Trajectory of Land Reforms in J&K and its Outcomes

Tushar Gupta


Land reforms in Jammu & Kashmir did not prove to be effective in addressing poverty mitigation and the removal of inequality emerging from land ownership. The reforms ended up becoming little more than a political gimmick. The analysis in this paper has been divided into three trajectories and development within each has been elaborated. The paper attempts to analyse the geopolitical situation at the national and international level and its relation to land reforms in the state. The impact of the Separatist movement on state economy in light of the land reforms has also been addressed.

A. Background

A1. National Land Reform Debate

The National land reform debate was based on the assumption that if the land is redistributed it will lead to more equity and alleviate poverty which emerged from landlessness (Besley, 2000). The debate followed from the pre-independence debates in All India Congress Committee (AICC).

A2. Land Reform Trajectory in J&K
A2.1. Pre 1947

Land was part of common property resource before the 12th century in J&K. With the end of the 12th century came monarchy in the state, meaning land was thus owned by the successive kings or the state. The state-owned land was termed as “Khalsa”. King was the supreme authority and land was allotted to the peasants on request after a payment of fixed rent. The remaining land was with army chiefs, subedars and taluqdars (Bhat, 2000).

 With the beginning of the 19th century, rulers tried to marginalise the landed autocracy and dealt directly with the cultivator.  This effort was thwarted by the powerful chieftains, leading to the creation of Jagirs, Munafiqs, Mukarraries.

Post 19th century with the British coming into the picture of modern India, Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu signed the “Treaty of Amritsar” with them and paid a sum of Rs 75 lakh (Nanak Shahi) for purchasing the state of J&K.  Now the ownership of the land vested with the Maharaja of Jammu. Residents of the Kashmir valley were called “Assamis” who had to pay besides land revenue, Malikaana in recognition of his being the owner of the land. The state-appointed the exploitative land agents called “kardars” who dealt directly with the peasants.

The exploitative process continued till the entry of Sheikh Abdullah who fought for the rights of Assamis. In 1931 Abdullah started a movement against the Raja for recognition of the land rights with popular support of the masses. Raja was thus forced to set up a Commission under Englishman BJ Glancy to look into the matter.  The main suggestion of the report was to transfer land to the cultivators who were till then tenants at the will of government-owned lands (Galancy, 1933). The success of the movement comes from the point that the then PM of J&K Colonel Colvin asked for the acceptance of the recommendations.

A2.2. Post 1947

1947 called for the need to look into the land reform question again. Though the recommendations of the Glancy commission were accepted, the jaghirdars and chakdars who till then had the status of tenants-at-will acquired vast areas of land by exploiting the poor villagers. They manipulated the poor farmers and accumulated a lot of lands. The condition of farmers in J&K was still of a “serf” in the medieval world. Sheikh Abdullah came in with the demand of reorganisation of agriculture on modern lines to raise the consciousness of these peasants so that the society could shift from medieval to modern.

Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession in 1947 and Sheikh Abdullah became the PM of the state in 1948. He was determined to abolish landed aristocracy along the lines of his “New Kashmir manifesto (1944)” which was a blueprint for a futuristic welfare state. He came up with the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950 to supplement the success achieved in 1931 and to undo the ills of the system. This act provided for the ceiling on property at 22.75 acres (182 kanals), surplus land to be transferred to the tiller without payment, fixation of the ceiling at 160 kanals and land in possession of no one, to be taken by the state (Saxena, 2007).

Enforcement of the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950 led to the dispossession of 4.5 lakh acres of land which was concentrated in only 9000 landowners (Aslam, 1977). To further reinforce the reform process and focus on the tiller, the Government of J&K set up a Land Commission in 1963. The report of the commission formed the basis of the J&K Agrarian Reform Act of 1972. This Act ended the rights in the land of those who personally never cultivated, and also reduced the ceiling limit to 12.5 acres which ended the Tenant-Landlord relationship completely. It was not in consonance with some landlords who depended heavily on income from the land and wanted to cultivate personally but couldn’t. Hence the act was replaced by the Reforms Act 1976 which fixed a ceiling of 12.5 standard acres including orchards with certain conditions. It kept the option for the petty landlord to resume for his personal cultivation on that fraction of his holdings which is equal to the fraction of that produce which he was recovering as rent from the tenant.

Table: Land Transferred to the Tillers in J&K from 1951-52 to 1980-85

Sl. no. Year No of Tillers Land transferred (in Acres) No of beneficiaries
1 1951-52 30,418 92,927 2,98,922
2 1952-53 50,189 66,755 1,70,165
3 1953-54 32,260 36,915 1,15,831
4 1980-85 3,08,000 1,06,000 5,38,000
Total 4,20,867 3,02,301 11,22,918

Source: Rekhi, 1993

A2.3. Post 2000

“The Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act” was enacted by the government in 2001. This Act, commonly known as the Roshni Act aimed at generating Rs. 25,000 crore by transferring ownership rights of ‘Nazool land’ or in other words, state land. The idea was to sell the state land at market rates to the people who had illegally encroached upon it. The idea, however, couldn’t be carried forward due to political reasons. Later in 2007, the Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Congress government with an eye on 2008 assembly elections reformed the bill which now provided free ownership of 16.6 lakh kanals, land worth Rs. 20,000 crores targeting 19 lakh cultivators. Land occupying farmers were to pay a nominal fee of Rs 100 per kanal to get the land transferred in their name. The land was given at a rate of 10 percent of the existing market rate. However, the land was also given for residential and commercial use under the act which led to various irregularities. The irregularities and the Roshni Scam have been discussed separately in section-D of the paper.

B. Geopolitics of J&K and its Impact on land Reform

Korbel (1954) brings about the basic reason for exhaustive land reforms in J&K. According to him, these reforms were introduced to counter the demand of plebiscite made by Pakistan. Hence ending the feudal aristocracy and giving land to the landless at that particular point of time would ensure winning the hearts of the people of Kashmir. The question attached is, why, the elite responsible for the implementation of reforms in the state chose India over Pakistan? He answers the question by saying that the elite was sure of the fact that their radical agenda of bringing about reorganisation in the agricultural structure will not be possible in feudal Pakistan.

Ankit (2010) brings about the transition of the Kashmir issue from a regional conflict to a national question to an international concern. The year 1948 was crucial in changing the entire nature of J&K. Indirectly both the superpowers during the cold war era were interested in the Kashmir question. Americans wanted to control the Kashmir area indirectly to tackle the Soviet Union and their control from Turkey to Tibet. The Soviet Union never wanted to let go of the area as it would then act as a standstill to the spread of Communism down towards South East Asia. This argument explains the international importance the area got. The question was thus never of development but of geopolitical influence. Hence the State got entangled between national, regional and international questions and land reforms were never capitalised.

B1. Role of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah [Divergence of J&K’s Land Reform Approach from National Approach]

As brought about by Korbel (1954), the idea of land reform in Kashmir was to deviate from the demand of plebiscite by Pakistan. From his argument, I infer that there was Indian National machinery involved during the process. Motilal Nehru, father of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was himself from Kashmir. Pt. Nehru knew all about the political dynamics in the state. The man of the moment who could implement the cause was Sheikh Abdullah himself. Prasad (2014) talks about the bent of mind people had during that time, ‘people were neither pro-Pakistan nor pro-India they were just pro Shiekh because of his untiring implementation of radical agrarian reforms’. The sole legal reason why land reforms were successful was a special status J&K enjoyed under Article 370.

Nehru-Abdullah Agreement was signed in July 1952 which is also known as the Delhi agreement after his speech in the Lok Sabha on 26 June 1952 which confirmed that “the residuary powers of legislation” (on matters not mentioned in the State List or the Concurrent List), which Article 248 and Entry 97 (Union List) confer on the Union, will not apply to Kashmir. This addresses the question of the role played by Nehru and Sheikh in the implementation of the land reform.

One major point where Sheikh’s role is seen of critical importance is that the protest against the land reform in the state came only from the Dogra ruler and people. Surprisingly Kashmiri pandits who formed just 5 percent of the population of Kashmir but had 30 percent of the land with them never protested.  Pandits were suppressed by giving them 10 percent reservation in the administrative jobs (Rai, 2004).

Addressing the question of how the land reforms in J&K were different from that in the nation was in terms of the question of Article 370. Article 370 gave the state of J&K interim provision of not granting fundamental rights to the citizens in order to bring about the vision of New Kashmir Manifesto. Hence when Benami transfers and locking of property in courtrooms was taking place in the rest of the country, Kashmir land reforms became a success story. “The success of the Act of 1950 can be very well appreciated from the fact that out of 9.5 lakh acres of land distributed throughout the country till 1970, about half (i e, 4.5 lakh acres) was distributed in J&K alone” (Verma, 1994).

B2. Water Treaties

Alleviation of poverty was one of the main aims of land reform at the national level. Land reforms were of drastic success in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. One state which was comparable to that of J&K was Kerala. The human development index figure of 2007-08 Kerala is at 0.790 while J&K lags behind at 0.529. Two main reasons why the first phase of land reforms in the state couldn’t take off are political issues of the occupation of land and restrictions on the use of state water use (Government of Jammu & Kashmir, 2006).

One of the main factors to supplement the land reforms and to achieve its goal of poverty alleviation is the creation of necessary infrastructure, for example, irrigation which requires water. By signing Indus water treaty in 1960 with Pakistan, India could use only 20 percent water of the Indus basin. Most of this water is used for irrigation in Punjab and its agricultural production is a hit. Here there was a compromise on the Nehruvian and Sheikh vision of land reform in J&K and the international pressure. All the three rivers which drain the state of J&K (Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) were handed over in the treaty and the states right as Upper Riparian party were not protected as the treaty places a restriction on both the use of water for irrigation and for harnessing power. According to the treaty, the flow of water cannot be interrupted or reduced by building a reservoir (Navlakha, 2007).

The first phase of the land reform would have had an altogether different impact had the Indus Treaty not been signed and some amount of political willpower been shown.

B3. Role of Separatist Movements

The Separatist movement was a result of chaos and confusion. Poverty and Landlessness which land reforms were to address, when couldn’t be taken care of, manifested itself in the movement. Masses with no education were mobilised by the elite in a different direction altogether and thus the debate shifted from land reforms and development. Post-1987 which was the start of the separatist movement in Kashmir, people on call resorted to the politics of boycotting elections, which was undemocratic as in a democracy elections are regarded as one of the main steps towards social change. The entire idea of land reforms which is to increase self-sufficiency and efficiency somehow got lost. Chapter V (Planning Commission of India, 2014) on state finances tells that the state government for the year 2000-01 had a revenue deficit of Rs. 961 crore which is an increase of 77 percent over previous year. The chapter clearly states that the state has suffered a lot financially during the years of turmoil and revenue collecting authorities were unable to work efficiently. The state has really never recovered from the damage to the infrastructure and lack of investment post movement. The data shows the financial condition of J&K post movement period:

Year Total Income Total Expenditure Revenue Expenditure Revenue Surplus/Deficit Fiscal Surplus/Deficit
1996-97 3226 4180 3129 +94 -954
1997-98 4646 5147 4191 +451 -501
1998-99 4513 5567 4909 -400 -1054
1999-2000 5519 6857 6055 -541 -1338
2000-01 5674 7547 6621 -961 -1873

Source: Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 2001-2002

The movement addressed the cause of secession from the Indian state and never focussed on the development agenda and capitalisation of land reforms. Now people have realised that the democratic process is the only way forward to address social problems. Chowdhary & Rao (2006) bring about the shift from the politics of ‘Boycott of election’ to ‘Bring change with the election’ by supplementing it with the voter turnout. They bank on the people’s urge to go back to the normal situation and their desire to exercise choice.

C. Marginalisation of Social needs and Social Reality

The marginalisation between the needs and reality post-2000 as pre-1947 and post-1947 have been addressed to in different sections of the paper. Roshni bill which formed one of the major land reform policies post-2000 was supposed to streamline the land holdings, empower the farmers and regulate land mafias but the picture looked different when CAG came up with irregularities in the scheme. On 24th January 2015, the State Vigilance Organization (SVO) filed a FIR against several officers of the revenue department for their involvement in the irregularities committed under Roshni scam. According to CAG performance report (Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 2013) after approving the transfer of lands measuring 3,48,160 kanals only Rs.76.24 crore has been realised against a demand of Rs. 317.54 crore. Scam figuring in a land reform scheme being mooted as pro-poor and farmer clearly bring about the paralysis our political machinery is going through. Roshni scam has shown that there is a clear divergence of social reality from social needs in the state of J&K.

D. Conclusion

Land reform did not achieve its goal. It got hijacked by International bindings at the first stage, national politics at the second and state politics at the third stage. Every successive state government found it difficult to match development planning with social reality because of various personal benefits attached. It is up to the people of the state to realise what is happening and elect their representatives sensibly. Good representation in the assembly can only put forth the cause and thus reduce the gap between social needs and social reality.

(Tushar Gupta is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at


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One thought on “Trajectory of Land Reforms in J&K and its Outcomes”

  1. I found this article both informative and relevant. Land is coming up as an important issue of conflict in the changing political economy of development in India. In Jammu & Kashmir, it is further complicated by the special status and political conflict. Commendable analysis!


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