Kashmiris are living in fear of demolitions

A government policy to ‘reclaim’ state land has had dire consequences for many families in Kashmir, writes Kasturi Chakraborty.

A scrap dealer is standing in his workshop that has been bulldozed by the Jammu & Kashmir 
revenue department as part of an ongoing anti-encroachment drive in Srinagar. Credit: Adil Abbas

Rafiq and his brother Suhail were not at their auto-parts factory in Mehjoor Nagar, a locality in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, when the police first arrived to demolish it in February 2023.

‘Someone informed us [that the demolition was happening] and we ran there as fast as we could,’ says Rafiq. ‘The shutters were broken and bulldozers surrounded the factory. There was no notice, nothing.’

He says he watched as more than half of the factory was reduced to rubble within seconds. Together with his brother, Rafiq riffled through the wreckage to gather whatever belongings they could. ‘I felt like my heart stopped as I watched it all fall to the ground,’ he says. ‘All that was left was a plume of smoke and debris.’

The checkpoints, armoured vehicles, and barbed wire were not enough, now the Jammu and Kashmir administration has come up with new ‘anti-encroachment policies’

Rafiq explains that the demolition injured a few of the labourers and damaged a few cars. ‘My family and I had to spend so many nights guarding the damaged property.’ He still lives in fear of the bulldozers coming back. ‘They will finish what they started,’ he says.

Ever since the end of British rule in 1947, Indian-administered Kashmir has been at the centre of a dispute between India and Pakistan. Kashmiris have consistently agitated for their right to self-determination. There is a heavy Indian military presence and armed conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the last three decades.

In August 2019, there were protests when Modi’s Hindu nationalist government stripped the region of its constitutional privileges and broke the Muslim-majority state up into two federally governed territories. The government imposed weeks-long clampdowns and internet shutdowns.

‘The checkpoints, armoured vehicles, and barbed wire were not enough, now the Jammu and Kashmir administration has come up with new “anti-encroachment policies”,’ Rafiq says.

Uncertain futures

Rafiq and Suhail are only two of many Kashmiris bearing the brunt of this devastating wave of demolitions. In a series of moves that has been likened to the Israeli pattern of preparing ground for illegal settlements, the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir ordered the removal of all property on alleged state land.

The demolition push began on 9 January, when the Revenue Department of Jammu and Kashmir issued a circular aiming to ‘ensure that all encroachment on State land’ be completely removed by the end of the month.

Eviction orders were handed over to bureaucrats, police officers and also a separatist leader. Land was also retrieved from opposition party leaders.

Whatever savings and jewellery we had, we sold them to start this small business

Former bureaucrat Farooq Renzu Shah, whose small 0.05 hectare of land was recovered in Budgam districts, still had praise for the government. ‘This is a good initiative,’ he says. ‘A number of influential people will try and sabotage it but the government should implement the rule of law without fearing them.’

The demolitions soon began to target ordinary people like Rafiq and Suhail, leaving thousands vulnerable to sudden evictions and an uncertain future. ‘Whatever savings and jewellery we had, we sold them to start this small business,’ Rafiq says. ‘Why are they now targeting people like us who have small plots?’

Those with smaller plots of land were supposed to be spared but the reality on the ground shows otherwise. More than 20,000 hectares of land were seized before the operation was eventually halted in February.

Rafiq says that his family were promised compensation for the

damages, but are yet to receive anything.

Razed to the ground

The sudden demolitions also caused huge distress for 58-year-old Abdul Hafiz (name changed), who owned a scrap factory in Mehjoor Nagar for many decades. ‘I have had this factory for many years,’ he says. ‘Without any prior notice, the municipal councillor along with other officials came to my factory and asked me to vacate it. Before I could brace myself, it was razed to the ground. Nobody told us that this is state land.’

Abdul says that he pays around $120 a month in rent – money he still has to pay despite losing the factory. ‘Following the demolition, the landlord told me that under the provisions of the Roshni Act, he had approached the Jammu and Kashmir High Court and paid a premium after which he was given the ownership rights to this piece of land. How is he an encroacher now if the court itself upheld the allotment as legal and valid years back?’

In 2001, the Jammu and Kashmir authorities passed an act that regularized unauthorized occupations for a fee. The aim of the act, known as Roshni Act, was to raise funds to boost electricity provision in the region – roshni is electricity in Hindi-Urdu. Some of that land was sold on or rented out, and the Act is estimated to have benefited 30,000 people.

But in 2018 the Act was declared as ‘null and void’ by the current administration. The State Administrative Council, led by then Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, ordered an anti-corruption investigation into dealings and transactions conducted under it.

On 9 October 2020, a division bench of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh declared the scrapped Roshni Act ‘completely unconstitutional’ and ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into transfer of land ownership under the legislation, leaving those on the land were left vulnerable to eviction.

Demographic engineering

Many believe that the real motive behind this year’s demolitions is to create a sense of fear in the region’s largely Muslim population. The eviction notices are often handed out just hours before the demolitions, leaving people without time to seek any legal recourse.

Speaking to New Internationalist, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter, Sana Iltija Mufti, had this to say about India’s ruling political party: ‘Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) views Jammu and Kashmir as a religious and not political problem, the solution lies in dispossessing and dehumanizing its predominant Muslim population. Demolishing homes of Muslims also helps BJP consolidate its rabid Hindu vote bank which wants minorities to be disempowered.’

Mufti also says that the drive serves no purpose unless the BJP plans to engineer demographic changes by pushing Kashmiris out and dishing out their properties, jobs and voting rights to outsiders. ‘Why would the administration snatch land from Kashmiris, who are the real owners unless it wants to evict them and bring outsiders from other states who would gradually settle and own the land?’ she remarks.

According to former cabinet minister Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi: ‘The current administration comes up with an idea and tries to implement it in a way that people [become] intimidated, following which they back off. Through this, their message is delivered and people are pushed to the edge. It’s a pattern.’

The demolition drive looks to be part of the Indian government’s nationalist project – the Jammu and Kashmir administration reclaims land from the so-called encroachers and instills a sense of ‘justice’ delivery while targetting Muslims families.

What next?

Jammu and Kashmir authorities paused demolitions in February 2023 following widespread criticism. But the threat is far from over. The administration has recently submitted an anti-encroachment bill to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs to cap the amount of public land that can be encroached on – giving it legal grounds to resume the evictions. The bill will be made public if the Home Ministry approves it. The administration has said that more demolition orders will follow.

The current Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, has said that: ‘The big tracts of land will be given for setting up industry. The smaller plots will be used to create facilities like playfields. The small patches of land will be used as a burial ground for poor people who don’t even get land for last rites.’

Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has hinted at pushing a policy for small landholders and geo-tagging and digitizing the retrieved land before resuming the anti-encroachment drive.

Bulldozers have become a ‘new cultural symbol’ under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘New India’. Meanwhile, Kashmiris have been left trying to gather the fragments of their lives from the piles of stones and debris.

‘They were supposed to reclaim the bigger lands,’ says Rafiq. ‘However, they did not touch the properties of those with money and power, they left the hotels and bigger properties. They are targeting and harassing poor people like us.’