NAZARIYA: CASTE, CLASS, AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JAMMU AND KASHMIR

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While the mainstream conversations revolve around religion and Kashmiri identity, people seldom talk about Kashmir from the lens of caste, class and gender.

When Articles 370 and 35A were abrogated by the Central Government, it prompted responses of anger and different conversations. Leaders from different political parties, working in Kashmir, like Omar Abdullah from the National Conference and the then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti from the Peoples Democratic Party, opposed this move, pointing out that abrogation of these articles from the Indian Constitution is a direct attack on the Kashmiri identity and Kashmir. Indian leaders showed different emotions, some welcoming the move and some not.

A small group of people though, albeit acknowledging the disastrous consequences of these actions, came in support of one unintended consequence that would occur due to these actions. Dalit politicians, including Mayawati, the president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, spoke out that abrogation of these Articles will allow for more equality and opportunity to take root in the Kashmir Valley. This prompted rebukes from sections of Dalit activists who said that Dalit politicians have become ‘Islamophobic’.

The reason for such a response was the following: till then, some of the important Acts that protect the marginalized communities of India, such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, were not applicable in Kashmir, impeding the marginalized communities to seek justice. Thus, the abrogation was seen as a way through which some of these acts could be implemented.

While the aforementioned reason should not be a ground to support the abrogation itself, this highlights a glaring issue about the conversations surrounding Kashmir. The mainstream conversations revolve around religion and Kashmiri identity, people seldom talk about Kashmir from the lens of caste, class, and gender. Therefore, this article sheds light on these dimensions and tries to explain why it is important to have conversations about these topics as well, especially to understand the Kashmir Valley from the political economy perspective, a perspective rarely spoken about. 

Kashmir and Caste Discrimination – The Case for Valmikis

Perhaps the most affected community within the Kashmir Valley is the Valmiki community. They were brought from Punjab under a special agreement in 1957 by the then Prime Minister of the Kashmir province, ‘Bakshi’ Ghulam Mohammed, to solve the sanitation crisis that plagued Jammu and Kashmir and employ them as sweepers. These people were promised to be provided permanent residency in Jammu and Kashmir under Article 35-A that would allow them to stay in the province with the same rights and privileges enjoyed by people in Kashmir. The promises, however, were not fulfilled.

Now, they face discrimination in terms of attaining education and getting jobs because it is not possible to attain higher education and better jobs without the Permanent Residency Certificate (PRC). As that was not provided, the educated members of the Valmiki community cannot change their jobs for a better lifestyle.

The most cited examples of caste discrimination include that of Radhika and Eklavya. Radhika Gill, who challenged the provisions of the Article in the Supreme Court, was rejected for a position in the Border Security Force as she did not have a PRC to prover her residency in Kashmir. Similarly, Eklavya, a post-graduate in Political Science, was only given a job of that of an office assistant on a contractual basis for the same reason.

Apart from that, there are instances where people from the lowest castes were targeted and attacked by the upper caste. For example, in the infamous Kathua rape case, the First Information Report (FIR) was filed on the perpetrators only under sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of an offense or giving false information to screen offenders), 302 (punishment for murder), and 376 (punishment for rape) of the Jammu and Kashmir State Ranbir Penal Code 1989 (1930 AD.). The Indian Penal Code is not applicable in Jammu and Kashmir due to Articles 370 and 35-A.

The fact that the perpetrators were not accused under any act that convicts them of caste atrocity, even though the victim belonged to the nomadic Bakarwal community that falls under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, is telling of the fact that the provisions and opportunities to seek justice against caste atrocities are limited.

The most cited examples of caste discrimination include that of Radhika and Eklavya. Radhika Gill…was rejected for a position in the Border Security Force as she did not have a PRC to prove her residency in Kashmir.

Thus, subsequent reforms need to be taken against caste atrocities, where harsher punishments and lesser loopholes are guaranteed to prevent discrimination. This is also because Kashmir has a history of socio-economic hierarchy based on caste.

Mohita Bhatia in her article “Dalits” in Jammu and Kashmir: Resistance and Collaboration in a Conflicted Situation”, writes that oppression of lower-caste Hindus and Muslims are attributed to the rule of the upper-caste Dogra rulers, who often granted extraordinary caste privileges to the Dogra Hindu community, especially to the Rajputs within the community, and often collaborated with other upper-caste communities such as the Brahmins and the Mahajans. Thus, they enjoyed a privileged and powerful position socially and economically.

Moreover, in an interview to Forward Press Hindi, RK Kalsotra from the All India Confederation of SC, ST, and OBC (Jammu and Kashmir) claimed that the Dalits and the oppressed classes and castes did have reservations in government jobs, especially 8% reservation to notified castes (such as Kabirpanthi, Ramdasia, and Gardi), 10% reservation to notified tribes (such as Bakarwal, Changpa, and Gujjar),

There was 2% reservation given to OBCs, 20% reservation to residents of backward areas, 3% to people living on the Line of Actual Control, 3% to people living in hilly areas, and 3% to people living near the border. This was based on the 1927 Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, but they were not implemented owing to the dominance of the upper-caste Hindus, Muslims, and the Dogra rulers.

They had to struggle for another twenty years after the accession of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 to avail these reservations. Bhagat Amar Nath, now known as the ‘BR Ambedkar of Kashmir’, had to fast onto death in 1970 for the state Government to yield to their demands and implement those reservations. Thus, even availing provisions promised to these oppressed groups was a challenge.     

But even among those challenges, a sweeping change in the economic structure of Jammu and Kashmir, initiated by the then Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah, would go on to benefit many from the oppressed groups: land reforms.  

They (members of the SC/ST community had to struggle for another twenty years after the accession of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 to avail these reservations. Bhagat Amar Nath, now known as the ‘BR Ambedkar of Kashmir’ had to fast unto death…for the state Government to yield to their demands…

Land Reforms in Kashmir – Caste and Class Relations

Even before Kashmir acceded to India in 1947, people who were influenced by the Left-Communist ideologies initiated conversations about the economy and reforms, since they were witnesses to the oppression and exploitation of the landless tillers under the puppet landowners and zakirdars.

Thus, a manifesto called the “New Kashmir” was framed, which called for economic reforms, including land reforms that provide land to the tiller, compulsory work for all, and the right to rest. Moreover, specific charters for peasants and laborers within the manifesto aimed to abolish the begar system and reduce the burdens of loan and credit through the former, and achieve the right to a pension, hygienic workplaces, and right to education through the latter. 

Inspired by these ideals and the “New Kashmir” manifesto, Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference, who headed the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, introduced perhaps the most revolutionary of all land reforms in different parts of the country. His government would go on to amend acts such as the State Tenancy Act, 1924, and introduce the Abolition of Big Landed Estates Act, 1950.

These acts would go on to redistribute almost 2,00,000 acres of land without any compensation to any of the landlords, benefitting more than 1,50,000 tillers and their families, comprising almost 6,00,000 members in total. Particularly, nearly 250,000 tillers belonging to the Untouchable category amongst the Hindus of Jammu also benefitted from these reforms, according to Michael Brecher.

These land reforms were not able to break the influence these upper-caste landowners had over the bureaucracy of the state, thus colluding with them made sure that the local bureaucracy was not accessible to the peasants and small landowners.

But even these reforms that transformed Jammu and Kashmir were not without problems. According to Siddhartha Prakash, there were accusations that these landowners used the loopholes within the acts to safeguard their lands, such as turning their agricultural lands into orchards.

Moreover, these land reforms were not able to break the influence that the upper-caste landowners had over the bureaucracy of the state, thus colluding with them made sure that the local bureaucracy was not accessible to the peasants and small landowners. These behaviors have now resulted in the rise of a new class of landowners comprising of ‘commercially oriented landowners, land speculators, bureaucrats, houseboat owners, transporters and bootleggers wielding both money and political power’.

After the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah and the takeover of the government by ‘Bakshi’ Ghulam Mohammed, the government failed to follow up on the land reforms. Instead, according to Rekha Chaudhary, his government did what he and his followers favored especially to counter the popularity of Sheikh Abdullah, who became popular for these land reforms.

He created a false sense of economic well-being in Kashmir by liberally using aid from the Centre. He heavily subsidized goods such as rice and fuel, and invested in infrastructures such as roads and hydroelectric projects, and social infrastructures such as schools and colleges. But rampant corruption and rent-seeking behavior of the affluent classes meant that usage of these services was monopolized, which gave rise to a new section of the neo-rich, comprising bureaucrats, politicians, traders, and contractors.

These subsidies also came at the cost of rural revenue and profits, where poor farmers who cultivated crops such as rice that were subsidized were not given their dues properly.

In 1970, the Centre changed its aid policy, and only 30% of the aid came in the form of direct aid, while 70% came in the form of loans. Thus, all the revenue and profits were directed towards repaying those loans. Therefore, there was no money left to invest in infrastructure in Kashmir, which resulted in backwardness.

This, coupled with a lack of raw materials, partial land-locked nature, and lack of connectivity meant that industries never attained their full potential. The neo-rich took advantage of the subsidies and monopolized control over certain industries, such as the transportation industry, controlling fleets of vehicles.

Corruption became common in Kashmir. The Ayyangar Commission in 1969 noted that Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed and his family amassed huge amounts of wealth. It took cognizance of the fact that Bakshi’s wealth increased from Rs.10,000 in 1947 to Rs. 1.25 crores in 1964. It also found 15 of the 38 corruption allegations against Bakshi to be true.

All these problems resulted in rampant class differences. According to Riyaz Punjabi, acquisition and vulgar display of wealth became the norm in Kashmir. These lopsided policies created a small axis of politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen who would decide the standards and norms for the rest of Kashmiri society.

The best of the education, health infrastructure, and government job opportunities were only accessible to this particular section of the society, and it left many people, both rural and urban, men and women, educated and illiterate – to fight for socio-economic survival every day.

According to Riyaz Punjabi, acquisition and vulgar display of wealth thus became the norm in Kashmir. These lopsided policies created a small axis…who would decide the standards and norms for the rest of the Kashmiri society.

Kashmiri Economy Today

Some of the features of the Kashmiri economy that created these class differences continue even today. According to the 2021-2022 Budget of Jammu and Kashmir, almost 48% of the revenue comes from the Centre, 34% in the form of Central grants, and 14% in the form of Centrally sponsored schemes. The 2021-22 Budget estimates show that Rs. 62,656 crores completely comprise resources from the Centre and only Rs. 34,485 crores are Jammu and Kashmir’s revenue.

36% of the expenditure incurred by the Government is still on salaries and pensions, a huge fraction by comparison and just 1% less than the expenditure incurred on capital expenditure. The state’s total liability throughout the years as a percentage of the Gross State Domestic Product, although showing a decreasing trend, is high in general, oscillating between 46% and 50% since 2011.

Kashmir has also faced natural disasters periodically. The worst one came in the form of floods in 2014. Apart from the five million people who were directly impacted, and the three million houses that submerged in the floods, there were catastrophic economic losses. According to ASSOCHAM, the floods caused an immediate loss of Rs. 5400 – 5700 crores. Immediate losses to hotels, trade, agriculture-horticulture, roads, and bridges amounted to Rs.2630 crores, and losses to railways, power, and communication infrastructure came at about Rs. 2700 – 3000 crores. 

Moreover, ever since the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A, and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, there have been subsequent crackdowns on the public, and have resulted in lockdowns and internet shutdowns, impacting businesses and the use of infrastructure. Businesses have been shut, which has resulted in huge trends of unemployment. Incidences of people selling their assets to feed their families, such as taxi drivers selling their cabs, became common.

Many people involved in the tourism industry lost their livelihoods and had struggled to pay back their loans ever since the shutdowns after the abrogation of Article 370. It only got worse during the COVID-19 crisis. Business organizations pegged the loss incurred by them since the past two years at around Rs. 50,000 crores.

Ever since the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A, and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, there has been subsequent crackdowns on the public, and have resulted in lockdowns and internet shutdowns, impacting businesses and use of infrastructure

Conclusion

People from the lower class and the lower caste in Jammu and Kashmir battle for economic and social opportunities every single day due to apparent caste and class differences. Their struggles and economic hardships have become more difficult to face due to recent actions by the Central Government, suppression of rights, and rampant shutdowns of the internet and infrastructure, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

The reasons for the same, such as years of economic mismanagement, corruption, and rent-seeking behavior of the rich elite of Kashmir are not something that can be undone within a few years. It requires years of effort and mobilization. As Mohita Bhatia notes, despite the heterogeneous nature of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes of Jammu and Kashmir, they also have not been able to put in front a collective resistance towards the socio-economic and political hierarchy. This is because they do not have the political space to do so, which already is filled with conversations around India-Pakistan and Kashmiri identity.

Thus, it is important to start the conversations, and the time is now.