The house that still divides India and Pakistan

The house that still divides India and Pakistan

Frances Bulathsinghala,


The very same edifice which bore witness to the many discussions between Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi that sealed the decision to partition India has the chance seventy years later to bring peace between India and Pakistan.

The sea facing South Court bungalow in Mumbai, home of the supremely westernized, cigar smoking Jinnah is now covered in moss and dilapidation.  The mansion has been caught over a decade in a court case for ownership filed by Jinnah’s daughter as well as his nephew. It is also threatened with demotion by India and is pitched onto the current increasingly volatile relationship between India and Pakistan.

India Today in a July 2011 report stated that the then President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf had spoken of it in the same breath as Kashmir and linked the granting of the house to Pakistan, to the re-opening of the Indian Consulate in Karachi.

As the newspaper noted, Pakistan’s claim has more to do with sentiment than the property’s estimated Rs 100 crore (Rs. One Billion) worth. It pointed out that the 1,700-sqm bungalow was built “brick by brick” under Jinnah’s personal supervision. It was completed at a cost of Rs 2 lakh (Rs.200,000) in 1936 – the year he returned to India from England after a successful stint as a barrister, to take charge of the Muslim League.

It is in this most cherished residence of Jinnah, built by Italian masons that the founder of Pakistan would have envisioned his dream of a progressive secular oriented but Muslim majority country. It is here, in the confines of the European-style architecture that Jinnah would have debated on matters of the State and the issue of a separate Muslim nation with Gandhi.  It is here that Jinnah would have contemplated on rebuts to the views of the Muslim leader of the Indian National Congress, Abdul Kalam Azad, who believed in the ending of separate electorates based on religion, and called for an independent India to be committed to secularism.

It is here that Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah would have contemplated ideological stances that he hoped would shape the nation of Pakistan. His policy speech of 11 August 1947 calling for ‘co-operation, forgetting the past and burying the hatchet’ and emphasizing equal rights as the governing principle of the then embryonic state of Pakistan, may have first taken root in his mind as he  enjoyed the comfort of his Mumbai home located in a sprawling 2.5 acreage.

It was at the South Court that he held what is described as ‘watershed talks’ with Mahatma Gandhi in September 1944 on the partition of India followed by another round of talks on August 15th 1946 with Jawaharlal Nehru about the creation of the State of Pakistan.

Houses are no longer inanimate stone and mortar when human beings breathe onto them the life of hope and aspirations, joy and sorrow. We can only assume that Jinnah would have paced the cold Italian marble in despair on seeing how the creation of the partition he had wanted become a blood soaked line between Muslims and Hindus of India who overnight metamorphosed into enemies. We can only clutch at the many undocumented shadows of history and the few embers of records that still burn, to capture the humane realities that Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru would have battled with, behind their garb of statesmanship as they finally conceded that two countries may be the solution for Muslims of India.

Sit out in Jinnah’s House

Eminent sociologist TN Madan, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, in a 2015 report to commemorate  the birth anniversary of Jinnah titled ‘Remembering Jinnah, the Indian Nationalist’ ruminated on how a separate Pakistan was a last resort for  Jinnah who had tried to get constitutional rights for the 90 million Muslim population in an United India.

The following were the observations of Prof. Madan that were published in the website The Wire in 2015: “He died in a colonial mansion in the newly founded Pakistan’s capital city, Karachi, but would rather have died, I believe, in his magnificent Malabar Hill residence in Bombay, a city he served long with distinction and which he loved. His wife was buried there and his daughter was still living there.”

Thus, we are confronted with the sorrow that would have lived and died with Jinnah, a sorrow that those such as the philosopher-poet, Muhammad Iqbal who lived and died in India (1877-1938) and the genius short story writer  Saadat Hasan Manto (1912 – 1955) who lived in India, mostly Bombay,  until he left for Pakistan in 1948, would have carried with them.

How would these men have reacted to the leaders of their countries today? How would Gandhi and Nehru have reacted to the recent strident call by Indian Lawmaker Mangal Prabhat Lodha for South Court to be declared as ‘enemy property’ and destroyed to make way for a new cultural centre? What would Jinnah have told Lodha?

T N Madan points out the reaction of Jinnah when Sri Prakasa, the then India’s High Commissioner informed the new Governor General of Pakistan that India was planning to take over the ownership of his Bombay home.

“When informed by Sri Prakasa, India’s High Commissioner, that Jawaharlal Nehru had asked him to inform Jinnah that his Malabar Hill house would have to be requisitioned by the Government of India (he had himself sold his Delhi house to Ramkrishna Dalmia), his instant response was, Tell Jawaharlal not to break my heart … I still look forward to going back there.”

This was not the triumphant Governor General of Pakistan speaking but a defeated Indian – defeated by a destiny of which he was not the sole maker,” states Madan.

Nehru had respected the wishes of his friend and offered him a monthly rent of three thousand rupees although the deal was not finalized before Jinnah’s sudden death in 1948 and the house was subsequently leased to the British High Commission till the early 1980s.

But in 1983, the Jinnah House as the British started calling it, was declared as unoccupied property and maintained at state expense by India.

What then of the future? Where will the voice of sanity come from concerning the ramifications, arguments and threats that have embroiled South Court, latterly called Jinnah House.

“Why do you keep calling it Jinnah House? That’s the name the British gave it. It’s real name is South Court. Why don’t you refer to it by its original name?” Dina Wadia, the now 97 year old daughter of Jinnah who lives in the United States was quoted as asking in a June 2008 Times of India report.

The TOI had focused on Wadia’s legal battle with the Indian government in the Bombay high court over the ownership of her childhood home. In Wadia’s petition before the court she had stated that she wished to spend her remaining years in South Court. Whether Wadia will fulfill the dream her father could not, only fate, made more complicated by Jinnah’s nephew’s legal claim to the house, will decide.

April 2017 media reports from both India and Pakistan pointed to the panic that ensued following calls for South Court to be razed and amidst speculation that in the aftermath of the March 2017 amendments to the Enemy Property Act that the building would be brought under this category by the Modi government.

“The government may well apply the Enemy Property Act to the Jinnah House, as it can be applied retroactively,” Anand Grover, a lawyer who has argued the enemy property law before the Supreme Court, told NDTV. South Court was labelled “evacuee property” in 1950, in accordance with the law that allowed the government to take over properties of those who migrated to Pakistan after partition.

With the Enemy Property Act getting introduced in 1968 after the Indo-Pak war of 1965, a tab was put on the powers custodians have on these properties. In March 2017 the law was further amended by India, making the Centre the owner of ‘enemy property’ where no property coming under this category can be transferred to the heirs and where previous court rulings on any enemy property being now invalid. It also stipulated that no Indian heirs belonging to the ‘enemy’ can claim property.

This has not stopped Pakistan from reiterating its claim of ownership to the South Court bungalow. Amidst fears that Lodha’s demand for the demolishing of Jinnah’s House would be actually carried out, Pakistan has stepped up calls for the property, maintaining that the house that belonged to the nation’s founding father legitimately belongs to Pakistan.

Whatever the future would hold for South Court what remains to be said is that 70 years after the partition of India, the decision that would be made concerning this structure and the sentiments it arouses in the current scenario will greatly influence the direction of relations between the two countries.