Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Orchard in Kashmir

(This family history is contributed by my Mamaji, Roshan Lal Das, who previously sent me the story of his ancestral house at a place in Srinager called Kral Khod [Here]. This time around, he sent me the story of a tract of land in his ancestral village. It was a new and interesting story for me.)

My great grandmother, who for most of her life was known simply as 'Haer' (like the bird ‘finch’) belonged to village Harmain in Shopian collectorate. We had inherited a large tract of land from her maternal side.

I had never been to this village till I grew well out of my teens. There was no road connectivity even up to 1973. One had to go to Shopian by bus, and then take another bus up to town Imam Sahib on the route to Kulgam. After getting down at Imam Sahib one had to travel across meadows, brooks, plateaus and unpaved paths on foot to reach Harmain, a distance of nearly 7 kilometers.

In 1967, a distant cousin from Harmain visited us at our Kralhod house in Srinagar. He insisted that I should accompany him and visit our ancestral village. Those days I had no particular liking for villages. But he insisted. Reluctantly, I accompanied him. He took a different route to the village: we took a bus to Anantnag and from there another bus to Kulgam, we got off at village called Qadiyar, a large village on the way to Kulgam town. It was late afternoon, trudging along western direction we were on our way to Harmain. Before my eyes was an endless expanse of meadows and rice fields. As the sun was beginning to set behind the vast western mountains, unexpectedly, I had a sudden surge to hum a Harry Belfonte song:

Down at the way where nights are gay
And sun shines daily on mountain top

The sun was playing hide and seek with bits of clouds. Herds of cows, with bells tingling around their neck, were being driven home, raising a lot of dust (‘gow dhuli’ in Hindi). By the time we reached my host’s home, it was already dark. In all we must have walked nearly 10 Kilometers. I had never walked so much in my life and I was dog tired. I was offered a trough of hot water, the generosity of this act was lost on me as I had no clue what I was supposed to do with it. Then I was told that it would rid me of tiredness. One of the younger sons of my host got down on his knees and washed my feet with this hot water. I started feeling relaxed. It worked. Later, a rolled quilt was put behind my weary back and we got ready for dinner. Food was a simple affair and unlike city food, less oily and less spicy. The rice was an unpolished brown variety known commonly as ‘zag’. After having a hearty meal, I slept like a log.

Next day my host took me around chunks of our ancestral paddy lands.

These packets were scattered around all over the outer fringes of the village. I was also introduced to our sharecroppers. They seemed to be comparatively poorer but contentment was visible on their faces. One of the obvious reasons for this contentment was land settlement established by Sir Walter Lawrence; another reason was the ensuing J&K agrarian reforms act.

Before 1890, the revenue department followed an archaic system created by Todarmal, the revenue advisor of Empror Akbar. Under this system the sharecroppers were not hereditary. Anyone who tilled the land would get his name endorsed in the records. He had to pay taxes as well, and these could be in cash or in the form of crops. Lawrence changed all this and the peasants had a bit of relief. In gratitude, they named a village in Doru Shahbad Pargana as ‘Larnow’ after their savior.

Nineteen Seventies were the days of decaying feudal system. The crops were shared by the absentee landlords and the tillers on equal basis.

Out of curiosity, I entered the house of one Ama Chopan (‘Chopan’ in Kashmiri means a Shepherd) who was one of the tillers. The house was neat with mud plastered walls, trellis and thatched roofs. There was an outhouse which served as cowshed (‘Gaan’ in local lingo),with an attic which served as store place for fodders. I found that almost every villager had a cow to meet day to day diary needs. Ama Chopan invited me to tea in his outer kitchen area. Unlike city Muslims, the village women hardly observe any ‘Parda’. The women here freely mingled with guests. I was offered salted tea with powdered maize (‘Sutoo’).The salted tea had been prepared in an alloy ‘Somavar’. The village folks back then prepared most of their foodstuff in clay pots kept over mud-stoves running on dried cow-dung cakes as source of energy. (The village folks too have now moved to gas stoves)

Next day, I was shown around our ancestral orchard. The orchard was located on a picturesque plateau which was called as ‘Kral Wudar’ which in literal meaning stood for: the plateau belonging to the people living in ‘Kral Khod’ (our native locality in Srinagar city).

The plateau presented a breathtaking view of surrounding mountains which held the lake of ‘kosarnag, which I knew as the source of famous waterfall of ‘Ahrabal’. A small stream flowed down below from this plateau. At the foot of the plateau, this stream took a sharp downward bend near my host’s house, who had ingeniously installed a stone grinder (‘Grat’) at the spot. The villages had not yet been electrified even as Srinagar had it electric wires way back in 1930s. People have always found ways of cutting efforts. This stone grinder would move on and on due to cascading water and the village folks would grind their maize or rice for flour. The husk was retained by the owner of the stone grinder as barter system still prevailed in villages till then.

Next day I left for home. My host accompanied me to another village Hajipur which was connected to Shopian town by a motorable road. Back then village people had a strange way of detecting whether the bus was approaching. They would put their ear to the road and listen-in on the sounds of an approaching bus. They were known to easily detect the approaching bus even if it was a mile away.

It had been a thoroughly pleasurable trip. I made it a habit to visit the orchard twice every year. These trips went on smoothly for next five years. But only five years.

In the year 1973, during one of my bi-annual trips to the village, while strolling in our orchid, among almond trees, I was surprised to see a few freshly planted saplings of cottonseed. I asked our chowkidar, a man known to me as ‘Ramana Chookidar’, about these saplings and if he knew who had planted them. He certainly knew and was willing to answer but said that since he was a native of that village, he should not be named, lest his family be socially boycotted by his neighbors (a phenomena known as ‘Tarki Mowaalaat’ or ‘No Promotion through No Contact’). He claimed that the saplings have been planted by the villagers who had some ulterior motive. I went to village Patwari and asked him for a copy of ‘Intikhaab’ or Mutations. He said that we people had been sleeping over years as the records available with him showed that that the villagers were share-croppers since ages and were planting dry crops such as maize, peas and cottonseeds in our orchard. I told him it is a plain lie and that there were interpolations in the records. He said that all his predecessors could not be lying.

Something snapped inside me. Only then I realized the reason of contentment on those faces of villagers.

The state Government had thought of making the tillers rich by enacting J&K agrarian reforms act. Under this act, tillers had to pay a token amount in the form of a levy. This token amount back then came around to rate of Rs.250 for fallow Land (Banjare Qadeem), Rs.300 for ‘B’ class paddy land and Rs. 350 for ‘A’ class paddy land. In this law there was no mention of dry lands or the pastoral land. With a single stroke of pen, the J&K government achieved what the Russian, Chinese and bunch of other countries took years of revolutions to achieve, and even in these counties the land was accrued to state not directly to the tillers.

I went back to city and informed about the situation to my cousins and uncle who too were the part owners of that Orchid. They too were flabbergasted. Next week we all went back to Harmain and talked to the sharecroppers. We tried to reason with them but having been tutored by one ‘Pala’(a shepherd class by ancestry) they refused and brashly demanded half of the land. We talked to the village Patwari and asked as to how the records could be falsified. He said that it was not him but all his predecessors who had entered mutations of sharecropping and even the records in archives were reflecting the same.

We went down to the police station of Shopian.The SHO was a little bit hesitant after he listened to our pleas. He said that all the matters regarding land had become a holy cow after the government pushed for J&K agrarian reforms bill. We had to pay him a heavy bribe to (effectually) lend us half a dozen cops who could accompany us back to the village. As soon as we entered on our Orchard the village folks along with their families tried to overwhelm the us by their sheer number. The policemen took to their heels.

In Indian subcontinent there is an unwritten law that if your land or house is under occupation of someone else and if you are not able to evacuate him you are liable to lose ownership rights by and by. Desperate, hopeless, we pitched a tent in the middle of the Orchard. Next day, not to be outdone, the ‘tillers’ pitched their own tent in the Orchard. We fought a pitched tent battle. But here too we were doomed.

We being cityfolks had to face a lot of difficulties as we were used to tap-water at home and we were certainly not used to attend call of nature in the open fields. On rainy days we would collect the rainwater dripping down the tent. We realized we couldn’t hope to win the battle this way so in the meanwhile; we filed a petition before the district collector who held his court in comparatively distant Anantnag. The lawyer from tiller side pleaded that we were the exploiter Zamindars since generation and the tillers were a exploited lot since generations. The collector however was not impressed. On hearing the details, he too seemed to be a bit confused. He too concluded Agarian Reforms Act had not mentioned anything about such type of disputes. However, he gave a decision that all the almond produce generated from the trees should be kept in the custody of the owners of the trees till the final decision on the case could be arrived at. To implement the decision, a low functionary of the revenue department (whose palms had to be greased by us) was deputed along with us to the village.

As soon as we reached the orchard and started shaking the crops from the trees, the whole population of the village descended down on the orchard and forcibly removed the crop from our hands. We were stifled by their sheer numbers. In the presence of that government revenue man, the whole crop was forcibly snatched from us.

We again appealed to the district collector. He directed the local police to seize the crop wherever it was. Police claimed inability to lay hands on the crop.

I went back home and had a deep introspection. It dawned upon me that the days of feudal ownership of land were over and a neo-feudalism had taken over. There was little we could do about it. I did nothing about the orchard for next couple of years.

Then one day I had heard a big landlord named Lal Shah who lived at village Hajipur near our village. This landlord had not allowed his tillers to grab any of his land. He along with his six sons had simply used their muscle power to keep his holdings intact. Lal Shah was now eying other lands. A thought occurred to me. I asked my distant relative of Harmain to fix a meeting with him which he did. I was quite impressed meeting him. He had the kind of personality that would remind one of a tribal chief. He had handlebar moustache, mascaraed eyes and presented himself in a red colored velvet waistcoat.

We discussed my situation. He seemed to know everything about our Orchard. I offered him our portion of the Orchard for a price which was much lower than the market rates. He did not agree and insisted that he was interested only if he could get the whole the whole piece in one go.

I went back to city and talked to my uncle and cousin. My uncle agreed but my cousin thought of it as a mad scheme. Instead of following my way of action, my cousin came up with a plan of his own, he went to the villagers and offered them one third of his portion of the land. This plan wasn’t acceptable to me, I yearned to pay the villagers back in the same coin and in a way I also wanted to transfer my headache permanently on their shoulders. Finally I along with my uncle inked a deal with Lal Shah, the real Zamidar. Though the price was much lower than the actual price of the land, the money thus obtained from this ‘distress sale’ (a term that was to haunt Pandits again in a couple of decades) later helped with my younger sister’s marriage.

Due to much changed circumstances in Kashmir, my cousin’s corner of that Orchid is still lying in dispute even as thirty years have passed us by.


Even though the woman who gets married in the end would be my mother, I had to remind my Uncle that according to Marx it was a simple case of +1 and -1. I said it even as Orwell's Animal Farm came to my mind. What if both men and animals end-up reading Orwell and both claim to have understood it, in entirety, and claim it to be their own gospel? Isn't that more likely to happen in this world? Isn't that what happens? Anyway, I post this story even as I have already dis-owned some of the under-currents that a nuanced reader of literature might pick in this piece. But I believe this ought to be out there, just as counter-stories ought to be out here. I remain open to a counter stories. Especially now.

Image: Kashmiri Pandit women working the fields, 1890. Came across it on the cover of a popular community magazine of Kashmiri PanditsKoshur Samachar (not surprisingly uncredited in the issue dated December, 2010). 


From British Library. Dated 1895. Photographer Unknown.

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