Monday, 30th October 2017

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Unequal portions

The troubled issue of minority assets

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 13.02.16

Legend has it that the late Nawab Sir K.G.M. Faroqui of Ratanpur, near Comilla, a dumpy little man with a white moustache who lived in Rowland Road and wore a sola topee, was the only zamindar to obtain compensation from the governments of both India and Pakistan. No Hindu could ever have achieved that distinction. Pranab Mukherjee might add the qualification "No Bengali Hindu". Given the interest the president used to take in refugee relief and rehabilitation, one wonders if he felt there was a certain rough justice in the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance he signed last month nullifying the Supreme Court's 2005 decision to restore the Raja of Mahmudabad's palace and lands in Uttar Pradesh.

The title has historical resonance. A Muslim of Hindu rank speaks of India's cultural ecumenism. A Raja of Mahmudabad founded the All-India Muslim Students Federation and was treasurer of the Muslim League before Partition. A Raja of Mahmudabad was director of the Islamic Cultural Centre in London's Regent Park when I lived in England. Could it be him? Jagat Mehta, the former foreign secretary, solved the mystery. He had a personal reason for doing so. The raja I knew of was Mohammad Amir Ahmed Khan. He migrated to Pakistan in 1957, and the Custodian of Evacuee Property took over his Indian assets. By the time he died in London in 1973 they had been reclassified as enemy property, a category that came into being after the 1965 India-Pakistan war. His son, Cambridge-educated Amir Mohammad Khan, is Indian by birth and citizenship and married to Mehta's daughter, Vijaya. It took Khan 32 years of litigation in Lucknow, Bombay and Delhi to win back his father's estate by persuading the Supreme Court to reject the biblical injunction to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.

It was an occasion for rejoicing. By that token, the National Democratic Alliance government's ordinance restoring the Custodian of Enemy Property's authority over the Mahmudabad estate must cause grief. Since the ordinance affects mainly Muslims - enabling acquisition of nearly 3,000 Muslim properties - it might seem like sangh parivar mischief. But this isn't Narendra Modi's brainchild. Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government promulgated a similar ordinance in 2010 after failing to enact the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Bill. No one accused the gently-spoken economist of communal fanaticism. Mehta was an old friend whose memoirs Singh released from his prime ministerial residence. He would not have sanctioned action that caused Mehta distress if he wasn't convinced of the important humanitarian, political and diplomatic issues to which friendship and personal joy and sorrow must yield precedence.

The 2005 judgment strengthened the impression that India is a land of exceptions that favour the rich and influential. Nawab Faroqui was one exception. Another was Jawaharlal Nehru's decision to indulge Pakistan's founder by excluding South Court, Mohammed Ali Jinnah's Bombay villa, from the Evacuee Property Act. Nehru might even have gifted the property, now reportedly worth $60 million, to Pakistan if his cabinet had not objected. His indulgence encouraged Jinnah's daughter to argue that as a Khoja Shia, her father was subject to Hindu customary law and not Muslim personal law, and that she, being his heir and not a Pakistani, should inherit South Court. Mahmudabad provided a third conspicuous exception. The Bhopal royal family, whose case Rasheed Kidwai reported at length in last Saturday's The Telegraph, might be the fourth although it wasn't mentioned when Mehta was lobbying against the UPA ordinance.

Given popular psychology, people will note that not only are all the beneficiaries grandees but they are Muslim grandees. This might be particularly resented in the east. Mukherjee once contrasted the generous gifts of land, houses, licences, grants, loans and jobs to West Pakistan refugees with Delhi's niggardliness with Bengalis. The government even paid to send a Punjab evacuee family's sons to India's best boarding school. Mukherjee acknowledged that the absence of a divisible pool of abandoned Muslim property made it difficult to treat Bengalis with matching generosity. Communal relations being more relaxed here, even Bihar-origin Muslim families who left West Bengal for East Pakistan but didn't like it there had little difficulty getting back their land and houses on returning. A similar option was never open to Hindus. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and K.C. Neogy quit Nehru's cabinet protesting against the discrimination his pact with Liaquat Ali Khan formalized.

While all ordinances are undemocratic, this one affects an individual's right to property. It also upholds the once-an-enemy-always-an-enemy principle. Another objection is that the dispossession of a Muslim nobleman who was twice elected to the Uttar Pradesh assembly on a Congress ticket and remains a party member would send the wrong signal to 180 million Indian Muslims. Apropos of the Bhopal succession, Kidwai quoted Salman Khurshid's emotional comment about Muslims having to prove they are Indian. That would give Pakistan a handle. But Pakistan unilaterally reneged on its commitment at Tashkent to discuss the return of seized minority assets, and disposed of all such properties in 1971. Migration was a two-way affair. So were the dislocation, suffering and loss of moveable and immoveable possessions. Treatment should, therefore, be even-handed. Their humble huts, boats and paddy fields were of as much (if not greater) value to millions of East Bengal peasants and fisherfolk who trekked to safety as their palaces and estates to Muslim aristocrats. But Pakistan repeatedly violated the reciprocity principle that is supposed to govern the minority policy of the two governments. There are no Hindu equivalents in Pakistan/Bangladesh of the exceptions listed earlier. While the ban on selling evacuee/enemy property protected minority groups in India, Prafulla K. Chakrabarti and Tathagata Roy have shown in their books, The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal and My People Uprooted: A Saga of the Hindus of Eastern Bengal, that "protection" encouraged exploitation in Pakistan/Bangladesh. As Khushwant Singh wrote in The Unending Trail, "the distinction between the Muslims and the Hindus was an article of faith, the basis on which the (Pakistani) state itself was founded."

Common sense demands respect for settled facts. Commonsense also supports a time bar. But South Asia is exceptional. In the early years of Independence, Muslims who had migrated to West Pakistan would return on temporary visits to dispose of property that rightly belonged to the Custodian of Evacuee Property. Hindu property in both wings of Pakistan was seized as evacuee property even if the owner was paying a short visit to a nearby town. Thousands of middle-class Bengalis who had lived and worked in Calcutta for generations but regularly returned to their family homes in East Bengal (usually for various pujas) suddenly found those homes listed as evacuee property. They became enemy property in 1965. In his famous resignation letter of October 8, 1950, J.N. Mandal, one of Pakistan's founding fathers, wrote of 200 to 300 Hindus whose properties were seized and not returned even though the Custodian of Evacuee Property certified they were not evacuees.

The 1971 scheme to give Bengali migrants 25 per cent of the verified value of lost property, subject to a Rs 25-lakh ceiling, was a belated attempt to answer the discrimination charge. The rationale for 25 per cent was that while Pakistan had seized Indian assets worth Rs 109 crore, the value of the assets of Pakistani nationals in India then amounted to Rs 29.4 crore (approximately 25 per cent). This miserable hand-out was called ad-hoc interim ex-gratia payment and not compensation because New Delhi pretends to cling to the hope that Islamabad or Dhaka will one day hon our the responsibility of making good the loss Indians suffered. That is another of the deceits practised on East Bengal Hindus since 1947. Special treatment for a privileged few with Pakistani links added insult to injury.