Queen Victoria was not yet Empress of India. The British crown had just taken over from the East India Company two years earlier. The year was 1860, and it’s when this case began. Cut to 2016 and a group of land owners are demanding compensation from the state for ‘government’ buildings constructed on their land in 1859-60. Yes, you read that right. They’re seeking compensation for something that happened 156 years ago.
The Raj is done and dusted and mostly been relegated to history books and museums, but that didn’t stop our litigants from beginning their quest for compensation on January 27, 2014. On that day, advocate VV Hiremath wrote a letter to the Public Works Department (PWD) and the deputy commissioner of Belagavi district, stating that Ramarao aka Ajit Krishnarao Desai and Sujit Krishnarao Desai, residents of Yargatti village in Saundatti taluk, were the owners of 36 acres of land in the village.
The litigants’ contention is that on four acres of the 36-acre parcel of land belonging to them, the PWD and Revenue departments “misutilised their position as public servants and constructed the structures of two inspection bungalows, store buildings, section officer quarters, chowkidar quarters, kitchen block, vehicle shed, latrines, PWD section office by the public works department in the aforesaid portion. They have completed works of construction long back”. The legal notice called upon the authorities “to arrange for suitable payment of the compensation amount and oblige”.
On July 21, 2014, the PWD replied to the legal notice. The letter said that the guest house was constructed in the years 1859-60 and hence “question of acquiring the land and paying compensation does not arise”.
The ‘land owners’ then approached the High Court. A single-judge bench of the HC in 2015 rejected their claim saying “the acquisition was made even before Independence”, and the question of acquisition and granting compensation did not arise.
They then appealed to the division bench of the HC on July 14, 2016. It was argued on their behalf that “delay is no ground in law to reject” the petition. The division bench of Justice HG Ramesh and Justice Rathnakala said, “The land was utilised in the year 1859-60 for construction of the Government Guest House at Yaragatti. The appellants raised the dispute only in the year 2014. Hence, there was an inordinate delay of more than 150 years in raising the dispute. There is absolutely no explanation for the delay.” As there was no explanation for the delay, the court said it was unnecessary to even examine whether the appellants had prima facie title to the land or not. It dismissed their appeal.
Belagavi and the War of Independence
The East India Company helped the Marathas conquer Belagavi territory from Hyder Ali in the late 18th Century. In the 19th Century, the Marathas themselves were subjugated by the British who took control of Belagavi. After the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, Belagavi became an important post for the British. In 1858, when the British Crown took over the East India Company, the ‘political prisoners’ of the War were housed in Belagavi Fort. A lot of government offices were built in Belagavi during this period. What is now the High Court of Karnataka started as the Chief Court of Mysore in 1884, decades after this case’s ‘land dispute’.
Credits Bangalore Mirror