Legalizing Dispossession: A Tale of Two Indian Land Grabs
With the Oakland Institute Research Team
India’s 73rd Independence Day merits introspection on the deep crisis faced by the world’s largest democracy. Two recent attempts at perpetuating unprecedented land grabs, mark the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s proclivity for legalizing dispossession and marginalization of the most vulnerable.
Evictions of rightful inhabitants from their ancestral land have been recurring features of successive postcolonial Indian governments. However, under the current regime, these dispossessions have been increasingly organized through amendments to the Indian Constitution. 2019 is marked by two such glaring instances.
The February 14, 2019 attack on India’s security forces in the internationally disputed region of Kashmir by an armed insurgency, diverted public attention from India’s Supreme Court order — issued the previous day — to evict 1.9 million Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers from their ancestral forests. This ruling by the country’s highest court, favoring petitioners seeking to contravene the Forest Rights Act (FRA) — a progressive law that recognizes the rights of the country’s most vulnerable people — is as previously argued, both concerning and legally dubious.
This infringement of the FRA to facilitate forest grabs is supplemented by a slew of legislative measures that seek to militarize India’s forests. For instance, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (2016) dilutes the consent and autonomy of the rightful inhabitants of the land, while the new amendments sought by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to the FRA will grant immunity to an armed forest bureaucracy for any acts of violence against those whom it deems as “encroachers.” This dispossession of the Indigenous communities, who actively struggled against British colonization, has not only been rhetorically justified, but sought to be legalized by the Indian government using the façade of conservation and the alibi of development.
On August 5, 2019, just as the Supreme Court resumed hearings on the stay order issued against the evictions, the Indian state once again demonstrated its shallow understanding of land as mere territory and utter disregard for those who inhabit it. This came in the form of a presidential order that “read down” and amended the provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that had allowed the state legislature of Jammu & Kashmir a separate constitution to govern its citizens.
Revoking this special status of Jammu & Kashmir brings its citizens entirely within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. This was followed by the passage of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill by the Indian parliament that further diluted the political autonomy of the state by dividing it into two union territories — Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Most notably, this included the revocation of Article 35A, that was added to the Indian Constitution under Article 370 in 1954. Article 35A permitted the state assembly of Jammu & Kashmir to define “permanent residents” of the state, thus ascertaining who could retain the right to own property and land. Ironically, the Kashmiri Pandits, the Hindu minority in the valley, ventriloquized by the Indian state to justify its actions, had historically raised the notion of “Kashmir for Kashmiris,” in preference for an ethnic Kashmiri rather than communalized identity.
There are numerous aspects of this move that deserve the condemnation of the international community. First, this unilateral move in a disputed territory shows the BJP government’s utter disregard for preserving peace in South Asia. Second, as numerous legal scholars have observed, this decision to amend the Constitution through presidential orders, violates the prime conditionality of Article 370 — the absence of consultation with the Jammu Kashmir constituent assembly that hasn’t existed since 1956. The state legislative assembly was dissolved in November 2018. Furthermore, in a massive crackdown the night before the Central government read down Article 370 and Article 35, the leaders of the state’s mainstream political parties were rounded up and preemptively detained. Worse still, this supposedly democratic decision was passed under the shadow of a gun — the residents of the state suffered a continuous curfewed shutdown, additional army deployments, and a complete communications blackout in the valley of Kashmir — a situation that persists ten days after the decision.
Amidst a complete clamp down of the press in Kashmir, international media and a fact finding committee report (comprised of Indian civil society activists recently returned from the region) indicates mass incarcerations of thousands in the valley, including not just political activists, academics, and social workers, but even children as young as eleven years old.
It is important to parse the rhetoric of “specialness” that has been used to violate the political and human rights of Kashmiris. While the specific political history of the region — particularly the terms of its conditional accession with India — had shaped the supposedly special powers afforded to the residents of the state, any true autonomy afforded by Article 370 has been steadily eroded. While Kashmiris have been confined to a narrative of exceptionalism — it is not one that has afforded them privileges. They have been denied the most basic human and political rights.
A permanent state of emergency has eclipsed the state since the 1990s, particularly through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that allows the military to function in the region with complete impunity. Between June 2018 and July 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Commission released two reports, criticizing the increase in human rights violations in the region. The most recent report details a significant spike in violations that include “physical intimidation and assault, invasion of privacy, arbitrary and unlawful detention, collective punishment and destruction of private property.” The Indian government refused to address any of these concerns, instead, belligerently denying the findings and casting unfound aspersions about the underlying motives of these reports.
Finally, the new characteristics of BJP’s move must be addressed in its specificity. The most recent constitutional amendments are primarily justified through an insidious rationale of economic development with complete disregard for the population’s human rights. Economist Jean Dreze, at a recent protest in solidarity with the people of Kashmir, emphasized that the state of Jammu and Kashmir fares much better on human development indicators such as female schooling, infant mortality, child malnutrition, wages of rural laborers, and rural inhabitants of the state below poverty line than Indian Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat (see picture).
Much of this development is attributed primarily to the implementation of the “land to the tiller reforms” of the 1950s that redistributed surplus land amongst an impoverished landless peasantry by capping the maximum amount of land that could be held by an individual. These land redistribution policies sought to redress the injustice meted out to the Muslim majority Kashmiri population under the communally discriminatory Dogra rulers, who abolished individual landholdings and prevented an impoverished peasantry from migrating elsewhere. Indicating the importance of land rights and their link to wide ranging social equity, as Dreze argues, has made a “big contribution to poverty reduction,” by helping “avoid the existence of a huge reserve army of labor as found in other Indian states.”
Given the environment of military impunity and sanctioned state violence, land grabs are not an uncommon occurrence in the region. National security or national development through corporate driven public works projects has been the cover for forceful land acquisition in Kashmir in violation of the protections of Article 370 and Article 35A. However, given the specific political and military conditions of the area and the absence of large financial capital, land grabbing in Kashmir, did not completely mirror the neoliberal model of dispossession prevalent throughout the country today. The recent amendment to Article 370 may change that significantly.
On August 13, Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance India Ltd. — one of the biggest industrial conglomerates in India with a long record of coercive land grabs– announced the creation of a “special task force” to explore private investment in the newly formed, bifurcated union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
The imposition of large-scale “investment” in a politically and ecologically fragile zone, without consultations or the consent of the people whose lives are most profoundly impacted, is condemnable. More important, many fear that the so-called investment may be a Trojan horse for forcing the demographic composition of Kashmir — a move to mirror the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine’s West Bank.
Today on its 73rd Independence Day, India celebrates freeing itself from the yoke of British colonialism, as 8 million Kashmiris are shorn of their political autonomy and basic civil liberties, and 1.9 million Indigenous forest dwellers are on the brink of eviction. The internationalist anti colonial legacy of the Indian freedom struggle is in tatters. The fig leaf of development and the underhand tactics to violate the Indian Constitution, do not hide the BJP’s attempts to devastate the most vulnerable of those it claims as its subjects. The international community must unequivocally condemn these moves by the Indian government to legalize dispossession, and work together with the Indian, Kashmiri, and Indigenous activists, to challenge these resounding blows delved to world’s largest democracy.