Kashmir-The Pioneering Agrarian Reforms

 “Sheikh Saheb! I have done my duty , now it is your responsibility.”

                                 ( The last words of a Martyr on 13 July 1931; Sheikh Abdullah, Atish-e Chinar)

After transfer of power from Maharaja to Sheikh Abdullah, the people gradually started clamouring for what had been promised to them during the freedom struggle and in the Naya Kashmir document amidst political uncertainties and constant goading by communal forces. Expectations of people, especially Kashmiri Muslims ran very high while resources were limited. Sheikh Abdullah took certain constitutional measures without  taking into consideration the democratic norms and the sensibilities of people from Jammu and Ladakh.The National conference had already adopted New Kashmir Document as a roadmap for the development of the State . The document was influenced by communist ideology. Apart from promising end of Maharaja rule, adult suffrage and government responsible to the legislature, it aimed at a socialist state, immediate abolition of  age-old feudal system, land to the tillers without compensation, and industrialisation of Jammu and Kashmir State. The reforms undertaken inter alia were resumption by the Government of all assignments of  revenue and abolition of  all Jagirs besides transfer of land to the tiller. Amendment to the  State Tenancy Act 1924 envisaged fixation of maximum level of rent, grant of protected tenancy, restrictions against all ejectments,  and, grant of occupancy rights to the tenants. Big Land Estates Abolition Act too was enacted which envisaged only 22 acres to be retained by each landlord, land above this limit to be transferred to the tiller (a person who tilled land with his own hands and was in cultivating occupation of such land), and cancellation of the right of ownership. No compensation whatsoever was given to the actual proprietors of the land. These agrarian reforms were pioneering and history-making and did not find a parallel in India or Pakistan. As late as 1971  these reforms were further amended reducing the entitlement. Nobody could own even half an acre of agricultural land unless he himself cultivated it and lived within 5 kms distance from it.

Sheikh Abdullah faced a roadblock when he sent these bills duly passed by the legislature to the then Sadre-Riyasat (as the governor was then known as) on 13 July 1949, coinciding with the Martyr’s day and did not get a positive response due to the conflicting interests of the Sadre-Riyasat who was son of Maharaja Hari Singh. Sheikh, known for his impatience and intolerance, resorted to deriding the authority of Sadre-Riyasat in public and announced the reforms undertaken in a public meeting in Lal Chowk. Naturally therefore his action invited the wrath of the communities affected by the order. Incidentally, despite Nehru being an avowed socialist and Indian National Congress being a follower of socialist agenda, no such extreme measures were undertaken due to the influence exerted by former rulers and the feudal lords. Even the Communists did not find it easy to implement land reforms in the states where they came to power later on. In Pakistan, too, the Communists faced the ire of  successive governments and were jailed on flimsy pretexts while  the writ of  ex-rulers,  Nawabs and Feudal Lords known as Waderas ran large.

Whatever the New Kashmir document may have contained, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah depicted a streak of autocratic nature from the very start. In 1951 all the members of the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent  Assembly except two were elected unopposed. This became a precedent for many more farcical elections to follow and  laid the foundation of  undemocratic ethos in the State. I have personally witnessed rigging in elections to the State legislature several times. In one of the  elections, when I was posted as a relieving agent by Ghazi Abdul Rehman, a candidate from Maharaj Gunj Constituency, I found many imposters, including minors, casting votes in lieu of absentee voters. Not only this, the sealed ballot boxes which were taken away for safe custody in rural areas were exchanged en route with other boxes having pre-stamped ballots in them under the protection of police. Worse still, the legacy of returning a large number of candidates as unopposed by the ruling party with the help of administration became a regular practice so much so in one of the  Parliamentary elections,  a sitting MP (three times a Cabinet Minister and Once an MP) was prevented by the Returning Officer from taking his oath and his nomination papers were rejected as incomplete on the same pretext because he had joined the opposition.

In his opening address to the Constituent Assembly on 5 November 1951, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah outlined four great tasks that lay before it viz a) to frame a constitution of Kashmir b) to decide the fate of royal dynasty c) to decide whether there should be any compensation paid to those who had lost their land through Landlord Abolition Act, and d) to declare its reasoned conclusion regarding accession (M J Akbar, Kashmir Behind the Vale).  With the  passage of time, the gap between the promises made and the performance increased sharply. Since Sheikh Abdullah represented India, the pro-Pakistan elements pinpointed the failures of the Government, fanned the fire of discontent among the masses, and simultaneously insisted upon an Islamic system which would assure Shariat Law as the only panacea. Constant propaganda from across the border further created disenchantment amongst the Muslim population of the valley. P N Bazaz writes, “Unfortunately the National Conference leaders were intolerant to the opposition . It was no way surprising or unexpected that as a result of the harrowing events which followed partition, secularism was at a discount, particularly with a large section of the State Muslims who opposed the new regime. The situation demanded the best qualities of head and heart; objective assessment, tolerance towards dissent, power of persuasion, sweat reasonableness, sense of history and calm attitude. But armed with absolute power, the new rulers in their impatience to convert public opinion to secularism , if need be by force and coercion did not hesitate to use extremely repressive methods and to violate many canons of social justice and principles of democracy. (Kashmir in Crucible)

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