Whither Land Reforms in Gilgit Baltistan?

A big rally was organized (30 October 2023) at Skardu Yadgar Chowk in Gilgit to express solidarity with Palestinians and the freedom of Palestine. Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM) leaders Agha Syed Ali Rizvi, MWM President and others lauded the passion and power of faith of Hamas and Hezbollah who made life difficult for Israel. Islamic countries were criticized for being victims of vested interests. Significantly, Rizvi also added that non-state people/foreigners were eyeing the minerals of Gilgit Baltistan as some elements are trying to make Gilgit Baltistan (hereafter GB) like Palestine, which they would never let happen. He demanded that the sale of lands in Gilgit Baltistan to non-state elements should be stopped (Baad-e-Shimal, Daily K2). The decision of the GB government to initiate and implement a new Land Reforms Act in the region has set off a fierce debate between the local people and administration of Gilgit Baltistan.

Demonstrations led by the Awami Action Committee (AAC), an alliance of various political, religious and trade associations, erupted all across Gilgit Baltistan at the end of 2022. These protests continued well into the New Year (Sajjad Ahmed, GB’s Land Issue, The Dawn, 5 January 2023). Mass protests against electricity shortages, reduction in the wheat quota, taxation and land grabbing by the state were the main issues flagged at these protests. As a result of China’s investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), land use and land acquisition patterns had changed from 2015 onwards in GB. While locals argue that the land belongs to the people, as the region remains disputed as per the UN Resolutions and, has not yet been constitutionally integrated into Pakistan, the District Administration maintains that the land that has not been transferred to any individual belongs to the Pakistani state.

The issue of land has persisted for decades. It acquired greater urgency after 2015, when the state started obtaining more and more land in the name of development and security for CPEC. The most recent incident that triggered the mass protests took place when the people of Minower, Gilgit, stopped the state from demolishing the boundary walls (Pravina Srivastava, Anti-Pakistan protests in Gilgit Baltistan over illegal land grab by Army, newsx.com, 31 December 2022) surrounding the land claimed by them and other infrastructure they had built. Locals are demanding compensation for the land given to state institutions and cancellation of illegal allotments to land mafias. Images and videos of protesters stopping tractors and arguing with security forces were circulated recently on social media.

At the start of the year, the Pakistani government realised that ownership and usage of land in GB could not be resolved through the existing systems. A land reform commission was formed by the PML-N government, but no definite reforms emerged. The current “Chief Minister”, Gulbar Khan tasked the chief secretary to draft a comprehensive law ensuring transparent procedures for establishing the equitable rights of locals to usable land (Afzal Ali Shigri, Land Reforms, The Dawn, 28 March 2023). Muhiudeen Wani, chief secretary had formed to work on various aspects of the existing legal framework for land management. The team also interacted with numerous stakeholders and reviewed impediments, and examined customs determining the parameters of usage of common land.

These efforts resulted in a two-day conference (APP, GB Govt. starts working on long-standing issue of land reforms, Daily Times, 21 February 2023) which was attended by the Commissioners and DCs of GB. Officers were told to review all existing acts and rules, look at the historical, legal and institutional set-up; and suggest ways of land settlement using modern technologies and modernisation of the land record system. The core team then produced a draft law in record time. The bill has 41 sections comprehensively covering all key concerns of GB residents. Section 2, which deals with definitions, has eliminated all grey areas that could be exploited.

Writing in the Dawn, Afzal Ali Shigri claims the division of the land into two broad categories of ‘partible’ and ‘impartible’ provides the foundation for the proposed legislation, while also addressing fundamental challenges. Defining what constitutes government land, the draft bill puts to rest the issue of the general misuse of the term ‘khalisa sarkar’ to deprive the locals of their land rights. Similarly, forests, riverbeds, lakes, glaciers, mountains, common road networks and areas of common recognised land have been assigned to the category of impartible land, thus ensuring environmental protection and common use. There are also detailed formula to allocate ‘partible’ land to the local pop­ulation tran­­s­parently.

Locals claim that common land (Shamilat-e-Deh or community lands) in GB has been used by the people for livesto­­ck grazing, colle­cting firewood, etc., since Dogra rule, in fact, for centuries even before that. Interestingly, in the Land Revenue Act 1967, which was exten­ded to GB, this common land is not shown as government land. With the rise in population and sudden spike in prices, the value of land increased manifold and the conflict between the state and the people started. (Amjad Ali, Ghulam Ali, et. al., “Factors shaping economics of land use change in Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan, GeoJournal, (2022), 87/3951-3966.). The issue probably became complicated on account of the fact that the government price for land in most cases is significantly lower than the market price and ideally, selling of land would take place on the market rate.

Ehsan Ali, former President of the GB Supreme Appellate Court, has criticised the nautore rule (1978) as being violative of the Land Revenue Act and an attempt to seize the people’s land through land mafias. He also criticised the violation of State Subjects Rule (SSR), arguing that a “rule is not law. A law is repealed through another law, but no law repealed SSR, and it is violated by different governments and regimes”. The problem was that the Nautore Rules were put in place, their implementation was half-hearted. This was because the lands remained due to prolonged litigation and in the case of Chilas subdivision, district Diamer, the Botokhel tribe challenged the Nautore Rules. The main aim of the Nautore Rules was to correct the land records and prepare a fresh inventory of Khalisa lands, but this could be not given effect to as mafias got into the act and Khalisa land was shown as private or community lands in the revenue records. (Muhammed Ajmal Bhatti and Zahir Ali, “Land Tenure and Title System in Gilgit-Baltistan”, Journal of Studies in Social Sciences, Volume 15, Number 1, 2016, pp. 1-31).

The government of Gilgit Baltistan claims that the proposed Land Reforms Act 2023 aims to introduce a legal and policy framework to govern land ownership issues in the region. The bill claims that it has been enacted to reduce poverty, open new economic opportunities through improved agricultural productivity, ensure food security, and self-sufficiency in Gilgit Baltistan. It states that the government intends to uplift social and economic development by extending access to resources, especially establishing equitable rights in the usable lands. However, the proposed land reform bill in Gilgit-Baltistan has met with serious resistance from the local populace. Various stakeholders, including political parties, civil society organizations, and the legal fraternity, have expressed dissatisfaction with the bill’s components, characterizing it as a set of draconian laws aimed at expropriating the ancestral land of the people of this disputed region of the Jammu and Kashmir conflict.

There are several instances of land grabbing in Gilgit Baltistan by the Pakistan Army., The United Kashmir People’s National Party (UKPNP) for instance last year, strongly condemned growing land grabbing in the region, where military, non-state actors and other influential people were illegally and forcefully seizing private and public property, hilltops and tourist resorts like Peer Chanasi Hill Top in Muzaffarabad district. “These holiday resorts belonged to the people of this region, where people freely went with their families. After seizing these holiday resorts, military and non-state actors restricted access to the entire area by erecting barbed wire, and no one is allowed to enter. If someone ignores their instructions, orders are to shoot him on sight”, the declaration said (cited by ANI, in “Residents in Gilgit Baltistan protest over forced land acquisition by Pak Army”, zee5.com, 21 September 2022).

Historically, land management system can be traced to the early 19th century, when the Sikh empire, with its seat of power in Lahore, occupied Kashmir and started expanding in the direction of Baltistan and Ladakh. Gulab Singh Dogra extended the empire towards the north, capturing Ladakh and Baltistan and annexing Skardu to Jammu. In the late 19th century, the Sikh rulers tried to settle the land in Skardu, Astore and Gilgit. The cultivatable, revenue-generating land was allotted to the people. Subsequently, Dogra rulers collected the revenue while land ownership was maintained by the Sikh government. In 1914-1916, the Dogras, facing difficulty in revenue collection, provided cultivated land to the local rulers, or rajas, to collect revenue and give it to the state as taxation. The remaining land was considered Shamilat-e-Deh (common property) of the villages.

The Dogra rulers also implemented the State Subject Rule (SSR) in Kashmir, barring outsiders from buying Kashmiri land or getting a domicile and getting jobs. The system of land tenures and titles in Gilgit Baltistan is governed by the Land Revenue Act of 1967, Land Revenue Rules 1968, Land Acquisition Act 1894 and other laws enumerated from time to time. After 1947, successive Pakistani governments gave little importance to the barren land in GB. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto abolished the local feudal system and brought land reforms in the 1970s, GB residents paid an amount of money devised by the government at the time to obtain ownership. The government also compensated local rajas through remuneration and land (Sajjad Ahmed, GB’s Land Issue, The Dawn, 5 January 2023).  

It was during Gen Zia’s military regime that the nautore (break land for cultivation) rule was introduced. A Dawn editorial observes that it violated the Land Revenue Act of 1967. It was enforced in 1979 to regulate the land. According to Basharat Ghazi, a civil rights activist and lawyer, a procedure to transfer the land was defined. Under Section 11 of this rule, after the application, verification and payment of a certain amount, the land would be transferred to the residents. In the 1980s, another order was issued by the government, banning all kinds of transfers and allotment. Since then, the remaining land has been claimed by the government as its own. The lawyer fraternity in GB, however, differs with this stance in the light of UN resolutions on Kashmir. Land ownership rights remains a highly sensitive issue in Gilgit Baltistan but has been treated in a cavalier fashion by successive governments in Pakistan, with little effort to tackle the shortcomings of the existing system, which rests on discriminatory laws and traditions. The real challenge is the continued efforts by the Pakistan government in Islamabad to formalise the incorporation of Gilgit Baltistan by making changes to the land management system. These steps violate the UN Resolutions and as the region is still disputed, any action by Pakistan, in this regard would automatically be treated as null and void. Anyways, it is not in the interests of the people of the region. That by itself makes it bad in law.

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