fast when I saw the bulldozer,” said Bhat, who owns a pathway tile factory in Anantnag.
As he stepped out, a team of J&K revenue officials led by the tehsildar of Dooru told Bhat they were going to demolish his outhouse, to make way for construction of a road through the area. Accompanying the team was a contingent of the J&K police and officials of the district administration.
Bhat’s parents had left earlier for New Delhi, for a scheduled health check-up, and the young siblings did not consider resisting. The outhouse was demolished and the officials left, having not even served a notice, according to Bhat, a claim that authorities deny.
The Wanis and the Bhats were some of the targets of a new eviction drive launched by the J&K government on 11 January, the biggest such drive since 5 August 2019, when the former state was reduced to a union territory and governed directly from New Delhi.
On 9 January 2023 , the J&K administration ordered the removal of all encroachments on land owned by the union territory and kahcharai (grazing) land by 31 January. With authorities failing to meet the deadline, the drive continued until it was abruptly suspended on 11 February.
Swathes Of Land Retrieved, Structures Seized
In many plots occupied by both rich and poor, different categories of land were retrieved by the State. These included government land encroached in towns and cities, traditional pastures, land leased to hotels, and obvious encroachers.
In several cases (here and here), people who had illegally occupied State land also voluntarily handed it back to the government.
As Article 14 has reported (here, here and here), the government of the union territory has evicted tribals, apple farmers, hoteliers and Muslim minorities to get back what it claims is State land.
J&K’s tide of evictions and threats of displacement after the removal of Article 370—the Constitutional provision that allowed the merger of the former kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir to India—has fuelled belief (here, here, and here) that the union government, which controls the union territory, is amalgamating land in order to settle outsiders, allegedly with a view to changing J&K’s demographics.
The eviction drives violated Supreme Court judgements in 1985 and 1990, legal experts said. The Supreme Court ruled that a government must follow due process of law during evictions and demolitions and governments must consider the “right to life”.
In June 2022, the SC said that demolitions can only be carried out in “accordance with the law” and the government must follow procedures while demolishing the structures.
On 1 September 2022, the Delhi High Court also said that no property can be demolished without giving the owner an opportunity to be heard.
Widespread Evictions Exacerbate Economic Crisis
On 4 February, the district administration of Srinagar demolished a shanty operating as a scrap godown in the Padshahi Bagh area. Officials said the plot, measuring 15 marlas (0.09 acres), was grazing land that had been encroached. The scrap business was operated by five partners, and over 200 families including non-residents were dependent on the business.
Suhail Ahmad Sheikh, 45, one of the owners of the godown, told Article 14 that they did not receive a notice from the officials, and were shocked to see the bulldozer demolishing the scrap shops. The owners had paid annual land rent to a local landlord for the last 20 years, he said.
A video of some workers’ families pleading with J&K revenue officials not to demolish the shops went viral on social media soon after.
The evictions come at a time when many youth find themselves without jobs, while others were rendered unemployed during the Covid-19 lockdowns. J&K’s unemployment crisis worsened after Article 370 was abrogated.
A stifling five-month security lockdown and frequent Internet shutdowns devastated many businesses after the 5 August 2019 decision. J&K's unemployment rate is now the highest in the country, at 21.8% (January 2023 data).
A July 2020 study by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) estimated that Kashmir’s economy faced a loss of Rs 40,000 crore due to the shutdowns. The pandemic exacerbated these losses although there is no estimate of what these might be.
A predominantly agrarian society, nearly 70% of the population is directly or indirectly engaged in agricultural and allied occupations.
Ejaz Ayoub, a Kashmir-based economist, said the eviction drives would hit the agriculture sector too. “You will keep doubting whether the land belongs to the state or people,” Ayoub said. “This will hit the farming sector because people will hesitate to invest.”
Uncertainty tends to hit commerce, with new investments drying up, old ventures stagnating, and the establishment staff suddenly losing livelihoods, he said, adding that globally, an assault on people’s property rights also causes the economy to be hit.
“This is exactly what is happening in Kashmir, property rights are becoming very uncertain,” Ayoub said. “There is a looming threat.”
The Latest Move To Take Over Land For The State
The determination of the J&K administration to make its latest drive successful was clear in a 9 January letter to 22 deputy commissioners across all districts to draw up a daily “anti-encroachment drive plan” and nominate additional deputy commissioners as district nodal officers for “coordination” and “effective implementation” of the drive.
The district heads were asked to provide “daily progress” through their divisional commissioners by 4 pm everyday. The divisional commissioners of both divisions, Jammu and Kashmir, were to furnish compiled reports through the financial commissioner of the revenue department by 5 pm everyday. This practice continued till 11 February.
Revenue department officials swung into action across J&K, “retrieving” land including “Roshni land”—a category of state land occupied by people and regularised by the J&K government in 2001.
The officials were also asked to retrieve kahcharai (grazing) land from “encroachers”. This land (locally also called ghaas charaey) was in the possession of landlords, and many dispute the State’s claim over these tracts.
Accompanied by J&K police teams to quell any resistance by people, officials of the revenue department used backhoe machines commonly known as bulldozers to raze structures constructed on these lands.
The move came under sharp criticism from regional political parties and people, though the Supreme Court refused to intervene. Facing widespread condemnation, the J&K administration halted the demolition drive on 11 February, deciding instead to “frame a policy” for the poor before resuming demolitions, The Hindu reported.
J&K’s Eviction Drives More Widespread Than Elsewhere
The retrieval of “encroached land” in J&K shares some commonalities with similar demolitions of homes in a growing number of states, but was more widespread than elsewhere, targeting every section of society.
Governments in other states (here, here , here and here) often provide opportunities to residents of unauthorised colonies to apply for regularisation, but that was not evident in J&K.
The actions of the J&K administration follow “anti-encroachment” drives in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi, all overwhelmingly focussed on working-class families, a large number of them Muslims, leaving many homeless, with no provision for rehabilitation.
J&K officials said on 4 February 2023 that only “influential and powerful people” would be evicted, but panic and anxiety spread, with small-time shopkeepers, farmers and tribals having been made targets of these demolitions since Article 370 was rescinded.
Amnesty International, a global advocacy group, criticised the latest demolition drive and urged the government to compensate those affected in Kashmir.
“The Indian authorities must immediately halt the demolition drive and ensure that safeguards against forced evictions as outlined in international human rights standards are put in place before any evictions are carried out,” Amnesty said in a statement issued on 7 February.
The government must offer adequate compensation “without discrimination”, it added.
Land From The Maharaja
Compensation appears especially relevant, said experts, because much of the land that is being taken back was once gifted, allotted or distributed by not just previous post-Independence governments but also the former J&K monarchy.
Bhat claimed that his demolished outhouse had occupied jayiz shamilaat land—which refers to a part of State-owned land that was gifted and distributed during the Dogra rule by the Maharaja of Kashmir among locals, in proportion to the quantum of their existing milkiyat (proprietary) land. That land is therefore considered as good as proprietary land.
The jayiz shamilaat land, according to Bhat, is adjacent to their proprietary land having khasra (a number assigned to plots in villages) number 1191.
The revenue department sheet shows khasra number 1191 to be in the ownership of Abdul Salam Bhat, 65, a retired postmaster, son of Mohammad Ramzan Bhat. Abdul Salam is the father of Junaid Ahmad Bhat.
According to Bhat, a few residents of the village had pursued a long-pending demand for a road along the old Maharaja Road in their village, and for this the revenue department had surveyed and demarcated land about 22 feet away from his home. The demolished outhouse would not have been a hurdle in the construction of the road, he said.
“...but we were surprised when the officials said that the road had been carved close to our home and for that they had to demolish the structure,” he added.
He claimed that no prior notice was served, and the family had not been able to move the household goods and eatables stored in the outhouse. “It seemed that the move was done in a hurry, with a false intention, under the guise of retrieving state land,” Bhat said.
History of Land In J&K
In 1846, the erstwhile British rulers sold Kashmir (including the Gilgit & Balchitan, formerly called the ‘northern areas’, lying to the north of present day Kashmir) for 75 lakh nanakshahi rupees (a coin issued during the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, leader of the Sikh empire) to Sikh ruler Gulab Singh via the Treaty of Amritsar. Almost all the agricultural land was retained by the Maharaja and the people had nothing to cultivate.
According to the J&K revenue department, the first regular settlement of land was conducted in J&K between 1887 and 1905, during the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh. This regular settlement, called Bandobast Qanooni, was held under the superintendence of first land settlement commissioner Arthur Wingate, a Britisher, in 1887.
In 1889, Walter R Lawrence, another British officer, became the first settlement commissioner of Kashmir. It took him nearly four years to complete the job of settlement in the Valley. In 1893, Lawrence managed to prepare cadastral maps of 10,709 villages.
Historians maintained that it was Lawrence who recommended to Maharaja Pratap Singh that he give land rights to the tenants.
“When Lawrence visited different parts of J&K, he found a major portion of land vacant and barren,” noted historian and poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef told Article 14. “He suggested to Maharaja Pratap Singh to give some land rights to the people.”
Zareef said the land, however, was distributed to different classes of loyal landlords known as jagirdars, pattadars and chakdars.
When the feudal landlords were stripped of their titles and large land ownership after Independence, the Treaty of Amritsar was termed null and void; and new laws were enacted for the protection of tenants and to give tillers rights to their land.
The first land reform measure was undertaken by then Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1950 when he passed the Big Land Estates Abolition Act, 1950 giving land rights to landless peasants. This was known as the ‘land to the tiller’ reform. A ceiling of 186 kanals (about 22 acres) on individual land holdings was placed through this law. Abdullah also oversaw the introduction of some landmark laws giving proprietary rights to people living/cultivating state land.
Abdullah, founder of J&K National Conference, passed the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms Act in 1976 where the upper limit for landholding was further reduced to 12.50 acres. The law was enacted for the transfer of land to tillers subject to certain conditions, and for better utilisation of land.
Laws Amended After Abrogation Of Article 370
J&K’s laws witnessed extensive changes after 5 August 2019 when Article 370 was rescinded by the union government. Around 890 Central laws were extended to J&K, and 130 state laws were reapplied with modifications.
Nearly a year into J&K’s transition into a union territory, the Union ministry of home affairs on 26 October 2020 issued two orders dealing with amendments to more than two dozen state laws.
One of these, the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Fifth Order, 2020, enabled significant amendments in the existing land laws of J&K. As a result of these amendments, any citizen of India became eligible to buy land in the region—a right exclusively enjoyed by residents of the erstwhile state since 1927.
Four land laws were scrapped entirely: the landmark Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950; Jammu and Kashmir Alienation of Land Act, 1938; Jammu and Kashmir Common Lands (Regulation) Act, 1956; and Jammu and Kashmir Consolidation of Holdings Act, 1962.
In two other laws, the Jammu and Kashmir Land Grants Act, 1960, and the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms Act, 1976, the “permanent resident” clause was omitted. The Jammu and Kashmir Land Grants Act dealt with the mechanism of granting government land to lease-holders and others while the Agrarian Reforms Act pertained to “transfer of land to tillers” in the erstwhile state.
The 26 October order also inserted a sweeping provision in the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act of 1970. The act deals with the development of specifically designated areas in the union territory and a creation of a separate development authority for these areas.
The order inserted a new sub-section under section 3 of the law, which allows the government to allot separate enclaves of land for the armed forces by designating them as “strategic areas”. While these areas will be reserved for “direct operational and training requirements of armed forces”, they would not be subjected to the rules and regulations laid down under the development act.
Some of the amendments via the 26 October 2020 order also dealt with the encroachment of state land, and scrapped provisions to regularise encroachment if the encroacher cedes an equal amount of land to the government.
Legal experts in the Kashmir valley said it appeared that planning for the anti-encroachment drive had started years ago.
A J&K high court lawyer said laws and legal provisions that could have been a safeguard for those facing the bulldozer now were amended or scrapped in 2020.
In 1948, to tackle famine, Sheikh Abdullah had announced a ‘Grow More Food policy’ that encouraged people to take some portion of state land, with limited or partial rights. “These people are now getting notices from the present government to vacate the place, how are they encroachers when the land was provided by the government?” the lawyer asked.
Reversing A Law To Regularise Encroachments
In 2001, the J&K government passed the Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 or the ‘Roshni Act’, as it is popularly called, to generate Rs 25,000 crore by vesting ownership rights to encroachers on 20 lakh kanals of state land, about 2.5 lakh acres.
Introduced by the National Conference (NC) led by the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah, the law was meant to sell state-owned land at market prices to illegal encroachers, the revenue collected to be used to generate hydroelectric power in J&K, hence the name ‘Roshni’, or ‘light’.
The Act was repealed in 2018 after then governor Satya Pal Malik concluded that it had “not served” its purpose and was “no longer relevant in the present context”. The Act was struck down by the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh High Court on 9 October 2020.
The court declared all transfers of land under the law illegal, declared the controversial Roshni Act "unconstitutional" and directed that investigation into the land allotment scheme under it be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The government was asked to draft a plan to retrieve lands handed over under the Roshni Act.
A total of 6,04,602 kanals (75,575 acres) of state land had been regularised and transferred to occupants. This included 5,71,210 kanals (71,401 acres) in Jammu and 33,392 kanals (4,174 acres) in the Kashmir province.
According to the high court’s order, the identities of influential persons, including ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, government officials, police officers and businessmen, and their relatives or others holding benami properties for them, who had derived benefit under the Roshni Act would be made public within a period of a month.
The government said all land distributed under the scheme would be retrieved within six months. However, after six months, the UT administration filed a review petition seeking that the HC judgement be ‘modified’, claiming in a 4 December 2020 affidavit that striking down the law entirely would adversely impact several common people.
Almost 25 months later, the J&K administration started an extensive retrieval of Roshni land from occupants saying they are following the high court’s directives.
“The orders came from the high court to retrieve the land, we are just executing it,” said a top official from the J&K revenue department, asking not to be named.
Interestingly, the new circular came even though several review petitions challenging the Roshni Act judgement remain pending before the high court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
“The court definitely asked the government to retrieve the land but it didn’t tell them to bulldoze the structures,” said advocate Sheikh Shakeel, who practises in the high court. He said it was the government which informed the court that 22 lakh kanals (2.75 lakh acres) of land are under illegal occupation in the erstwhile state.
Shakeel said the court had sought a mechanism to retrieve state land, but the government then included other lands including kahcharai, etc.
The government maintained that the retrieved land is meant for various public purposes including developmental projects, playgrounds, village-centric amenities, industries, etc. Signboards regarding what the land is to be used for are erected immediately after the eviction drives, by revenue officials or by local self-government bodies.
While political parties said people were not being served prior notices and hearings were being avoided, the revenue department official said not a single “active” residential house had been demolished so far.
“We haven’t demolished an active residential house so far, even the active residents of influential persons have been spared as of now,” said the official.
According to the government, more than 20 lakh kanals (2,50,000 acres) of State land has been encroached by the people. The authorities have retrieved over 3.89 lakh kanals ( 19677.8373 hectares ) of encroached state-owned and kahcharai land in Kashmir and 23,000 hectares have been retrieved from encroachers in Jammu division.
The Target Of The Demolition Drives
The government has not demolished any residential buildings so far, and most of the land has been retrieved from commercial buildings and grazing land. The government has also not spared anyone including their own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians and former bureaucrats.
On 31 January, the government retrieved 23.9 kanals (nearly 3 acres) of state land from BJP leader and former deputy chief minister Kavinder Gupta in village Ghaink located in the Jammu region. The government also served a notice to senior BJP leader and former minister Abdul Gani Kohli, who has allegedly grabbed 16 kanals of state land in village Channi Rama, in Bahu tehsil of Jammu district. Colonel (retired) Mahan Singh and Prem Sagar Aziz, both BJP leaders, also faced similar action from the government.
In Kashmir division, the authorities demolished the guard room of senior National Conference (NC) leader Ali Muhammad Sagar’s house located near the Srinagar airport on 26 January. Fifteen kanals of “high-value” orchard land were retrieved from ex-finance minister and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Haseeb Drabu in South Kashmir’s Shopian district.
On 9 February, in Anantnag district of south Kashmir, the authorities seized a shopping complex built on state land by the BJP’s J&K vice-president Sofi Yousf and his brother Mushtaq Ahmad Sofi. The complex was then handed over to the rural development department.
The government also retrieved 1 kanal of kahcharai land in Kokernag, in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, from former Congress president Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed; and kanals and 7 marla of ‘shamlat’ (village commons) land in Shistergam village of South Kashmir, said to belong to PDP leader and former legislator Syed Farooq Andrabi, a close relative of PDP president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
On 2 February, the government demolished a shopping complex owned by separatist leader and former mirwaiz (the title for a chief preacher) of South Kashmir, Qazi Yasir. Over 40 kanals of land were retrieved from Srinagar’s famous Nedou’s Hotel. The Nedou’s Hotel belongs to the maternal uncle of National Conference president and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah.
According to a report, over 30 politicians of different political parties have been identified as encroachers on state land.
For The Poor, Livelihoods Under Assault
Poor occupants, mainly small shop-keepers, were not spared either.
On 7 February, Noor Mohammad Sheikh, a resident of north Kashmir’s Kunzer village, received a notice written in Urdu from the revenue department asking him to vacate the ‘state land’ that he was allegedly occupying, within four days.
The notice said, “If you do not vacate the building within four days, action will be taken against you, and you will be obligated to pay the cost of the demolition.”
In 2000, Sheikh had constructed a shopping complex on jayiz shamilaat land, also called the Dafa-5 Shamilaat. The complex had 10 shops, all rented out.
Ishfaq Ahmad, Sheikh’s son, told Article 14 that almost all shops constructed in this region, along the Narbal–Gulmarg highway, fall in the jayiz shamilaat land category.
Ahmad said over 20 families in the area were served a notice. All had constructed shops on the shamilaat land decades ago.
“The livelihood of hundreds of people are under assault. People have taken loans from banks to establish the small business units,” Ahmad lamented. “Where will they go?”
Article 14 contacted the revenue officer of Kunzer village, but he disconnected after hearing the question.
Similarly, on 1 February, authorities in Srinagar sealed 25 shops in Aftab market, in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area, which were built on private land. Most shopkeepers here were selling small electrical items and mobile accessories and belonged to poor families.
“We have been legal tenants of the shops since the 1970s and used to pay the rent to Srinagar Municipal Corporation from time to time,” said Aadil Ahmad, who has operated a mobile repairing shop for the last 30 years in Aftab market.
Eventually, the government allowed shopkeepers to resume their business the next day, following outrage over the sealing.
Demolition Even When A Matter is Sub Judice
In at least three cases, authorities seized or demolished a structure even though a dispute between the occupants and the State was sub judice.
The case of Junaid Ahmad Bhat was one of them.
Abdul Salam Bhat, Junaid’s father, told Article 14 they sensed that some “influential neighbours”, with some government officials, wanted to build a public road closer to the Bhats’ home, and had claimed that Bhat had illegally occupied State land. Bhat contested the claim in court.
“I approached a court in Anantnag praying that my houses shouldn't be touched if the government intends to construct the road,” the senior Bhat said.
The matter was sub judice for 16 months. Bhat claimed the State did not attend several hearings.
“I was praying for a stay order on the road but before the court could decide anything, the structure was demolished,” he said.
Deputy commissioner of Anantnag Basharat Qayoom and Dooru tehsildar Khalid Zafar rejected Bhat’s claims, and said the family had illegally occupied State land.
“There was a long-pending demand from residents to construct the road that was recorded already in revenue documents but encroached by the people including Bhat,” said Qayoom.
The official added that not only had Bhat encroached the land where the road should have been, but had also built his house on encroached land. The house was not demolished.
Qayoom said no structure encroaching State land had been demolished. “We have been very particular about it. The structure that was constructed on the road was demolished by the officials,” he added.
Revenue officer of Dooru Khalid Zafar told Article 14 that there was no direction from the court to give any sort of relief.
“The court has neither given a stay order nor was any direction given to us to stop the demolition of the structure,” Zafar said.
Notably, on 20 January 2023 the Supreme Court of India refused to stay the circular issued by the UT government regarding the demolition drive saying that such a stay order “will benefit” land-grabbers too.
"We are not passing any order today. You instruct them orally not to demolish any houses. But we will not grant a general stay.... others should not get benefit," the bench orally told the counsel of J&K, LiveLaw reported.
Interestingly, the SC on 5 January came to the rescue of around 50,000 people near Haldwani station in the northern state of Uttarakhand who were facing the threat of homelessness. The SC stayed the Uttarakhand high court’s decision ordering authorities to remove encroachments from railway-owned land in Haldwani.
‘I Took A Bank Loan To Construct Complex’
Srinagar Municipal Corporation documents clearly show that the land measuring one kanal (544 sq ft) was allotted to Wani by the SMC. Wani said he deposited Rs 42,50,000 and the land was allotted in the year 2007.
However he couldn’t take possession of the land despite paying the amount. “The J&K revenue department raised objections and claimed that the land belongs to their department,” Wani said.
After the high court’s intervention, Wani finally took possession of the land in 2012.
He received commercial building permissions from the competent authority (the SMC) in 2019 and constructed a complex. In February 2023, however, the tehsildar of south Srinagar, without serving a notice, sealed the building.
“I took a loan from the bank and constructed a complex. For three years I wasn’t disturbed by anyone but suddenly when the government decided to launch the anti-encroachment drive, I was targeted out of nowhere,” Wani said.
Article 14 contacted Ishfaq Ahmad Khan, tehsildar of Shalteng, but he didn’t respond to phone calls.
Wani approached revenue officials who wrote to the SMC commissioner to know the status of the land.
“Since the revenue department was party to the case, they knew the status of the case but still in order to drag the case, they wrote to SMC,” he said.
The SMC wrote a detailed response clarifying that the land belonged to the SMC and had been alloted to Adnan Manzoor Ahangar (Wani’s maternal cousin) on lease for 20 years in the year 2007. The allottee had been given final possession in 2012, but the lease deed had yet not been executed as the matter had been in continuous litigation, the SMC said.
Wani’s complex was eventually unsealed on 28 February after the “intervention” of top administration officials.
At least 10 shopkeepers across the Kashmir valley told Article 14 they did not receive a notice from the government before their shops were demolished.
Jammu-based lawyer Sheikh Shakeel said the tehsildar has to issue a notice. “Even if you have to remove any unauthorised occupant and leave him dispossessed, you have to comply with natural justice,” he said.
Citing the example of the Haldwani case, Shakeel said the Supreme Court had clearly said that the government “can’t throw them (people) out”.
Land Needed In Kashmir For Livelihoods
The government has said that around 20 lakh kanals of land were encroached in the erstwhile state, and they will retrieve it all. The retrieved land is being put under geo-tagging and geo-referencing which, according to officials, will help the authorities to keep a close watch and prevent further encroachments.
Experts and political analysts argued, however, that previous governments, including during the reign of Dogra rulers, had taken a very accommodative view of encroachers, keeping in view the poor availability of land in the former state.
The total area under agriculture in J&K, according to government figures, is 7.52 lakh hectares—3.9 lakh hectares in Kashmir, 3.49 lakh hectares in Jammu, also shrinking.
“There was no proprietary land for the people. They used to work like slaves in the agricultural fields of Dogra rulers and their zamindars, zailadars and checkdaars ( big landed estate holders),” said Raja Muzaffar Bhat, noted environmental activist and land revenue expert in J&K.
With the passage of time, some rights were granted, particularly when the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act was passed in 1948 by Sheikh Abdullah, “who had been fighting against the autocratic Dogra rule,” said Muzaffar Bhat.
Muzaffar Bhat argued that as there is no land available, the government should be more flexible and regularise the housing colonies established on government-controlled land.
“The population is increasing day by day, there are no jobs and other avenues, where will people go,” asked Muzaffar Bhat who is also the founder and chairman of J&K Right to Information (RTI) movement. “No one is against the anti-encroachment drive but the government should be after the land mafia who have encroached and grabbed thousands of hectares of land. Why go after poor people who own a shop or a house on government land?”
Under the Limitation Act 1963, the government cannot evict anybody who has been living on any State land for 30 years.
“Aren’t these central laws applicable in J&K?” he asked, stating that no land should be taken from occupants without a substitute being provided .
Syed Farooq Bukhari, 60, an expert on land revenue systems, pointed out that the encroachment did not take place overnight. “The government claims that people encroached 20 lakh kanals of land. But how did it happen? We must think about it,” Bukhari,a former secretary to the government of J&K, said.
He said that the different rulers from time to time encouraged people to grow more food by possessing land. “Even forest land was used to grow more food but the rulers were okay with it and they kept regularising the land—after all, land belongs to the people,” said Andrabi, the PDP leader.
Though the authorities halted the demolition drive on 11 February in the region, the future seemed bleak.
"Our shops have been unsealed, but we are unsure about the coming events," Aadil Ahmad said in a tense tone. "Much depends upon the official mood now. The threat is hanging over our heads like that sword of Damocles."
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(Auqib Javeed is an independent journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir.)