After Efforts to Push Through Illegal Deal, Rajasthan Rejects Lease for Ramdev's 'Dream Project'

For months, the Vasundhara Raje government tried to ensure that Ramdev's trust would be able to rent and construct on temple land, even though both of these are illegal.

Karauli/Jaipur (Rajasthan): Yoga guru-turned-businessman Baba Ramdev’s proposed ‘dream project’ in Rajasthan is in contravention of several rules and regulations. For several months, instead of taking action against the violations, several departments of the Vasundhara Raje-led state government had been brainstorming ways to legalise the project. After The Wire Hindi reported on the matter on June 20, the state government announced that it would be pulling out of the project.

Spread across 401 bighas of land in Karauli district of eastern Rajasthan, the project proposed to build a yogapeeth, a gurukul, an Ayurvedic hospital, a manufacturing centre for Ayurvedic medicines and a cow shelter (gaushala).

The foundation stone for the project was laid by chief minister Raje and Ramdev on April 22, but work has not begun because the land is yet to be changed from agriculture to commercial.

According to sources, a senior IAS officer posted in the chief minister’s office has been losing sleep over the issue as no method for regularising the land has been devised despite several rounds of discussion with senior officials of the Devasthan and law departments.

After a meeting between urban development minister Shrichand Kriplani, Devasthan minister Raj Kumar Rinwa and chief secretary D.B. Gupta, it was decided that the matter would be handed over to the chief minister.

An investigation carried out by The Wire had revealed that the very foundation of the project flouts a number of rules. After the publication of the article, the state government said that due to legal issues, they would not be changing the land from agricultural to commercial category for now. This means that Ramdev’s Bharat Swabhiman Trust will not be able to build the proposed yogapeeth, gurukul, Ayurvedic hospital and so on.

Land belongs to an idol, cannot be transferred

Officials records indicate that the land is under Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir's name.

Officials records indicate that the land is under Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir’s name.

On August 11, 2016, Ramdev’s Bharat Swabhiman Trust took possession of the land from the Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust on a lease, which is illegal. According to official records, the land is divided into 50 different khasra numbers under Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir’s name, which means the land belongs to the idol installed inside the temple. Legally, the mandir trust can neither sell the land nor rent it out for non-agricultural purposes.

Rajasthan high court advocate Vibhuti Bhushan Sharma calls the lease deed illegal. “God owns the land registered in the name of a temple’s idol,” he says. “Neither the pujari nor the trust have any authority to sell it or give it on lease.”

Land revenue advocate Himanshu Sogani agrees with Sharma. “The law considers the temple idol as a minor,” he says, “and the provisions of Section 46 of the Rajasthan Tenancy Act 1955 apply to it. According to the Act, no one can take over land registered under a minor’s name. Section 45 of the same Act explains it further. The Act has been approved by the local revenue court as well as the Supreme Court. In such a case, it is not lawful for Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust to give the land on lease for non-agricultural purposes to Ramdev’s organisation.”

Most of the temples in Rajasthan were given agricultural land during the time of the princely states. Locally, this came to be known as ‘mandir maafi’ land (land given up for the temple).

In the revenue records of the time, the name of the pujari or priest also used to be mentioned in the document besides the temple idol. After many priests wrongfully transferred the land in their name, the practice was banned in 1991.

A senior official of the revenue department says, “Through Section 19 of Rajasthan Tenancy Act 1955, several priests got possession of the land. When the practice became widespread, the revenue department issued a circular in 1991 clarifying that no land can be transferred in the name of priests in the future. In addition, the possession of land already transferred was also cancelled.”

“The Rajasthan Land Reforms and Resumption of Jagirs Act, 1952 is also applicable on mandir maafi land in the state,” he adds. “According to Section 10 of the Act as well, the temple idol is the sole tenant on mandir maafi land. No one has the legal authority to sell the land or give it on lease. It is illegal for Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust to offer the land on rent.”

Legally, it is clear that the land cannot be offered to anyone on lease by either the temple priest or the Trust. Then how did Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust hand the land over to Swami Ramdev’s Bharat Swabhiman Trust on rent?

Anil Mehta, a senior revenue advocate, says, “On several occasions, the government allows the land of a temple to be given on lease for the purpose of serving public interest. Yet, as per law, mandir maafi land cannot be offered on lease for non-agricultural purposes.”

Surprisingly, Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust did not seek permission from the government before giving the land on rent to the Bharat Swabhiman Trust. The lease deed document worth Rs 1 lakh has been signed by Bharat Swabhiman Trust general secretary Ajay Arya, while on behalf of Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust, Ramji Lal, Purshottam Singhal, Mahadev Prasad, Devi Lal, Virendra and Ramesh Chand Gupta have signed it.

According to the deed, Bharat Swabhiman Trust has been given the land on lease for a period of three years. In return, it would pay Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust Rs 1 lakh every month, with an annual interest rate of 2%. There is also a condition in the deed that the use of the land will be in ‘public interest’ and Govind Dev Ji’s name would be mentioned alongside Patanjali.

That the land be used in ‘public interest’ is a pointless condition, according to Sogani. “As per rules, the use of mandir maafi land for non-agricultural purpose is forbidden,” he says. “Clearly, Ramdev’s trust has not taken the land for farming. They had already proclaimed that a yogapeeth, a gurukul, an Ayurvedic hospital, a manufacturing unit for Ayurvedic medicines and a gaushala will be built here. But the land cannot be used for such purposes.”

After these details and comments made by legal experts first appeared on The Wire Hindi, the state government said that the land will not be regularised and the land deed signed between Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust and Bharat Swabhiman Trust will also be rejected. Both organisations will now have to come up with a fresh contract specifically mentioning the condition that the temple land will not be used for non-agricultural purposes.

Who applied for regularisation?

Since the lease of the land for this ‘dream project’ of Ramdev’s is not legal, many questions about the credibility of the entire project are raised. Currently, the land is agricultural in nature. Nothing can be constructed over it unless it is regularised under the commercial category.

Normally, agricultural land can be legally transferred to the commercial category, but there is no such provision to alter the category of temple land.

Another question that arises here is whether it is the Bharat Swabhiman Trust that applied for the regularisation of the land or Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust. According to Rajasthan high court advocate Tanweer Ahmad, neither of them are eligible to apply for the regularisation. He says, “Only one whose name is mentioned in official records can apply for regularisation. Being mandir maafi land, it is registered under the name of the temple idol. They (the trusts) are not eligible to apply, and nor is anyone else.”

Ahmed further adds, “Since the Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust has already offered the land on lease, they cannot apply for regularisation. And the Bharat Swabhiman Trust, which has received the land, is not eligible to apply because official records do not mention its name. Normally such applications are immediately rejected.”

Raje and Ramdev perform a yagya during the inauguration event. Credit: Facebook/Vasundhara Rage

Raje and Ramdev perform a yagya during the inauguration event. Credit: Facebook/Vasundhara Rage

Further explaining this, Sogani says, “In Rajasthan, a farmer can only use agricultural land for farming while the ownership rights of the land remain with the government. If the land is regularised under commercial category, the ownership is transferred to the concerned person or corporation. If the government had regularised the temple land for business, it would have become the property of Swami Ramdev’s trust.”

Before the government decided to back away from the project, The Wire had asked officials why such efforts were being made to regularise the land despite no such law existing. Only evasive answers were received. Devasthan minister Raj Kumar Rinwa said that everything will be done within the ambit of law. Urban development minister Kriplani also repeated the same answer. Surprisingly, state Congress leaders also refused to comment on the issue.

‘A deal made under compulsion’

In order to find out more about the lease deed of the temple land and its regularisation (both of which the state government has said it will now reject), The Wire contacted three officials of the managing committee of Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust. On the condition of anonymity, however, they told The Wire about the background of the ‘deal’.

One official called it a deal made under compulsion. He says, “The temple has around 750 bighas of land allotted to it but the temple was not utilising it. Most of it had been encroached upon by other people. For several years we were asking the government to take it over, but government officials refused, claiming legal hindrances. We could either let people encroach on it, or hand it over to someone.”

How did Ramdev find out about the land? Another Trust officer responds, “Baba Ramdev’s personal secretary Ajay Arya hails from Karauli district’s Hindaun city. He is also the general secretary of the Bharat Swabhiman Trust. He already knew about the land. He met some of our trust members and then scheduled a meeting with Baba Ramdev. After several rounds of discussions, an agreement was reached.”

A local correspondent of a Hindi daily, Vinod Sharma, also confirms the statement of both officials. He says, “Ramdev’s personal secretary played a key role in the land deal. He was the one who set up a meeting between Ramdev and Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust officials twice. It is also true that most of the temple land has been encroached upon and the Trust was planning to hand it over to someone.”

Before the state government refused to accept the lease deed, Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust officials were hopeful that despite all the obstacles, the project would be completed. Ramdev’s representatives monitoring the work of levelling the land held a similar view.

“Baba has gone so far in the project that now there is no turning back,” said one of the representatives. “So much money and time has been spent here that only completion of the project can compensate for it.”

The authorities are not blameless

Ramdev’s political connections and chief minister Raje’s devotion to him are no secret. Speculation was rife that the government would not reject the regularisation request despite it being illegal; however, that has been proved wrong.

It is noteworthy that not only did the government maintain a silence on the illegal lease deed until the matter became public, attempts were also being made to legalise it. The inauguration ceremony held on April 22, where Raje and Ramdev laid the foundation stone, renders the picture quite clear.

Normally, the inauguration of such projects is held once all formalities have been completed. But Ramdev invited Raje for the inauguration before the completion of even the very first condition – land regularisation – and she accepted. Besides, he even announced the construction of a yogapeeth, gurukul, Ayurvedic hospital, manufacturing unit of Ayurvedic medicines and gaushala, even though such construction is not possible on temple land, and nobody from the government spoke out against this.

Land being levelled at the project site. Credit: Awadhesh Akodiya

Land being levelled at the project site. Credit: Awadhesh Akodiya

The objective of the ceremony held on April 22 went beyond simply laying the foundation stone. The land had been encroached upon, and Ramdev had to change strategies several times in order to get rid of the encroachments but to no avail.

A representative of the Bharat Swabhiman Trust who has been monitoring the project locally says, “First, we tried to talk people out of it but few of them listened. So, we took help from local police and administration. But we managed to retrieve only 200 bighas of land. Our senior colleagues informed Baba Ramdev about it after which he decided the date of inauguration. With the help of police and administration both before and after the inauguration, most of the encroachment has been cleared.”

As a result of the police’s swift action, land of many private tenants was also allegedly taken over by the Bharat Swabhiman Trust. Om Prakash Saraswat is one such land owner. He says, “I own a piece of land near the land given on lease by the temple administration to Baba Ramdev’s trust. Ramdev’s men want to seize it. They threatened me. Neither the police nor the administration is helping me even though I showed them the stay order from the sub-divisional magistrate’s court and revenue board.”

This attitude from the police and administration led to an uproar on April 28. The affected land owners resorted to pelting stones at the machines levelling the land. SDM Ram Avtar Kumawat and superintendent of police Hanuman Singh Kawiya immediately reached the spot. But instead of listening to both sides of the story, the police detained the agitators and pressurised them to compromise with Ramdev’s men.

The land owners also went to collector Abhimanyu Kumar, but he refused to listen to their complaint. He even objected to the presence of the media and asked his security staff to show them out. He took the memo from the complainants only after media had left the room, and then said that he will ‘look into it’.

A local TV channel reporter who witnessed the entire incident says, “Abhimanyu Kumar is a quiet officer and maintains good relations with the media. But his behaviour was very unusual that day. It seemed as if he was working under pressure. He was not willing to speak to the men complaining against Ramdev’s strongmen.”

The attitudes of the police and administration have forced many people to give up hope on reclaiming their land, but some of them have turned to the court for justice.

According to sources, a few of them have also got relief from court. On the other hand, Ramdev’s representatives claim they have prepared a team of advocates for the settlement of such cases.

What happens now?

According to sources, it has been decided that Bharat Swabhiman Trust will carry out scientific cultivation of medicinal plants on the land and the profit earned from it will be spent on the temple’s development.

After a fresh contract between Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust and Bharat Swabhiman Trust, Ramdev too will be able to cultivate medicinal plants on the land.

What about the rest of the project? Sources close to Ramdev’s trust claim that the government has given them an assurance that land will be allocated for it elsewhere soon. The trust will be putting in an application for other land.

However, neither have the terms and conditions of the new contract between Sri Govind Dev Ji Mandir Trust and Bharat Swabhiman Trust been made public yet, nor is it clear where and how the trust will be allocated the land for the rest of the project. Legal experts have expressed fear that the government might try to unlawfully settle matter to the benefit of Ramdev once the matter dies down. The Raje government’s undue favouritism towards Ramdev – clear from how this project was handled for months before finally being rejected – lies behind this fear.

Avadhesh Akodia is an independent journalist based in Jaipur.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. You can read the Hindi original here and here.