From November 23, the Jammu and Kashmir government started publishing the names of beneficiaries under the now scrapped Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting Ownership to the Occupants) Act, popularly known as the Roshni Act.

It created a political storm in Kashmir. The first list named four National Conference leaders, a former Peoples Democratic Party leader, two Congress leaders and a battery of Kashmiri Muslim ex-bureaucrats and businessmen. More lists would follow, naming Kashmir’s most prominent political families and senior leaders, especially those from the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a collective of mostly Kashmiri parties.

The Union Territory administration started pushing out beneficiary lists just days before Jammu and Kashmir went into elections to set up new district development councils, the third tier of local government. It is a triangular contest between the Gupkar Alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the newly formed Apni Party. While the Apni Party spokesman found himself in one of the lists, no BJP leader has been named so far.

A ‘land scam’

Enacted in 2001, the Roshni Act had proposed to transfer ownership of state land to its occupants for a fee determined by the government. Money from these transfers was to fund power projects in Jammu and Kashmir – hence the moniker, “Roshni Act”.

For years, transactions under the law have been plagued by allegations of corruption and challenged in court. According to popular opinion, land allocations under the act favoured political elites and powerful officials. However, several allocations were also made to poor families who had occupied state land for years.

In October, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court declared the Roshni “completely unconstitutional, contrary to law and unsustainable”. All transactions enabled by the law were held suspect. The court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into what it termed a “land scam” worth Rs 25,000 crore – the total amount of money made from transactions under the act. The court did not stop at state land transferred under the Roshni Act. It instructed the government to reclaim all state land that was under unauthorised occupation.

Weeks after the judgment, the Jammu and Kashmir government declared the law null and void and announced it would start retrieving state land transferred to Roshni beneficiaries in a “time bound manner.” So far, the names of 3,131 beneficiaries have been released in the public domain, out of which 2,157 are from the Jammu region. The government also issued notices to alleged encroachers of state land, the details of which are published on the divisional commissioners’ websites.

But how exactly are Kashmir’s most prominent politicians and parties implicated?

The Abdullahs face charges

Among those named as encroachers on state land on the divisional commissioner’s website are Farooq and Omar Abdullah, both National Conference leaders and former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir. Farooq Abdullah is president of the Gupkar Alliance.

According to official data, father and son are in illegal occupation of 7 kanals and 7 marlas, or 0.91 acre, in Jammu’s Sunjwan area. Farooq Abdullah’s home in Jammu is built here. The government claims this is state land which is “physically encroached but not shown in revenue records.”

The National Conference was quick to deny the allegations. “The malicious nature of the allegations are laid bare by the fact that even though Mr. Omar Abdullah does not own the land but actually lives with his father in Jammu as he does in Srinagar,” the party said in a statement on November 25. “Yet in order to hype up a frenzy, his name has been added to the list & released by the government.”

The party suggested the “timing and motive” of the charges were driven by the ongoing elections. But it added “all questions pertaining to the land in question would be fittingly answered as and when they are called upon to do so by the concerned authorities.”

Meanwhile, the two major party offices – the Sher-e-Kashmir Bhawan in Jammu and the Nawa-i-Subah Complex in Srinagar – allegedly occupy state land allocated under the Roshni Act. Each office is spread across 3 kanals and 16 marlas or 0.475 acre. This is not a new revelation. As far back as 2014, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had noted that 0.475 acre of state land in Srinagar was allocated to the Nawa-i-Subah Trust under the Roshni scheme. The National Conference claimed both offices had been leased by the party before it decided to apply for ownership under the Roshni scheme.

The party also attacked the Jammu and Kashmir government’s decision not to challenge the high court judgment on the Roshni Act, which had been introduced by Farooq Abdullah’s government. “Thousands of our citizens, who had bonafidely sought benefit of the scheme, are now virtually deprived of their home and hearth for no fault of theirs and the administration instead of challenging the decision of the High Court, abdicated its duty and in a manner of unusual promptitude sought the implementation of the Judgment,” said the party statement issued on November 25.

It also questioned why similar laws were not being declared “unconstitutional” in other states. “It is surprising that while similar acts of conversion of leasehold property into freehold property on similar conversion charges is in vogue in other parts of the country including Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra, yet the same legislative exercise in J&K was declared unconstitutional and the administration chose to do nothing about it,” the statement said.

PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti claimed the BJP was 'peddling lies' about her party. Picture credit: S Irfan/ PTI

The PDP’s party office

The People’s Democratic Party, the other major pro-India party in Kashmir, also found itself on the list of encroachers.

According to a list published on the Jammu Divisional Commissioner’s website, the party office in Sunjwan area encroaches on 3 kanal, or 0.375 acre, of state land. The list also named Talib Choudhary, a Peoples Democratic Party leader, for allegedly encroaching on 2 kanals (0.25 acres) of state land in the Channi Rama area of Jammu district. Choudhary, according to official details, is using this land for his residence.

Peoples Democratic Party leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti hotly refuted the allegations about the party office. “[H]ere is some fact checking since you’ll continue peddling lies,” she tweeted. “Attached are photos of PDP’s office in Jammu. It’s a government building that PDP pays monthly rent for. Dare you to do a primetime show on how BJP built its lavish Delhi party headquarters.” In another tweet two days later, she put up receipts of rent paid by the party to the government for offices in Jammu and Srinagar.

“If the BJP is so serious about the land grab issue, it should go after big fish, not the poor who have not even 5 marlas of land in their possession,” she said at a press conference on November 29. “Notices are being sent to the poor.”

A room with a due?

Another prominent name in the Roshni lists is Haseeb Drabu, former Jammu and Kashmir finance minister who was also a member of the People’s Democratic Party. According to official data, Drabu, his mother and two brothers got a kanal or 0.125 acre each of land in the posh Gogji Bagh area of Srinagar.

Drabu wrote a detailed defence of the transactions in the English daily, Greater Kashmir. According to him, in 1956, his maternal grandfather had acquired a house on half an acre of land in Gogji Bagh for his daughter, Drabu’s mother. But his grandfather bought leasehold rights, or “nazool”, rather than proprietary rights, for Rs 56,000. Every year, they paid ground rent of Rs 40 to the government.

After the lease expired in 1980, Drabu writes, his mother repeatedly applied to the government for an extension, to no avail. Eventually, the family applied for regularisation under the Roshni scheme in 2004. It was granted in 2007. “Within the framework of the Roshni Act we were treated at par with “Authorised Occupants” since my mother had applied in time for renewal of the lease. So where and how is it ‘loot to own’?” Drabu writes.

He also wrote that the family paid the government Rs 7.5 lakh per kanal to convert leasehold rights to freehold rights. Drabu also took a jibe a the BJP: “The way in which the government is packaging and playing out the Roshni scheme in the media, it is like saying that if there is an audit observation on the PM Cares fund, the blame is on those who contributed to the fund instead of those who managed it.”