There is no dearth of ideas and claimants for Jinnah House in Mumbai.
A BJP MLA from Maharashtra, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, has demanded that Jinnah House, the former residence of the founder of Pakistan, be demolished and a cultural centre be built there. The “conspiracy of partition” was hatched in Jinnah House, claims Lodha, therefore it should cease to exist.
It is not known if Lodha is kite-flying – testing an idea to see how the public reacts – on behalf of the party or has come up with this brainwave on his own, but it is pertinent to note that he is a well known and powerful builder in Mumbai and that Jinnah House, or South Court, as it is officially known, falls in his constituency.
Not to be left behind, the Shiv Sena too has added its voice to the demand. In the last two years and more, the Sena has lost no opportunity to snipe at its ally, the BJP, but on this they are of one mind.
Ideas that are seemingly casually floated by politicians have a way of becoming a swift reality. Recall that the Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was rapidly changed to A.P.J. Kalam Road within weeks of it being first mentioned in public. So perhaps something is brewing. But it is not going to be easy.
The government of Pakistan has reacted to Lodha’s statement by reiterating its demand that Jinnah House be handed over to it. It claims to have ‘ownership rights’ to the place. This is an old dispute.
Jinnah had supervised the making of the house, in a two and half acres property in Mumbai’s tony Malabar Hill. It was completed in 1936 at a cost of over Rs 2 lakh, a substantial sum at the time. Claude Batley, one of the city’s top architects, designed it in the neo-classical style. It became the epicentre of political discussions between Jinnah and Congress leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose.
This was the house where Jinnah’s young bride Rattanbhai (‘Ruttie’) came, bringing much joy and colour to the place. The story goes that Jinnah was heartbroken to leave it behind and via the first Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, Sri Prakasa, appealed to Nehru to rent it out to a European mission. There is a suggestion that a move to gift it to the Pakistani government did not get the support of the Indian cabinet.
Finally, in 1948, Jinnah House was let out to the British High Commission as the residence cum office of the deputy high commissioner. This continued till 1983 when the Indian government asked for it back. The British were distraught on being asked to leave and at the time tried to persuade the Indian government to let them continue, but the efforts failed. It was then taken over first by the public works department and then by the Indian Council of Cultural Affairs to build a cultural centre, which never did come up.
In the early 1990s, the Pakistan government was hopeful that it would house a consulate, which was to be opened after a thaw in relations. The bomb blasts of 1993 put paid to that. The consul general, who was till then residing in a hotel, quietly packed his bags and left for home. Jinnah House has been moulding since then, neglected and sad, its once famed fittings rotting away because the authorities cannot make up their minds. The issue comes up in bilateral talks but has remained unsettled. Incidentally, Jinnah had another elegant home in Delhi on the erstwhile Aurangzeb Road, which now houses the Dutch Embassy.
Meanwhile, matters have got complicated with the suit by Dina Wadia, Jinnah and Ruttie’s only daughter, who married the Parsi industrialist Neville Wadia, angering her father. She claims the property should be handed over to her. One of Dina’s contentions was that her father was a Khoja Muslim, a community which followed Hindu law and not the Sharia and therefore under the Hindu Succession Act she became the rightful heir of the property.
In the meantime, the Lokmanya Tilak Swarajya Bhoomi Trust now says it had written in 2016 to the public works department – which looks after the property – that it be given Jinnah House so that a memorial for Tilak can be built. Jinnah had fought Tilak’s case in the Bombay high court in 1908.
The plethora of claims and demands will make it difficult for the government to take a decision any time soon. But with the passing of the Amendments to the Enemy Property Act, which will affect hundreds of properties around the country, the status of Jinnah House may change; the government may choose to apply it in this case. Lodha is urging the government to take it over under the new provisions.