Who owns public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment?

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao recently made a statement in the State Assembly that public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment belong to the State Government.

By Pankaj Sethi  Published on  17 March 2022 11:37 AM GMT
Who owns public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment?

There are 62 cantonments in India. They were originally set up by the British to house troops, troop families, and civilians who supplied goods and services to the troops. The Central Government (Ministry of Defence) directly administers all cantonments.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao recently made a statement in the State Assembly that public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment belong to the State Government. This goes against conventional wisdom, which holds that public lands in cantonments belong to Govt of India.

So is the CM's claim true?

In cantonments that were located in British India before 1947, the British had either conquered the lands or had otherwise got land ownership. This ownership was passed to the Government of India in 1947. But Secunderabad Cantonment was not located in British India. Hyderabad was a sovereign princely state before 1948. Who owned public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment then, and who owns them now?

The question is important because it has a bearing on the resolution of several pressing public issues. These include:

Civilians were denied access to several public roads passing through the cantonment by military authorities.

Impossible financial demands were made by the Centre when the State approached it for land for road widening, Strategic Road Development Program (SRDP), and for improving the abysmal civic infrastructure in cantonment.

A little history is useful to understand who owns public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment today.

The East India Company did not conquer Hyderabad. Rather, it signed a Treaty (Treaty of Subsidiary Alliance) with the 2nd Nizam, Ali Khan, at the end of the 18th century. This Treaty mandated that both parties would provide their troops to each other against common enemies.

As a result of the Treaty, a "Subsidiary Force" of British troops was stationed in Hyderabad. The Nizam allocated an area near Hussain Sagar (today's Kavadiguda) for their camp. Traders from all over India came in to provide goods and services to the troops. The new town which emerged was named Secunderabad in 1806, after the then Nizam Sikandar Jah.

Like the British, the Nizam also was treaty-bound to provide his troops. He did so. But the British, claiming that Nizam's troops were poorly trained, convinced him that they would raise a fresh contingent of local troops (at Nizam's expense). This contingent came to be called "Hyderabad Contingent". It was quartered in Bolarum, 10 km north of Secunderabad.

This is a map showing the land ownership that existed in Secunderabad Cantonment around 1930 AD. The black coloured line is the boundary of the Cantonment. The dark green and brown coloured areas are Sarf-e-khas and Khalsa lands, which are directly owned by the Nizam. Light green areas are Jagir and Makta lands, which are indirectly owned by Nizam through jagirdars. Red areas are occupied by the British, but even those lands are owned by the Nizam.

The crucial point is this: Though Nizam allowed the British to occupy the land for military purposes, he did not give them ownership of that land. We know this through the following evidence available in the National Archives and from other archival records:

In 1906, Bolarum, Secunderabad, and 13 intervening villages were merged to form the single area now called "Secunderabad". The firman [Exh 1]issued by the Nizam to formalize this merger clearly states that land ownership in the merged area remained with the original owners.

The British themselves undertook several exercises to see whether they owned any land in Secunderabad. The most elaborate such exercise was by Sir William Barton in 1926. All these exercises concluded that the British did not own any land in Secunderabad [See Exh 2].

In 1933 the British prepared the first comprehensive land record of Secunderabad. The Special Lands Officer appointed for preparing this "General Land Register (GLR)" stated that the British did not own any land in Secunderabad. [Exh 3]

Twice in the 20th century, Nizam took back land which was no longer required for military purposes. In 1933 he took back Chaderghat Municipality, including the British Residency (today's Koti Women's College) and the Residency Bazars. In 1946 he took back the town area of Secunderabad, south of today's Rashtrapathi Road [Exh 4]

So if the British did not own the land, who owned it?

Well, a large portion of the land was directly owned by Nizam himself (the so-called sarf-e-khas lands). Another significant chunk was under paigahs and jagirdars who were allowed to collect land revenue – but even this land was ultimately owned by Nizam. Some land - diwani – belonged to Hyderabad Government. The rest was privately owned.

By the time of Operation Polo in 1948, sarf-e-khas and jagir lands together accounted for almost 80,000 sq km out of the 2,10,000 sq km total area of Hyderabad. Oppression of peasants by this aristocracy had led to a violent, communist-supported peasants' revolt a few years earlier. This revolt was still ongoing when the Indian Army entered in 1948.

To quell the revolt a more equitable distribution of land was necessary. Documents show that the Ministry of States under Sardar Patel instructed Maj Gen J N Chaudhuri (who had been appointed Military Governor after he led Indian Army into Hyderabad) to convince the Nizam to hand over sarf-e-khas and jagir lands to the State. There were tortuous and protracted negotiations between the two. The Privy Purse offered to the Nizam was raised to a crore of rupees every year. Other concessions were made. Finally, the Nizam agreed. He issued a firman announcing that he was handing over these lands to the state. Two Regulations were passed in 1948 to formalize this – "Hyderabad Sarf-e-Khas (Merger) Regulation 1358F" and "Hyderabad (Abolition of Jagirs) Regulation 1358F". Thus, overnight, 80,000 sq km of land owned by the aristocracy became diwani or state land. This was perhaps the largest land reform in independent India.

Importantly, this also meant that sarf-e-khas, jagir, and paigah lands inside Secunderabad Cantonment – which accounted for the entire public land in cantonment - also became state land.

Strangely though, a new General Land Register prepared by Govt of India in 1956 (after the merger of Hyderabad with India) shows all public lands in cantonment as belonging to Govt of India!

However, whenever the matter has been examined deeply – by government or by courts – the Central Government's claim of ownership has been rejected. In 1956 Govt of India had to purchase Rashtrapathi Nilayam – the erstwhile Bolarum Residency of the British - from Govt of Andhra Pradesh, showing that the premises were the property of the state government. Many individual court cases have successfully challenged the central government's claim of land ownership in cantonment. There are Resolutions of the Secunderabad Cantonment Board, and even internal reports of the Government of India, which conclude that the Central Government does not own public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment. Even the recent Hyderabad High Court judgment upholding the state government's ownership of Kokapet lands relied on the 1948 sarf-e-khas Merger Regulation.

It thus seems clear that the reality of ownership of public lands in Secunderabad Cantonment is different from that in other cantonments. The cantonment's land record needs to be corrected to reflect this.

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