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Understanding Kashmir's Feudalism

While in Europe, the landlord was the chief exploiter, in medieval Kashmir it was the state and its aides who ate up their maximum surplus.
12:36 AM May 02, 2024 IST | Guest Contributor
understanding kashmir s feudalism
Pic book cover (Mushtaq A. Kaw, Kashmir Feudalism: Amid Changing Land Tenures, Srinagar, Jay Kay Books)

An eminent economist, Karl Marx, traced the history of human development in five successive stages, each distinguished for a specific system of production and production relations. One was the feudal mode of production which obtained in ancient India, ancient and medieval Kashmir and medieval Europe at different times. The feudalism defines a co-relationship between the landlordism and serfdom and legitimizes the privileged position of the landed aristocracy at the cost of the serfs (bonded labour) and the tenants (working the feudal land on the rent basis).



Professor Mushtaq A. Kaw in his book on Kashmir Feudalism: Amid Changing Land Tenures has profiled the feudalism as a dominant mode of production during the Hindu and the Dogra rule in Kashmir. He grapples with the rigorous terms and conditions that guided the peasantry to possess, plough and share the land produce with the damaras (feudal lords). He shows that Kashmir feudalism had a definite co-relationship with the ancient Indian or European feudalism. This is perhaps why it was based on a hierarchical order, with the king (the overlord), at the top, the damaras (feudal lords) in the middle and the enslaved serf community at the bottom. The vassals and the nobles (damaras) provided military services to the king. However, instead of the cash salary, the damaras were provided the agraharas (land grants) with absolute rights on the land, its resources and the peasantry. These agraharas were often subinfeudated or subdivided among the lesser damaras (lesser lords) who, in turn, distributed the same among the serfs and the tenants for cultivation and delivery of the maximum agricultural surplus, family labour and other menial services. The only damara responsibility was to secure the serf families under a mutual understanding.


Kaw’s book has 7 major chapters, the introduction and conclusion excluding. In the Chapter-I on the “Kinetics of Kashmir’s Agricultural Faming”, Kaw unfolds the paramount features of Kashmir’s agricultural economy, arguing that there was more continuity than change in the agricultural geography, village structure, peasant stratification, crop pattern, tool typology, seed formation, trade organization etc. The peasant was the fulcrum of the entire set of agricultural faming from early times to the present.



In the Chapter-2 on the “Transition Debate: Slavery-Feudalism-Capitalism”, Kaw invokes a debate among the scholars regarding the presence or otherwise of feudalism in Europe, India and Kashmir. He also unearths the factors responsible for the transition from the slave to the feudal and the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. In Europe, the debate opened with the writings of Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy etc., and in India and Kashmir, with the writings of D.D.Kosambi, RS Sharma, Habans Mukhia and other regional scholars. By and large, the scholars affirm the feudal presence in some if not all the three regions, though regional variations existed as regards the feudal timeline and the names of feudal land units, feudal agents, and feudal manifestations. Kaw rightly argues that the transition represented a significant shift in the socio-economic and politico-judicial fabric of the aforesaid regions. The landlord-serf inter-relationship was formalized through the oaths of fealty between and among the vassals, lords, lesser lords and the serfs in a pyramidal order. The serfs were the most exploited lot with no legal rights but hoards of obligations towards their feudal master and their families.


In the chapter-3 on the “Feudal Presence: Ancient Kashmir”, Kaw establishes that the ancient Kashmir was symptomatic of feudalism for the presence of the landlord class of the damaras and the agrahara (landed estates) granted to them to account for their personal salary and the maintenance cost of their contingents. Primarily, the damaras constituted the local chieftains of the Tantrin, Lavanye, and the Ekangas castes and secondarily, the wealthy traders, arms-bearing urban peasants, Buddhist Bhiksus, Hindu Brahmans and men of low social origin. Implicitly, therefore, the term damara didn’t define a specific caste but a title or privilege that could be obtained by whosoever was resourceful and powerful in Kashmir. True, the service agraharas were held by the damaras. But, the non-service agraharas were held by the clergy and others. In all, the damaras made a powerful class who occupied fertile landed estates, the size corresponded with their rank in the military system. They dwelt in the forts and ramparts; retained strong army and often clashed and cooperated among themselves or with the state for their vested interests. The worldly clergy replicated them for the material pursuits, abusing their clerical position, converting temple treasures into their personal property, dabbling in politics, retaining security and daring the state authority much like the damaras.

In the chapter-4 on the “End-Feudalism: Medieval Kashmir”, Kaw contends that feudalism ceased in medieval Kashmir with the power shift from the Hindu to the Muslim rule , even though the Christian missionaries and foreign travelers maintain that whole land was the sole property of king, nullifying thereby the entire idea of the private proprietorship in medieval Kashmir. But the fact remains that the private proprietary rights existed on the urban and the rural property invariably during the reign of the Sultans, Mughals, Afghans and the Sikhs. The property was freely gifted, distributed and alienated through the will, gift and the sale deeds. The right of the assignees on the iqta   or jagir and that of the grantees on the waqf and the madad-i ma’sh land was specific to the revenue than the title of the land. Such a right alone vested with the basic tiller. The intermediaries or the grantees had their no competence whatsoever to deny the maurusi (hereditary) and milkiyati (ownership) rights of the peasantry; eject them from the land; force them to pay rent instead of tax on the land produce and change their options of the traditional crop pattern.

Kaw is pretty clear that medieval Kashmir was not feudal at all, albeit, few feudal tentacles remained there in Kashmir’s socio-economic texture.  The begar (forced labour), per se, was extracted from the peasantry in different forms, for cleaning saffron from its flowers, lifting royal loads and for constructing forts, roads and gardens. Similarly, the peasantry was overexploited much like the European serfs and the tenants. However,  while in Europe, the landlord was the chief exploiter, in medieval Kashmir it was the state and its aides who ate up their maximum surplus.

In the Chapter-5 on the “Dynamics of Sale of Kashmir” Kaw offers the background that led to the political transformation and the resurrection of feudalism in modern Kashmir. Like Indian feudalism revived due to different British land revenue systems, Kashmir feudalism recurred due to the most infamous British act of the Sale of Kashmir (vide the Treaty of Amritsar,16 March 1846) to the Jammu Dogra chief, Ghulanb Singh, for 75 lakh Nanakshahee rupees. The special dispensation was extended to him for his support to the British during the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1845-46. Kaw states that the British act was cruel and inhuman for it didn’t represent the will of the people but that of the two regional and global powers. More so, it directly handed over the nascent peasantry into the feudal lap for physical and material onslaught. From a mere local chief (Raja) Ghulab Singh became a greater chief (Maharaja) over a vast territorial space and with absolute ownership rights on its resources and peoples of the common ethnic, if not, the common faith.

In the Chapter-6 on the “Feudal Rebirth: Dogra Rule” Kaw establishes a direct link between the diabolic Sale of Kashmir and the rebirth of feudalism in Kashmir. He rightly articulates that since the Maharaja acquired “extended Kashmir” worth a certain cost, he, as such, declared whole Kashmir as his personal property. Eventually, he dispossessed the peasantry of their age-long milkiyati land rights and resumed all the thitherto given service and non-service jagirs to the former nobles and clergy and re-allotted these to his own trusted men, the Rajput jagirdars, pattadars, and chakdars in exchange of the state military services. The new brand of the Rajput landlords was a privileged class, wielding profound influence over the peasantry, evicting them at will, exploiting their labour, extracting from them rocketed rents for the land use and finally pushing them to the unhealthy conditions of enslavement or bonded labour and the socio-economic stagnation. While the real land owners descended to the position of the serfs and tenants, the new Rajput intermediaries elevated to the position next to the ancient Indian or European landlords. Indeed, the feudal comeback during the Dogra rule triggered deep socio-economic imbalance between the privileged landlords and the marginalized peasantry for around a century.

In the Chapter-7 on the “Land Tenures: Continuity and Change” Kaw traces the history of the transforming land tenures from the early to the modern times in Kashmir. He admits that land in ancient Kashmir was the sole property of the king. However, he shared its ownership partly with the private persons and partly with the damaras, typically resembling the ancient Indian and Europe landlords for their absolute and superior rights and privileges on the land, its resources and the peasantry. However, the medieval Kashmir had altogether a non-feudal set up. The intermediaries, iqtidars and jagirdars, and the grantees, the madad-i ma’sh holders, were simply the revenue assignees (jagir holders) with no claim on the title of the land. Such a right alone belonged to the basic tiller on all types of land. The jagirdars and the madad-i ma’sh holders were strictly barred to transgress the peasant rights; evict them from the land and force them to pay the state share in cash or in the form of the rent in medieval Kashmir. Conversely, the Dogras reversed the non-feudal medieval form of production because of the legitimization of the landlordism and marginalization of the peasantry on the feudal land.   Literary, therefore, the Dogra state had two broad social classes. One, quantitatively small, but politically, militarily, socially and economically affluent and another, quantitatively large, but socio-economically excluded, surviving, therefore, with the minimum amenities of life.

Their plight was amply underscored by Lawrence in his Land Settlement report of 1889 and the Glancy Commission in its report of 1932. The National Conference (NC) also made their end-plight as the central demand during its popular political movement in Jammu and Kashmir.  No wonder, on assuming the power, the Sheikh Muhummad Abdullah-led NC government introduced doses of land reforms in and after 1948 to finish the peasant economic bondage and parasitic hierarchy of the Dogra feudal set up. The jagirs, mu`afis and mukararies were scrapped and around 55 lakh kanals of land was redeemed and distributed among the landless serfs and the tenants.

While the reforms were beneficial to the peasantry in the long run, these didn’t end their worries owing to the cloudiness of the post-Dogra political system. The land brought them no substantial returns. Many of them sold it for cheap to the Hindu officials and Hindu Sahukars, which automatically led to the contraction of the arable land. Kaw alarms that the existing and upcoming roadway, highway, railway, industrial, and tourism projects can still further shrink the extent of the arable land in Kashmir, mounting thereby the Valley’s dependence on the Punjab and other Indian states for diverse imports.

In nutshell, Mushtaq Kaw has done an excellent job by documenting the history of changing land tenures from the ancient to the modern times. His book is one among the pioneering works on a complex but the most fascinating subject of Kashmir feudalism. He has tapped a number of primary and secondary sources to unfold the reality behind the pathetic state of peasant affairs over the centuries together. I strongly recommend this slim volume to all students, scholars and the readers in general.

By Dr Shiraz Ahmad (Dr Shiraz Ahmad teaches modern Kashmir history in the Department of History, University of Kashmir.)

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