The ‘Puppet’s’ Palace

At a time when Delhi is keen to replace the governor N N Vohra, sons of the state’s only Sadr-e-Reyasat are fighting a protracted case to undo the loss Dr Karan Singh did to them by renting two palaces to state government as Raj Bhawan, Syed Junaid Hashmi reports

Governor N N Vohra along with chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and her colleagues in Raj Bhawan Jammu

It was April 1950, when Sardar Patel invited Maharaja Hari Singh, his wife and Karan Singh for a lunch and broke the news to them, quite politely, that the new India emerging post independence is banishing the Maharaja. His wife wept bitterly over the decision. But the ‘package’ envisaged replacing the Maharaja by the America-return Karan Singh, then only 18.

On June 20, 1949 Singh was appointed Regent by his father. On November 21, 1952, he finally took oath of office, as he writes in his Heir Apparent, the first elected ‘puppet’ Head of the state, of the state, his forefathers had out-rightly purchased. He was given oath of office in Rajghari Palace. This position, after Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest in 1953, was converted into governor on March 28, 1965, a position he held till March 13, 1967.

Unlike Srinagar where he operated from Raj Bhawan, also a palace that was a state property, Dr Singh set up his office in the palaces the family owned. By 1967 when Delhi decided to induct Dr Singh as central minister, he formalized the system. J&K government got the same twin palaces on a monthly rent of Rs 4000 to home his successor. Half a century later, there are second thoughts as his two sons are seeking the property back. The state government is not ready to part with the prize property saying it will make head of the state literally without a roof.

Now the family of Kashmir’s first governor is fighting the case against the government seeking return of the space where they obviously were born and spent most of their childhood. Vikramadatiya Singh and Ajatshatru Sing have taken the case to the court and pushing it hard, these days.

Karan-Singh

The property is a fortune. The premises comprise two palaces, the Ranbir Mahal and the Karan Niwas with attached outhouses spread on a landmass of 126 kanals. It has many servant-quarters, lawns, orchards, lush green trees, fences, ditches, passage, pathways and road. Overlooking Tawi, the Bahu Fort, Mahamaya temple and the Mahamaya forests, it is perhaps one of the best places offering breathtaking sights in Jammu.

But there is a twist. Shortly before resigning as governor, Dr Singh had set up a Trust in memory of his parents – the Hari-Tara Charitable Trust, with the couple as its two trustees. Among properties that the Trust owned included the entire space that houses Raj Bhawan in Jammu. Interestingly, before the ‘royal’ couple left the premises, his wife, Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, had executed a deed leasing the premises out to the state government for a monthly rent of Rs 4,000 on May 1, 1967 by “mutual consent”. After Maharani’s death in May 1990, Dr Singh is the sole trustee of the Trust. Off late, he has taken his two sons as its new trustees.

The case has been changing on courts for many years now. But the latest was recently when Trust’s attorney Vikram Sharma moved an application before the Principal District Judge, Jammu requesting that it should not accede to the request of state government to deposit rent of the Raj Bhawan in the court. His plea is that since lease stands terminated, government must vacate Raj Bhawan.

Trust has maintained that while they have not been accepting any rent, they must get compensation for continuous unauthorised use and occupation of the Raj Bhawan and associated properties. They have issued notices to state government under section 106 of J&K Transfer of Property Act.

Ajatshatru-Singh

Sharma’s application is in response to state government plea before the court on July 20, 2016 seeking directions for depositing the rent of the Raj Bhawan in the court. This plea became inevitable after the government found no takers in the Trust for accepting the rent as was conveyed on June 17, 2016.

The official response – as was articulated by the Public Works Department (PWD), suggests that if the Raj Bhawan premises is restored to the Trust, it will cause “great inconvenience to constitutional head of state” since state has no other place in Jammu to house him. Besides, the government argument is that the Trust is incompetent to end the lease because the lease is for residential purpose of an office having perpetual succession and hence, the lease has to be presumed as a lease in perpetuity and leaser has no power to terminate the lease unilaterally. The Trust, it insists, lacks any right to terminate the lease unilaterally because it lost this right the day, it signed the agreement. The government has invoked section 30 of the J&K Residential and Commercial Tenancy Act-2012, although it is stayed in a case of PIL, to prevent any eviction.

The government has hiked the rent to Rs 96,000, a month and it willing to hike it by 25 percent, every five years, according to a government order of May 21, 2007. Not ready to accept the rent, the Trust is, however, seeking Rs 163 crore as compensation for “unauthorized” use and occupation of the property at the rate of Rs 50,000 a day, from the day the lease “terminated”.

Vikramadatiya Singh

Though this is not the only litigation that the state government is fighting with the erstwhile “owners” of the state, but the coincidence of the arguments with other happenings is interesting. Right now, Delhi is busy finding a “suitable” successor to N N Vohra, the non-controversial Kashmir expert who has been in Raj Bhawan since 2008 unrest. Sources said Ram Madhav’s last visit to Jammu had consultations on this front as one of the major points on his agenda. BJP government in Delhi had plans of unseating Vohra in 2016 summer but the unrest forced them against taking a call on this. But now Vohra may retire within a few months. But will his transfer also change the residence of the new governor?

It is interesting to mention here that the ‘royal’ family embodies every political force of reckoning right now. Dr Singh is a Congressman in India’s House of Elders. His son Ajatshatru Singh is a BJP man and Vikramadatiya Singh is with BJP. Both the brothers sit very close in J&K’s legislative council.

 

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