Bifurcation Fallout

In the one month since Jammu & Kashmir state was bifurcated into the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, lawyers have been on strike in some parts of Jammu region. The strike, which has affected work in the Jammu & Kashmir High Court and subordinate courts, is over implementation of The Registration Act, 1908. It is significant that the first protests against implementation of a central legislation in the newly created UTs have come not from the Kashmir Valley but from Jammu region, which is considered a BJP bastion. And it is being spearheaded by the president of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, Abhinav Sharma, who happens to be the BJP’s state spokesperson.

The contentious move

On October 23, the Governor’s administration of Jammu & Kashmir state, ahead of bifurcation, accorded sanction to the creation of a new Department of Registration under provisions of the central Registration Act, 1908, to function under the administrative control of the Revenue Department from October 31 in the new UTs. It approved creation of 464 new posts including registrars, sub-registrars, data entry operators etc in the new department, which deals with registration of documents pertaining to immovable property such as sale, gift, mortgage etc. It also approved appointment of additional deputy commissioners and sub-divisional magistrates/ assistant commissioners (revenue) to exercise the powers of registrars and sub-registrars, respectively, within notified jurisdictions.

Why lawyers are upset

The protests began after the administration, instead of appointing full-time registrars and sub-registrars, designated existing revenue officials including deputy commissioners, additional deputy commissioners, sub-divisional magistrates and tehsildars as registrars and sub-registrars within their respective areas. It also designated the Financial Commissioner (Revenue) as Inspector General of Registration. The lawyers have alleged that transfer of the powers of registration of documents from judicial to revenue officers will lead to unnecessary litigation in view of rampant corruption in the revenue department. It will also lead to many judicial officers losing work as people engage them to get their documents legally checked and then registered from court, the lawyers said. The administration’s ground for creating a separate Department of Registration has been that it will bring uniformity to the process of registration of documents across the country, and will reduce waiting time for people in getting deeds and documents registered. Also, people seeking registration will now need to pay only the stamp duty and no longer pay a court fee as earlier.

What has changed

Earlier, all judicial magistrates were vested with the powers to register documents, and the district and sessions judge was designated as Registrar. The Chief Justice of the Jammu & Kashmir High Court was Inspector General of Registration. Judicial officers used to dedicate one or two hours of their daily court hours to registration of documents. In the past too, the state government had ordered transfer of powers of registration of documents from judicial to revenue officers, but it had to withdraw each time following opposition from lawyers. While lawyers are on strike, there appears to be a divide. A significant section appears to be not averse to the new system — they note that it is among the central laws now applicable to the new UTs following bifurcation — and stress that young lawyers are not going to lose work as people will still need them for fulfilling legal requirements, even for registration of documents from revenue officials. However, the work now gets divided as there are lawyers already practising in tehsils as well.

Impact of the agitation

It has failed to evoke public support, as many see it as a form of politicking backed by parties opposed to the removal of Article 370. This was evident at a meeting of civil society convened last week by the High Court Bar Association itself. Many citizens advised the Bar Association to suspend its agitation and first form a joint committee involving prominent members of civil society to deliberate on this issue and others. While the Bar Association is headed by the spokesperson of the state BJP, it also has many members linked to other political parties such as the Congress, the National Conference, the PDP and the Left.

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