J&K Roshni Land Scam: How Bureaucrats ‘Kept Corruption Afloat’

Here’s why lining up tehsildars at the CBI could have brought down many more houses of cards, writes David Devadas.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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  • Rs 3,500 per kanal for the commercial plot used by a former minister’s family at Srinagar’s equivalent of Mumbai’s Nariman Point.
  • Rs 35 lakh for 3 kanals by the Jhelum Bund, opening onto one of the streets leading off Srinagar’s plush Residency Road.
  • Rs 15,000 for a shop in a bustling shopping centre off Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s equivalent of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.

These eye-popping figures reverberate in the deepest, darkest trellises of Kashmir’s grapevine, with regard to what has come to be known as the ‘Roshni scam’.

Some think the scam only concerns forest land in the far corners of the erstwhile state. But businessmen in Kashmir say the scheme was used even in urban centres, sometimes to take freehold possession of what was once a government-owned place taken on rent.

As a property scam, it’s arguably the world’s most audacious. It played out under the cover of the militancy, disorder, and lack of accountability of the past three decades, which I have described in my book ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’.

Background: A Law For ‘Regularisation’

In a legally formalised version of the ‘regularisation’ schemes that are so common for slums in cities across the country, Jammu and Kashmir had a law that allowed a settler to get legal possession by paying a fraction of what the land was worth.

Enacted in 2001, the ‘Roshni Act’ initially permitted regularisation of up to one-and-a-quarter acres, and stipulated long-term possession. A 2004 amendment upped the limit tenfold, and only required current possession. Further amendments followed.

There were scams within a scam. For instance, the Rs 35 lakh for the Bund-adjacent three kanals, mentioned at the beginning of this article, was paid into a government account – with a receipt – but the government has no record of the allotment.

There were also instances of some with influence among the powers-that-were marking out desirable ‘virgin’ property on a map, pre-selling it in parcels, and then paying a fraction of that income for paperwork to claim that land.

Crores of rupees changed hands in various ways. And government lands together worth perhaps lakhs of crores got registered as private property.

Much Sound & Fury

Since the Centre took direct control of Jammu and Kashmir in June 2018, there’s been intermittent talk of setting things right—cases, investigations and much publicised naming-and-shaming, focusing on newly rehashed ‘anti-national’ politicians.

Now, all that bombast about cleaning up the scandalous wheelings and dealings of the past has turned out to be no more than much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Phusss!’, as Shakespeare wouldn’t have said. For, the latest twist in the ‘Roshni land scam’ saga is that the government has requested the high court to reconsider its order for a CBI inquiry into the scam.

Election Time About-Turn

Everyone’s asking: why the clumsy about-turn?

Well, one delicious (and no doubt significant) irony is that the reversal has come bang in the middle of an amazingly energetic round of panchayat, municipal, and district elections.

The BJP has put a lot of effort into these polls, but there are signs that it might be disappointed—not only in the Valley, and the Chenab basin, but also perhaps in some Hindu-dominated portions of the Jammu region.

Could the Roshni roll-back, which was ordered in October, have caused the BJP some discomfiture during the election campaign?

Communal Mirage

It turns out that the communal undercurrent behind that sham ‘shame-shame’ was a bit of a mirage. The plain fact is that the largest category of ‘Roshni’ beneficiaries are middle class Hindu families settled in Jammu.

Of the 158,000 kanals of land that are reported to have been regularised in the Jammu Division, 44,000 kanals are in Jammu district alone. And the city has spread across much of the district—and beyond.

The city has mushroomed from a sleepy little town into a jam-packed sprawl over the past quarter-century. Families have migrated to it from distant corners of the erstwhile state, most often from Hindu-dominated districts relatively closer to the city.

Quite apart from what the rich and influential gained, a large proportion of these families too got plots from some version of the ‘Roshni scheme’—as did some of the much smaller numbers of Kashmiris who built winter homes in Jammu.

It is these latter that were in the angry cross-hairs of some of those who went to court. For years now, many in Jammu have resented the mansions in Jammu’s Bathindi suburb, many of which are owned by Muslims, including Kashmiri politicians such as Farooq Abdullah.

But, of the 44,000 kanals regularised in Jammu district, less than 1,200 (150 acres) are listed as now owned by Muslims.

BJP Leaders’ Involvement

Nor did the angry resentful realise that beneficiaries elsewhere included BJP leaders.

One BJP leader’s name has so far figured on the name-and-shame lists—ironically, a promising young leader with a fine reputation—but Jammu’s buzzing grapevine suggests that other names are still under wraps.

Certainly, there are FIRs for land grabbing against two former BJP ministers, and a land-related case in the high court against the senior-most of them, lawyer-activist Sheikh Shakeel points out.

Bureaucrats In The Cross-Hairs

Another major cause for the cloddish about-turn is potentially the most crucial: the petty bureaucrat. Those who focused on that communally charged mirage tend to forget the power of that extremely potent Mughal invention, the tehsildar.

Whoever might have gained from a myriad scams, the paperwork for the property deeds would have been processed and signed by those ground-level karta-dhartas, the tehsildars of the erstwhile state.

As one rather senior wag in the government put it, there would have been a long line of tehsildars outside the CBI’s front door if the court-ordered investigations went forward. Hundreds of them, current and retired, would have had to be questioned about files relating to the past three decades.

The bureaucrats who have ruled the roost for the past 30 months may have brought down the state flag of Jammu and Kashmir, but many of them have painstakingly kept the flag of corruption quietly afloat.

So, many glass houses are vulnerable to the petty bureaucrats who actually shuffle files.

Lining up those tehsildars at the CBI could have brought down many more houses of cards than all those scammed mansions.

(David Devadas is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage’ in Kashmir (OUP). He tweets @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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