If government officials could overcome the temptation to appropriate minority properties and protect them against land-grab by the criminals, there would be less need for allocating funds for their welfare
“But these properties are a trust, the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) is not supposed to dispose of or transfer these properties,” remarked Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad on February 8. The chief justice of Pakistan was presiding over a follow-up hearing by a Supreme Court bench composed of three judges regarding the implementation on the famous judgment given by Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani in 2014 with regards to the protection of minorities’ rights.
The Court Room 1 fell silent following these remarks, which spotlighted an uncomfortable but well-known truth about massive corruption and usurpation of thousands of communal properties. The counsel representing the ETPB, while conceding the remarks made by the chief justice, tried to buy time to offer some explanations.
The chief justice was thus forced to repeat his words. He wrote in the order sheet that the ETPB should present himself for the next hearing to explain why the properties belonging to Hindu and Sikh minorities had been leased out or sold.
In January 2021, the court had initiated a suo motu proceeding after the incident of destruction of a samadhi/ mandir by a group of religious zealots on December 31 in Teerah in Karak district. The issue was raised in the court again by Dr Ramesh Kumar. He expressed his agitation on the delay in the reconstruction of the samadhi. He informed the court that it was a historical place of worship and pilgrimage revered by Hindus in Pakistan and abroad.
At the next hearing on February 15, the court issued strict orders to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government for timely construction of the samadhi. Finding the ETPB chairman absent, the Supreme Court repeated the previous orders requiring him to make himself available for the next hearing.
At the next hearing on March 31, the one-man commission complained to the bench that the ETPB had failed to share full record of the Hindu and Sikh properties and was reluctant to answer their queries. Finally, the ETPB agreed to hand over the record in electronic form, stating that the record of the communal properties was too heavy to carry.
The ETPB chairman finally presented himself in court. He admitted massive wrong-doings in the management of the properties in the past. He claimed that he was trying to correct them. The court ordered a forensic audit of all evacuee properties by the Auditor General of Pakistan, stipulating that the task be completed in six months’ time.
The impact of special laws and policies has never been assessed from the point of view of the marginalisation of minorities. If governments officials could only overcome the temptation to appropriate minority properties and protect these from land grab by criminals, there would be less need for allocations for their welfare.
The concept of evacuee property was introduced after the mass migration of mainly Hindus and Sikhs to India at the time of partition. The private properties belonging to them were given to the Muslim migrants coming from India against claims of ownership in India. The government took control of large tracts of agricultural and urban properties attached to shrines, dharamshalas, etc under the Evacuee Trust Properties (Management and Disposal) Act 1975. Ever since, a government appointed board, has been managing the so-called communal properties all over the Pakistan.
These communal properties were of such an enormous economic worth that shopping plazas and complexes were built on the sites and out of the revenues they generated. While the respective communities did not benefit from these developments, the officials of ETPB were continuously found in the dock on charges of corruption. The matter, though it looks simple, is marred by many a corrupt practice including bad governance, poor legislation and deprivation of religious minorities, ever since independence.
At the time of nationalisation of educational institutions in 1972 the management of many church properties was taken under government control. A denationalisation policy was adopted in 1984, but the government, particularly in the Punjab was reluctant to hand back the missionary institutions. A study conducted by Centre for Social Justice found that only 50 percent of the schools had been denationalised till 2020. The Education Department neither paid any rent for those properties nor compensated the churches for the loss.
The Education Department instead came up with a scheme to foil the denationalisation process. It started charging huge sums from the previous owners in the name of securitizing the teachers’ salaries etc. The Ahmadi community deposited Rs 11 million with the Punjab government in 1996 for the denationalisation of eight schools and two colleges. However, the schools were not denationalised, forcing the community to approach the Lahore High Court where the matter is still pending.
The nationalisation policy brought catastrophic consequences for the education sector, impacting the standard of education. It also destroyed the socio-economic and cultural strengths of Christian community in particular. The reversal of this policy did not help improve the situation because the oppressive methods employed for denationalisation further drained the resources and energies of the concerned communities’ institutions.
The only synagogue in Karachi was demolished to build a shopping plaza in 1988, without any reaction from the government or the people. The government of Sindh turned the Hindu Gymkhana in Karachi into a National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in 2005 using a flimsy excuse. Later, when the Hindu community approached court, the government did not offer an alternative place to them.
The motive behind various attacks on the minority properties including places of worship, in Teerah, and Joseph Colony and Gosha-i-Amn in Lahore, was land grab by powerful actors. Laws like the Evacuee Trust Properties (Management and disposal) 1975 and the Educational Policy of 1972 made the state’s behaviour next to a complacent. The latest example of such property grab by the government is the ‘take over’ of the Edwards College, Peshawar.
When the National Assembly adopted an amendment bill in June 2021 to the Protection of Communal Properties Ordinance, 2002, it was bound to raise eyebrows. The bill seeks to transfer the onus of authorisation of transfer/ sale and gift, of the communal properties to the ‘concerned ministry’ rather than the federal government. The mover of the bill, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, is yet to win the trust of the people vis-à-vis transparency of its dealing and commitment to accountability.
The basic norms of justice are universal and well-known. The chief justice of Pakistan should not have to remind the government of their duty to protect the communal properties as a sacred trust. Instead, the government should aid the court by establishing a powerful commission of inquiry to probe into the theft of communal properties, in the interest of justice and future of the impoverished religious minorities.
The author is a researcher, activist and freelance journalist, reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org