More than 60 years after Partition, that cataclysmic event continues to influence ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. The Enemy Property Act of 1968 is part of the cumulative legacy of 1947 that the government would have done well to settle long before it got entangled in a web of law suits and communally inspired fears. The legislation, which came in the wake of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, relates to properties that were left behind by those who migrated to Pakistan at the time of Independence and after. Labelling these as “enemy property,” the retrogressive Act gave the government control over these properties, numbering over 2,000, mostly in Uttar Pradesh. It barred Indian Muslim citizens who claimed to be the legal and rightful heirs of the original owners from inheriting those properties. A belated attempt is now being made to set right this historical wrong. Recently, after a series of missteps, the government approved amendments to the 1968 Act, to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament, entitling the legal heirs to inherit the properties provided they are Indian citizens and their suits were settled in court before July 2, 2010. However, the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Second Bill 2010, if approved by Parliament, will resolve the issue only partially. While Mohammed Amir Khan, son of the Raja of Mahmudabad, will be the single biggest beneficiary, having legally won his claim to more than 1,000 listed properties in the Supreme Court in 2005 — the ruling forced the hands of the government to come up with the amendments — the cut-off date leaves out those whose suits are pending in the courts. This category includes many rightful claimants.
Also left out are those who did not have the means for lengthy legal battles. Another complication relates to the rights of those in occupation of the properties that will be returned to the rightful claimants under the proposed changes. It is deplorable that the Bharatiya Janata Party describes the proposed amendments as “minority appeasement.” The issue is simple: the property rights of a section of Indian citizens were wrongly taken away and a limited attempt is now being made to restore them. In fact, the government should have boldly taken this opportunity to change the very name of the Act, which not only projects a wrongful image of Indian Muslims, but also implicitly carries the suggestion that all Pakistanis are enemies of India. As the “enemy properties” were left behind by migrants to Pakistan, not during a war but due to the exigencies of Partition, there was never any justification for the name then or now.