Concertina wires, police sirens going woo-woo at all hours, almost-deserted streets, and the vanishing state flag (red with three white stripes and a white plough, representing the struggle under the Dogra yoke). A Valley under restrictions, civil curfew and communication lockdown…a weary people trying cautiously to come to grips with the changing status quo in the region. The inertia outside belies the flurry of activities inside the fortified, high-walled Civil Secretariat in Srinagar. Government officials are hard at work. The J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, has to be implemented. Proposals of several state governments seeking land in the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Ladakh are being looked into. Besides, 106 “people-friendly” laws and nine constitutional amendments have been made applicable in the region since the state was split and its special status scrapped this August.
The J&K administration is considering the Maharashtra government’s plan to buy two land parcels to build resorts, one each in the two Union territories, before October 31, the day central laws are scheduled to be enforced in the region. Karnataka has made a similar offer. “I don’t know if any other state has plans to purchase land in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. I will have to check it,” says government spokesman Rohit Kansal.
In undivided Jammu and Kashmir, Article 35A of the Constitution allowed only permanent residents to acquire land in the region. Now, it is open season for anyone since that “protective shield” has been consigned to history along with Article 370 from this beautiful yet troubled region. People in Ladakh are already showing concern over their land and demography, although they are happy with the abrogation of Article 370. The government has assured Ladakhis about according tribal area status to their homeland, but it will require much more than a promise to allay fears of an influx of “outsiders” into the fragile and eco-sensitive territory that would change its demography, culture and identity.
Innovator and education reformist Sonam Wangchuk, a Magsaysay award winner, met Union tourism minister Prahlad Patel in Leh recently and sought a government guarantee that Ladakhi culture would be preserved at any cost. “The government should agree to give tribal area status to Ladakh under the 6th Schedule. That is the only way to protect the land, culture and identity of Ladakh,” says Congress leader Asgar Ali Karbalie.
Ladakhis fear an influx of “outsiders” into the fragile territory would change its demography, culture and identity.
Assurances, and reassurances, are staring at people every morning in the Valley. The government is issuing full-page advertisements on newspapers—Kashmiris shouldn’t worry about any possibility of loss of land. The advertisements say “Kashmiri language, culture and religion” will not be under threat. The government initially insisted that Hindi would replace the official Urdu language of J&K once it becomes a Union territory on October 1. Mixed signals are coming now—that Urdu will continue to enjoy its official status. Section 47 of the J&K Reorgan-isation Act empowers the Union territory’s assembly to “adopt any one or more of the languages” as official language.
And by way of assurance, perhaps, the government has retained the Jammu and Kashmir Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950, commonly known as “land to the tiller”, exemplary land reforms initiated by Jammu and Kashmir’s first prime minister Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah in 1950. The law has been made applicable in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, but Section 20 has been removed. The section prohibits “transfer of land in favour of a person who is not a state subject”.
“You will see in the J&K Reorganisation Act that many state laws pertaining to land rights have been retained, but with amendments. The amendments have made land accessible to anyone from outside Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh,” explains Ishaq Qadri, former advocate general of J&K.
Similarly, the Jammu and Kashmir Alienation of Land Act of 1938 has been retained, but Section 4 and 4-A removed. Section 4 stated that transfer of land to a person who is not a “state subject” is prohibited, while 4-A laid down guidelines for transfer of mortgaged property to banks. “I think the BJP government has worked on the reorganisation act for at least four years. This doesn’t look like the work of a few months as is being projected,” says a lawyer, who doesn’t wish to be named. He is among many preferring to remain anonymous in these uncertain, distrustful times. And aloof, perhaps, like on Sheikh Abdullah’s death anniversary on Sunday. No one visited his grave.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar