Recently, a providential coincidence upset the applecart of Kashmir’s thriving land mafia-revenue officials’ nexus to fraudulently sell a residential plot belonging to a Kashmir Pandit (KP) family in Srinagar’s upscale outskirts. While the JK Grievance Cell remains a ping-pong of bureaucratese, simple communication to the PMO did the trick this time. That the deal was almost ‘done’ by swapping revenue papers of a nearby plot, whether by artifice or in connivance, reveals how brazen and deep-rooted this nexus remains. Even after retrieving the land from their clutches, the revenue-cum- police sponsored mafia remains unrelenting to let go of the opportunity to grab KP property. The overarching separatist ideology of Muslim exclusivism continues to rule the social order in the Valley.
Since the early 1990s, commerce in abandoned KP property worth lakhs of crores is a thriving activity. This trade has benefitted the entire Kashmiri society- separatists/militants, political class, bureaucrats, police personnel and the commoners alike. Unfortunately, discourse on KP exodus is limited to two dimensions alone – the Islamist separatism and Pakistani patronage to the insurgents. Since the crucial third dimension of the community’s crippling economic dispossession has never been a subject of discussion, it has always remained out of a remedy’s purview. Successive governments and the community’s political(ideological)-hangers-on are equally guilty of downplaying this horrendous deprivation.
Economic Squeeze – A Planned Strategy
In the recent political history of Kashmir, KPs’ economic exclusion and exploitation remained a defining strain in the communalist agenda perused in the Valley. In 1931 in Srinagar and South Kashmir in 1987, the loot and arson carried a stark message – ‘be dispossessed and leave the land’. In between, the ‘radical’ land-to-tiller legislation, shrouded in a sham social justice slogan, was the continuation of Shiekh Abdulah’s larger plan to purge the Valley of KPs by squeezing them economically.
Universally, radicalised ideologies aim to conquest political power to gain economic control. Kashmir insurgency is no different. Its planners fully realised that driving KPs out was essential to achieve their political aim. What better than obliterating their economic stakes forever? Accordingly, in 1988, the Islamic Students League (ISL) was tasked to map the footprint of the KPs in the Valley with particular reference to their numbers, political activities, landholdings, other immovable properties, business establishments, representation in State/Centre government jobs etc. Besides selecting specific targets to kill one and scare the rest, this survey formed the basis of the community’s systematic dispossession. Local vendors, sweepers and agricultural labours were the crucial cogs in this plan. Incidentally, this category benefited most of the sales in distress by the migrants.
Divesting KPs Economically
Dazed at the sudden turn of events at the onset of insurgency, KPs fled to the plains leaving behind all their possession. With Farooq Abdullah abdicating his constitutional responsibility as CM, uncertainty and hopelessness descended on the Valley as the entire administration caved in; Muslim government employees joined the mayhem wholesale while non-Muslims ran away.
In the early stages of migration, survival was paramount. Loot and arson of migrant property in the Valley followed this humongous human tragedy. With the hope of an early return receding and financial hardship mounting, the migrants slowly weaned towards the idea of disposing of their assets back home. No sooner the fledging mafia-militant nexus spread its wings did Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) issue a Fatwa prohibiting the purchase of the migrant property. Those who defied this diktat suffered instant retribution. Whatever the underlying intent of HM, not many migrant properties changed hands till 1995.
It was only after Farooq Abdullah returned as the CM in 1996 that the flood gates to grab migrant property opened. In cohorts with revenue officials, the property mafia now compelled the KPs to sell their properties cheap. The modus operandi was simple, encroach the property and then negotiate the purchase from a position of strength for possession is nine-tenths of ownership. A deluge of brokers descended on migrant camps to settle deals at barely one-fourth of the market price. KP sub-agents made matters easy for these agents of doom from the Valley.
Government- A Mute Spectator.
The Parliamentary Standing Sub-Committee on Kashmir, constituted in 2008, expressed grave concern over “the criminal intent of the vested interests to alter the demography in the state ( now UT) of J&K by not only forcibly ousting the minorities out of the state but also by changing the minority rights in the revenue records, so that the migrants are left with no stake to return back [sic} to the Valley”. It further recommended, “appropriate and effective action to safeguard the right to properties of KP”. In effect, this observation defined genocide of KPs.
Even now, loot, arson, and grabbing of immovable property of KPs continue with impunity. Save for a few, most bureaucrats in the Valley are at best indifferent to this brazen ransacking. The Government watches this plunder with criminal indifference.
Migrant Property Act
Alarmed at the brazen loot of the KP property in the Valley, some well-meaning legal luminaries of the community put their heads together to recommend a legal remedy to protect property left behind by the migrants. The State Government accepted these recommendations and promulgated the Jammu and Kashmir Migrant Immovable Property (Preservation, Protection and Restraint on Distress Sales) Act-1997.
The efficacy of a law lies in implementation. Ever since enacting this Act, designated authorities have not discharged their obligations as enshrined in it. It obligates the District Magistrates to take over the possession of all the immovable property of the migrants within their territorial jurisdiction and institute measures to preserve and protect such property. Thousands of complaints from the migrants about usurpation/encroachment of their immovable assets in the Valley are gathering dust in various offices while the mayhem continues.
Sale through GPA – A Scourge
Though the Supreme Court of India ruled in 2011 that the sale of immovable property through General Power of Attorney (GPA) is not a valid form of transfer to the buyer, GPA based the sale/purchase of migrant property in the Valley continues even now. In the sale of immovable property, besides providing the revenue documents, the seller must physically hand over the possession to the buyer. With later condition waived off, the property mafia has indulged in massive frauds. In areas designated as ‘Abadi Deh’ (densely populated areas), it is challenging to identify a property’s exact location in the absence of the real owner. The revenue officers-property mafia nexus exploited this loophole to occupy massive chunks of the migrant property in Srinagar to compel migrant owners/co-owners to either give up their claim in disgust or to sell the same for peanuts. Those who ventured the legal route continue to suffer prolonged judicial apathy. Srinagar (South) Tehsil had maximum KP dwellings. All, from Patwaris to Tehsildars, are partners in loot here.
It is pertinent to mention that the Government still allows the transfer of the ownership of the migrant property to a buyer based merely on documents annexed to the request without any physical verification on the ground. This procedure suits all- the mafia, the revenue officers and the law enforcement officials, while the migrant owner has little choice but to succumb.
JK Law Commission’s Recommendations
In its report submitted in March 2020, the Commission has indicted the DMs for failure to take over the possession of the migrant property in their hold as mandated under the Migrant Property Act -1997. The Commission scathingly observed, “Had the intention been to resettle Kashmir Pandits within the precincts of the Valley of Kashmir at any moment in that event ban would have been imposed on the alienation of the migrant property by any mode of transfer…”
In its recommendations, the Commission has recommended a blanket ban on the alienation of migrant property ’till further orders’. BJP-led Central Government is sleeping over this recommendation for a year now.
It would be naïve to think the Government is oblivious to what is happening on the ground. Shedding tears over the plight of migrants reminds one of the crocodiles. This brazen ransacking of KP property has to stop now. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure the squatters on migrant properties do not enjoy official patronage. To salvage whatever is left, the Government must withdraw the provision(s) of sale from the Migrant Property Act-1997 and implement the rest of its clauses in letter and spirit. Otherwise, the fundamental rights of KPs would be sacrificed at the altar of forces inimical to the nation’s territorial integrity and not in the national interest that a nationalist organisation wants us to believe.