Enemy Property Bill: A Raja's Lost Legacy

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New Delhi:  In government records Lucknow's Butler Palace is 'Enemy Property'. So are 2200-odd properties across the country.  

It's a legacy of the bitter partition of India. Post the 1965 war with Pakistan the Enemy Property Act came into being, and the Government of India took over the properties of those who migrated to Pakistan.

42 years later, the act is in the eye of a political storm, because the government wants to amend it.

When Raja Mohammed Amir Ahmad Khan had won a long battle in the Supreme Court over his property worth millions, the Home Ministry in July 2010 issued an ordinance blocking all legal heirs  from going to court to reclaim enemy properties.

The Home Ministry told Parliament that the court's orders were diluting the powers of the custodian, and the Government of India, vested in the 1968 Act.

Immovable property worth hundreds of crores of rupees would go to persons making illegitimate claims, said the Government, as it issued the ordinance.

But the Congress itself was split over the issue and politics took over. Top Muslim MPs, including Union Ministers like Salman Khurshid met the Prime Minister to make a case againt the ordinance.

The government let the ordinance lapse and has now brought in an amended Enemy Property Bill, which will be tabled on Thursday.

The old law said 'no India-born legal heirs to properties, left behind by those who migrated to Pakistan after Partition, can approach the courts. The new version, will permit them to claim such properties,if they prove their status to the government.

The flip-flop and the division within the Congress has given the opposition cause to celebrate. The BJP reportedly told the Home Minister that it will not support the bill if it favour 'legal heirs'.  "We are suspicious. Why a small lobby is forcing a bill? Why - a central minister is pushing for it?," said BJP spokesperson, Rajiv Pratap Rudy.

But the BJP too seems a divided on the issue, with many of its leaders from Uttar Pradesh, not saying no to the bill, just as yet. Former Party president, Rajnath Singh told NDTV that the party is yet to decide. Another senior BJP leader, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi says, "People cannot be deprived of what is rightfully theirs."

With the JD(U), SP, RJD and others supporting the bill, it may be passed with minor friction. But for Congress clearly its not a numbers game, and what bothers them most is the enemy within.

It's a high profile - big stake battle. A stellar cast of Congress and BJP politician-lawyers have represented different parties to the wider dispute over the years.

Home Minister Chidambaram appeared in the Supreme Court against the Raja of Mehmoodabad in 2002. Five years later it was Arun Jaitley, now the lader of the Opposition the Rajya Sabha and in 2009, Ram Jethmalani appeared against the Raja.

Raja Mohammed Amir Ahmad Khan's legal counsels have included Salman Khurshid, now a Union minister and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress Party spokesperson and a Rajya Sabha MP.

Now the claimants and those occupying the properties and others - including wealthy businessmen - granted user rights to 2200 odd properties over the years by the Custodian, often at throw away rates - await the Parliament's decision.

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