The inside story of how a scam involving political leaders and government officials was packaged as ‘land jihad’.
by Staff Reporter
On April 5, 2022, a posse of some influential businessmen from Srinagar visited New Delhi as the emissaries of ‘Naya Kashmir’. With the Lieutenant Governor’s office, Raj Bhavan, inviting capitalists from Dubai to invest in Kashmir, this select group of natives – apparently unnerved by the tightening noose – had mellowed down their terms and conditions. After all, they had started sensing they were living in BJP’s ‘Naya Kashmir’ that came into being on august 5, 2019 after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A and the downgrading of the state into two union territories.
The delegation gifted Prime Minister Narendra Modi a Kashmiri shawl.
The group led by prominent businessman and hotelier, Mushtaq Chaya, took up the issues of land lease, tourism and, most importantly, the Roshni Act, with the Prime Minister.
“Sir,” read the memorandum submitted by Chaya to the Prime Minister, “in Jammu and Kashmir under the J&K Vesting of Ownership Act, 2001 & SRO 64 issued on 5th March, 2007, popularly known as Roshni, the legal occupants of the land on lease were asked to deposit the cost of the land evaluated by the Government Authorities. Despite depositing the cost and transfer of proprietary rights in most of the cases, the Hon’ble High Court of UT of J&K and Ladakh has cancelled this Act altogether. The matter is now subjudice in the Hon’ble High Court & Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. This has adversely affected the business of the legal occupants who have already raised business establishments on this land. This is a long standing issue and we request your goodself to constitute a high level Committee headed by a retired High Court/or Supreme Court Judge who would identify the genuine cases for regularization as is in vogue in the entire country.”
The footnote of the memorandum states: “Sir, we are highly thankful for the efforts you are taking to bring a new wave of development in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir and we are with you.”
But barely two and half months later, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the residence of one of the delegates in Srinagar.
The investigators conducted searches on the premises of prominent businessman Showkat Chowdhary of Hattrick food chain after registering a case against him and some others over the Roshni land allocation scam.
On June 15, 2022, four days before the raid, a case was registered against Chowdhary and retired IAS officers Mehboob Iqbal, a former Kashmir Divisional Commissioner, and Sheikh Ejaz Iqbal, a former Srinagar Deputy Commissioner.
The CBI said that Chowdhary had been declared unauthorised occupant of a plot under the Roshni Act and was given the ownership of eight marlas of land for Rs 14.40 lakh in violation of the provisions of the Act.
It is alleged that the land measuring four kanals in the Estate Nursing Garh, Tehsil Srinagar, was leased out to one Mehboob Beigh and Mumtaaz Afzal Beigh in 1977 by the Jammu and Kashmir government and the lease agreement was coming to an end in 2020.
But the duo had handed over eight marlas out of total four kanals of land to Chowdhary by virtue of irrevocable Power of Attorney in 2001. “Chowdhary later applied for conferment of ownership rights under the Roshni Act vide application dated February 24, 2004,” the FIR reads.
Between the shawl diplomacy and the Srinagar raid, not many understood a new twist in the tale: Chaudhary who had sought PM’s intervention in Roshni ended up in the CBI net himself.
Those having a nose for statecraft argue that CBI’s Srinagar raid wasn’t abrupt. They call a Jammu-based judicial campaigner as a sparkplug behind the high-profile case.
Interestingly, a week before Chowdhary would be grilled by the central investigative agency, Advocate Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed’s Right to Information (RTI) had exposed the CBI’s soft-pedaling on the probe.
Shakeel’s RTI revealed that the CBI had registered only 18 FIRs since October 2020 when it overtook the investigations and filed charge-sheets in just two cases.
But it wasn’t the first time that the Jammu-based advocate had stirred up something like this.
In August 2021, his RTI expose` had rattled the Bhartiya Janta Party’s state wing. Shakeel’s advocacy named former deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and senior BJP leader Kavinder Gupta as an illegal occupant of state land from 2010 till 2017.
Notably, Gupta was at the forefront of raising the ‘land jihad’ bogey over the Roshni scheme. In fact, ahead of DDC polls in November 2020, he described the government action on the Roshni Act as a ‘surgical strike’ against the corrupt who “usurped priceless chunks of state land at dirt-cheap rates.”
Rubbishing the ‘land jihad’ theory, noted political analyst from Jammu, Zafar Chaudhary described the campaign as a decade-old delusional drama to demonize Muslims. “It’s a farcical claim, which was even turned down by the list of beneficiaries published on government websites,” he said.
“Less than 3 percent Muslims were beneficiaries in Jammu, which itself pricks the balloon of this so-called land jihad.”
Interestingly, only six Muslim names from Jammu district have figured on the list of the beneficiaries that has more than 125 non-Muslim names on it.
Clearly, BJP’s ‘land-jihad’ bogey in J&K has backfired with its own members accused of encroaching upon the state land. Among the big guns on the list are late Shiv Charan Gupta, Anil Gupta (son of Chaman Lal Gupta, a former BJP state president and minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee government), father of Ranbir Singh Pathania, among others.
“Since several beneficiaries are from BJP itself, the party is now quietly shifting its position on the Roshni scheme,” Imran Nabi Dar, NC spokesperson, said.
BJP’s sudden U-turn is a move to save the skin of its own people, said Harsh Dev Singh, a veteran Jammu leader. “BJP even encroached upon army land for its personal benefits,” Singh said. “A big bungalow of a top BJP leader on Jammu’s security land is a testimony to the fact.”
But despite such glaring facts, a rightwing mouthpiece like Zee News continues to run segments on ‘land jihad’ in Jammu.
Despite ample evidence and the judgment, the BJP is adamantly stuck to the ‘land jihad’ theory.
“No one is satisfied with the judgment,” said Sunil Sethi, JK BJP’s spokesperson. “Our political stand is clear. People who were in legal possession of the state land can’t be clubbed with the encroachers.”
The Roshni Act was introduced by Dr. Farooq Abdullah government in 2001 to sell the state land at market price to illegal encroachers and use the revenue to generate hydroelectric power in J&K. Hence the name Roshni – light.
The total land regularized under Roshni Act was 3,33,392 kanals in Kashmir division, while it was 5,71,210 kanals in Jammu division.
The Act was later amended in 2005 by the then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who made it convenient for the land occupying farmers, who had to just pay a nominal fee of Rs 100 per kanal, for getting documentation in their favour.
The senior Congress leader called it a revolutionary act after the Land to the Tiller Act. “But the fact remains,” says Guftar Ahmed, a political activist from Jammu, “the scheme was misused in the name of poor and needy. Farmers received very small landholding under this scheme.”
So who benefitted from what Azad referred to as “revolutionary act?”
“Of course, the privileged and powerful class,” says comrade Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami of CPI (M). “I have a serious objection against powerful people who have occupied big chunks of land and are using it for commercial purposes. How can large landholdings held by influential people be compared to a small portion of land owned by the impoverished?”
But despite the scheme exploited by the powerful, the campaign was mainly launched to target a particular community. In the face of this vicious campaign, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report serves as an eye-opener.
“Instead of Rs 25,000 crore revenue generation target set by the government,” the 2014 CAG report said, “only Rs 76 crore was collected between 2007 and 2013.”
Investigations into the land scam found that land in Gulmarg had been given to ineligible beneficiaries who did not come up to the criteria set for the land transfer.
In 2018, J & K’s controversial Governor, Satya Pal Malik, repealed the Roshni Act and cancelled all the pending applications seeking transfer of ownership of state land to its occupants.
Then, in October 2020, the J&K High Court set aside the Act “ab initio” cancelling all actions taken under its provision since its inception and ordered a CBI probe.
“In the instant case,” the court observed, “there are allegations of ministers, legislators, bureaucrats, high-ranking government and police officials having encroached upon public lands and having caused orders passed under the Roshni Act in their favour.”
Even after this court verdict, Advocate Shakeel said, some people are accusing Muslim community of ‘land jihad’.
The advocate read out the 547 names identified by the Accountant General of J&K as illegal beneficiaries of the annulled Act.
Among them, he said, are Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus and Sikhs. “Interestingly,” the advocate informs, “people claim Jammu’s demography was being changed under some design, when the majority of applicants belonged to Hindu and Sikh community.”
But these facts hardly matter for the IkkJutt Jammu — a rightwing outfit campaigning for separate statehood for Jammu and further division of Kashmir, one part for Pandits and another for Muslims.
Among the rank-holders and think-tanks of this body are professors, spewing venom against Muslims and their faith. They are popularising the ‘land jihad’ narrative through their growing rightwing social media presence.
“Before this vocal tribe, people never heard words such as land jihad in Jammu’s pluralistic society,” Advocate Shakeel said. “They are playing this communal politics to become heroes. Otherwise, an encroacher is an encroacher, they don’t have any religion.”
But much before the present day discourse and demonization of the Muslim community, the rightwing campaign had started in Jammu. It took off in 2011—the year when a rightwing study circle had commissioned Kashmir study.
That year, Prof. SK Bhalla, then Principal Government Degree College, Mendhar, filed a writ petition against some police officers, politicians and bureaucrats in Jammu for the alleged land grabbing. The academic wanted a special probe to punish the guilty.
The campaign, however, fizzled out during the Omar Abdullah government, before it reared its head again in March 2014.
This time around, a young law student from Kathua replaced Bhalla. He filed a Public Interest Litigation before the J&K High Court against the Roshni Act.
“In the writ petition,” the HC observed, “several serious matters including the unauthorized occupation of a large chunk of land by encroachers have been noticed in several orders.”
In the years to come, this courtroom campaign against some historic schemes and government decisions would make Ankur Sharma a new poster boy of the rightwing activism in Jammu.
This campaign, interestingly, came with a sweeping coronation change in Delhi and the rise of the vocal BJP support in the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir. This was also the time when the Kashmir-based politics had started losing its teeth and ground, while the rightwing forces were increasingly invoking the vision of Jan Sangh fountainhead Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who died in Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s prison on June 23, 1953.
“Ankur Sharma was certain about his campaign,” says Arun Mehta, a Jammu-based political observer. “With the rise of BJP in the Centre, he was trying to be the vocal rightwing activist in Jammu. Playing by the Sangh rulebook and belief, he popularized the notion of land jihad in the name of Roshni scheme.”
But was it a ‘land jihad’?
“Our allegation that state land was given to Muslims to change the demography of Jammu has been substantiated by the records produced before the High Court,” Ankur Sharma said.
“Around 90 percent of the beneficiaries given land in Jammu under the Roshni Act were likely to be Muslims. So, clearly, the scheme was aimed at bringing about a demographic change in the Hindu-majority Jammu by triggering a land jihad.”
However, a prominent Muslim BJP state member says Sharma’s claims and campaign are grossly misleading.
“It’s not a land jihad but a scam involving political leaders and government officials,” said Chowdhary Mushtaq Inqlabi, State Vice President BJP Tribal unit Jammu and Kashmir.
“There are several Hindus also involved in the scam, including former DGP Kuldeep Khoda, former ministers Raman Bhalla, Tara Chand, Surinder Singh Shingari, among others. Some people have vested interests and some who want to emerge through this are calling this land jihad.”
Even the 64-page HC judgment on the Roshni Act, said Advocate Shakeel, is against the land mafia and it doesn’t allude to anything that Sharma claims.
“But then people will still play communal politics over it despite the fact that Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs equally benefitted from the act,” he said.
In fact, the word jihad is misfit in Jammu’s multicultural society, said Dr. Mulkhraj Bhamagi, a social activist from Jammu. “This campaign is an act to polarize the people of J&K,” he said. “People are trying to build their vote bank by using such narrative.”
At the end of the day, there will be an impact on poor people having small landholdings under the Act, believes Altaf Husnain Janjua, executive editor of the Urdu daily Udaan.
“This bogey of land jihad is nothing new,” Janjua said. “When the Act was passed, some parties in Jammu tried to communalize it by calling it ‘land-jihad’, but when the list came out, it consisted names of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Even in the HC judgment, there is no mention that more land was given to Muslims.”