Radical Land Reforms Were Key to Sheikh Abdullah's Towering Influence on Kashmir

Within the Valley, the reforms caused a social transformation that has few parallels.

It is relatively well-known that many Kashmiris almost worshipped the ground on which Sheikh Abdullah walked. Seventeen persons were killed in stampedes at his funeral. However, the roots for his iconic popularity are rarely discussed. It is well worth recalling on his 112th birth anniversary that the most vital reason for his popularity was land reforms, which most Kashmiris identify through the slogan, ‘land to the tiller’.

The land reforms in Kashmir, which were among the first initiatives of Abdullah’s government, were arguably the most radical anywhere in the world outside the Communist bloc. Within the Valley, the reforms caused a social transformation that has few parallels. The Valley, where most of the state’s fertile land is concentrated, had known cruel exploitation of tillers through the periods of Afghan, Sikh and Dogra rule since 1756.

Under Dogra rule, most of the landlords were Hindus, either Dogra or Pandit – the reverse of the period of Pathan rule. So for the 95% Muslim population of the Valley, the land reforms had a deeply significant socio-political import. Indeed, an incisive study of the leadership and cadres of the most stridently anti-state groups of the past 65 years would show that many former landlords turned to such groups.

Communist influence

The agenda of land reforms was a vital part of the manifesto which the National Conference adopted at its historic Sopore convention in 1944. The manifesto was drawn up by Lahore-based Communist intellectuals, Freda and B.P.L. Bedi – whose son Kabir became a film star – along with Danial Latifi, Qurban Ali and K.N. Bamzai. They drew upon the constitution of one of the Soviet republics. Called ‘Naya Kashmir’, the manifesto promised a plethora of rights, including equal pay, and even the right to rest. Kashmiris were delighted since the agents of landlords had used vicious ways to extract labour and impose extortionate taxes.

Sheikh Abdullah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When Abdullah was first appointed prime minister in March 1948, the first Pakistan-India war was raging across what is now called the Line of Control. One of the first tasks Abdullah took up after the ceasefire in 1949 was the land reforms.

The Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950, was drawn up that year. It placed a ceiling on land ownership at 186 kanals (about 22 acres). The rest of the land of a landlord was redistributed among share-croppers and landless labourers, without any compensation to the landlord. Transferring land without compensation was possible since the provisions of the Indian constitution did not yet apply in the state. Conservative sections of the country’s leadership had ensured that the right to property was included among the fundamental rights, which could not be challenged.

The land reforms were so popular in Kashmir that they continued to be pushed for the next quarter-century. The ceiling was gradually decreased until the last of the reform Acts in 1975.

Worthwhile legacy

At a time when conservatism of various kinds has gained substantial ground and the politics of identity has overtly replaced socio-economic discourse, it is important to remember the role that land reforms played in sparking the imagination and the devotion of large sections of the Kashmiri population during the 20th century.

Abdullah had already shot to stellar fame during the agitations of 1931, a year after he returned from Aligarh with a post-graduate degree. He remained Kashmir’s most outstanding leader thereafter, although Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah retained a strong base of support in the city of Srinagar. However, it was the land reforms that consolidated his party’s support base after he came to power. Its memory continues to be a pillar of party support, although government jobs have replaced parcels of land as the hand-outs of recent decades, and are arguably the chief aspiration of young people across the state.

Abdullah’s image as a champion of Kashmiri identity and rights was larger-than-life through much of his life. But if he is the tallest Kashmiri leader since Budshah, the ‘great king’ Zainulabedeen who ruled Kashmir from 1420 to 1470, a little more than half a millennium before Abdullah played a steller role, the secret of his success is his land reforms.

David Devadas is a journalist based in Srinagar.