Right-wing groups, TV channels accused Muslims in Hindu-majority Jammu of tampering with the region’s demography by taking over state-owned lands using a 20-year-old land law, the Roshni Act. With the majority of allottees found to be Hindu, the government has now backtracked
Srinagar: In October 2020, when the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Union Territory administration scrapped a two decades-old law meant to shore up revenues through vesting ownership rights on lessees of state land, Hindu right-wing organisations cheered vociferously.
They had opposed the Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, for years, raising the bogey of ‘land jihad’, a supposed holy war for land, being used to change the demography of the Hindu-majority Jammu region of the erstwhile state.
A 2014 petition had sought repeal of the law, known as the Roshni Act for its original plan to raise Rs 25,000 crore to fund hydroelectricity projects. Allegations of corruption had also emerged in the implementation of the lease-to-ownership scheme for those occupying state-owned land.
On 9 October 2020, the J&K High Court declared the law “unconstitutional, contrary to law and unsustainable”. On 31 October, the UT administration promised to retrieve all land distributed under the scheme within six months.
But just over a month later, the UT administration filed a review petition, seeking that the HC judgment be ‘modified’, claiming in a 6 December affidavit that striking down the law entirely would adversely impact several common people.
In reality, after months of right-wing groups in Jammu creating an impression that Muslims, particularly Kashmiri Muslims, were the main beneficiaries who had been allotted land under this scheme at a fee fixed by a committee, data revealed that the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries are non-Muslims living in Jammu.
Of the total 6,04,602 kanals of land approved for distribution under the Roshni Act across J&K, 5,71,210 kanals were allotted to lease-holders in the Jammu region, and only 33,392 kanals in Kashmir. A kanal is an eighth of an acre. Actual land ownership was granted for lessees of 3.48 lakh kanals, including 3.15 lakh kanals in Jammu, and 33,000 kanals in Kashmir.
According to reports, in Jammu district, Muslims accounted for only 2.63% of beneficiaries of the Roshni scheme.
On 12 December, in a volte face from its position in October, the J&K administration told the Supreme Court of India that no coercive action would be taken for now against beneficiaries of the Roshni Act.
On 25 January, the Jammu and Kashmir administration told the Supreme Court that it would continue to not initiate any coercive action against beneficiaries of the Act who had challenged the high court’s decision to scrap it. In November 2020, several beneficiaries had filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court contending that they had not been given a hearing before the law was repealed without any protection to action taken under it.
On 10 December, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the SC that the petitioners were not "land grabbers or unauthorised people". On 25 January, Mehta reiterated that the J&K administration’s review petition against the high court's 9 October verdict is pending, and its assurance that no coercive action would be undertaken remains in place.
According to the National Conference (NC), the region’s main political party, it dawned on the administration that a significant number of beneficiaries were members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
“The BJP is now silently backtracking on its vitriol on the Roshni scheme,” NC spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar told Article 14. “The cause for the government’s abrupt change of opinion is in fact the presence of BJP leaders and their associates in the list of beneficiaries.”
Harsh Dev Singh, leader of another political party in Jammu, echoed the views of the NC. He said the BJP is on the “backfoot” as the name of one of their legislators is in the list of Roshni Act beneficiaries.
“The sudden U-turn has made it clear that they (the BJP) want to shelter their own people,” said Singh, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JKNPP). “The BJP didn't spare even army land and encroached on it for personal benefits. You can see a big bungalow of a top BJP leader in Jammu.”
Singh was referring to the newly constructed house of BJP leader and former deputy chief minister of the erstwhile state, Nirmal Singh, at Ban village, near an Army ammunition depot in Jammu. Despite High Court orders, Singh moved into the new house in August 2020.
The Dim Performance Of The Roshni Act
In 2001, chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference introduced the J&K State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to The Occupants) Act to generate Rs 25,000 crore in revenues from granting ownership rights to more than 20 lakh kanals of state land, equivalent to 1 lakh hectares, to occupants of state land for a pre-fixed fee.
Under the law, the ‘cutoff year’ for beneficiaries was 1990—all occupants who were in possession of such land before 1990 would be eligible to regularise their possession and gain ownership rights. In 2005, the Congress under then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad amended the law and under the J&K State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Rules, 2007, the government extended the cutoff year to 2004, and later to 2007.
The amendments also relaxed the cost of regularisation, substituting the term “market value” with “as determined under the Act”. The ceiling for how much land an eligible person could regularise was also relaxed, from the 10 kanals per person proposed in 2001 to 100 kanals.
But these measures did not help raise state revenues from the scheme. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India said in a report that only Rs 76 crore had been collected between 2007 and 2013, a far cry from the anticipated revenue of Rs 25,000 crore.
The report also charged the government with irregularities including a haphazard slashing of the fee to be paid. According to the CAG report, the fee had been finalised by a standing committee of legislature to “accord ownership rights against nominal price to influential people who had grabbed the same illegally or acquired it from lease-holders since long".
Soon after the CAG report, it emerged that politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats had transferred state land into their ownership and had favoured some others with arbitrary rates.
On 24 November, 2020, the government of the Union Territory released a list of ‘illegal’ beneficiaries under what the law. Among these nearly 400 beneficiaries were some political figures.
The first Roshni Act corruption case was filed in 2009, against Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer Baseer Khan, then deputy commissioner of Baramulla who was later appointed advisor to the lieutenant governor of the state after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August, 2019. The case was filed by the State Vigilance Organisation, now the Anti-Corruption Body (ACB), a wing of the state Crime Branch. It named 20 people including Khan and six other senior bureaucrats. The charge against them pertained to misusing their official positions to transfer state land in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s famous ski resort, to private parties.
The Indian Express reported on 16 October 2020 that according to the chargesheet, the probe concluded that the accused officials, including Khan, entered into a “criminal conspiracy” with the beneficiaries, manipulated records, and violated the Roshni Act to illegally transfer the ownership of state land to private parties.
Khan was arrested on corruption charges on 23 September, 2013 by the SVO. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had granted sanction for his prosecution on 21 August, 2013.
In 2018, the Roshni Act was repealed after then Governor Satya Pal Malik concluded that it had “not served” its purpose and was “no longer relevant in the present context”. The Governor’s move came after Jammu-based lawyer Ankur Sharma approached the J&K High Court seeking its repeal. Scrapping the law was necessary, his petition said, to “defeat the jihadi war in the form of demographic invasion of Jammu”.
Corruption cases pertaining to the Roshni Act were still being investigated, but in April 2018, Sharma addressed the Hindu Ekta Manch in the state and urged Jammu’s Hindus to boycott the nomadic tribes of Bakarwals and Gujjars, both Muslim communities. Repeating his charge that Muslims were intent on changing Jammu’s demography, he asked them not to buy their dairy products, or sell property to them.
A Campaign To Paint The Law As Communal
Muslims, a minority in Jammu, have been wary ever since right-wing groups began a vicious campaign on the Roshni Act some years back. In March 2020, some organisations and television news channels raised the bogey of ‘zameen jihad’, exacerbating the apprehension among local people of a repeat of the genocidal violence the community faced during the Partition in 1947.
Land jihad, literally translated as holy war for land, mazar (graveyard) jihad and masjid (mosque) jihad were widely used on television channels and social media against Muslims, accusing them of “changing the demography” of the region.
The fresh fears of communal violence against Muslims evoked memories of the 1947 massacre when thousands of Muslim residents of Jammu were killed by paramilitaries led by the army of Dogra ruler Hari Singh. Various estimates place the number killed at 20,000 to 2,37,000.
As millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs made their way across the border with the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, nearly half a million were forcibly displaced and fled across the border into the newly created nation of Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
“Everyone was living under constant fear. Muslims thought their homes might be demolished,” said Shabir Shah, President, Muslim Development Forum, Jammu. Through 2020, no Muslim was willing to speak openly about the impending loss of homes, out of fear, he said.
“Jis hisab se situation chal rahi tha, lag raha tha 1947 repeat hoga (The manner in which the situation was unfolding, a repeat of 1947 appeared likely),” Shah told Article 14.
On 11 March 2020, national television news channel Zee News ran an hour-long segment on “zameen jihad” in Jammu. The channel’s editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary displayed a diagram that listed how Muslims were supposedly waging war on Hindus.
The diagram used a series of Islamophobic terms, including ‘population jihad’, ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jihad’, ‘economic jihad’, ‘history jihad’ and ‘media jihad’, words apparently inspired by ‘love jihad’, the so-called conspiracy by Muslim men to entrap Hindu girls with the intent of conversion through marriage.
Chaudhary claimed that more than 25,000 people had been “settled” in Jammu under the Roshni Act. He said of these 25,000 “illegal occupants” who benefitted from the Act, 90% were Muslims. He called the implementation of the law a “State-sponsored attempt at Islamising and radicalising the Jammu region”.
The chat was widely criticised on social media for its bigotry, and also for its unsubstantiated claims. Mumbai-based non-profit Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) filed a complaint with the News Broadcasting Standards Authority(NBSA) against the Zee News report.
Article 14 sought comment from Zee Media via email on 16 November about the show and the complaints against it, but there was no response.
On 2 November, Kavinder Gupta, senior BJP leader and former speaker of the Jammu Kashmir State Assembly, claimed that the “action on Roshni scheme is a surgical strike against land jihad”. He gave credit to the BJP for annulment of the Act.
Interestingly, a similar name (“Kavinder Gupta & Ors”) appears on the list of Roshni Act beneficiaries. When the government uploaded the list on the website of the Jammu Divisional Commissioner in November 2020, Gupta’s name was on it.
But the list was “deleted within 30 minutes”, according to Jammu-based freedom of information activist Mohd Sadiq Poswal. He did, however, manage to download the list, and Kavinder Gupta is cited as a beneficiary of state land on Khasra Numbers 1373 and 1375, 1789 in the village of Ghaink, in Bhalwal tehsil, 10 km from Jammu city.
“I have filed a fresh Right To Information Act query with the Jammu Divisional Commissioner to know whether this allottee is former deputy chief minister Kavinder Gupta,” Poswal told Article 14 over phone. The list was eventually uploaded on the website once again in January 2021.
The former minister denied that he was a beneficiary of land allotment through the Act and said he filed a police complaint in 2020 against “miscreants” who were spreading rumours. “It was an election stunt by some people to defame me. I am not a beneficiary of the scheme at all,” Gupta told Article 14, adding that he does not even own a home.
Asked why the BJP suddenly went silent on the issue, he said: “It is the job of the government, not of the BJP, to look into the matter.” He said any wrongdoing should be acted against, regardless of whether the beneficiary is a Muslim or a Hindu but mainly against powerful land-grabbers.
“If anyone has built a house on few marlas (a marla is a unit of measurement equivalent to 272 square feet) and is living presently, the government should leave them and instead take action against the big fish and officials who misused the law,” said Gupta.
Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst and journalist from Jammu, told Article 14 that the ‘land jihad’ campaign accusing Muslims of trying to tamper with Jammu district’s demography was active for nearly a decade. “Now, when the allotment details are out, the number of Muslim beneficiaries is less than 5%,” he said.
The Roshni Act’s Real Beneficiaries
Advocate Sheikh Shakeel Ahmad of Jammu, who had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in 2011 on behalf of academician S K Bhalla, alleging land grab by “police officers, politicians and bureaucrats occupying responsible positions”, told Article 14 that while the court eventually declared the law unconstitutional, it did not comment on the charges of ‘land jihad’ against Muslims.
But Advocate Sharma, who in 2014 filed a civil miscellaneous petition in the J&K High Court seeking a probe into allegations of corruption in the Roshni Act, maintained throughout that more applications of Muslims had been processed than those of Hindus in Jammu.
New data on Roshni Act beneficiaries belie Sharma’s claim.
A test check report of random cases in seven districts by the office of the accountant general of J&K conducted in 2013-14 found the majority of the beneficiaries in the Jammu region were non-Muslims.
Article 14 has checked this report. Only six people of Jammu district named in the list are Muslim, while more than 125 are non-Muslim. In terms of area too, Muslims regularised 1,100 kanals of land, out of the 44,000 kanals whose ownership was transferred in Jammu district.
In Udhampur’s beneficiary list, there were 59 people occupying state land, of which only eight are Muslims.
The list contains a total of 547 names, including 287 from Srinagar, 19 from Anantnag, and eight from Budgam district.
Muslims: Political Non-Entities In Jammu
The allegations against Jammu’s Muslims of ‘land jihad’ are set in a curious context. While the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir was India’s sole Muslim-majority state, the Jammu division comprising 10 districts has not only been a Hindu-majority region since Partition, but socio-economic conditions of Muslims here have also consistently remained worse than in the rest of India.
Following the November 1947 violence, massacre and mass migration rendered Muslims a minority in Jammu, and Hindus have dominated the region since.
“The otherization and disempowerment of Jammu’s Muslims is a phenomenal process that goes back to 1940s,” said Zafar Choudhary. “To keep Jammu and Kashmir integrated with the Union of India, from appeasement to punishment, whatever New Delhi did was always directed towards Muslims of Kashmir. So, the Muslim of Jammu has been completely excluded from the process.”
Choudhary, author of the book Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu, argued that New Delhi always controlled J&K via elites among Kashmiri Muslims and, in turn, the Kashmir leadership approached Jammu through Hindu elites here. This led to a double exclusion of Jammu’s Muslims from political processes, and they became non-entities to all political parties.
Muslims constitute 32% of Jammu region’s population but have negligible visibility in any sector. “You will not find a single industry run by a Muslim in the Jammu region… You have only three Muslim members of Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry out of over 35,000 members,” said Choudhary.
Lawyer Shakeel Ahmad said Muslims had no representation in Jammu’s politics. “If Kashmiri Pandits were accommodated in Jammu by the leaders after their exodus,” he said, “why haven’t Jammu’s Muslims been allotted any colony or chunk of land after the 1947 massacre?”
‘A State-Sponsored Demographic Invasion’
Sharma, the lawyer who sought a probe into the alleged Roshni Act land scandal in 2014, denied that there had been a hate campaign against Jammu’s Muslims through the right-wing organisations’ claims of ‘land jihad’.
He said he wanted previous governments held accountable for using government institutions to create a divide between communities. “It was a state-sponsored order just to create a wedge in society and we are fighting against it,” Sharma said.
But he claimed that Muslims have also illegally encroached the Tavi river-bed in Jammu. He said there are over 15,000 “Muslim settlements” in the forested Bathandi area of Jammu, also facilitated by Dr Farooq Abdullah during his tenure as Chief Minister, according to Sharma.
“It is a state sponsored demographic invasion,” he alleged.
Lawyer Sheikh Shakeel Ahmad said “one community” was accused of grabbing ponds, rivers, state land and forest land despite the fact that the high court made no such comment in its 9 October judgment.
He said the judgment was deliberately misinterpreted to foster “a false narrative” and alleged that the divisional administration of Jammu has selectively leaked names of Roshni Act beneficiaries to target “a particular community”.
Ahmad said the division bench of the high court made “significant” oral observations expressing anguish over the selective targeting of people. He said the court impressed upon the CBI to investigate the matter fairly. “The court’s judgment never meant to target people unnecessarily,” he said. “The judgment was not against any culture, region, religion or status.”
(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist.)