Ugly face of SoPS unmasked; H. P. High Court orders for confiscation of its bank deposits and recovery of land it had fraudulently acquired

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

As goes an axiom, a thief cannot hide for ever. The ugly face of Servants of the People Society (SoPS) is unmasked, as in Orissa High Court, so also in litigations before the High Court of Himachal Pradesh. We see glimpses of more grievous offenses in the conduct of this once famous Society.

The Government of Himachal Pradesh, on locating its scandalous conduct through investigation, had appointed a high power committee to decide on action to be taken against the outfit that a noted Hindu leader and freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai had founded with the object “to enlist and train national missionaries for the service of the motherland”.

It was located through investigation that SoPS had fraudulently grabbed 25 Acres of ‘Village Common Lands’ by gaining over a gram Panchayat that had executed a gift deed in its favor on 19.9.1966 under pretension of building a memorial library with a hall in the name of Lala Lajpat Rai; and instead of doing the same, was busy in dubious transactions over the said land. Therefore, the high level committee, presided over by Principal Secretary (Tourism), decided on 01 December 2005 to institute “fraud case” against SoPS for the offense and to take back the land along with the money it had bagged as compensation for a portion of the same land allocated to an airport nearby.

In a judgement delivered on 12 August 2013, the H. P. High Court has ruled that the 25 Acres of land gifted to SoPS by the Panchayat in 1966 was not legal and hence it has declared the gift deed null and void.

After portion of the land under its possession was allotted to the airport by way of acquisition on 16.11.1988, SoPS had acquired a new patch of land from the Government as a substitute, over and above Rs. 33,37,627/- it had received from the government by way of compensation, though it was not entitled to claim the compensation and bag the substitute land.

The High Court has directed the State Government to take back the land under its possession with immediate effect while restraining SoPS from withdrawing any amount or interest lying in deposit in Banks with a clear direction to the Banks “not to release any amount or interest to the Society or its representative from the bank accounts with them”.

“The State of Himachal Pradesh shall be entitled to receive the entire (money) deposited by the Society” the High Court has ordered.

From the judgment it transpires that SoPS had used fraudulent means to acquire the 25 Acres of land from the Panchayat that was de facto custodian thereof.

Lajpat Rai used as a ploy

“It has come on record that even after decades of gift dated 19.9.1966, the society did not fulfill its alleged commitment for construction of public library and hall on the land gifted to it by the Panchayat. The conduct of Society compels us to take the view that the Society under the garb of construction of public library and hall in the memory of late Lala Lajpat Rai secured gift of 25 acres of land which was not even required by the Society”.

The Society had pleaded that bigger portion of the land being allotted to Gagal Airport and the substitute land found full of debris, it was not possible to build up the library/hall. The High Court rejected this plea in the following term:

“It has been contended that Gagal Airport caused hindrance in the construction of a public library and hall. This contention has no force. The Gagal Airport was constructed much later, the notification for construction of airport under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act was issued on 16.11.1988. The Society between 19.9.1966 and 16.11.1988 for about 22 years did not take any concrete step for construction of public library and hall on the land in question. The chain of events indicate that society used the name of late Lala Lajpat Rai as ploy to secure gift of 25 acres of village common land and the Panchayat gifted the land” (Para 25 of the judgment).

The Panchayat was not entitled to gift away the land without prior approval of Zila Parishad and State Government. But this legal restriction was contravened.

The Court notes,

“The approval of Zila Parishad and State Government before actual gift are necessary under Rule 13. The Society has not proved approvals of Zila Parishad and State Government of the land by Panchayat to Society prior to gift deed dated 19.9.1966. In the absence of approvals of Zila Parishad and State Government, the gift deed dated 19.9.1966 is not legal and valid” (Para 23).

At para 24 of the judgment, it is said,

“There is nothing on record on how much area of village common land the Society actually wanted to construct library and meeting hall. By no stretch of imagination it can be assumed that a library and meeting hall were to be constructed on 25 acres of village common land by the Society”.

Case of SoPS dismissed

In summing up its determination at Para 30, the Court has held,

“the gift deed dated 19.9.1966 by Gram Panchayat, Rachhialu in favour of Servants of People Society, Lajpat Bhawan, Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi is held illegal, void ab initio and not binding on the State of Himachal Pradesh. The land covered by the gift deed dated 19.9.1966 excluding the land already acquired for Gagal Airport shall vest in State of Himachal Pradesh under Section 3 of the Himachal Pradesh Village Common Lands Vesting and Utilization Act, 1974. The allotment of land to Society in Mohal Jugher, village Bandi by State of Himachal Pradesh vide mutation No. 59 dated 18.2.1982 of exchange is also not sustainable and is set-aside. The State of Himachal Pradesh is entitled to compensation amount, interest on account of acquisition of part of land covered by the gift deed dated 19.9.1966 acquired for the purpose of Gagal Airport. The State of Himachal Pradesh is directed to take possession of land now covered by mutation No. 59 dated 18.2.1982 Mohal Jugher, Mauja Bandi. The Society is restrained from withdrawing any compensation amount or interest lying in deposit and respondents No. 4 and 5 (the Banks) in CWP No. 1358 of 2006 are directed not to release any amount or interest to Society or its representative from the banks accounts with them. The State of Himachal Pradesh shall be entitled to receive the entire amount with interest deposited by the Society with respondents No. 4 and 5 in CWP No. 1358 of 2006”.

CWP No. 1358 of 2006 that was challenging the government’s decision to confiscate the bank deposits of SoPS has been “dismissed”. Pending application, if any, is also thus disposed of.

But the offense is more grievous

But pages of the verdict leads us to more instances of grievous offenses – real and / or suspected – that need more investigation and punishment.

The expressed judicial concern over the motive of SoPS in acquiring the land in monstrous excess to what could have really been needed for the promised project is a matter that calls for in-depth investigation. Very disproportionately high amount of land is being negotiated for and obtained from the government(s) by various private industrial/commercial houses and mafia for projects of their own, as in Orissa, we have experienced in land allocation to Ravishankar and Anil Agarwal through special Acts created by a government of scandalous conduct.

The Court has unambiguously said that the land obtained from the Panchayat by SoPS in Himachal Pradesh , “is shrouded with suspicious circumstances”.

But, though noted, a serious offense of misappropriation of a huge sum of money has escaped the eyes of the Court.

When it is on records that a sum of Rs.33,37,627/- has been bagged by SoPS as cash compensation for a portion of land vested in the Gagal Airport and deposited in bank accounts of the Society, pages of the verdict reveal that the bank has sealed FDR of `10,00,000/- only in compliance to letter dated 14.6.2006 of the Deputy Commissioner, Kangra.

Does it mean that Rs. 23,37,627/- has not been deposited in the bank and hence, misappropriated?

The issue is more grievous than has been dwelt upon.

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