Fortnightly Feature- Settler-colonialism on steroids as India and Israel team up in Kashmir

India changing land laws in Kashmir to alter the demography

On a cold winter morning in the Bandipora region of Kashmir, Jaana walks barefoot on snow-covered leaves toward her cowshed to feed her animals. She spends hours there with the cows, as the place is much warmer compared to her tin shed, where she lives all by herself.

The Indian occupation forces have killed Jaana’s two sons. The oldest, Mushtaq, joined the resistance movement and was killed in a gunfight in 1992. Her younger son, Faisal, was detained at the local army camp for questioning following a raid. She never saw him again.

Now, with a small orchard in her name that a neighborhood fruit contractor takes care of, she spends her days with her animals, talking to them in her own love language. The meager amount she earns from around 18 trees is spent on caring for the animals. Jaana doesn’t want much from the world. But the world around her wants much more from her.

“Last month, people from the government came and told me that the land belongs to some Pandit man and that I am illegally encroaching on it,” Jaana says, ignorant about the changing political environment around her. “My family has lived here for centuries,” she says, not knowing where the papers for the land are or what they mean. She can’t read or write.

The revenue records for the land on which Jaana lives, along with the land that 18 other families inhabit, have been claimed by an overseas Kashmiri Pandit as his ‘ancestral property’. The revenue records in the department read “documents missing.” Sources in the department say that many revenue records were ‘lost in fire and floods in 2014’.

After abrogating the remnants of the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and illegally annexing the region in 2019, India immediately resorted to an offensive on the disputed region’s laws, particularly laws related to land and citizenship. With one government order being issued daily on average, the policy of taking land and accusing citizens of being “illegal encroachers” has increased at an alarming rate. 

Experts fear that these rapid changes in land laws “point towards a full-fledged settler colonialism project that aims to push out the native Muslim Kashmiris and give the land to outsiders.” They say, “it appears to be on steroids for now.”

In the last two years, the government has not only canceled land allotment of Kashmiri businesses and put this property up for auction to outsiders but also taken over institutions like the Kashmir Press Club and taken the land into its possession.

The same policy can be deployed for hotels in popular tourist spots like Gulmarg and Pahalgam, where local laws mandate that land be leased. The hoteliers who leased this land and built multi-crore hotels see themselves in a fix now, as the government refuses to extend their lease and has started taking over hotels.

“Businessmen from Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat have already been doing rounds in Gulmarg, identifying hotels they want to take over. We are powerless against them because it is a nexus of corporates and Indian politicians and bureaucrats out to loot Kashmir. We went door to door to get our lease extended, but the government isn’t willing to listen to anything we say,” a local hotelier who wishes to be anonymous says.

“The exact same thing is happening in Pahalgam and Sonmarg and at unknown places where forest huts are built near water bodies. No one can question them. They have become like Gods who change realities by the writing of their pens,” the hotelier says. 

The settler colonial project launched by India has picked up the pace with the change in particular land laws that have opened the doors to Indian businessmen into Kashmir.

With Jammu and Kashmir’s Land Grants Rule of 2022 replacing the existing J&K land grants rule of 1960, online outsourcing of lands that were leased by the permanent residents of J&K ended their right to hold the land. The existing land grants rule had an easy policy with the 99 years lease period and was extendable. Business establishments and hotels operating at tourist places were operating on the leased lands but now face eviction.

The change in the land laws began after the unilateral abrogation of what was left of articles 370 and 35A with the introduction of the J&K Reorganisation act 2019.

The Indian administration in Kashmir started by repealing 12 land regulations, including the renowned Big Land Estate Abolition Act 1950, which in the opinion of experts, helped to eradicate landlordism and pave the path for rural prosperity in the former state. Experts had warned that repealing the law could lead to a ‘neo-jagirdari’ system.

The Jammu and Kashmir Tenancy Act 1980, which had delayed all applications or actions related to evicting tenants, was another key statute that was abolished.

Among these 12 laws no longer in force are ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Alienation of Land Act, 1938’, ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Prohibition on Conversion of Land and Alienation of Orchards Act, 1975’, ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Consolidation Of Holdings Act, 1962’, ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Flood Plain Zones (Regulation and Development) Act’, ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Land Improvement Schemes Act,’ ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Prevention Of Fragmentation Of Agricultural Holdings Act’, ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Right Of Prior Purchase Act’, ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Utilisation Of Lands Act’ and ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Underground Public Utilities (Acquisition Of Rights Of User In Land) Act’.

The offensive operations to change laws do not only aim at grabbing resource-rich land but also settling outsiders as permanent residents on these lands.

Hafsa Kanjwal, a historian who teaches at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, writes, “India’s plan of demographic change in Kashmir begins with a change in certain laws, instead of a more widespread ethnic cleansing, which could potentially render international condemnation.”

She further added, “this is just the beginning. Now that more Indian businesses and corporations can operate in Kashmir, the number of those claiming domicile will steadily increase.”

A change in the existing Domicile Act has made it possible for outsiders who aren’t native to Kashmir to be eligible for government jobs and get permanent residency. In March 2020, the government of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) redefined domicile rules for Kashmir.

By June of the same year, over 25,000 people had already been granted domicile certificates under the new rules. These people now have the ability to apply for jobs, buy land, vote, and own property in Kashmir.

Apart from this, the clause “permanent residents” has now been removed from all existing legal provisions in Section 17 of the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act, which deals with land disposal in the union territory, allowing outsiders to purchase land in the disputed region, that political parties, locals and resistance leaders term as “demographic change.”

The laws to facilitate settlement which were amended, including the alteration of the definition of domicile and the inclusion of a new provision in the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act. This new section empowers the Indian government to declare an area a ‘strategic area’ for what it calls ‘operational and training purposes’ upon the written request of an Indian Army officer.

The government has also established a brand-new entity called the J&K Industrial Development Corporation to promote corporate farming, attract investment, and speed up industrial development, in accordance with the Jammu and Kashmir Industrial Growth Act.

The Land Grants Rule 1960 was among the 14 laws that were amended under the reorganization act. The ruling removes a clause from the Jammu and Kashmir Land Grants Act that allowed for the cancellation of a land lease without compensation if a ‘non-resident’ was introduced as a promoter or member of a society.

The new Land Grants Rule 2022 also demanded the outgoing lessees, except those having residential lands quickly hand over the leased land to the government; failing to do so, they will face immediate eviction. The rule also stated that the leases shall not be renewed and remain determined.

While the Indian administration has called this move “necessary for the welfare of the people,” it has received criticism in Kashmir, with people calling it a part of the settler-colonial project akin to Israel’s control of Palestinian territory.

The comparison isn’t out of the blue. Indian diplomats have repeatedly called for replicating the Israeli model in Kashmir. Months after India annexed Kashmir in 2019, Sandeep Chakravorty, India’s consul-general to New York, told Kashmiri Hindus and Indian nationals that India would build settlements modeled after Israel for the return of the Hindu population to Kashmir. Chakravorty asked those present to give the government time to implement its plans in the valley.

Already, Israeli firms have been conducting surveys of border regions to ‘set up farms’ near the region of Kashmir that borders Pakistan. The Attache at the Embassy of Israel in India, Yair Eshel, and the Director of the Agriculture Department in Jammu, KK Sharma, recently said that Israel would open two Centres of Excellence (CoE) in Jammu and Kashmir as part of the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project (IIAP).

In October, Grain, an international non-profit organization that supports small-scale farmers and social movements, released a report in which it argued that Israel’s “agro-diplomacy” across the globe was not merely an entry point for arms deals, it was also very difficult to extricate the agricultural from military pursuits.

In a report, Middle East Eye quoted Apoorva PG, Asia-Pacific coordinator for the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) National Committee, saying that Israel’s CoEs were fundamental ‘propaganda platforms that greenwash Israel’s apartheid and settler colonialism in Palestine’.

The CoEs also support the attempts of Indian authorities and corporations to alter the land use and demography of Kashmir. “The move directly affects the region’s demography and borrows from Israeli control paradigms in the occupied territories,” Apoorva PG said.

With Israel and India coming together in Kashmir to manage a full-fledged seller colonialism project, the development has not raised any serious concerns overseas. Governments and human rights organizations have seemed to give India a free pass in doing what the international community classifies as ‘war crimes’, ‘crimes against humanity’, and ‘genocide’ in its own rule book.

Meanwhile, back in Bandipora, Jaana fears for the well-being of her animals. “If they take away my land, where will my cows feed. I worry for them, they are the only friends I have who listen to what I feel,” she says, as it is time for her to return to her cold tin shed.