J&K: An agrarian history

The Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir lies in the extreme North of the country It is almost entirely a mountainous region. Geographically, the J&K was divided into four natural regions: in the South lies the Jammu region; in the Centre is the valley of Kashmir; to the North of Kashmir valley is Gilgit; and to the East and North East of Kashmir valley lies Ladakh region. The State had a population of four million, according to census report of 1941. At the time of partition in 1947, when South Asian sub-continent was divided into India and Pakistan, the state of Jammu & Kashmir was bifurcated, Gilgit in the North and Muzaffarabad, Mirpur and parts of Poonch district were annexed to Pakistan. Ladakh region, Kashmir valley and Jammu region were merged into India. However, on August 5, 2019, J&K state was further bifurcated into two Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh.


The State has been of great importance strategically, owing to the fact that it had common borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Central Asian countries and Tibet. In view of its geographical significance, its historical evolution remained deeply turbulent and volatile throughout. The erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir was created by British through an agreement and arrangement between the East India Company and the then ruler of the region, Maharaja Gulab Singh. Prior to that, till 1846, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh were separate and distinct areas under different rulers.

Traditionally, agriculture has been the main occupation of the people, supporting roughly 87.5% of the total population. Moreover, around 89.1% of males and 90.3% of females did reside in villages. This large percentage lived on the income derived from 21,99,367 acres of actual cultivable area and such forest produce as was within its reach. The general attitude of an agriculturist generally precludes him from taking any risks in regard to the improvements in the methods of cultivation. Apart from the fact that general rural outlook on life and religion does make the average villager victim of superstition, pathetic contentment and morose fatalism, thereby inducing in him lack of enterprise and inaction, the average agriculturist had little spare capital which could afford him any scope for adventure. Owing to this attitudinal orientation, only 6% of the gross cultivated area was under cash crops during 1930’s and 1940’s, whereas about 85% of the same was under traditional cropping pattern in Jammu and Kashmir State.

For all the practical purposes, the lands of Jammu & Kashmir were in the iron grip of Jaghirdari system and Chakdari system. The tenants were at the mercy of Jaghirdars and chakdars and did not even enjoyed their occupancy rights. Nevertheless, the occupancy rights of the tenants were not interfered with because of the fact that interference in this right was neither in the interest of the Government, nor those of the peasants. The possession of the occupancy rights by the peasantry was a practical, if not a legal fact. The peasants were in abject and miserable conditions. Almost all historians who have written about this period were compelled to bring out their pitiable conditions. P.N. Bamzai while writing about the period comments, ‘The food of the majority of people consisted of boiled rice and vegetables, although considerable number of people lived on singhara (water nut) maize and barley. Moorcraft records that singhara constituted almost the only food of at least 30.000 people for five months in a year and the nadru or the stem of nymphaea lotus, of about 5,000 people in the city for nearly eight months. This is a striking proof of the poverty and low standard of life among the common people of that era. Peasants lived in dwellings, which were worse cowsheds of our times. Even the best house in the Lolab Valley could afford no better shelter in rain than a Chinar tree. These huts were made like log cabins and were covered with mud plaster.’

The landlords of Kashmir had the right to occupy land so long as they paid the revenue, but they could neither sell nor mortgage it. The ‘tenants at will’ held land subject to the will of the proprietor, who could eject them at any time. In the cities and towns of Kashmir, people were given the rights of selling or mortgaging the land.

Another category of workers was that of landless labourers. They were a highly exploited lot. They lived in absolute penury and powerlessness. They were worst among the workers. As per the then obtaining situation, there was no competition among tenants where the population was less in proportion to cultivable land. In such circumstances, the owners competed with one another for the services of the tiller. All means of persuasion were used to settle new tenants on land and they were evicted only when they defaulted in payment of revenue or the owner’s share of the produce, otherwise known as rent, which the tenant paid in cash or kind. The labourer did not enjoy the status of a tenant. He just toiled against nominal wages and earned the produce for the class of the landowners.

The situational inequality or institutionalized stratification inspires the downtrodden people to summon all their determination, worth, power, influence and resources. The systemic and systematic exploitation dictates a dialectical scenario where the exploited masses unavoidably and inevitably get into conflict with the ruling minority of the society. The peace and silence of a society is then disturbed by a craving for change, which generates confrontation and violence. The urge for change may get dormant for a while but it never dies down completely. This is an oft-repeated scenario witnessed by history at various points of space and time. Such revolutionary fervour has almost always succeeded in bringing about a new social and political order. The leaders and followers of such revolutions have characterized every society of the world and they have successfully dictated new social and political agenda, of course, within differing situational parameters.

Also Read: Road network in Jammu and Kashmir: A historical overview


Kashmir too has been subjected to unspeakable social, political and economic humiliations. The fundamental rights and even birth rights of Kashmiris were violated with exemption and they were caught within the whirlpool of an excruciating system of exploitation. It was a virtual enslavement of an overwhelming proportion of the masses by an insolent and arrogant class driven solely by considerations of vested interests. Many historical narratives have repeatedly tried to bring out this intense story of suffering and exploitation. The feudal era in Kashmir, as everywhere else, provides a scenario of gross distributive un-equivalence. The means of production were controlled by a tiny minority. With the self-righteous mindset and blissfully unaware of the political and economic reforms taking place across the globe, their sole aim and objective was to devise new mechanisms of exploiting the masses. Such objective conditions were bound to generate new consciousness among the masses in Kashmir.

However, post-independence, the then Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, soon after coming to power, initiated an Agrarian Reforms Programme in the State, in 1948, with the abolition of sinecure payments such as Jagirs, Muafis and Mukarraries. Earlier, the beneficiaries of jagirs and muafis had a number of privileges at the cost of citizens within the territorial limits of such jagirs, approximating the rights of the erstwhile Maharaja of J&K in matters of fiscal nature. The changes were viewed as very revolutionary because these took away the privileges of erstwhile Maharaja and his feudal lords over most of the cultivated areas in the state without payment of any sort of compensation, and ushered in an era of agrarian reforms in the state.


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Ritika Karan

A frequent commentator on issues of contemporary importance, Ritika studies Economics at the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, Jammu