Costly Land Reforms

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In the history of Kashmir, land to tiller is the biggest intervention that lacks parallels. But these proved very costly for Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was toppled and jailed as right-wingers in Congress dubbed the initiative communal, writes Dr Aijaz Ashraf Wani

A November 1949 photograph showing Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Prime Minister of J&K, ploughing in a field as part of his ‘Grow More Food programme’.

A November 1949 photograph showing Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Prime Minister of J&K, ploughing in a field as part of his ‘Grow More Food programme’.

As late as 1947, the peasantry of Kashmir was still labouring under medieval conditions as the princely order refused to dismantle the feudal agrarian relations. The state of J&K was a landlord-dominated society when British paramountcy over the princely state lapsed. There were about 13,000 landlords in J&K in 1947–8.

Out of them, 396 were the biggest landlords, called jagirdars, to whom were alienated the land and other revenues of a vast area yielding an annual revenue of Rs 566,313. (The jagir of the raja of Chinani, for instance, was 95 sq miles in area with a population of 12,000. His jagir was revoked and in return he was given a monthly allowance of Rs 300.) The area assigned to them was called jagir. The jagirdars were not owners of the land; they were, however, owners of the revenue of the areas assigned to them. Along with the alienation of land revenue, the state also transferred the people of the jagir to the control of the jagirdar.

The remaining 9,000 landlords comprised those landed magnates who, unlike the jagirdars, were owners of the land. They were called chakdars, and the land owned by them was known as chak. Each chakdar on an average owned around 73 acres of abi (paddy) land, excluding orchards and other lands classified under fuel and fodder resources. Besides the jagirdars and chakdars, there was also a class of cash grantees called mukarares, numbering 2,347. The number of landless peasants (called kashtkars) was around 300,000. (see Wolf Ladejinksy, Land Reforms: Observations in Kashmir) Apart from this, 250,000 peasants were part-tenants-part-owners; (ibid) that is, part of the land cultivated by them was actually under the possession/ownership of the jagirdars / maufidars / chakdars. From 1948 to 1950, the government took a series of steps to liquidate feudalism and relieve the peasantry from the burden of over-taxation and fear of arbitrary eviction.

Abolition of Jagirs

In April 1948, the government abolished the jagirdari and mukarare systems. Accordingly, the jagirs of 396 jagirdars and the cash grants of 2,347 mukarare holders were revoked. Further, 4,250 acres of land were transferred to landless tillers.

In October 1948, the government amended the State Tenancy Act 1924, reducing the rental payment by a tenant. He was now liable to pay not more than three-fourths of the produce in the case of irrigated land, and not more than two-thirds of the produce in the case of dry land, provided the tenancy holding exceeded 12 and half acres.

A pre-partion photograph showing the men and women busy in field harrowing.

A pre-partition photograph showing the men and women busy in field harrowing.

In case the size of holdings was 12 and a half acres or less, the landlord was entitled to one half of the produce. Also, by amending the law, fixity of tenure was granted to tenants in respect of tenancy holdings not exceeding 2 and 1⁄8 acres of irrigated land or 4 and 1⁄8 acres of dry land in the Kashmir province, and about double the size in Jammu province. Moreover, through this amendment, tenants were protected from arbitrary eviction without court procedures.

Kahtima-i-Chakdari

On 13 July 1950, the government announced, in the words of Brecher, ‘the most sweeping agrarian reform undertaken in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent since the partition’. (Brecher, Struggle for Kashmir, p 159) The announcement became a reality with the enactment of what is known as the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act on 17 October 1950. This legislation set a maximum limit of 22 and 3⁄4 acres on the holdings of landowners excluding orchards, fuel, and fodder resources and uncultivable wastelands.

Ownership rights of land in excess of this amount were transferred to the tiller. Importantly, the tiller did not have to pay any compensation to the original owner. Land belonging to the religious shrines of different communities, however, remained untouched. Also, to appease the politically powerful lamas (the Buddhist clergy), these reforms were not introduced in Ladakh. ‘Extremely interesting’, says Joseph Korbel, ‘was the provision for the confiscation of the property of the “enemy agents”, these agents being largely defined as persons who had expressed a desire to join Pakistan.’ (Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, p 211)

As a result of this drastic reform, by the end of March 1953, 188,775 acres of land had been transferred to 153,399 tillers, indicating that each peasant received thereof an average of 1.23 acres of land under this programme. (Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, p 212) The process of transfer of land continued. By the end of April 1953, 192,652 acres of land had been attested in favour of 160,939 tillers. In addition to this, more than 93,500 acres had come to be vested in the state. (Hindustan Times, July 17, 1953) According to an official document under the title Land Reforms in Jammu and Kashmir, issued by the Department of Information, J&K Government, in the late 1950s, in all 9,000 landowners were expropriated of their surplus land, amounting to about 450,000 acres, out of which ownership rights of around 230,000 acres were transferred to the tillers. The government also established collective farms on lands which were not distributed among the peasants. Collective farms were established at Gopalpora, Shalteng, and Harwan. By April 1953, 87,500 acres of land were government owned. (Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, 212)

Corruption in the administrative machinery and some loopholes in the scheme, such as the exemption of orchards from the ceiling limit and no distinction being made between the 22.75 acres of dry and irrigated/fertile land, and other such limitations, vitiated the effectiveness of the reforms in practice. Mir Qasim, who was actively associated with preparing the law, observed: “There were some lacunas in the land reform. We had fixed 182 kanals for both Kashmir and Jammu; although in Jammu the land fertility was low. Secondly, the landlords had been given the right to choose the area they wanted to retain. This gave a landlord the tool to extort money from his tenant on the threat that he would choose to keep his tenant’s portion of land with him. Thirdly, there were complaints that the implementation of the land reforms had been left to the whims of the corrupt bureaucracy. It was a revolutionary program which had fallen a prey to large-scale corruption.” (Qasim, My Life and Times, 45)

Sheikh Abdullah signing land to tiller ordinance. Aijaz Ashraf Wani Whither Governance? Kashmir

Sheikh Abdullah signing land to tiller ordinance.

Many other contemporaries concurred with Mir Qasim’s frank admission in saying that land reforms were executed by the local corrupt bureaucracy in favour of the rural aristocracy. In the words of Joseph Korbel, ‘many landless peasants received considerably less than the average (acres of land), because many local officials were given more and better land, sometimes even above the maximum.’ ((Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, 212)

The Statesman reported in its 28 August 1953 issue: “Experience has shown that what intended to be a free conferment of land on the tiller has usually involved him in great expense. . . . the distributing agencies as well as some of the landlords have become richer, as proprietors always selected the best land for their own use, tillers had to pay the cost of land to secure its exclusion from the proprietor’s unit. (Many Anomalies in Working of Land Reforms, August 28, 1953)

Speaking in the Constituent Assembly in March 1952, a prominent National Conference member, Rampiara Saraf, complained that ‘since the land reforms in the state were being implemented by a bureaucratic officialdom tillers have to pay bribes which in no case are less than the actual compensation.’ (Bazaz, History of Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir, 430)

Daniel Thorner, the agrarian historian and economist, who visited the valley in 1953, made a balanced critique of the land reforms: “Land reform in Kashmir has clearly done away with the jagirs, and has weakened the position of all the great landlords. It has distinctly benefited those individuals who, at the village level, were already the more important and substantial people. It has done the least for the petty tenants and landless labourers. These two categories being the largest in the countryside. (Daniel Thorner, The Kashmir Land Reforms: Some Personal Impressions, in Economic and Political Weekly, No 37 (1953[0]), 999–1002)

Clearly, as observed by PK Bardhan in the case of land reforms in India as a whole, ‘laws were frequently enacted with deliberate loopholes and tell-tale exemptions designed to induce fictitious transfers of land to close and distant relations and to keep the permissible retentions high.’ (Bardhan, The Political Economy of Development in India, Oxford University Press, 1984)

Taking advantage of the deliberate limitations in the law, the landlords devised their own ways to defeat the purpose of the law. For example, in order to evade resumptions, they showed their families as having broken up into separate households, which entitled each adult male to the limit of 22.75 acres. (Robert I Crane, ed., Area Handbook on Jammu and Kashmir State, University of Chicago Press, 1956, 361) Likewise, since the act exempted orchards from appropriations, it paved the way for big landlords to escape the ceiling by converting cereal acreage into orchards. It is, therefore, no wonder that in the neighbourhood of old Srinagar, for example, we find thousands of kanals of land being owned by the descendants of the Dogra bureaucratic class. (A number of orchards bhags (gardens), for example, Dhar Bagh, Sikh Bhag, Bata Bhag, Mirza Bhag, Miskeen Bagh, Chai Bagh, Pandit Bagh, and Sahani Bagh, on the periphery of old Srinagar were owned by the erstwhile Dogra bureaucracy.) Indeed, a large number of peasants still continued to be landless tillers working on the lands of these landlords who, besides having 182 kanals of abi land, now possessed huge orchard lands.

Despite these limitations, the act was a progressive measure. It signalled a new era of peasant emancipation and marked the beginning of the ultimate liquidation of the feudal set-up in the state.

Thousands of peasants previously living in virtual slavery became landholders. Moreover, as Wolf Ladejinsky observed, whereas virtually all land reforms in India lay stress on elimination of the Zamindari [large estates]system with compensation, or rent reduction and security of tenure [for tillers], the Kashmir reforms call for distribution of land among tenants without compensation to the erstwhile proprietors … [and]whereas land reforms enforcement in most of India is not so effective, in Kashmir enforcement is unmistakably rigorous. (Ladejinksy, Land Reforms, 179–80)

However, in parts of the Jammu region and among the Kashmiri Pandits, who were the main beneficiaries of feudalism, the land reform ‘catalysed a tenacious movement of social and political reaction’. (Bose, Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, 2003, 28) The land reform was dubbed as anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim.

This is rubbished by Mir Qasim, the secular-progressive former chief minister of Kashmir. As deputy minister in Sheikh Abdullah’s government, Mir Qasim was associated with the programme of land reforms: “After the law was enacted, problems came to the surface and criticisms were made—some genuine, some motivated. The gravest charge, though not well-founded, was that the land reforms were designed to pass on the land of Hindu landlords to Muslims. The critics conveniently ignored the fact that this law equally applied to Muslim landlords and that a large number of Hindu tillers, especially Harijans, in Jammu benefited from it.” (Qasim, My Life and Times, 44)

Aijaz Ashraf Wani Whither Governance? Kashmir

Aijaz Ashraf Wani

Sheikh Abdullah was also distressed to see his reforms being given a communal colour rather than being appreciated for their progressive nature: “The exploiters of this state and their supporters in the Centre did not like our land reforms. Sardar Patel especially opposed these reforms. The main reason for this opposition was that the Hindu Jagirdars of state had made him to believe that these reforms were carried out to satisfy the sentiment of our religious fanaticism as most of the landlords affected by these reforms were non-Muslims. With the help of the statistics I tried to satisfy Sardar Patel that there is no question of religious fanaticism involved in introducing these reforms as the jagirdars as well as the tenants belonged to both the communities. But Sardar Patel could not be motivated and he continued opposing these reforms. However, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were in favour of these reforms.” (Abdullah, Aatash-i-Chinar, 493)

Although Sheikh Abdullah tried to convince his opponents that the agrarian reforms, far from being driven by any communal agenda, were motivated by the desire to legitimize his political preference (of supporting accession) by economic logic, they could not be convinced. According to (YD) Gundevia, the foreign secretary during Nehru’s government, Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal was a conspiracy hatched by the ‘reactionary elements’ in the Home Ministry to see him out of power before the Kashmir constitution sanctioned the ‘no compensation’ part of the Big Estates Abolition Act. (The Testament of Sheikh Abdullah, 1974)

Mir Qasim also corroborates Gundevia’s account, saying, ‘in my opinion these land reforms were the beginning of the mistrust between New Delhi and Sheikh Abdullah’. (Qasim, My Life and Times, 44)

(The piece was excerpted from author’s book ‘What Happened to Governance in Kashmir?’ which Oxford University Press published recently)

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