Between the Tiger’ and a Tagore, the family of the ‘Nawab’ of Pataudi has ruled over the hearts of millions of Indians for decades. Their ancestors also ruled, over the princely state of Bhopal, and left them vast properties.
Thirteen months ago, the Custodian of Enemy Property (CEP) woke up to the possibility that the acres of real estate ‘owned’ by the Pataudi family was ‘enemy property’.
The Mumbai-headquartered CEP delivered its order two months later, February 2015. It concluded that neither Sharmila Tagore nor any of her children including actor Saif Ali Khan could inherit the Estate of the Nawab of Bhopal. The Nawab, Hamidullah Khan’s eldest daughter had migrated to Pakistan in 1950. Thus, she was an ‘enemy’ under the 1968 Enemy Property Act and every inch inherited by the Pataudi family in the Hamidullah estate, an ‘enemy’ property. The Pataudi family isn’t the only one at the receiving end of the 1968 Act. There are nearly 16,000 properties across the country that have either been or are being taken over by the CEP. The law provided that all properties belonging to persons who had left the country and gone to Pakistan or China — the two countries that had waged war against India — were by definition ‘enemy properties’ and had to be taken over by the government. “It is cruel to enforce the law now… It may have served a purpose when India was at war. But nearly 50 years later, what sense does it make except to harass people,” asked Delhi’s Zameer Ahmed Jumlana who had found himself on the wrong side of the law, fought back and won.
Early this month, it got even worse for people like him.
The Centre promulgated the Enemy Property Ordinance 2016 to amend the 48-year-old law. The change — that came into force with retrospective effect — ensured that once a property was vested in the CEP, it could not be returned to the owner or his legal heirs. An Indian citizen, who might have inherited a property from an elder relative who had gone to Pakistan, could not inherit it as it was now defined as ‘enemy’ property. Similarly, owners of any property would have to give up their rights if it was held by anyone who migrated to Pakistan.
In many ways, the 2016 ordinance is patterned on a similar one promulgated by the previous Congress-led UPA government in 2010. The Manmohan Singh cabinet, however, was in two minds over the ordinance. Finally, the then government found it politically inopportune to press with the ordinance and allowed it to lapse. Instead, it drafted a watered-down version that the BJP refused to support as it was too mild. That Bill lapsed in 2014. Former minorities minister Salman Khurshid — who led the opposition within the Cabinet and the Congress to the 2010 ordinance — finds the 2016 version “much worse”. “I am convinced that this is inconsistent with the constitutional constraints... You can’t do something of this nature, redefining what an enemy is, with retrospective effect,” argues Khurshid. He maintains that it was merely a coincidence that most people affected by the ordinance were Muslims. “Irrespective of your religion, for an Indian citizen to be told that according to our definition you are an enemy, is unacceptable,” he adds. Nearly five decades after the two countries fought their last full-fledged war, he adds, it was time for the government to move on. The issue had figured in the 1966 Tashkent peace talks as well. At that time, the two governments had decided to sort out the issue amicably. Around 1971, Pakistan sold the properties it had taken over and was done with it. This, in the Indian government’s view, violated the agreement and motivated New Delhi to try to pay back. The inordinate delay, however, has ensured that India ends up harassing its own citizens. Khurshid isn’t the first to have called for the repeal of the 1968 Act. In 2000, the National Commission for Minorities had made the same recommendation but it was shot down. A decade later, the Home Ministry told a parliamentary panel that the CEP was going to be around as long as all enemy properties were not identified, taken over and sold.
The Modi government doesn’t have the numbers to get the ordinance cleared in the Rajya Sabha on its own. And there is no clarity if the opposition will play ball. Khurshid says the Congress hasn’t taken a stand yet but adds, “I see no reason why I should have a problem convincing the party to oppose it.”
(With Ranjan in Bhopal, Oliver Fredrick in Lucknow & Saurabh Katkurwar and Naresh Kamath in Mumbai)