Battle for Jinnah House will hot up now

By Quaid Najmi, IANS

Mumbai : The stage is set for a battle royale between the Indian government and Dina Wadia, daughter of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, over Jinnah House when the Bombay High Court resumes next week after the Diwali vacation.

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Dina, mother of leading industrialist Nusli Wadia, has claimed to be the rightful heir to the sprawling green and white three-storey colonial building, facing the Arabian Sea, in what is one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country.

The prime property is located in south Mumbai’s famed Malabar Hill.

Dina filed a petition in the Bombay High Court in early October staking her claim to the property as her father’s legal heir. Her challenge came amidst plans by India to convert it into a South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) cultural hub, coinciding with the diamond jubilee of India’s independence this year.

However, the Indian government does not agree with her contention and has rejected her claim on the grounds that Jinnah, who constructed the stately mansion in 1936, had willed it to his sister, the late Fatima Jinnah.

Dina’s lawyer Shrikant Doijode told IANS that she has sought to examine the documents, including the will of Jinnah, on which the Indian government is resting its case.

“The Indian government admits Dina is Jinnah’s only surviving heir but disputes her right over the property. So far we have also not been allowed scrutiny of the documents,” Doijode said.

He said the case had been filed but not admitted by the court. “It is expected to come for up admission some time after the Diwali vacation,” he said.

Doijode said that Dina, now living in the US with her daughter, wants to come back and spend her final days in the ancestral home that she left over five decades ago after marriage.

Despite repeated calls and e-mails from IANS, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the ministry of external affairs in Delhi failed to give their version in the matter.

Jinnah House has a rich but jinxed history. Nestled in a green oasis of nearly three acres, surrounded by skyscrapers, Jinnah House has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since partition.

Jinnah built it in 1935 at an astronomical cost of Rs.200,000. A leading British architect of those times, Claude Blakey, designed it. Jinnah, who had returned to India from England to lead the Muslim League, moved into the bungalow in 1939 where the modalities of independence and partition were later planned and executed.

The property is today worth an estimated Rs.800 million, making it one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country, thanks to the history surrounding its lily white-green façade, marble floors, teak construction, lush green gardens, separate servants quarters and ample parking areas.

Among the prominent personalities who graced Jinnah House by their presence on different occasions were Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Queen of England and Lord and Lady Mountbatten.

The historic partition talks between Gandhi and Jinnah were held here in 1944, paving the way for the birth of Pakistan.

Jinnah hosted Nehru there for the last time on Aug 15, 1946 – exactly a year before independence and partition. The next year that day, the host became governor-general of Pakistan and the guest became India’s first prime minister.

After Jinnah left India, he gave the house to his unmarried sister Fatima, who had moved to Pakistan and remained its legal owner till her death in 1985. She had leased it out to the British government that used it for the official residence of the British deputy high commissioner in Mumbai till 1982.

Thereafter, the Maharashtra government gained control over it as evacuee property and it permitted the ICCR to use it till the early 1990s. Since then, it has been locked up.

Dina has written to the ICCR and the Indian government on several occasions that the property should be handed over to her. Pakistan President Parvez Musharraf had raised the issue during his visit to India in 2006 and the matter came up also when India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Islamabad early this year.

Incidentally, the Maharashtra government has always been wary about any proposal to hand over Jinnah House to Pakistan for housing the Pakistani consulate in Mumbai since it is located in a high-security zone.

Located diagonally opposite Jinnah House is ‘Varsha’, the official residence of the Maharashtra chief minister. The bungalows or residences of several other ministers, high court judges, top state and central bureaucrats, scientists, industrialists, film stars and foreign diplomats stationed in Mumbai are scattered in the vicinity. Raj Bhavan is also in close proximity.

(Quadi Najmi can be contacted at [email protected])