In 1949, when Jammu and Kashmir got autonomy under Article 370, its residents acquired sovereignty over a crucial resource: land. This was especially important to the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley. Under the Dogra kings who had ruled Jammu and Kashmir till 1947, the landowners in Kashmir were largely Hindu; those who tilled the land Muslim. For decades, land rights had been entwined with Kashmiri political aspirations, entering assertions of identity and protests against the extractive Dogra state.

In 1954, Article 35A was applied to Jammu and Kashmir, sealing its special status. Under this law, the state legislature was empowered to define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir and reserve for them certain rights, including the right to own land in the state.

With these protections in place, the state embarked on decades of reform aimed at transferring “land to the tiller”. Vast feudal estates were abolished, land ceilings fixed and land redistributed to those who tilled it. Public rights to commons were established.

Kashmir was transformed. Most of its rural population moved from poverty and starvation to self-sufficiency. With greater prosperity came greater political power for rural families. Many also started migrating to the cities, swelling urban centres. Since the 1990s, land and food security has also given ordinary Kashmiris the resilience to protest against the Indian state. The yields from the land sustained them through long months of “hartal” or shutdown. Land rights, as author Tassaduq Hussain put it, became the “backbone of Kashmiri identity”.

From permanent residents to domiciles

The decisions of August 5 struck a blow to these rights. Article 370 was gutted and with it, Jammu and Kashmir’s separate constitution. Article 35A was repealed, laying Kashmiri land open to outside buyers and investors.

The Centre argued that industrial development would finally enter the Valley, lucrative land deals would become possible. Soon after the August 5 announcements, the Maharashtra government promised to buy land in Kashmir. Real estate developers speculated if it would be feasible to do so.

In Kashmir, the changes were greeted with dread. Many feared that with agricultural land diverted, the old self-sufficiency would disappear. The opening up of Jammu and Kashmir was seen as a path to “slow demographic change” in the Muslim-majority Valley.

Then in March, the Centre suddenly announced a new set of rules. Permanent residents were replaced with domiciles of Jammu and Kashmir. Anyone who had lived in Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years, studied there for seven years or written school board examinations was eligible to own land and hold government jobs. Exemptions were also made for a range of central government employees and their children.

If these rules were meant to address fears of demographic change, they failed. They were sprung in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, once again without consulting local stakeholders.

It does not help that government policies this past year have focused on reserving land for outside investors and armed forces. If there are any benefits to local residents or businesses, they are not evident yet.

Easing land transactions

One of the first policy decisions taken after August 5 was the creation of a new registration department under a Central law which now superseded the Jammu and Kashmir Registration Act of 1977. This was apparently done to ease land transactions.

Under the state law, the judiciary held the power to register land transactions while the Jammu and Kashmir law department had overall administrative control of them. The chief justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court was the inspector general of registrations.

The new department of registrations functions under the revenue department and the financial commissioner for revenue became the inspector general of registration.

The local legal community was up in arms. By removing land transactions from judicial scrutiny, the government had made them opaque and susceptible to irregularities, they argued.

In another matter, however, the government showed great concern for irregularities. The administration plans to reclaim 1 lakh hectares of state land and village commons encroached on by local residents. These encroachments, which had become status quo over time, were marked as “illegal entries” in the land records. People occupying such land were issued eviction notices.

Land banks for investors

State land has increasingly been consolidated for industrial investment. Potential investors, however, will only be allowed to lease land in Jammu and Kashmir. As of February this year, the government had identified 6,000 acres as a “land bank” to woo prospective investors. About 1,500 acres of this is in the Kashmir Valley. This is in addition to large swathes of land already parcelled out to investors under 99-year leases over the last few decades.

On July 24, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu approved the transfer of 1,205 acres of state land to the Industries and Commerce Department so that 37 industrial estates could be set up.

Officials have said they hope to see film cities and information technology firms in the Valley, apparently oblivious to the irony that Kashmir has had no high-speed internet for a year.

Outside investors seem to be preferred. Investment summits were planned in Srinagar and bureaucrats conducted “road shows” across the country, explaining why Jammu and Kashmir was an investment paradise. Almost 70% of mining contracts, for instance, have gone to non-local businessmen. Before August 5 last year, they would not have been eligible to bid for mining blocks in Jammu and Kashmir.

Since December, about 200 mineral blocks along the Jhelum river in Kashmir were opened for bidding online. With the internet blockade still in place in Kashmir, local businessmen could not even place their bids.

Back in 2016, the army was to vacate Anantnag High Ground in South Kashmir.

Strategic areas for armed forces

Arguably the most significant change to land laws is the “special dispensation for carrying out construction activities in Strategic Areas”, introduced on July 17. The Control of Building Operations Act, 1988, and the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act, 1970, were amended under the dispensation. Neither amendment has been made public yet.

According to the scant official information available, the amendments give the government powers to notify certain places as “strategic areas.” Once notified, construction activity here will be regulated by a special body formed by the government. Effectively, it restricts the control of civilian authorities over areas deemed “strategic” for the armed forces.

“The move is aimed at simplifying the procedures and shall facilitate time bound development of infrastructure of strategic importance,” said a government press release on July 17.

After the move rang alarm bells in the Valley, a follow up statement on July 19 explained “strategic areas” were “required by armed forces for their direct operational and training requirements”. The decision, according to the government, was taken after security forces had complained of “cumbersome and time-consuming” bureaucratic hurdles to construction activities. This even went against “strategic interests”, the forces had reportedly claimed.

The statement also lashed out at “mindless misrepresentations and misgivings”. The notification had nothing to do with the transfer of new land to the armed forces. It only gave them greater freedom for construction in “existing Armed Forces land”.

Yet “Armed Forces land” in Kashmir had been leased from the local government and residents all these years. In many areas, the appearance of new army camps became a source of local grievance as residents complained their lands were confiscated, not leased out by choice. Many said they had received no remuneration for the land transferred to the army.

Kashmiri women walk past an army camp in North Kashmir's Bandipora district soon after a gunfight between militants and security forces in September 2016.

In 2018, then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti revealed that over 4.30 lakh kanals, or 53,750 acres, of land was occupied were under the “unauthorised occupation” of security forces in what was then the state of Jammu and Kashmir. After the Ladakh division was hived off, about 21,399 acres of this land is in the new Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2016, when Kashmir’s last elected government was still in power, the armed forces had been directed to vacate some areas. That process appears to have ground to a halt.

In a separate move, the government also eased norms for the armed forces to acquire land in Jammu and Kashmir. A circular issued on July 24 stated that a “no objection certificate” from the Jammu and Kashmir home department was no longer required for land acquisition for the armed forces.

The order had to be passed after the Central land acquisition law was extended to Jammu and Kashmir after August 5. Under the Central law, the “appropriate government” is empowered to acquire land for “strategic purposes”. In Union Territories, the Central government is authorised to sign off on such land acquisition.

These measures have eroded the local administration’s authority to regulate land held by armed forces. That the balance had been tipped in favour of the armed forces became evident this June. While the Jammu and Kashmir government had once accused security forces of occupying unauthorised land, the army now accused government departments of “encroachment” on defence land in Ganderbal district.

This is the fifth part in a special series on the legacy of the sweeping changes made by the Modi government to the status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Read the full series here.