In what could turn out to be a major administrative lapse, the Raghubar Das government in Jharkhand overturned the “stay” granted by the state High Court in a land dispute case citing the court’s “oral observations”.

Sources said that the court’s “oral observations” can never be the basis for a government for overturning the stay of a court. However, in this case, while the Additional Advocate General (AAG) cited the court’s “oral observations” for vacating the stay, other senior arms of the administration—the Principal Secretary and the Deputy Commissioner—”honoured” it and “followed” his orders.

The issue may snowball into a major controversy as it involves a close aide of former CM Arjun Munda, who, sources said, is “disliked” by many in the present establishment. Kale has been a state BJP spokesperson for eight years and also vice chairperson of state Minority Commission, in the rank of MoS and comes from Jamshedpur East, the constituency of Chief Minister Raghubar Das.

Taking note of the issue, a senior state minister Saryu Roy has shot off a “Peet Patra” (or “buff sheet”, a letter written by a minister directly to the Secretary in extraordinary circumstances) to the Revenue and Land Reforms Secretary.

What is interesting is the fact that the government took a complete U-turn on its earlier own stand on the issue, and decided to act against the land owner, on the basis of an anonymous letter—the complainant has never appeared in person before two enquiry committees.

The case in question pertains to land (5.26 acre) dispute at a prime location in Jamshedpur, owned originally by Bengul Kumar and, thereafter, by Daljeet Singh, brother of Kale, with Tata Steel, going on for about 70 years. The state governments—earlier Bihar and now Jharkhand—has been maintaining, through counter-affidavits, that the land belonged to the “raiyat” (land owner).

In 2002, the Assistant Settlement Officer (ASO) ruled in favour of the “raiyat”, after which there were several correspondences between the department and the Jamshepdur DC. After thorough investigation for three years, the state government, in November 2005, allowed for fixation of rent. Subsequently, the Tata Steel moved the HC, which stayed the decision. However, in 2012, the HC rejected the Tata Steel’s petition and ruled in favour of the “raiyat” and directed to start fixation of rent for the land. The Tata Steel again moved to double bench of the HC, which directed to maintain “status quo”. All through this period, the state government took a consistent stand in favour of the “raiyat”.

However, the case took a new turn in 2016, after formation of the present government, when Secretary directed the Jamshedpur (East Singhbum) deputy commissioner to “reinvestigate” the matter, based on a complaint of one Munshi Rajak, whose address was missing from the letter.

The Secretary asked the DC to file a fresh affidavit on the matter in order to get the “status quo” vacated and cancel the jamabandi (fixation of rent) and also to take disciplinary action against officers, responsible for “starting” it. The DC formed a two-member committee. He also sought legal opinion from the standing counsel, who advised not to go against administration’s own earlier stand. However, ignoring the advice, the DC filed an IA (Interlocutory Application) in March 2017 and cancelled the jamabandi, citing the court’s “oral observations”.

In his letter, the then AAG Ajit Kumar, who is now the Advocate General, wrote: “The Hon’ble Court has upon the undersigned pressing for leave in the light of the status quo order, however, made oral observations that the government is free to take corrective measures, pass necessary orders and take necessary actions with respect to the matters and the status quo passed by the Hon’ble High Court may not stand in the way of the State Govt in taking corrective decisions or actions, if the same is in accordance with law.”

Interestingly, based on this letter, the Revenue and Land Reforms department wrote a letter to the Jamshedpur DC to cancel the jamabandi. Subsequently, the DC cancelled the jamabandi. Daljeet Singh again moved the High Court, which gave a “stay” on the jamabandi proceedings. Despite this, the DC allegedly went ahead with the cancellation of jamabandi.

Saryu Roy told this newspaper: “The government should wait for the final verdict of the High Court. Overturning its status quo order may amount to contempt of court. The government’s stand has been consistent, in favour of the land owner, for many years. It cannot take a different stand all of a sudden, that too on the basis of an anonymous letter. This act of the government gives an impression that it is siding with the Tata Steel.”

When contacted, Principal Secretary, Revenue and Land Reforms department, Kamal Kishore Soan sought time to go through the concerned file before commenting on the issue though a detailed queries were mailed to him as early as Tuesday. East Singhbhum DC Amit Kumar did not reply to the queries mailed to him. But speaking to this newspaper over telephone, he said: “The rent fixation done earlier was wrong. We are trying to correct the wrong done earlier.”

“We are taking every step keeping in mind public interest and in accordance with the law. The petitioner has approached the court and we will follow whatever decision it gives. We have placed all facts before the court,” he added.

Tata Steel spokesperson Kulvin Suri did not respond to the detailed queries sent to him on Tuesday over e-mail.