In a significant judgment on October 9, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court declared the controversial Roshni Act as ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ and ordered a CBI probe into the Roshni land scam case. The division Bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajesh Bindal also asked the CBI to file a status report in the case every eight weeks. The court also said that J&K Chief Secretary will ensure uninterrupted investigation, which will also be directed against those officers in whose tenures the encroachments had happened. The court said “all Deputy Commissioners and Divisional Commissioners will be held for contempt of court if they do not cooperate with the investigation.”
On October 18, the High Court ordered that the investigation of the land scam be transferred to the CBI, which will file the status report within eight weeks. The CAG chief had also reported obstruction by some senior state administrative sources in providing the desired information in full.
Pandora’s Box opens
On October 21, 2020, the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, P K Pole chaired a meeting of Deputy Commissioners and other concerned officials and directed them to submit comprehensive details of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, police officers, government employees, businessmen, other influential persons and their relatives who had derived any benefit under the Act, officials said. Pole directed all the Deputy Commissioners of Kashmir Division to submit the District-wise details of the State’s lands as in 2001.
On October 22, 2020, the administration of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory ordered the submission of comprehensive details of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, police officers, government employees, businessmen, other influential persons and their relatives, who have benefitted from the Act, reported the Deccan Herald of Oct 22, 2020.
On November 24, 2020, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union Law Minister, speaking in a press conference said that the former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was among the beneficiaries in Roshni Act. The others in the list were the former Finance Minister of J&K, Haseeb Drabu, (who in a recent article in Greater Kashmir argued that the exiled Kashmiri Pandits had lost all claim to their Kashmir homeland) and Congress leader Majid Wani, former Home Minister and NC leader Sajjad Kitchloo and former JK Bank Chairman MY Khan, wrote IndiaToday of November 24, 2020.
Government’s swift action
Following media reports, the government acted fast and made public the first list of beneficiaries of the ‘Roshni Scheme’, which included several top politicians cutting across party lines, bureaucrats, police officials. It was done by the office of Divisional Commissioner, Jammu and Divisional Commissioner Kashmir in pursuance of the directions of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in the PIL NO 19 Of 2011 Titled S.K.Bhalla Vs State And Other Connected Matters Dated Oct 9, 2020.
Interestingly, earlier, the J&K government had decided to declare all the actions taken under the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, also known as the Roshni Act, under which 20 lakh kanals of land was to be transferred to existing occupants, as “null and void”, and has also initiated steps to retrieve the land within six months.
Acting on the directions of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, the J& K government has already directed the Principal Secretary Revenue Department to ensure that all the mutations done in furtherance of the act are annulled, encroachers are evicted and large tracts of land are retrieved within a period of six months. The orders in this regard were also issued by the Revenue Department and the concerned Tehsildars were directed to start the groundwork in order to retrieve the government land.
To attract media attention and expose the open loot the Principal Accountant General (Audit) Subash Chandra Pandey had even organized a press conference where he described the transfer of 3, 48,160 kanals of land in the State at a cost of Rs 76.24 crores (24 percent) against a demand of Rs 317.54 crores under Roshni Act, as one of the biggest scams of J&K. Originally, the Act was aimed at resource mobilization of Rs 25,448 crores for investment in the power sector.
Reportage in Media
The nationwide media and the local media took on to themselves to report the scam in their editions. In fact, it all started when on October 9, 2020, IkkJutt, a Jammu-based social organization/NGO initiated a demand for enquiry into the land scam, following which the High Court of J&K deemed the law and all allotments made since the beginning as “null and void” and “unconstitutional”. The court also said that the rules framed in 2007 by the Ghulam Nabi Azad (Congress) government did not appear to have any legislative sanction.
The Jammu-based Firstpost of Nov. 2, 2020 elucidated the issue under the title “J&K Government declares actions under Roshni Act ‘null and void’; what you need to know”.
In its issue of October 14, 2020, the Indian Express uncovered the scam titled ‘Loot to own’: J&K High Court hands Rs 25,000 crore land scam probe to CBI”. In 2009, the Jammu and Kashmir vigilance organisation had registered an FIR against public officials for “alleged criminal conspiracy to illegally possess and vest ownership of state land to occupants who didn’t satisfy the criteria under the Roshni Act”, Indian Express reported. While the then state bureaucracy called the Vigilance Organisation’s findings “motivated”, the Vigilance Organisation completed investigations in five cases by March 2015, and indicted nearly two dozen officials, including three former deputy commissioners for allegedly misusing the provisions of the scheme,” the report added.
“Actually it was repealed in 2018 after Governor Satya Pal Malik concluded that it had “not served” its purpose and was “no longer relevant in the present context”. This move was made after advocate Ankur Sharma, who had defended the accused in the Kathua rape case of January 2018, sought its repeal to “defeat the jihadi war in the form of demographic invasion of Jammu”, said Scroll.in. in its November 1, 2020 edition.
On November 1, 2020, The Hindu reasserted that the J&K UT administration declared all the actions taken under the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 – also known as the Roshni Act – as “null and void”. The government said it would evict encroachers and retrieve all land distributed under the scheme within six months.
The Business Insider of October 9, 2020 wrote, “In a landmark judgment, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on Friday declared the controversial Roshni Act “unconstitutional” and directed that investigation into the Rs 25,000 crore land allotment scheme under it be transferred to the CBI.
Background of the Roshni Act Scam
The Roshni case has been called the biggest ever land scams in the history of Jammu and Kashmir, and has allegedly caused a loss of Rs 25,000 crore to the J&K treasury. The Act, enacted by the State Legislature in November 2001, and enforced in March 2002, envisaged raising of funds for hydropower generation in the State by transferring State land into private ownership to collect Rs 25,000 crore.
A CAG report estimated that against the targeted Rs 25,000 crore, only Rs 76 crore had been realized from the transfer of land into private ownership.
Politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats had come under severe criticism for transferring State land into their ownership and that of their favourites at arbitrarily fixed rates, which ultimately deprived the State of land worth several thousand crores and also defeated the purpose of the Act.
Irregularities and repeal
In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) noted some serious irregularities in the implementation of the Act and in 2015 the State Vigilance organization charged over 20 government officials for misuse of the Act; no one was prosecuted, writes Suhail, Peer Ghulam Nabi in Pieces of Earth: The Politics of Land-Grabbing in Kashmir (2018). From 2015 onwards, efforts were made to get back some of the illegally-acquired land. These efforts proved a failure owing to non-cooperation of revenue functionaries. The Act was also found to be an attempt to change the demography of the entire region, investigations found. The Act was repealed in 2018 during the tenure of Governor Satya Pal Malik, who ordered the case to be taken over by the CBI.
How the scam surfaced
While auditing the Roshni scheme in the year 2013-14, the officials stumbled upon this biggest land scam, as they noticed that gross irregularities were committed by the top bureaucrats in order to facilitate the land deals involving VVIPs in Jammu and Kashmir.
During the audit, the team of officers faced difficulties in getting full information/records. With this constraint, an audit was conducted through a test check of records of the offices of the deputy commissioner in seven out of the twenty districts in which the act was implemented. The records were test-checked in Srinagar, Jammu, Udhampur, Anantnag, Pulwama, and Budgam districts and 547 cases involving the transfer of 666 kanals of non-agricultural land were examined in detail.
The CAG report tabled in the state legislature carried exclusive details of the irregularities done from interpretation to implementation, particularly in favour of the occupants enjoying very strong political or bureaucratic clout. Political parties including the Congress and the National Conference exploited the scheme to their advantage by regularizing their unauthorized occupation of the prime lands on which they had raised the party offices besides the printing presses and the offices of their official organs-Daily Khidmat and Nawa-e-Subah.
The Congress got proprietary rights over a prime piece of 7 kanals and 15 marals close to the Residency Road in the Kothibagh area of Srinagar. It is currently valued to be a property of Rs 80 crore. Its price was fixed at Rs 8.54 crore (Rs 1.10 crore/kanal). Congress enjoyed a rebate of Rs 7.58 crore and paid a total of Rs 96 lakh to the government. The Congress-controlled Khidmat Trust operates the head office of daily Khidmat with several modern printing presses on the same premises. A multi-floor commercial complex worth over Rs 50 crore has also come upon the same land.
The National Conference (NC) too has its party headquarters in a multi-floor commercial complex on a piece of the State land, measuring 3 kanals and 16 marlas. Offices and printing presses of the NC’s Urdu and English dailies, Nawa-e-Subah, also operate from the same premises near Zero Bridge in the heart of Civil Lines in Srinagar. The land alone is currently valued at Rs 35 crore. Its price was fixed at Rs 4.56 crore (Rs 1.20 crore/kanal). The party enjoyed a rebate of Rs 4.05 crore and paid a total of Rs 51 lakh only.
Writing under the caption ‘Private residence constructed on encroached state land’ Chandra Maurya scripted in the Printers Report of 25 November 2020 as follows: National Conference President Dr. Farooq Abdullah and a sitting Member of Parliament from Srinagar, who also remained Chief Minister on several occasions between 1982 to 1996 and served as Union Minister in the cabinet of Dr. Manmohan Singh is now facing serious charges of illegally occupying state/forest land in Sunjwan village of Bahu tehsil in Jammu district. The controversial piece of land, measuring 7.7 kanals (roughly one acre) was used by the National Conference leader to construct his private mansion with 20-30 feet high boundary walls. These startling revelations were made by the office of Divisional CommissionerJammu after it made public a list of encroachers who had illegally occupied state/forest land in and around Jammu. According to the list uploaded on the website of the office of Divisional Commissioner Jammu, the names of Dr. Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah figured on top of the list. It said, “Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah had illegally occupied state land measuring 7 Kanals and 7 Marlas under Khasra No 4, 5, 6 in village Sunjwan of Bahu Tehsil in Jammu district”.
After the news went viral, the Twitter handle of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference posted a written statement, “The news attributing to sources that Farooq Abdullah is a beneficiary of the Roshni Act is completely false and is being spread with a malicious intent.” In a brief statement, while speaking to a news channel Farooq Abdullah said “It is only propaganda against us. I just can’t understand what they want to do? Sunjwan colony was not raised by me…It was raised long back. Don’t we have the right to live?”
Official sources revealed that initially Dr. Abdullah had purchased only three kanals of land but at the time of taking the possession of this private land, he encroached upon more than seven kanals of nearby prime state and forest land.
Several other senior National Conference leaders and close friends of Dr. Abdullah also acquired adjoining plots in the close vicinity of his mansion and constructed their bungalows. According to the list uploaded on the website, National Conference leader, Syed Ali Akhoon, Sajjad Kitchloo, Congress leader Abdul Majid Wani, former Chairman of J&K Bank M Y Khan, Aslam Goni, a former close aide of Dr. Abdullah, Haroon Choudhary, Ashfaq Mir son of a retired Judge and hotelier Mushtaq Chaya too had encroached the state/forest land in the same locality.
Leading hotelier Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya has got ownership rights on a prime piece of the State land, measuring 5 kanals and 8 marlas on Maulana Azad Road. He has paid Rs 97.20 lakh and enjoyed a rebate of Rs 3.35 crore. He has also regularised his possession of 4 kanals and 16 kanals in Gogji Bagh. For this, Chaya has paid Rs 66.52 lakh and taken a rebate of Rs 1.27 crore. Together the two properties are currently valued at Rs 80 crore.
According to Sheikh Shakil Ahmad, the advocate pursuing the case, some former Chief Ministers, some influential politicians including Ministers, besides a number of the Police officers and over 20 serving and retired IAS officers, could be grilled for their alleged involvement or carelessness in transferring proprietary rights to the land grabbers, reported the same source as above.
According to IANS, the list also includes Mehboob Beg (son of Mirza Afzal Beg, a close associate of late Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah), influential businessmen like Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya and Krishen Amla (who is close to the top leaders of the Congress party) and former top bureaucrats such as Khurshid Ahmad Ganai and Tanveer Jahan.
The second list included names of Congress leader K K Amla and Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, both prominent businessmen and hoteliers besides former bureaucrat Mohammad Shafi Pandit and his wife. Shafi Pandit, IAS, who served at the Centre also for some time has filed an appeal before the Supreme Court of India pleading for quashing the order of the J&K High Court that nullifies the Roshni Act.
Suriya Abdullah, sister of Farooq Abdullah, was also named among the beneficiaries, who got ownership of over three kanal plot under residential use. According to the list, the land had been approved by the authorities but she was yet to pay Rs 1 crore fees. No notice has been issued to her since the time of approving the land in her name.
In Jammu, the divisional commissioner separately released another list of 138 beneficiaries falling in Jammu south tehsil, mostly belonging to the majority community, who are in possession of over 107 acres of land which was vested to them under Roshni Act. Though majority of them are agriculturalists and farmers, there are also some influential people including the trustee of Digiana Ashram, Mahant Manjeet Singh who owns seven kanals of land.
In a separate list under encroached state land (Physically Encroached but not shown in Revenue Record) other than Roshni, it identified seven persons who are in possession of over five acres of land. The list included PDP leader Talib Choudhary (two kanals), PDP office having three kanals of land at Bahu-Sunjwan tehsil, retired IGP Nisar Ali (three kanals), retired SSP Mirza Rasheed (three kanals) and prominent businessman Haji Sultan Ali, who owns the major chunk of 30 kanals of land.
The Jammu divisional administration had on 20 November 2020 released separate lists of 541 people, almost all belonging to the majority community, in different tehsils who have availed land under the Roshni Act besides two lists of nine persons who have allegedly encroached upon the state land other than the Roshni Act, which included Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah. In addition, it had also released two more lists of 1,237 alleged encroachers falling in two tehsils, almost all from the majority community.
The scam has a history. Soon after Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India, on October 28, 1947, the first Land Reforms Act borrowed from the Constitution of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan was introduced as one of the first and foremost reforms by the National Conference, which was in contrast to the land reform policy of independent India. Under the reforms, thousands of kanals of land owned by the old school landlords of the State (jagirdars) from the days of Maharajas were taken away without any compensation and were distributed among the tillers.
Seven decades later, the inheritors of the Naya Kashmir legacy bereft of constitutional, legal and moral propriety bestowed several lakh kanals of state/forest land at throw away prices to the upper-most creamy layer of Kashmiri society to “loot India in Kashmir.” This was the largesse of the majority “populist government” of J&K to the masses of Kashmiri people from whom they extracted allegiance and political support to overthrow the benign and law-abiding rule of the Dogra rulers. Mind you, all was done in the name of democracy –- to be precise “Indian secular democracy” — because only the majority community of Kashmir became its maximal beneficiary.
The law granted ownership of the former J&K State land to illegal encroachers with the hyped claim of raising money for power projects upon payment of a sum to be determined by the State government. Farooq government set 1990 as the cut-off year, which, however, was relaxed in 2005 to 2004 by the then Congress-PDP coalition Government, and further relaxed to 2007 by the Government of Nabi Azad (Congress) under coalition government with PDP. The Act came to be known as ‘Roshni Act’, with J&K government announcing to use the funds raised from this reform to fund power projects in the state. Three chief ministers- former and incumbent- were in cahoots on the deal.
How Roshni Act came into being
The Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001 (known as the Roshni Act) was enacted by the J&K legislature in 2001. Its objective was vesting of ownership rights to the illegal occupants against a price. The then National Conference government headed by Farooq Abdullah had claimed that the scheme would generate revenue of over Rs 25,000 crore, which would be utilized to raise new power projects. Farmers who had been occupying State land were also given ownership rights for agricultural use. The law initially set 1990 as the cut-off year for encroachment on State land, based on which ownership would be granted. Subsequent governments under Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad relaxed the deadline first to 2004 and then to 2007, of course, obviously with discreet motives. NC, PDP and Congress leadership in the valley were in complete unison for seeing the illegal Act through owing to their vested interests that were converging and not conflicting.
However, most of the transfers of the proprietary rights of the occupied lands, with drastic changes in the rules from time to time, took place in 2005-08, when Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Congress chief minister and the head of the Congress-PDP coalition.
The Roshni Act was enacted for a limited period of operation but extended by successive State governments from time to time. It was finally scrapped by the then Governor Satya Pal Malik prospectively on November 28, 2018, five months after the breakdown of the PDP-BJP government.
The biggest and perhaps the only memorable achievement of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, the father of J&K freedom movement after assuming power was to dismantle the landlord system in the State. He ordered ownership of the tiller of the land without paying a single penny by way of compensation to the owners of the land. Ironically, his heir and descendent and the Chief Minister of the State, Farooq Abdullah wantonly reversed his father’s policy and recreated thousands of landlords, who are far more affluent than those whose lands his father snatched away. Farooq grabbed state/forest land for himself, some of his family members, kith and some close political and business partners to build his political empire. Lakhs of kanals of state land that should have been utilized for raising residential colonies for the weaker and homeless segments were diverted to rich an affluent class, the creamy layer of J&K with clout in the corridors of power or influence in one or the other way.
The Roshni Act scam is the irrefutable proof that Kashmir leadership has the least interest in the welfare of the ordinary people as they claim in the shape of Gupkar Gang. Their entire effort rotates around self-interest and hoodwinking Indian authorities through fraud, deceit and double speak. Kashmir is the one example of how democracy, secularism and egalitarianism for which a four decade long struggle against the rule of the Maharajas was waged, were subverted for self-aggrandizement. While the bigwigs were engaged in looting the state, they patronized and instigated ordinary Kashmiri youth to pelt stones at the security forces, who were protecting them. The Roshni Act episode reveals the wide gulf created between the plebeians and the privileged in Kashmir.