Denial of land rights: Key culprit in Kathua rape and murder

By Sanjoy Patnaik

In recent times, scribes writing on sensitive socio-cultural and religious issues often encounter dangerous reputational risks of being partisan caused due to highly polarised thought process in the country. Independent views can either be communal or anti-national. There seems to be no third path where love for one’s country would not be construed as communal or hailing country’s multi-cultural ethos and religious pluralism wouldn’t push one to the risk of being labelled as anti-national. People who believe or would argue in favour of an alternate and independent path entirely different from the two mentioned, are in minority, therefore, not much in circulation. It is certainly a difficult time – a time where liberty and freedom of speech is at risk by either being constantly monitored, judged and pushed to think and respond in a certain pattern. Every issue is stretched to draw out a religious argument to cause communal divide and create a non-existent fear that one community will wipe out the other. Independent thinking and democratic dissent have become potential human security issues.

While the Kathua rape and murder incident exposes the strong communal divide that exists in the valley, there emerges a relatively less communal angle to the conflict expected to have been caused due to sustained alienation of land within the Bakarwal community. The Bakarwal community, to which the eight-year-old girl belonged, is a Muslim pastoral tribe of Jammu and Kashmir, and along with the other tribal Muslim Gujjar group called Banihara form the third largest community in the state. Bakarwals are a nomadic tribe who herd sheep and goats have long migrated to hilly terrains of J&K from the plains of Punjab most likely in response to inadequate grazing facilities.

Kathua represents two sets of deep rooted conflicts that are pan Indian; a) resource and property related alienations of the minority communities, b) religious friction between the Hindus and Muslims. While Gujjars are a peculiar blend of both Hindu and Muslim culture, researchers have largely negated religion being the sole cause of conflict between the two communities. The BJP-PDP government’s efforts recently to retrieve tens of hundreds of forest lands have been perceived by Gujjars as a threat to losing their traditional rights over forests.  The Hindu card was skillfully played to convince the majority community that Gujjars are the encroachers of forests. Though the Gujjar development programmes are in operation since the last four decades or so, there has been no significant change in their lives. The J&K government never bothered to introduce a land to the landless programme failing miserably to provide secure land titles not even a homestead parcel to these communities. Though Gujjars have been recognised as Scheduled Tribes since 1991, the J&K state assembly has neither tried to protect the rights of the pastoralists nor tried to adopt and notify progressive legislations like the Forest Rights Act, 2006 promulgated in the country enumerating defined processes to recognise tribals’ and pastoralists’ rights over forest land. Therefore, there are more reasons to believe that the conflicts were more deep rooted and a consequence of economic deprivation than solely communal.

Taking the discussion forward, one has to understand that the conflicts have started with the rich and influential in the plains unlawfully encroaching common lands causing large scale depletion of grazing land forcing Gujjars to push themselves to the hills. Such resource marginalisation is pan Indian with non-tribals across the country pushing the tribals to the hills by usurping their lands to which the state governments since independence have failed to provide secure titles.While J&K government claims that it is in the process of drafting a tribal policy, it should have just implemented FRA in the state following due process exhibiting seriousness and commitment to tribal development than merely getting contented with a wish list in the form of a policy. Considering the large volume of these nomadic tribes in J&K having religious sensitivity, the state government should have made necessary provisions around community rights and entitlements around grazing and community tenures of habitat and habitations for nomads and pre-agricultural communities in line with FRA, 2006.

What happens when land lies undemarcated and rights are not defined? It’s a free for all and a field day for the relatively powerful and rich who think it is only justified to encroach as the current user does not have a title to the land in question. This leads to a competition induced conflict around how quickly one is able grab unprotected government lands. More often than not, state machineries are reluctant to process a fast track resolution to arrest such unregulated encroachments with the plea of inadequate human capacity further legitimising such illegal processes.  While Kathua continues to be an ugly communal showdown, one wonders what would have been the nature of the crime had the 8 year old been a Hindu in any part of the country. Knowing the way land grabbers in the country have functioned, the degree of criminality might have only differed; this time with the father may have been in the firing zone instead of the 8 year old girl.

Land conflicts and associated crimes are on the rise throughout the country because of multiple claims caused due to lack of documented and unclear rights. While land conflict was mostly confined to rural space, since last three decades or so, urban land conflicts have become more prominent and growing in number and complexities each day. Increasing land value, thanks to Smart Cities; and urban sprawls clubbed with faulty records and government’s inability to undertake survey and resurvey have now become a key human security issue in urban and semi-urban areas.  Different studies reveal that close to 70% of civil cases and around 50% of criminal cases have a strong land component (Daksh: 2015).

Hon’ble Supreme Court has sent out strong instructions to state governments to protect common land of the country in the Jagpal Singh vs State of Punjab (commonly known as Commons Case, 1132: 2011), most state governments have still not compiled final reports of eviction, even after 7 years.

Even after 70 years of independence, our efficient state administrative apparatus has conveniently preferred to adopt a ‘touch-me-not’ approach to cleaning land records, thereby transforming trivial claim conflicts into dangerous communal and caste strifes. On top of it modernisation of land records is expected to aggravate the mess by way of digitalising incorrect records. Increasing land records complications and government’s blind belief on digitalisation as the panacea have only made people sleep on dynamite ready to explode anytime. While the Land Resources/Revenue Department perceives land records as an administrative procedure that is more of a routine exercise, its time the internal security/Home Ministry identifies the need for documented and clean land records as a prerequisite to human security and a preventive strategy for crime reduction both in the urban and rural space.