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Reading ‘Development’ in a Conflict Zone

Land-grabbing in Kashmir

Aejaz Ahmad Wani ( is an independent researcher based in Srinagar.

Pieces of Earth: The Politics of Land-grabbing in Kashmir by Peer Ghulam Nabi Suhail, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp 212, 695.

Peer Ghulam Nabi Suhail’s Pieces of Earth: The Politics of Land-grabbing in Kashmir investigates the spectre of capital in the form of resource exploitation in the disputed territory, that is, the Kashmir Valley. In situating Kashmir in the complex of global land-grabbing studies, the book pinpoints the inadequacy of existing studies to explain land-grabbing in conflict areas, and seeks to construct a framework that can do so. Taking the Kishanganga Hydro Electric Project (KHEP) in Gurez Valley near the Indo–Pak border as a case study, Suhail characterises the land and water used for its construction and power generation as an epitome of land-grabbing in Kashmir. In that, he investigates the implicit politics in its processes, identifies the roles of various actors and beneficiaries, and maps the multifaceted impacts of the resultant dispossession and dislocation.

Delineating the Problem

Pieces of Earth is an interdisciplinary study, drawing heavily from critical political economy, development studies, and resistance studies. Employing the techniques of subaltern inquiry, it seeks to restore, albeit at a micro level, the agency of the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by roping in their arguments, perceptions, and subjective experiences. Most importantly, this is the first ever academic study on Kashmir by a Kashmiri scholar that makes a crucial departure from what one might call structuralist studies of J&K politics, marked by a frozen focus on the state, its institutions, organisations, and militarisation to one focused on peasants and tribals.

The book begins, in Chapter 1, by highlighting the predicament that has followed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) for the people of J&K. If IWT is seen as a successful interstate water agreement, it is, at the same time, looked upon as a treaty that allows the Indian state to deprive the people of J&K of its water resources. The treaty paved the way for the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) to construct several dams on the region’s rivers, thereby dispossessing people of their land and water rights. Given the particularity of the Kashmir case, Suhail notes that any developmental agenda in Kashmir is seen as an effort by an outsider state to siphon off resources from the region, indeed as an act of imperialism. While the developmental discourse in Kashmir was subsumed under the Nehruvian ideal of big infrastructure projects, the rise of militancy in the 1990s overshadowed the voices of those affected, dispossessed and dislocated by such developmental projects, particularly by hydroelectric projects (HEPs). It was not until the intensity of militancy dimmed in the early 2000s that debates surrounding land-grabbing started taking shape in the media and civil society. The author attributes the first public verbalisation of the problem of land-grabbing in Kashmir to the former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti.

The phenomenon of land-grabbing has existed in India for a while and has, increasingly, become a global fact. In Chapter 2, Suhail discusses three dimensions of the land-grabbing debate. First, he traces the origins of global land grabs to the 2008 food crisis. Second, even prior to 2008, he looks at domestic land grabs by states as well as corporates in the name of national development. However, these are not mutually exclusive. Third, he examines the patterns of resistance of the dispossessed.

Chapter 3 delineates the historical development of the question of land-grabbing in India by mapping land governance policies spanning the Mughal rule to the British colonial regime to the postcolonial Indian state. This chapter entails an overview of postcolonial India’s political economy to underscore its transition from a dirigisme state, during the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi era, marked by a national consensus about national growth and development to a liberalised economy, under Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, when the floodgates were opened for private capital. With this transition, land acquisition by private companies mushroomed rapidly, but also began to be resisted vehemently by the dispossessed, dislocated, peasants, workers and activists. This mounting pressure forced the Indian government to amend the land acquisition ordinance in 2014 to disallow land acquisition by private companies until any proposal is assented to by 80% of the farmers. However, the state reserved the right to acquire land by itself for “public purposes” as an ever open possibility.

Specificity of J&K

In discussing the general conceptual understanding of land grabs worldwide and specific patterns in mainstream India, Suhail seeks to highlight the failure of the existing land grab studies to explain the exceptionalism observed in J&K. The state’s specificity follows from the way it was integrated with India, and the turmoil it has witnessed over the past few decades. But, why is the issue of land-grabbing in Kashmir, as explored by Suhail, an atypical case? The Indian state, Suhail argues, followed a two-pronged strategy in J&K: first, establishing and maintaining political clients or pro-Indian regimes in J&K, thereby eroding its autonomy and second, the gradual militarisation and subsequent brutalisation of Kashmir. Besides, given its low landholdings and absence of large private capital, Suhail notes, Kashmir presents an altogether different case. Land-grabbing in Kashmir is not simply an act of economic coercion or a corollary of neo-liberal policy, as in the Indian mainland; it is compounded by political and military coercion which complicates it manifold. Besides, the emergence of insurgency overshadowed local area studies in Kashmir, which failed to garner attention even when large issue studies elsewhere were grossly ruptured by postmodern assaults in the 1980s.

Suhail’s “new framework” reckons the cognisance of “political structure” in conflict areas as a prerequisite to understanding the nature of land-grabbing and forms of resistance against it. In other words, what sorts of resistance against land grabs are possible in conflict areas will essentially depend on how liberal or authoritarian the political structure is, what routes are available to the affected, and so on. With this approach, Suhail proceeds, in Chapter 4, to contextualise the specificity of land grabs in the state by mapping changes in the nature of land tenure relations, agrarian class structures, and landownership rights in Kashmir since the ancient times.

Suhail argues that landownership rights have existed in Kashmir since the 5th century. He details the types of individual landholdings across the different historical eras of Kashmir, which changed fundamentally with the arrival of the Dogras in 1846. During the Dogra regime, all individual landholdings were abolished and the peasantry was subjected to brutal oppression, being reduced to the status of “serfs” who were not even allowed to migrate. With the peasantry’s grievances mounting, the Dogra kings introduced certain reforms suggested by the Glancy Commission 1931, which, however, failed to significantly improve the lot of the peasantry (War 2014). Ultimately, it was a larger movement of peasants, led by Sheikh Abdullah, armed with the Naya Kashmir Manifesto implemented after the end of the Dogra rule in 1947 that brought any relief. The land reforms initiated by the Sheikh-led government in several phases redistributed surplus land among landless peasants by capping the maximum quantum of land to be held by individuals, a landmark step that increased the income of peasants and also induced the upward social mobility of the peasantry.

A Tale of Two Villages

The book proceeds to elaborate on a case study of land-grabbing in two villages, Badwan and Khopri, separated by the Kishanganga river in the Gurez Valley in Bandipora district, around 140 kilometres away from Srinagar. The author gives a vivid description of the mountainous villages that remain snow-laden for half a year, almost cut off from mainstream Kashmir. These villages together comprise 576 households (only 90 families in Khopri), including people from different descents and locales. People from adjacent areas too have migrated here because of the increasing military fortification and occupation of their traditional lands. Most of the households are those of peasants, casual labourers, and government employees, with some having moved out to urban areas (such as Bandipora and Srinagar) and becoming absentee landlords. The author describes the villages as peaceful, with their own unique public spaces, culture and traditions, politically inclined yet coexisting peacefully.

Badwan and Khopri had remained peaceful until the day they were informed of the acquisition of their lands for the construction of KHEP. The power project plan involved diverting the waters of the Kishanganga river via a 22-kilometre-long tunnel to the dam site and released into Wular Lake. KHEP is one of the several dams constructed by the NHPC under the memorandum of understanding between the Government of J&K and the central power ministry in 2009. Despite people in the villages having private and collective land rights, the Government of J&K acquired their lands under the pretext of “public purpose” without consulting or informing the people (violating part II of the State Land Acquisition Act of 1990 which states “informing those affected through public notices”) of these villages who now stand dispossessed and dislocated from not only their land rights, but their livelihoods, social ties, and ways of living.

Suhail, thus, challenges the global notion that prevention of land-grabbing requires constitutional enshrinement of specific property rights. The cases of Badwan and Khopri, as presented by Suhail, suggest that land-grabbing may take place even in those places with recognised individual land rights already in place, and even in areas where land reforms have been variously successful (such as India, Brazil or China).

In Chapter 5, the author describes the process, actors involved and their respective roles in land-grabbing in Badwan and Khopri. The first are the peasants themselves who are at the receiving end, and now dispossessed. The second actor is the state, which perennially invokes the discourses of “imperative of national development” or “compensation” in acquiring the land. The third actor includes the socio-economic elite, sections of whom are absentee landlords. The author’s field interviews reveal that the absentee landlords were the first to rent out their lands to NHPC, which subsequently took full ownership of the rented lands. This made it difficult for the subalterns to ply their cases or resist their lands being taken. This class dynamics in Khopri and Badwan is a textbook example of heterogeneity in peasantry.

The dispossessed population was promised jobs, sufficient compensation and infrastructural developments, all of which proved to be a farce. In fact, even the electricity in this area is supplied by army generators. Both the construction companies, Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) and NHPC, were not held answerable to the people; a win–win situation for both. Thus, benefits drawn from such projects go to India’s middle class and corporations at the cost of those dispossessed.

Through a series of interviews, Suhail foregrounds various narratives (of the actors involved) representing various perspectives on the issue, particularly of those from below. While the government and the NHPC approach this dispossession from the standpoint of compensation, peasants see it as an estrangement from their lands, cultures and traditions. It further destroys their communitarian social capital, pushes them from being a self-reliant community to one dependent on the vagaries of market forces and pushed into labour migration. But, the worst impact of such forms of dislocation is on women who are already trapped in illiteracy and lack of independent housing and agricultural jobs, suffering doubly on becoming landless.

Yet another facet of its impact is reported on the ecology of the Gurez Valley. Several studies by political groups and research institutes have revealed that the water has been rendered unfit for human consumption by chemical contamination, and the destruction of trees and land (Suhail 2012). This discord embodies the contrast between people’s attachment to the ecology that uses, but also helps replenish, natural resources, and capitalist ventures that only exploit the resources for narrow gains.

Power and Resistance

The process of land-grabbing in Badwan and Khopri is essentially a political one, which has not gone uncontested by the affected population. However, as Suhail shows, in conflict areas such as Kashmir, such popular resistance cannot assume violent forms, for the following reasons: (i) any violent attempt is seen as an essentially anti-state or pro-freedom activity, which might invite greater violence by the state. Thus, the invocation of imminent domain by the state trumps all other claims; (ii) in conflict areas like Kashmir, even protests for basic necessities easily snowball into the anti-state domain; (iii) the people of Badwan and Khopri rely on the military for several things (given the state government’s inability to extend even basic services at times); (iv) the isolated location of these villages, which makes it difficult for the peasants to so much as make their voices heard.

But, rather than seeing the peasants of Badwan and Khopri as essentially passive actors who do not resist under the fear of authorities, Suhail identifies alternative forms of resistance by situating them in the theories of subaltern politics, particularly of James C Scott and Ben Kerkvliet. Fearing a backlash from authorities, the oppressed resist in hidden and covert ways, what he calls “everyday resistance,” which may be material or symbolic, successful or futile, yet potent in fuelling the larger movement. Such hidden forms of resistance include sabotage, foot-dragging, dissimulation, gossip, feigned ignorance, and so on.

Chapter 6 details the forms of resistance undertaken by the peasants of Badwan and Khopri. The resistance initially took the form of “advocacy politics” involving concerted protests invoking natural or constitutional rights. But, as Suhail shows, the scope of their resistance is undercut by a section within, namely the absentee landlords who collaborate with the land grabbers. Given this crack within peasant politics itself, their resistance against the loss of their lands and environment slowly transformed itself into resistance for “enough compensation.” It is here that politicians who, despite their allegiance to the state, find dividends in the protestors’ demands and become their “messiahs.” While the larger fight for justice by the Dard–Sheena tribe (one of the affected communities in the study villages) is fast dying, they nevertheless continue to speak against the government, corporation, elites, officials, and corruption whenever they see any opportunity.

Some Analytical Questions

Finally, in Chapter 7, Suhail raises and addresses four research questions. First, “who owns what?” which illustrates change in the means of (re)production in Badwan and Khopri with the arrival of capital (NHPC), following which hitherto owners of land are rendered landless and casual labour, without any formal rights; the NHPC now controls 450 acres of land in this region. Second, “who does what?” which involves an investigation of the division of labour in Badwan and Khopri post-KHEP. While peasants work in their agricultural lands, others raise livestock, run groceries, pursue government employment, and some work as casual workers. On the other hand, the state acts as a facilitator of deals between the local people and the corporation, legalising, controlling and transferring land to the latter.

Third, “who gets what?” identifies to whom the fruits of labour go. Peasants initially relied on their own agricultural products, firewood, wild vegetables and medicinal plants for survival. However, after the project, they have become completely dependent on the market and compensatory benefits. On the other hand, the NHPC has earned `194 billion in Kashmir between the years 2001 and 2015, while the Government of Jammu and Kashmir earns a meagre 12% as royalty (Citizen 2016). Fourth, “what do they do with it?” which concerns the utilisation of the produce. On account of the displacement, the peasants no longer enjoy a persistent source of income, depending entirely on the compensation and thereby entangled in an uncertain future. The NHPC, on the other hand, uses the revenue it generates from here to expand its bases elsewhere or overseas. It further supplies energy to Indian cities, and the corporate sector, fuelling its growth. The state uses its measly royalty in enhancing electricity supply in the state and purchasing electricity from neighbouring northern states during winters, thus deteriorating the economic status of the state further.

Notwithstanding the strengths of the book, some of its key arguments remain ambivalent on the one hand, and skip other key issues on the other. The overarching argument of the book is that the role of the NHPC in Kashmir is that of capitalism and imperialism. As long as the NHPC exploits the natural resources (water in this case) of J&K and supplies its products (electricity) to the corporate sector and middle class based in other states to generate profits, with little benefit to J&K, it obviously is a capitalist process sponsored by the state per se. However, when Suhail claims the role is additionally an act of imperialism, he neither engages with the academic debate on contemporary imperial practices, nor elaborates the argument in the book itself. On closer scrutiny, one finds that Suhail is in fact borrowing from a recent work, The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-first Century? by Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras. This study is based in Latin America, where left-oriented regimes had promised to promote inclusive development. For Veltmeyer and Petras, however, this seeming post-neo-liberal model of development or development with a human face is no different from the previous ones because they have increasingly relied on newer forms of resource extractivism. They frequently serve foreign capital by supplementing their extractive activities (such as land-grabbing), inviting resistance by the affected.

What Veltmeyer calls “extractive imperialism” takes affirmative form in Suhail’s application of it. While Veltmeyer et al do not use the term “imperialism” per se, but refer to its forms, Suhail makes no attempt to refine his usage of the term to differentiate between his conclusion with that of Veltmeyer. By using the generic term “imperialism” in his argument without clarification, Suhail must show how newer forms of imperialism differ from its classical forms. A departure from imperialism as an interstate affair to imperialism as an intra-state affair needs to factor in politics in postcolonial societies. Moreover, one is confused whether the case of J&K because of its historical specificity fits well in Suhail’s conceptualisation or if the same could also be argued about other states of India. In short, this argument lacks clarity and needs to be elaborated upon more comprehensively rather than applied in toto.

As far as the scope of Suhail’s study is concerned, one could genuinely question the tiny research sample (of about 570 households) used in the study. As such, Suhail leaves off substantive cases of land-grabbing in J&K. Lands in J&K are grabbed equally by army, local capitalists, and politicians. For instance, in Srinagar alone, the army has grabbed more than 1,000 acres in Badami Bagh housing where the 15 Corps Headquarters is based. Similarly, the air force base in Damodar Karewa, Budgam, is spread over 2,493 acres. In fact, the Ministry of Defence itself admitted that 5,70,133 kanals of land are under the occupation of the army in J&K (Bhukhari 2013). Apart from land grabs by the state and army, Suhail also overlooks the emerging elite/capitalist class in the state itself. One can observe massive land-grabbing of forestlands converted to hotels, resorts and other business facilities by local elites and politicians in hill stations and prominent tourist places across the Valley (Kashmir Observer 2016).


With the NHPC increasing its clout in J&K by constructing more HEPs, exercising absolute and singular control over them, and demanding a lion’s share in revenues, the state has begun registering strong reservations and protests against the centre and demanding that the projects be returned to the state (Bhat 2017). In this context, Suhail’s Pieces of Earth is a timely reflection on the issue besides being a crucial contribution to global land-grabbing studies. Above all, a subaltern approach to studying Kashmir provides a new insight into what is brewing in its underbelly. The book is pithily written, with occasional ambiguities, but can well be called a key work on the political economy of J&K.


Bhat, Adnan (2017): “Behind the Kashmir Valley’s Power Crisis Is a Fight to Control Resources,” Wire, 15 April,

Bhukhari, Shujaat (2013): “J&K: Land Grab of a Different Kind,” Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, 24 July, 4050.html.

Citizen (2016): “RTI Reveals NHPC Sells J&K Power, Earns `19,431 Crore,” 22 April, /3/7495/RTI-Reveals-NHPC-Sells-JK-Power-Earns-Rs-19431-Cr.

Kashmir Observer (2016): “Jammu Tops in Illegal Government Land-grabbing,” 3 July, -tops-illegal-govt-land-grabbing-8206.

Suhail, Ajmal (2012): “Bandipora Up in Arms against HCC Noncompliance,” Greater Kashmir, 29 December, https://www.

War, Engineer Hilal Ahmad (2014): “July 13 1931: The Day of An Idea,” Greater Kashmir, 12 July, 173990.html.

Updated On : 17th Aug, 2018


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