BJP’s “land-jihad” bogey in J&K backfires with members accused of encroaching state land

A view of the Poonch district in the Jammu division. In November 2020, following court directions, the offices of the divisional commissioners of both Jammu and Kashmir uploaded lists of people who had illegally occupied state land. Ashutosh Sharma
10 March, 2021

Bharatiya Janata Party members in Jammu and Kashmir, and in some cases their relatives, are named as encroachers of state land in a government-published list.  On 9 October 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court declared the Roshni Act, formally known as the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting Ownership to the Occupants) Act of 2001, unconstitutional. In 2001, the National Conference government, led by Farooq Abdullah government had passed the Roshni Act, which proposed to transfer ownership of state land to those who were already occupying it for a fee determined by the government. The objective was to generate resources to finance power-projects for electricity. The high court has now declared all the land transfers made under the Act as null and void. It also directed the union territory’s administration to compile lists of those who had received state land under the Act and the “details of State land which was in illegal and unauthorized occupation.” The court asked for these lists to be posted on an official website, “with full identity of encroachers.” 

Kavinder Gupta, a BJP leader and a former deputy chief minister, was quick to describe the court’s judgement as a “surgical strike” on “land jihad.” This phrase was used to imply that it was primarily Muslims who had benefitted under the Roshni Act. The term “land jihad” is a reference to a right-wing narrative, which claims that Muslims have been encroaching on government land in the Hindu-majority regions of the former state in order to change its demography. In November, Anurag Thakur, a BJP union minister, called the Roshni land scheme the “biggest land scam of India.”

 On 24 November, following the court’s directions, the offices of the divisional commissioners of both Jammu and Kashmir uploaded separate lists of people who benefitted under the Roshni Act, and those who had illegally occupied state land, in general. Ironically, the documents show that BJP leaders have either been beneficiaries of land under the Roshni scheme, or have featured in the list of land encroachers. According to Sheikh Shakeel Ahmad, a lawyer who petitioned the high court to probe land grabbing cases in 2011, the lists also show that the majority of the beneficiaries of the Roshni Act are in Jammu, and are non-Muslim. According to data provided by the government and noted in the 9 October court order, 6,04,602 kanals of state land were regularised under the Roshni Act across Jammu and Kashmir—a kanal is about an eighth of an acre. Of this, 5,71,210 kanals were allotted in Jammu and only 33,392 kanals in Kashmir. The details of the land beneficiaries bust the BJP’s “land jihad” narrative.

One of the lists, uploaded on the website of the Jammu divisional commissioner, states that “Kavinder Gupta” encroached 39 kanals of land in Ghaink village, in the Bhalwal tehsil of Jammu district. However, it lists the “profession of the illegal occupant” as “farmer.” Kavinder denied that he had occupied land illegally. “If there is any such land tract under my illegal possession, the matter should be probed,” he told me. “People know, I have a clean image.” He claimed that the list says “Kavinder Gupta and sons,” and added that he only has one son. However, the list states “Kavinder Gupta and ors”—or others.

The list of people who benefitted from the Roshni scheme, posted on the Jammu divisional commissioner’s website, also mentions the father of Ranbir Singh Pathania, another BJP leader. Ranbir is a former BJP member of legislative assembly from the Ramnagar constituency, in Jammu division. The list states that his father, Bupinder Singh received nine kanals of land in Kehal village, in the Majalta tehsil of Udhampur district, for Rs 970.

Ranbir denied having received any land under the Roshni scheme. “The land in question is the part of proprietary land of our family and has been wrongly escheated to State,” he wrote to me. He added that the “land in question” was ancestral land and should not be considered part of state land. He specifically referred to land falling under khasra, or plot, number 1718 and 1744. However, the list mentions khasra number “1772/1718” as under his father’s possession. Ranbir added, “Under a well spun conspiracy, hatched by a handful of revenue officers and disgruntled, and publicly rejected political opponents, a fake/palpably paid news has been got published.” He continued that “out of all alive legal heirs of my father,” no one has “an inch of land in his possession or mutated in any revenue record under said Roshni scheme.”

Shiv Charan Gupta, a BJP leader who has passed away, features on the list of state-land encroachers in the Jammu division. Shiv was a BJP MLA from the Udhampur constituency, in the Udhampur district. The list states that he illegally occupied 11 kanals of land in Dandyal village, in the Udhampur tehsil of Udhampur district. It mentions that he has died and currently the land “possession is under his sons.” Both of Shiv’s sons are BJP members—Pawan Gupta was a minister of state for finance in the coalition government led by the People’s Democratic Party in alliance with the BJP in 2015, and Yogeshwar Gupta is the president of the Udhampur Municipal Council. Pawan had first been elected as an independent MLA from Udhampur. He left the BJP when he was dropped from the council of ministers in 2016, but re-joined the party in 2019. A day after his father’s name appeared in the list, Pawan held a press conference and refuted the allegations.

“After the list came out, I got a certificate from the tehsildar concerned which clarified that we haven’t encroached any state land,” Pawan told me. “In fact, my brother, who is president of municipal council Udhampur, requested the deputy commissioner Udhampur, about a month ago, to construct a sports stadium on the same piece of land.” Pawan added, “My name was included in the list to defame me.”

The list on “encroached state land” also mentions the name of Abdul Gani Kohli, another BJP leader, who was a transport minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government. It states that he has encroached 16 kanals of state land in Channi Rama village, in Bahu teshil of Jammu district. The list also mentions that the land is being used for an educational institution. “There is some dispute over 10 kanals of land,” Kohli told me. “The matter is in the high court.”

Anil Gupta, another member of the BJP, features on the list of those who have encroached state land. Anil is the son of Chaman Lal Gupta, a former president of the Jammu and Kashmir BJP, and a union minister in the National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is also a senior vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jammu, an industry body. The list states that Anil has occupied five kanals of state land in Deeli village in the Jammu district.

Anil claimed that his name has been “wrongly mentioned” in the list. He said that he has “no connection” with the piece of land in Deeli village of tehsil Jammu South. “It doesn’t belong to me,” he said. Anil added that he “objected” to his name being on the list and took up the matter with the divisional commissioner. “I think they have deleted my name,” he told me on 18 February. However, his name continues to appear on the list. 

Since the details of the beneficiaries of the Roshni scheme emerged last year, the BJP appears to have mellowed its stance. Two months after the court judgement, the union territory administration filed a review petition in the high court on 7 December 2020, seeking a review of the court’s October judgement. While maintaining that the revenue department was taking all necessary steps to implement the court orders, the petition pleaded that the court must distinguish between the beneficiaries of the now struck-down act as “landless cultivators and individuals who are themselves residing in dwellings on small areas” and “rich and wealthy land grabbers who have obtained a title over state land.”

Sunil Sethi, the Jammu and Kashmir BJP chief spokesperson and an advocate, told me, “No one seems satisfied with the judgement.” Sethi is also a counsel in one of the 47 review petitions filed in the high court so far.  He added, “Our political stand and also the stand in the review petition is that the people who were in legal possession of the state land or lessees or allottees, they can’t be bracketed with the encroachers of the state land.”

In 2014, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had pointed out irregularities in the implementation of the Roshni Act. It noted that against the target of Rs 25,448 crores, the scheme had generated just Rs 76 crores between 2007 and 2013. Following the CAG revelations, an advocate, Ankur Sharma filed a civil miscellaneous petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in 2014 seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the Roshni land-allotments. The petition demanded that the Roshni Act be declared unconstitutional, and land transferred under the scheme be retrieved.

The 9 October court judgment came in response to Sharma’s petition and another public interest litigation filed in 2011 by Ahmed, the lawyer, on behalf of SK Bhalla. Bhalla, who lives in Jammu, is an anti-corruption activist and a retired professor. The PIL was filed in response to news reports about increasing incidents of land grabbing in the former state. According to Ahmed, the PIL had demanded that the court probe the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and the “land mafia.”

On 31 October, as per the court directions, the union territory administration issued an order to cancel all land transfers made under Roshni Act. Subsequently, it started eviction drives in several areas of the union territory. Marginal farmers in the villages near the India-Pakistan border in Jammu division particularly seem to be affected by the Roshni judgement. Bharat Bhushan, the vice-president of the Border Welfare Committee, a Kathua-based a civil-rights organisation, told me, “The revenue department is telling villagers to vacate the state land that they have been cultivating for the last 70 years.” He added, “Nearly 95 percent of the people in the areas between the border and the national highway in Kathua, Samba and Jammu districts are cultivators who belong to the Hindu community.” Bhushan said, “The law had come as a blessing for our people as it gave us land-ownership rights. If the government implements the Roshni judgement in its current form, about 80 to 90 percent farmers in villages such as Karol-Krishna, Manyari, Karol Bedo and Karol Matrai will become landless.” These are Hindu-majority areas.

Ahmed emphasised that the Roshni judgement has been given a communal colour by the BJP and that the judgement itself makes no mention of religion. “Nowhere in the 64-page high court judgement in Roshni case, there is any mention of Hindu, Muslim or Zameen Jihad,”—

land jihad—“but the BJP turned the judgement into a weapon against a particular community.” He added, “Our PIL had sought constitution of an investigation team comprising officers of impeccable integrity from State Vigilance Organisation and revenue department to probe the allegations of land grabbing against politicians, senior government functionaries and land mafia. We had demanded that such people be identified and prosecuted. This is the prayer in our PIL. There was absolutely nothing against the tribal people, the poor, the rightful occupants, leaseholders.”

Asserting that majority of the beneficiaries under the Roshni scheme were marginal farmers and the poor, Ahmed continued, “Fraud may have been committed in 1,000 to 5,000 cases but not in all the cases of land regularisation under Roshni Act, as it was falsely projected. It’s a false narrative that Muslims were the major beneficiaries of the Roshni Act.” He pointed to the example of Jammu district and said that of the total 44,915 kanals of land regularised in the district under Roshni scheme, only 1,180 kanal was allotted to members of the Muslim community.

In addition to BJP leaders, the lists uploaded on the divisional commissioners’ websites also named leaders of the National Conference, the PDP and Congress. According to a report in The Hindu, these include Haseeb Drabu, a former leader of the PDP, who was a finance minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government, KK Amla, a businessman and a Congress leader, Nighat Pandit, the wife of a retired IAS officer Shafi Pandit, Syed Akhoon of the National Conference, and Sujjad Kichloo, a former minister of the National Conference.

The list of “encroached state land” also states that the former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq and Omar Abdullah, encroached upon seven kanals of state land in Sunjwan village, in the Bahu tehsil of Jammu district. The Abdullahs have denied the allegation. A similar list also names Nisar Azad and Sajjad Azad, the brothers of Congress leader and former chief minister Ghulab Nabi Azad, as having encroached on six kanals of state land, also in Sunjwan village.

“Our father, who passed away in 1999, was the first non-local to purchase land in Sunjwan in 1975 from a Gujjar family,” Sajjad, a businessman, told me. “The land in Sunjwan … originally belonged to nomads who had been living here since centuries. Only a few nomadic families used to reside here. Nobody had imagined back then that this barren land would be inhabited by people.” He added, “The whole payment was made through cheque and not cash, we have all the papers.” He continued, “We haven’t encroached any state land. We are a political family. This all has been publicised due to vested interests.”