Over January and February 2023, residents of parts of India’s Jammu and Kashmir—formerly a State, now a federally-administered Union Territory—have been protesting what they see as overreach and intimidation, as the government has stepped up attempts to “take back” what it says is land that has been “illegally occupied.”
On Friday, February 24, members of the Jammu Kashmir Kisan Tehreek (JKKT), a farmers’ movement in the region, protested alongside farmers’ activists from other parts of the country at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar against the targeting of farmers and workers by the eviction drive. Speaking to NewsClick at the protest, a resident of the region said the government wanted to take land away from the farmers and give it to big industrialists, leaving farmers in misery. Another resident challenged the claim of the administration that the mafia was being targeted by pointing out that it was the poor who were the victims of these eviction drives.
The concerns raised during the protest reflect the anger and fear that residents feel about the drive which has been criticized as an attack on the homes, livelihoods, and rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The drive began after the Union Territory’s government released an order on January 9, calling for a removal of all encroachments on state-owned land. After sustained pressure from diverse sections of society, it was reportedly halted on February 11. However, uncertainty remains over the future.
Soon after the order was issued, the evictions began in earnest. On January 12, NewsClick reported the demolition of homes of nearly a dozen Gujjar-Bakerwal families. The tribal community is one of the region’s most marginalized communities. “These are nearly a dozen families who have been living here for the last 70 to 75 years, and we are witnessing this for the first time. They did not inform any of the families ahead of time, nor did they send any prior notice,” one of the affected persons said.
In the following weeks, the drive extended to farmers, traders, other sections, casting a pall of gloom across the region. On February 1, the situation turned tense in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area when the revenue department sealed over 20 shops, as reported by Kashmir Life, on the pretext that these had been illegally occupied. Officials said that the shops were built on encroached land, an accusation locals strongly deny, saying that they have been paying rent to the Srinagar Municipal Corporation since 1972.
Speaking to NewsClick in early February, 52-year-old Fayaz Ahmad talked about the junkyard had worked in for around three decades. “We earned livelihood for decades here. We have grown older working on collecting and selling scrap. There is no employment or future for us except in this scrapyard,” Ahmad told NewsClick. Days before, a bulldozer had demolished the wall of the scrapyard, and the workers were asked to evacuate the premises.
Meanwhile, the Lieutenant Governor of the region, Manoj Sinha had given the assurance that the drive would target the land mafia and big encroachers and would not hurt the marginalized.
The wide range of protests showed the extent of discontent. During a protest in the first week of February, Zahoor Ahmad Rather, general secretary of the JKKT, pointed to the deep unfairness of the demolition drives. “Those farmers who didn’t have even 2 malra of land (a traditional unit of measurement, 1 malra is approximately 0.00625 acres), first the authorities ran bulldozers on it and then took the land… The authorities are saying they want to recover land from land-grabbers, but they have now turned into big land grabbers themselves,” Rather said.
“We ask the authorities: if we have been living on this land for more than 50 years, why is this negative approach being initiated? [They should] give people their right to live, and desist from the land eviction and the demolition drive immediately,” Rather said.
Sheikh Ashiq, the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, an amalgam of business organizations in the Kashmir valley, told reporters at a press conference on February 2: “Every businessman is tense and in a state of shock and uncertainty. Some people who have valid revenue papers and leases are being labeled as encroachers.”
On February 4, people also resorted to stone pelting against the police in Jammu district after authorities demolished a commercial structure in the Malik Market area. Strikes and shutdowns were also organized against the move. On the same day, several properties in Srinagar, Budgam, Anantnag, and Baramulla were bulldozed. Amnesty International said in a statement on February 7, “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.”
Political parties in the region also vociferously opposed the eviction drive. Shortly after the drive began, former legislator and Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M) leader Mohamad Yousuf Tarigami said the administration was “blind towards the destruction of the livelihood of the rural poor.” The move, he added, was not only bound to render thousands of people roofless, but also divest many of cultivation rights. He said such orders had raised fears among the people about losing their land to the non-locals. He urged non-BJP political parties to come together and fight the move. Former Chief Minister and People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti called on people to take back their own land. “They would call us ‘anti-nationals’ before and now they are calling people ‘encroachers’,” she exhorted.
Residents of the region and observers refute the claim of the administration that this is merely an exercise to take land back from the mafia. They see it as a continuation of a project that began with the scrapping of the statehood status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 which led to it becoming a Union territory. In this process, the autonomy the Indian constitution had granted Jammu and Kashmir was also removed, along with protection the residents of the erstwhile State enjoyed in various areas. Since 2019, the authorities have enacted a series of new laws and put in place amendments that have allowed people from outside the region to become permanent residents and buy land in Jammu and Kashmir. These rights had been reserved for locals prior to 2019. Residents of the region thus see this drive as yet another attempt to bring about demographic change to the region.
Parts of Kashmir have observed shutdowns as recently as February 15, as reported by NewsClick and The Kashmir Walla, even though officials in the local administration have reportedly said that the demolition and eviction drives have been put on pause as of February 11. It still remains unclear whether this will be a temporary or a permanent respite for residents of the area, or whether demolitions will continue once media attention has moved on from the region.
Compounding the fear and anxiety that have accompanied the eviction and demolition drives is the news that, from April 1, property tax will be levied on all land that falls within municipal limits in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Politicians from the region, as well as residents, have criticized the move, arguing that, since those who live in the region have little or no say in how they are governed, this is an unfair move. They have argued, instead, that taxation can only come with political representation.
Speaking at the rally in Delhi on February 24, CPI(M) leader Tarigami summed up the spirit on the ground when he said, “You can try to coerce the people of Kashmir through bureaucratic means but the blood of Kashmiris is filled with the strength to struggle for justice and we will come forward to save our land.”
(With inputs from NewsClick)