J&K land laws: Many in Jammu too fear dispossession, says Radha Kumar

Radha Kumar, Government-appointed interlocutor for J&K, 2010
The Centre on Tuesday notified new land laws for Jammu and Kashmir, omitting “permanent resident” as a criterion and allowing outsiders to buy land in the region. Policy analyst and a specialist in ethnic conflicts and peace-building, Radha Kumar, who was among the three government-appointed interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir in 2010, discusses the implications of these changes with Aditi Phadnis. Edited excerpts:

The Centre has announced that any Indian can now buy non-agricultural land in Jammu and Kashmir. If identity is defined by the right to buy and sell real estate, why exclude agricultural land?

Let me deal with this question in several parts. Firstly, the home ministry has repealed all the J&K land laws that restricted ownership to permanent residents, even though Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have similar restrictions, as do Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. For the first time in Kashmir’s history, non-residents can buy land there.

Secondly, the distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural land applies all over India. As an Uttar Pradesh agriculturalist, for example, I can buy agricultural land in most parts of the country, but if I wasn’t classified as an agriculturist, I would not be able to do so. The new land laws seem to be unclear on whether only J&K domicile holders are entitled to buy agricultural land there. It may be that any Indian who is an agriculturist is now entitled to do so.

Thirdly, the J&K government can requisition agricultural land for several different purposes, including for the army and industry. They have set up a government-headed corporation for the purpose. In other words, the government has unrestricted power to commandeer and allocate agricultural land.

As to identity and land, yours is a rather provocative formulation. However, as mentioned above, India has several provisions for land reservation — not only have most of the Northwestern states passed such laws under Bharatiya Janata Party governments, but most of the Northeastern states have them too, under tribal reservation laws. Ladakh may also gain reservation rights under the Sixth Schedule, if that is applied as Ladakhis demand.

None of the states or communities that have land reservation have had their rights removed — so why is J&K being singled out? Given this singularity, it is difficult not to suspect that the reasons are political. The removal of J&K’s special status under Article 370 was clearly for a political purpose, though our government argued it was for security and developmental reasons. Security has not improved — indeed China has taken the opportunity to occupy parts of eastern Ladakh — and the economy is in a shambles.

All parties in the Valley have criticised the Centre’s move. In Jammu, too, there is marked lack of celebration. Why is that so?

Initially, many in Jammu welcomed the removal of special status, but they did not welcome the follow-up steps. There was considerable disquiet in Jammu over the domicile rules, unsurprisingly, since Jammu was the most affected. Around 80 per cent of the new domicile certificates that have been handed out are in Jammu.

With a primarily agricultural economy, many in Jammu fear dispossession and loss of livelihoods. Their problem is further compounded by the fact that any industry that invests is more likely to do so in peaceful Jammu than the volatile Valley, and so their risk of land loss to “development” is high. Jammu’s industry lost as much as the Valley’s did when mining contracts were sold to mainly non-resident companies. Already the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry seeks protection for resident companies that are ill-equipped to face competition from national companies.

You are a petitioner in the Supreme Court arguing that the reading down of Article 370 was illegal because people were not consulted. If the court rules that the Central move on Article 370 was wrong, surely all changes in J&K, including the right to buy land, will also be wrong. What happens then?

Yes, we are in the Supreme Court, arguing that the Presidential Orders and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of August 2019 are unconstitutional, since Articles 3 and 370 of the Indian Constitution mandate concurrence by the elected state government. We were also worried that the government might proceed with implementation even before the court decided on our petitions — though propriety demanded they should wait — so we had asked the court for a stay on implementation as interim relief.

The court replied that they could always turn the clock back, but I am doubtful. So many steps have been taken by the government — lakhs of domicile certificates have been handed out, over 160 central laws have been extended to the former state — and we are still waiting even to be heard. Will the court really decide on merits or are we faced with a fait accompli?

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