June 22, 2022 7:24 pm

How Roshni Became Dark in Kashmir

Representational Photo

Those who witnessed the din over a land scheme-turned-scam, say that it all started in 2011 when an academician, Prof. SK Bhalla, then Principal Government Degree College, Mendhar, filed a writ petition against “land grabbing” by some “influential” people in Jammu.

The alleged list included police officers, politicians and bureaucrats from the erstwhile state of J&K.

The petition sought the constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to punish the guilty.

Three years later, the professor-petitioner’s land drive would find its vocal adherent—a Kathua lawyer who rose to become the Roshni poster boy in rightwing circles.

It was on March 2014, that Ankur Sharma, then a law student and a resident of Kathua, would file a Public Interest Litigation before the J&K High Court against the Roshni Act.

Sharma known for his rightwing views challenged the constitutionality of the Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 and the rules framed under the J&K State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Rules, 2007.

He also demanded disclosure before the HC the names of illegal occupants/beneficiaries who have conferred the benefit of the Act and retrieved 2046436 kanals of land which is under “illegal occupation of the land mafia”.

After directing listing of both Prof Bhalla’s and Sharma’s PIL, the HC observed, “In the writ petition, several serious matters including the unauthorized occupation of a large chunk of land by encroachers have been noticed in several orders.”

The HC took cognizance of three major instances of complete illegalities under Roshni Act- 784 kanals in village Gole, Jammu, 154 kanals belonging to Jammu Development Authority (JDA) and 66436 kanals transferred to the government by JDA.

“The entire matter reeks of the inaction as well as collusion with the culprits of the local investigating authorities as well as the respondents,” the HC said in its judgement.

It declared the J&K State Land (vesting of ownership to the Occupants), Act, 2001 and the amendments as “completely unconstitutional, contrary to law and unsustainable.”

After twists and turns, HC recently ordered Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe in the Rs 25,000 crore Roshni land scam.

According to the judgement, all the allotments under the Act would be held void ab-initio.

The court has “prima facie found culpability of government officials at the highest-level enabling encroachment of public lands and permitting their illegal vesting in the hands of private owners”.

Under the Kashmir province, the total land regularized under Roshni Act is 3,33,392 kanals and in Jammu province, it is 5,71,210.

The maximum land allotted under the Roshni Act from Kashmir and Jammu is from Bandipora (11,002 kanals) and Rajouri (2,83,444 kanals) respectively.

But was it a “land-jihad”?

Petitioner Ankur Sharma has stated that the Roshni Act was aimed at bringing about a demographic change in Hindu-majority Jammu by triggering a “land jihad.”

“Our allegation that state land was given to Muslims to change the demographic of Jammu has been substantiated by the records produced before the high court,” he said in an interview.

He also claimed that 85-90 percent of the beneficiaries given land in Jammu under the Roshni Act were likely to be Muslims.

However, nothing like this is mentioned in the HC judgement, said Altaf Husnain Janjua, executive editor at Daily Udaan.

“Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs – everyone got the land and not only Muslims,” Janjua told Kashmir Observer.

There’s a rumour amongst people in Jammu that the HC order would take away their land, the editor said. “People are in confusion as they are fed with a different narrative.”

But the recent HC judgement of 64 pages is against the big sharks and land mafia, Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed, advocate J&K High Court, told Kashmir Observer. “There’s no need to play communal politics over it.”

Ahmed was the first counsel to file the petition in HC against the Roshni Act for Prof. SK Bhalla. He stressed that nowhere in the judgement any arguments of encroachments of land by Muslims is made.

“It is better if no politics is played over the judgement of the HC and if someone is trying to scandalize the proceedings, that will amount to contempt of HC,” he said.

“Clearly, this is not a Land Jihad,” Chaudhary Mushtaq Inqlabi, State Vice President BJP Tribal unit Jammu and Kashmir told Kashmir Observer. “Thing is, various politicians from Jammu are also involved in this.”

In fact, Inqlabi continued, this is just a scam circling around political leaders and government officials.

“There are several Hindus also involved in the scam, including former DGP Kuldeep Khuda, former ministers Raman Bhalla, Tara Chand, Surinder Singh Shingari, among others. Common man got nothing from this scam whether they are Hindus or Muslims.”

Some political parties have vested interests and some who want to emerge through this scam are calling this “land-jihad”, the BJP leader emphasized.

“The word jihad doesn’t fit here,” Beasat Khan, an advocate at J&K High Court, told Kashmir Observer.

“It’s an act to polarize the people of J&K. People are trying to build their vote-bank by using such narrative.”

What led to the Roshni scam?

In 2001, the government of Jammu and Kashmir introduced the J&K State Lands Act (vesting of ownership to the occupants) aka “Roshni Act” to generate Rs 25,000 crore by vesting ownership rights over 20 lakh kanals of state land.

Introduced by the National Conference (NC) led by the then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah, the Act was meant to sell the state land at market price to illegal encroachers and the revenue collected would be used to generate hydroelectric power in J&K.

The cutoff year for the encroachment of state land was set to 1990. The legislation which came into force on March 1, 2002, was amended in 2005 by Congress under the leadership of Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Under the J&K state lands (vesting of ownership to the occupants) Rules, 2007, the government relaxed the cut off year as 2004 which was further extended to 2007.

Under the amendments introduced by the new government, the cost of such land “at its market value under this Act” was substituted by “as determined under the Act and the rules made thereunder.”

It also revised the upper limit of the land from 10 kanals in 2001 to 100 kanals in 2007.

The government scheme which aimed to help the state government generate revenues turned out to be a tough row to hoe.

In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report said that instead of Rs 25,000 crore revenue generation target set by the government, only Rs 76 crore was collected between 2007 and 2013.

The report threw light on the irregularities including a haphazard reduction in prices fixed by a standing committee to benefit politicians and affluent people.

When tabled in the state legislature, the CAG report exposed Congress and National Conference as “institutional beneficiaries” of the Rs 25,000-crore Roshni scam.

Investigations into the land scam found out that land in Gulmarg has been given to ineligible beneficiaries and many government officials themselves occupied the land or vested it to people who did not satisfy the criteria for land transfer.

The Act was repealed by the State Administrative Council (SAC) under the chairmanship of Governor Satya Pal Malik in 2018 because it “failed to realize the desired objectives and there were also reports of misuse of some its provisions”.

According to the SAC orders, all pending application seeking rights on the land under the Act would remain cancelled and cases in which the government has already passed the rights would hold.

The effect of the HC order

One of the amendments made by the former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was that the land occupying farmers would have to pay a nominal fee of Rs 100 per kanal for getting mutation in their favour in the revenue record.

The former CM said that the bill would go down as revolutionary in the history of the state after the Land to the Tiller Act.

But according to Guftar Ahmed, a political activist from Jammu, the scheme was misused badly on behalf of poor and needy people.

“Farmers who are cultivating the state land have genuinely benefited through this scheme although the transfer was very small,” he said.

With the HC order that held the allotments made under the Roshni Act as void ab-initio, many ‘land-poor’ people are speculating about what lays ahead, said Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader in J&K.

Small pieces of land owned by poor people under the Roshni Act, who used these lands as a part of agriculture, should be justified by the government, he said.

“But I have a serious objection against powerful people who have occupied big chunks of land and are using it for commercial purposes,” said Tarigami.

He questioned how can large landholdings held by influential people be compared to a small portion of land owned by the impoverished?

According to editor Janjua, there will be an impact on poor people having small landholdings under the Act but the government would find an alternative for them.

He recollected when the Act was passed some parties in Jammu tried to communalize the Act by calling it ‘land-jihad’ but when the list of names came out it consisted names of both Muslims and non-Muslims. “Even in the HC judgement there is no mention that more land was given to Muslims,” he said.

But the bolstered administration and the rightwing campaign have already set the alarm bells ringing, said Dr. Mulkhraj Bhamagi, a social activist from Jammu.

“And because of this new narrative,” he said, “I’m getting calls from people asking me what to do if their land is taken.”

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