My First Clash with a Minister

In mid-1973 I was posted as Subdivisional Officer in charge of Chandernagore Subdivision in the district of Hooghly, West Bengal. It was a new Congress (I) run government then under Siddhartha Ray as Chief Minister, but Chandernagore city, an ex-French colony, had a very strong Communist (Marxist) following. On taking up Court work, I came across a very interesting case. R.K. Das, the District Fishery Officer (DFO) in charge of Nadia District in West Bengal had taken temporary settlement of government land privately in Chandernagore Subdivision of Hooghly District consisting of a pond and its surrounding area for rearing fish. During the tenancy he obtained permission from the Board of Revenue (BOR) to construct a temporary shed for guarding the pond against thieves. On that basis, he built a pucca house and requested the BOR to regularise it. Since the Collector’s report was adverse, on 29-3-73 the BOR ordered the Subdivisional Officer (SDO), a direct recruit lady officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), to institute a case against Das under the W.B. Public Land (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act (No. XIII of 1962) for eviction from the pond and the surrounding area. An eviction case was started and the SDO, as Collector under that Act, passed an order on 6-6-1973, that the occupier be evicted under section 4 and also ordered that the construction be demolished.

Das then directly approached the Minister in charge of Land Reforms, a Cabinet Minister. The BOR, contradicting its earlier instructions, issued orders on 30-6-73 to the Additional District Magistrate (Land Reforms) of the district that the appellant be given long term settlement of the land and, pending that, be allowed to remain in possession of the house.

The ADM (LR) was an officer of the state civil service allegedly of doubtful integrity who had not been promoted to the IAS. He had instituted a case in the High Court against the government’s decision. The District Magistrate (DM) was a former Superintendent of Excise who had been promoted to the IAS recently from the state Excise Service. He had held charge as ADM in the same district for about a year before the incident and had very recently taken over as DM. The ADM (LR) and he had been ADMs together in this very district.

These orders were communicated to the SDO. The Second Officer, a state civil service officer with 12 years service who was holding charge as SDO after the lady IAS officer had been transferred on promotion, sent a report to the ADM (LR) pointing out that neither had Das filed an appeal against the eviction order before the Divisional Commissioner, who was the competent authority under the Act and whose decision is statutorily final, nor had he approached the district authorities for long term settlement.

Further, Act XIII of 1962 has no provision for moving the Land Reforms Department direct against orders passed by the Collector (the SDO being the Collector under the Act). Moreover, a prosecution under the Bengal Municipal Act was also pending against Das for constructing a pucca building without sanction of the local municipality.

Finally, the matter being sub-judice, no regularisation of this illegal construction was possible, nor would it be legally possible to give him possession of the building pending long-term settlement by the government, as desired by the BOR.

Pending further orders from the district headquarters, the eviction orders passed by the lady SDO (who, in the meantime, had been promoted and left on transfer) were not implemented by the Second Officer. The reason he gave was that no decision could be taken as to how the expenses for demolishing the construction would be met. The very day it was finally decided by the officiating SDO to carry out the demolition orders, the ADM (LR) sent verbal instructions not to proceed with the demolition.

On 10-7-73, I took over charge as SDO. This was my first subdivisional charge. On going through the case record I found that the revised decision of the BOR was legally untenable. Yet, it was a decision of the state government. In a quandary, I recalled that my predecessor (the lady IAS SDO who was the daughter of an ICS officer) had suggested that in difficulty I could approach the Additional Member, BOR, for advice. I did so over phone and was brushed off, the Additional Member advising me to come through “proper channel” (which was not the case if one were progeny of the ICS!). Thereupon I went to Mr. D. Bandopadhyay an officer in the State Secretariat 16 years my senior and known for his radical views regarding land reforms and his thorough knowledge of rules and regulations. He had been a member of the P.S. Appu Task Force on Agrarian Relations set up by the Planning Commission that made radical recommendations regarding implementing land ceilings. He was also known for his easy accessibility to junior officers. He pointed out to me that the government cannot interfere through administrative instructions with orders passed by me in my capacity as a court of law. He assured me that my stand was legally quite justified.

I also found out that the Vigilance Commission had instituted a case against Das for having submitted false rent receipts and that he had been suspended for embezzling government money meant to be disbursed as fishery loans. Moreover, no records existed with revenue authorities to show that Das had obtained permission from his department for involving himself in the fish-rearing trade. There was aos nothing to show that he had taken prior permission from the government before constructing the unauthorised house as required under the Conduct Rules. Finally, from where had he obtained the money for this construction, which was estimated at Rs. 25,000? I found that there was popular resentment against a gazetted government officer being allowed to continue in illegal possession of vested land.

A suggestion reached me from the ADM (LR) through the Sub-Divisional Land Reforms Officer (SLRO) that the Government Pleader had found out the solution for implementing the BOR’s orders and not be guilty of contempt of my court.  This was to take merely symbolic possession of the land and the building. At no stage did the ADM (LR) speak to me regarding this case.

I decided to ignore the revised orders of the BOR and to carry out the orders of my predecessor since while her orders were passed in her capacity as a Court, orders from the BOR were merely administrative and not binding on a court of law. Since demolition of a well-constructed building would have amounted to a public loss, I decided to get Das evicted from the building but did not issue orders to demolish it. Das was evicted on 18-7-73 in the presence of the Second Officer (another magistrate) who also sealed the house. The eviction was well received by the local people and the representatives of the ruling party. Police was posted at the building to ensure that Das did not break into the house.

Within a few days the SLRO brought me a written order dated 20-7-73 from the ADM (LR) asking me to hand over possession of the house to Das. Since the house now belonged to the government, the ADM (LR) was competent to allot it to whomsoever he found fit. Since a copy of this order was likely to have been endorsed to Das, I apprehended that he would try to take possession of the building. I informed the Sub-divisional Police Officer (SDPO) to instruct the police not to allow Das to enter the house. The SDPO wavered a bit as no order under Section 144 of the Cr.P.C. had been promulgated, but agreed to ignore the orders from the ADM for another 48 hours. I felt that promulgating orders under Section 144 would be too drastic.

In the meantime, local workers of the ruling party came to congratulate me as they were opposed to Das’ illegal and corrupt activities. They gave me a petition stating that if possession of the house was handed back to Das there could be a law and order problem. They stated that they would also be meeting the Land Reforms Minister to tell him not to ruin the image of the government. They had already sent the Chief Minister a congratulatory telegram over the eviction. Chandernagore was a stronghold of the CPI(M), the leading opposition party where the ruling party was struggling to gain popular support. The SDO contacted the DM over telephone and requested him not to pursue handing over the building to Das. The DM, in view of the reported danger of breach of peace, agreed with the steps that the SDO had taken and asked him to see him the next morning.

The next day Bose met the DM with a letter addressed to the Secretary of the BOR, explaining the entire case. The DM immediately passed written orders that Das should not be allowed to enter the house and that the SDO and the ADM (LR) were to discuss the issue with him the following day. Before this meeting there was a mass deputation from the locality against allowing Das to re-enter the house and explicitly stating apprehension of breach of peace if this was allowed.

During the meeting the next day (23-7-73), the DM rang up the Secretary BOR, and pointed out to him that in view of the fact that a Bengal Bundh by the opposition was scheduled on 27th July, it was not advisable that any sort of provocation be given to the public which might precipitate a law and order situation before the Bundh. The Secretary BOR had been promoted from the clerical cadre. Thereupon, the Secretary, who had so far been adamant, agreed to consider the facts put forward in the SDO’s letter. A letter was immediately dictated by me to the DM’s stenographer, signed by the DM and sent to the BOR.

The ADM (LR) informed the DM that although he had pointed out to the Minister for Land Reforms the legal difficulties in implementing his wishes, yet the Minister was insistent on the grounds that: Das had admitted his mistake in writing; the Minister had rebuked Das and this was sufficient punishment; where was the poor chap to go in this rainy season with his family? Das was no relation of his (he repeated this time and again); land would be settled with him only after sufficient payment had been obtained by the government.

I pointed out to the DM that a case under the Bengal Municipal Act was being heard against Das and that the government had no power to give him possession of the building until the case had been decided. The DM remained silent.

I then wrote to the DM for allowing him to shift the Refugee Rehabilitation Office from the inadequate accommodation in which it was housed to the house built by Das which was in the government’s possession. Keeping the house under government’s use would prevent efforts to return it to Das.

Meanwhile, the local ruling party members had moved the Chief Minister against the attitude of the Land Reforms Minister.

I was subsequently informed by the ADM (LR) that the Secretary of the BOR had shown the letter from the DM to the Minister who had stated in a huff, “Since the SDO had so many objections let the matter stay as at present.” He also added that if could get a “no objection” certificate from the local wing of the party, he would be given possession of the house.

I also moved the District Vigilance Officer (the DM) for starting vigilance proceedings against Das for undisclosed source of funds for building the house without permission etc.

Finally, on 6-8-73 the BOR wrote to the ADM (LR) that it had been decided to withdraw its earlier orders and that the law may take its own course:

“Copy of Memo. No. 13685-CE 238/Z3 dated 6-8-73 from the Special Officer, Board of Revenue, to the District Magistrate.

Sub: Unauthorised construction of a pucca building on Plot No. 359 at Saheb Bagan under Mouza Chandan Pada by Shri R. K. Dass

Ref:  Correspondence resting with his confidential Memo. No. 380/Rev. dated 23-7-73 to the address of Secretary, Board of Revenue.

On a further consideration of the matter in the light of the facts and circumstances reported in his Memo. under reference, it has been decided to withdraw the orders contained in this office Memo. No. 11335-GE dated 30-6-73 and thus the law may be allowed to taken its own course.

Memo. No. 13685/1-GE dated 6-8-73.

Copy forwarded to the Addl. District Magistrate, for information and necessary action.


Special Officer, Board of Revenue

Memo. No. 3922(2)/LR dated 1-9-73



More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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