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India, Pakistan and one man’s battle to recover his ancestral home | Amy Kazmin

19 June 2017

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Financial Times, June 9, 2017

The heir to the last Raja of Mahmudabad has spent decades fighting to claim his inheritance, despite being branded a national ‘enemy’

The crumbling Mahmudabad Qila, the family’s spiritual home near Lucknow whose legal status is bitterly contested © Abhishek Bali

by: Amy Kazmin

I am gaping at a large dilapidated hall that my host, Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan, recalls as a formal receiving room, where his mother entertained friends. Once-plush carpets are worn away; the desultorily placed furnishings include an elaborately carved wooden swing.

On the chipped, mustard-coloured wall hangs an austere portrait of Khan’s father, the last Raja of Mahmudabad, the pious, ascetic scion of a powerful Shia Muslim family that for centuries ruled one of India’s largest feudal estates — and had the luxurious lifestyle that went with it.

The sombre voice of my host — Suleiman to his family and friends — breaks the stillness of the heat. “I try not to think of the past,” he says. “I try, but I’m not successful. With apologies to Yeats, one drowns in a beauty that has long since vanished from the earth.”

A hall in the Muqeem Manzil wing of the Qila © Abhishek Bali

In fact, Khan — heir to the Mahmudabad legacy — is consumed by the past; in particular, the cataclysmic partition of the British-ruled Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. This violent split in 1947 haunts his family, and all of South Asia, even today.

For two hours, we had sat in a dimly lit, antiquated office in his rundown childhood home — a book-filled wing of Lucknow’s Kaiserbagh Palace — talking of nothing but the past. We spoke of his family’s history; his gilded childhood, and the long battle over his ancestral properties, while I sipped fresh lemon soda as a tonic against the 40C heat.

One of the small family dining rooms in the Mahmudabad home © Abhishek Bali

The Mahmudabad family were talukdars, or feudal lords, who controlled more than 400 villages and their associated lands in Awadh province, north India. The family seat was the Mahmudabad Qila, or fort, originally built in the 17th century, destroyed in the 1857 rebellion against British rule; and rebuilt in the years following. Over the years, the family also accumulated extensive property holdings, including shopping areas and palaces in the city of Lucknow, various bungalows on vast land parcels, and a 75-room, British-built hotel in the hill station of Nainital.

During the final years of India’s anti-colonial struggle, Khan’s father was a close ally of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and a major financier of the Muslim League, which was campaigning for a separate Pakistan. In 1957, a decade after British rule ended, the erstwhile Raja took Pakistani citizenship, a decision with major consequences for those left behind in India, including my now 74-year-old host.

Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan hosting a religious ceremony in Mahmudabad © Abhishek Bali

Over the last four decades, Khan — an Indian citizen, who has twice served as an elected state legislator — has been battling to claim what he considers his rightful inheritance, but which the Indian government has deemed “enemy property” and mostly confiscated.

His long struggle appeared to have been won in 2005, when India’s Supreme Court upheld his claim to his inheritance. Yet, as in several cases that have bedevilled multinational companies in India, New Delhi overrode the court verdict, with retroactive changes to the law under which the properties had been taken.

Portrait of Khan, with photographs and books at the Kaiserbagh Palace © Abhishek Bali

“When conquerors enter the city, they humiliate those people who had a position of respect in that city,” Khan sighs, as we set out in his ageing Ambassador car to see the crumbling Qila, about 50km from Lucknow. “The harsh reality is it is Muslim property, so therefore it could be treated in any way.”

Khan was aged four in 1947 when the Partition his father had advocated led to an estimated 1m people being killed and more than 10m displaced. Fleeing the turmoil, his father took his son to the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq. “It was a kind of a penance, which he felt he had to go through in order to expiate what he was responsible for,” Khan says. Aged nine, Khan was sent back to India with his mother to study at Lucknow’s elite La Martiniere school. In the city, they lived in a wing of the 19th-century Kaiserbagh Palace, built by the last Nawab of Awadh. The British had partitioned the palace — and allocated sections to feudal families — in 1857, after annexing the kingdom.

Khan sitting inside his Ambassador car at the Qila © Abhishek Bali

Amid chandeliers, carpets and ornate furniture, the young princeling did his schoolwork — an learnt Urdu and Farsi poetry and courtly etiquette — and was shielded from the rough and tumble of young boys’ games. There were also regular visits to the Qila, the family’s spiritual home. He was surrounded by the remnants of a wealthy Muslim elite reeling from Partition. “It was a feeling that it was a kind of calamity that had put up a wall between brothers,” he says.

Although the erstwhile Raja took up Pakistani citizenship in 1957, it wasn’t until 1965 — when Khan was an undergraduate at Cambridge, studying maths — that the full impact would be felt.

Hall in the Muqeem Manzil with a model of Lucknow’s Butler Palace, one of the Mahmudabad properties © Abhishek Bali

That September, skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops erupted into full-scale war. Days later, New Delhi issued its “Enemy Property Order”, seizing assets in India owned by Pakistani citizens, including the Mahmudabad properties. The Qila was surrounded by armed police and sealed.

It is fiercely debated whether New Delhi meant to permanently confiscate these assets, or simply sequester them to prevent Pakistanis from using their wealth against India. Islamabad imposed a similar law targeting Indian-owned properties in Pakistan. After the fighting ended, the two countries agreed to discuss the return of such properties, though Islamabad later angered New Delhi by selling off what it had taken.

Formal dining and ballroom in the Muqeem Manzil wing © Abhishek Bali

In the late 1960s the Indian authorities unsealed the Qila, restoring the family’s access, but other properties, many then occupied by government bodies, remained out of reach.

After his father died in London in 1973, Khan, then studying for a PhD in astrophysics at Cambridge, petitioned New Delhi for the return of his father’s lands. Shortly afterwards, he left his studies to return to India, following anxious letters from home about the deteriorating family finances.

Kaiserbagh Palace, Khan’s childhood home in Lucknow © Abhishek Bali

“I couldn’t concentrate. There were problems here,” he says. “My uncle had to sell many things . . . objects d’art, paintings, chandeliers, carpets. I came back. I couldn’t bear to think I was in Cambridge and not helping out.”

Initially, Khan made personal appeals to the powerful, including prime minister Indira Gandhi. In 1981, he received a call informing him that Gandhi’s Cabinet had decided to return 25 per cent of the estate, but nothing ever came of it.

The formal drawing room at Kaiserbagh called Jhoolenwala Kamra, where most gatherings and dinners take place © Abhishek Bali

Khan finally turned to the courts. In 2001, the Bombay High Court ruled in his favour, stating that the Enemy Property Act of 1968 had not stripped the Raja of Mahmudabad of his “right, title and interest” in his Indian properties, but had merely given the government the temporary “management and control.” The Raja’s heir, Khan, was now entitled to these lands. “By no stretch of the imagination can he be said to be an enemy or enemy subject,” the judgment said.

New Delhi appealed. But in 2005, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling, accusing the government of “mala fide intentions . . . to retain the possession of huge properties without any authority of law”. It ordered government officials to vacate any of the properties they were using, and return the estate.

Khan outside the Kaiserbagh Palace © Abhishek Bali

Victory was shortlived. In 2010 — as thousands of shopkeepers ensconced in Mahmudabad commercial properties in Lucknow agitated against their potential eviction — the Congress party promulgated an emergency ordinance to override the Supreme Court verdict, and retake control of the property.

In March this year, prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government amended the Enemy Property Act to keep the estate out of Khan’s hands for good. The new amendments redefine India’s “enemies” to include both Pakistani citizens and their legal heirs, even if they are Indian citizens.

Hunting trophy © Abhishek Bali

The new rule stipulates that normal succession laws will not apply to enemy properties. It also retrospectively nullifies the transfer of any enemy properties, a clause that will affect anyone who had bought Indian properties owned by Pakistani citizens since the mid-1960s.

Khan is now challenging the constitutionality of the new legislation — a battle likely to take years. Meanwhile, the Qila, with its legal status still disputed, continues to deteriorate, though the family still visits regularly for religious events. It is a shell of its former self, with little inside except religious objects, books and a few pieces of aged furniture.

A hallway at Kaiserbagh © Abhishek Bali

I wonder if Khan truly has the stomach for the fight. He answers in Arabic, with a quote from the Koran, then switches into English. “I have entrusted my matter to the lord,” he says. “My lord is ever watchful of his servants,” he says.

I also wonder whether he regrets spending his adult life in India fighting for an inheritance he may never be able to claim, especially now that India has legally branded him a national “enemy.”

Khan draws strength from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who was persecuted in the Soviet Union and watched many of her friends go into exile. As tears well, and choking with emotion, he recites, slightly inaccurately, her verse: “Not under the vault of another sky. Not in the cradle of another earth. I was with my people then, where my people were doomed to be.”

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s South Asia bureau chief

o o

From cricketers to Bollywood stars: the high-profile Indians who lost their lands

Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, c1966 © Bob Thomas/Getty Images

New Delhi’s recent changes to the 1960s-era Enemy Property Act affect other Indian Muslim families whose relatives migrated to Pakistan.

As of May 2016, India’s Custodian of Enemy Property held 11,880 acres of land, worth an estimated $16bn; shares in 266 listed companies, then valued at $400m; plus gold, jewellery, bank deposits and bonds.

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government is also investigating whether there are other assets in India that can be designated enemy property that were not previously recognised as such. Between 2014 and 2016, the custodian hired 108 additional surveyors and supervisors to assist in its task.

In 2015, lands in the city of Bhopal that had belonged to the princely state’s last Nawab, Hamidullah Khan, were designated as enemy properties, because Khan’s eldest daughter and customary legal heir, Abida, had settled in Pakistan in 1950.

Her younger sister, Sajida, had remained in India and was given control of the Bhopal property as regent. Sajida’s son, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, popularly known as “Tiger Pataudi,” captained India’s national cricket team in the 1960s and 1970s; her grandson, Saif Ali Khan, is one of Bollywood’s biggest contemporary stars.

Yet with the legal changes Modi’s government has pushed through, the family’s claims to the ancestral lands have been legally nullified, as have been the rights of many who bought land from the family over the past few decades.

Photographs: Abhishek Bali for the FT; Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.


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