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Return of 123 Waqf properties – no reason to rejoice

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The Union Cabinet’s decision on 4 March to “return” 123 Delhi waqf properties, occupied by various Central and Delhi governments departments, has been hailed as a great gesture. Congratulations and even advertisements are regularly appearing in the Urdu press thanking the UPA government for this “historic gesture”. Is this gesture really great and historic or is it too-little-too-late kind of step usually taken to woo Muslim voters in the eleventh hour?

True, an amended waqf law was passed last August but Waqf Properties (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupation) Bill 2014 is still not passed which means that illegally occupied waqf properties still cannot be rescued.  A waqf development agency, National Waqf Development Corporation Ltd (NAWADCO) was announced last January but it is still not clear if this agency will be a boon or a new mechanism to occupy and devour waqf lands.

There are an estimated 800,000 registered waqf properties in India which include 600,000 acres of land, the largest in the world.  But the story of waqfs in Delhi and elsewhere in the country is painful. Way back in 1867, the British colonial government in a bid to punish the Muslim community for its leading role in the 1857 revolt, took over all waqf properties in areas under its control. Muslims protested and refused to accept any compensation for these properties. Ever since these properties are shown in revenue records as “government properties” although in the “use” column, mosque or graveyard is written. Later, in 1911-14, when the British started to build “New Delhi” as the new capital of India, many of these waqf properties were used to build this new city adjacent to the Mughals’ Dilli. According to an estimate, around 77 percent of New Delhi stands on waqf lands, many of which have been totally transformed while some, like mosques, dargahs, mazars and madrasas, still stand in some form.

Since 1915, the ASI controls 174 Delhi waqf properties, around 90 percent of which are disputed. After the creation of the DDA in 1955, around 75 percent of Delhi’s remaining waqf lands were given to this housing agency although Section 54-D of the DDA Act clearly said that it will not acquire any land belonging to any religion, i.e., graveyards, mosques, temples etc.

According to Azim Anwar, a former secretary of the Delhi Waqf Board (DWB), no one ever went to court against the government ordinances to acquire waqf properties starting from 1867. He said that in 1996, when he was secretary of the Board, he tried and failed to locate the file/documents under which the government had acquired waqf lands.

An estimated 600 such Delhi waqf properties are still traceable. According to an RTI reply early this year, the Delhi Waqf Board said that 114 of its lands are occupied by the DDA, 156 are occupied by the ASI and 388 are occupied by other government departments and agencies. Many cases about these properties are pending in courts and in the Waqf Tribunal.

Some of the well-known cases of Delhi waqf lands occupation are CGO Complex, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi High Court, Oberoi Hotel, Delhi Public School on Mathura Road, Anglo-Arabic School, newspaper offices on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, IGI airport and umpteen central government offices. Over ten acres of Delhi’s 34-acre Millennium Park, inaugurated by LK Advani in 2002, are Waqf lands belonging to a graveyard.

Waqf suffered the most in West Bengal which has 184,000 waqf properties amounting to 31 percent of all waqf properties in India. Some of them have been taken over by the CPIM to build its offices.

The central and state waqf boards, all government agencies, have been dens of corruption and tools for misappropriation of waqf properties. Over the years many scams have come out from West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra etc. Some of the most famous include the prime waqf land in Bombay which was sold to Mukesh Ambani for a mere 21.05 crore in 2003 when the market value of the same was Rs 500 crore. Likewise, the Windsor Manor Hotel of Bangalore, standing on land worth Rs 600 crore, is leased out for a paltry Rs 12,000 per month.  A staggering 70 percent of waqf lands have been encroached upon in Punjab including 1600 acres of waqf land in Bhatinda. In 1997, the Tamil Nadu Waqf Board took the decision to outright sell 1,710 square feet of prime land in the commercial Triplicane High Street in Madras for a paltry Rs 3 lakh.  In Haryana’s Faridabad, the Waqf board has been leasing out about five acres of land on 11-month leases for several years at ridiculously low rents ranging between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 per month. A factory was built at the place and the land use altered. In Kolkata, Shaw Wallace was paying a miniscule amount as rent for the palatial building at the BBD Bag business district in Kolkata until the new Mutawalli of the Prince Ghulam Mohammed Waqf Estate dragged the corporate house to the court.

The situation did not change after independence. Demands and protests continued but to no avail. When the DWB notified some of its properties in 1970, the Central Government hastened to file “declaratory suits” claiming the ownership of these properties despite the fact that most of them were mosques, graveyards, graves and mausoleums.

As protests continued, Indira Gandhi government appointed Burney Committee in 1984 which identified 247 such properties and recommended their return to the DWB, a government agency created to manage the registered waqfs in Delhi.

As a result of the controversy over the Burney report, another committee headed by Mir Nasrullah was constituted soon thereafter. Nasrullah Committee identified 321 waqf properties under government occupation in Delhi and recommended their return to the DWB.

The Central government, however, agreed to return only 123 of the properties listed by Burney Committee. But the order issued by the Union Ministry of Works and Housing on 27 March, 1984 was so flawed that an early transfer could not take place. The order, in particular, had said that these lands will be given to DWB “in perpetual lease” on an annual charge of Re. 1 per property. In other words, the Central government was to remain their owner and the DWB was to use them only as a tenant. Soon the VHP jumped into the fray and filed a case in the Delhi High Court objecting to the transfer of “government properties” to a “religious community” although the DWB too was a government agency fully controlled by the government. The Delhi HC ordered a stay which continued for the next 27 years.

Finally, the judges formed the opinion that the Waqf properties are vested in the name of God and therefore the Government of India cannot be the owner of these properties. Therefore, they said, such properties should be transferred to the Waqf Board as “Waqf properties” and not on “perpetual leasehold basis”. The Court asked the Addl. Solicitor General to get the opinion of the Central government on this mater. But since the Government failed to come out with a clear stand, the judges on 12 January 2011 disposed of the Writ Petition (C) No. 1512/1984 and directed the Central government to decide the matter within six months during which status quo was to be maintained.

Ever since the Minority and Urban Affairs Ministries dragged their feet and sought extension after extension of the six-month period given by the Delhi HC. The issue of the remaining 124 properties identified by Burney Committee remains conveniently forgotten.

The Central government’s 4 March decision has come with two unjust and cruel conditions: the government will not pay any compensation for occupying and using those properties for all these years, and the Delhi Waqf Board will have to withdraw all court cases filed in this regard.   

Most of the 123 properties “returned” by the Central Government to another government agency are of religious nature as is clear from the following classification of these properties:

Mosques 52
Graveyards 13
Dargahs/mazars/Qadam Sharifs 20
Mosques/Mazars     6
Mosques/graveyards 3
Mosques/Dargahs 3
Imambaras/Karbalas    3
Madrasas     1
Unspecified properties  18


Could anyone, then, claim that it was a “favour” to the Muslim community? Even if we take 1914 as the benchmark of the usurpation and occupation of these (and many more) properties, the government sat on them, disallowed their use for the purposes for which they were endowed and let them decay. Even after the court order to dispose of this issue within six months, the government took over three years to finally take a decision and that too only due the forthcoming elections and to woo Muslim voters who it seems have reached a point of no-return in their disenchantment with the Congress Party.

Muslims are not allowed to pray in these “protected” mosques while all kinds of unethical activities go on in their premises. Kamal Faruqi, then chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission, had prepared a list of 31 such mosques in Delhi where all sorts of shameless practices were going on while Namaz was prohibited although the ASI Act does not prohibit namaz in “protected” mosques.

This is a kind of peculiar discrimination — where in all the length and breadth of India prayers are prohibited in churches, temples and gurudwaras? This honour is reserved only for mosques under the control of ASI and other government departments.

 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2014 on page no. 1

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