Four prime locations in Srinagar are among the six pockets of land in Kashmir that defence ministry officials visited this year as part of their effort to survey and demarcate plot boundaries, official correspondence accessed by shows.

The defence ministry has long claimed ownership over this land which measures over 190 acres, roughly the size of 50 cricket fields. It is described in the correspondence as “densely populated encroached defence land”. However, it has never been in the possession of the defence ministry, one of its officials currently posted in Jammu and Kashmir conceded.

The largest pocket – 126 acres – lies at the base of the Hari Parbat hill in Srinagar’s downtown area. Three other pockets are located in Maisuma, Batamaloo and Pantha Chowk, also in Srinagar. A parcel of about nine acres lies in Awantipora in Pulwama district and another measuring about four acres is in Khanabal in Anantnag district.

Officials of the defence ministry’s estates department visited these areas in February to demarcate the boundaries of the land, but they were unable to do so. “From residential houses and commercial complexes to government offices, all kinds of structures have come up on this land,” the defence ministry official said. “We even have banks and schools built on this land.”

Ease of acquisition

The renewed attempt by the defence ministry to demarcate the land comes at a time when Jammu and Kashmir stands downgraded to a Union Territory directly governed by the Central government.

After it lost its special status under Article 370 of the Indian constitution in August 2019, a slew of amendments were made to its land laws that have smoothened the process for the defence ministry to acquire land in Jammu and Kashmir.

In July 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government withdrew a circular issued in 1971 that necessitated a no objection certificate from the state government’s home department for acquisition or requisition of land in favour of the Indian army and paramilitary forces.

Subsequently, in October last year, the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act of 1970 was amended to allow the government to designate “strategic areas” within lands controlled by it for “direct operational and training requirements of the armed forces”.

A series of letters

Now, correspondence accessed by shows that since early 2020, the defence ministry has written at least four letters to the army headquarters in Srinagar about the survey and demarcation of six “densely populated” pockets of “fully encroached defence land” in the Kashmir valley.

In January this year, in the latest communication in the matter, the defence ministry instructed the local military authority to “liaise with the concerned revenue authority for providing necessary assistance and also to provide security for identification/survey/demarcation” of the six pockets of land to be done by the defence estates department.

The communication even fixed the dates for the joint survey by the officials of defence estates and Jammu and Kashmir government’s revenue department in February.

While the surveys were carried out on schedule, the officials found it was “not feasible to demarcate the encroached pockets of land due to the encroachments,” the defence ministry official said.

Contested claims

Staff of the Jammu and Kashmir revenue department accompanied the defence estates department for the survey, indicating a formal acceptance of the ministry’s claim.

However, a senior revenue official told this reporter that the fact that government buildings stood on the land was proof that the land was under the state government until now.

“None of this land is vacant,” a revenue official who was part of the survey told on the condition of anonymity. “If a government structure has been built on this land, proper orders and permissions have been issued by the Jammu and Kashmir government through the Civil Secretariat under which they have transferred the state land to a particular department to build its structures on it.”

Another official of the revenue department said the purported defence land in question is categorised as “state land” in revenue records. A third revenue department official in Anantnag district said that 90 percent of the purported defence land pocket in Khanabal is registered as “proprietary land” in revenue records. was not able to independently verify the land’s existing status in the records.

Central government officials claim the land in question earlier belonged to the security forces of Jammu and Kashmir’s Hindu ruler Maharaja Hari Singh. “In 1956, there was an agreement between the Maharaja and the government of India under which all the lands of the ex-state’s forces were transferred to the Ministry of Defence,” the defence ministry official said.

Justice Hakim Imtiyaz Hussain, a former judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, seemed to back this view. In the third volume of his book series on land laws in Jammu and Kashmir, he noted that the President of India and the state of Jammu and Kashmir entered into an agreement on January 6, 1956, under which “all properties and assets pertaining to the Jammu and Kashmir State Forces, as they stood on the 1st of September, 1949” shall “vest in the Union”.

However, over the decades, the defence estates department had failed to demarcate or protect the land from encroachments, the defence ministry official said. “It is a fact that these lands right from 1956 had not been under any active occupation of the army.”

While the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1971, empowers the government to remove encroachments on its land, the defence ministry official said it was unlikely to adopt such an approach. “It is a sensitive matter and can become a big issue if the government decides to demolish the encroachments,” he said. “Everybody knows it, be it the army or the government.”

The official claimed the defence ministry was in the process of finding an alternative solution to the issue in consultation with the Jammu and Kashmir government. “There are two options,” he explained. “Either to clear the land of encroachments or approach the state government for the barter of land. The deliberations about the latter arrangement have been going on for a while now.” However, the official added, no final call on the matter has been taken yet.

A pan-India problem

Over 56,000 acres of land in Jammu and Kashmir is used by the Union defence ministry for which it pays Rs 134 crore in rent, the minister of state for defence, Shripad Naik, told Parliament in 2019.

Naik also informed Rajya Sabha that over 9,622 acres of defence land had been encroached across India. While Uttar Pradesh topped the list with more than 2,200 acres of defence land under encroachment in the state, only 339 acres of encroached defence land lay in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In another response in Parliament, outlining the measures being taken by the government to protect defence lands, Naik said the ministry was working on “strengthening of defence land management by way of digitisation of land records, survey, demarcation and verification of defence lands and land audit.” He also informed the Rajya Sabha that “defence lands located in isolated locations are being fenced and regular patrolling is being carried out to safeguard the lands from encroachers and unauthorised construction”.

The senior defence ministry official in Jammu and Kashmir asserted that the recent exercise of surveying and demarcating encroached defence land in Kashmir should be seen in this light. “It has nothing to do with what happened on August 5, 2019. The survey and demarcation of defence land is a phase-wise process and it has been going on across India for many years now,” he said. “Defence has enough land for its requirement [in Kashmir] and as of now, there is no need to acquire more land.”