India won’t lease Jinnah’s house to Pakistan
By Iftikhar Gilani
NEW DELHI: India on Thursday refused to lease Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Mumbai residence to Pakistan, deciding instead to turn the elegant house in the heart of the country’s commercial capital into a cultural centre.
Junior External Affairs Minister Digvijay Singh told the Rajya Sabha, the Indian parliament’s upper house, the property had been renamed the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) Mumbai Branch Office.
After two decades as a ghost house, Mr Jinnah’s home on Malabar Hil will have a small auditorium, library and reading room, seminar rooms and an art gallery, the minister told the house. The Ministry of External Affairs took over the house in 1997, but was undecided about what to do with it.
Such a centre will also include a performance area, and, if and when the government allows it, a small permanent exhibit on Mr Jinnah, ICCR Regional Director Terence D’Souza said recently.
Indian activists have demanded that a section of the centre be reserved for studies on the common heritage of South Asia. But Minister Singh told the house there was no such specific provision was being considered at present.
The decision here comes after years of controversy. President General Pervez Musharraf asked Prime Minster Atal Behari Vajpayee to lease the house to Pakistan when he visited India in July 2001. A number of activists here also called for such a conciliatory gesture. Apparently, Jawaharlal Nehru wanted this too.
President Musharraf wanted the bungalow to house Pakistan’s Mumbai consulate, and as a quid pro quo he would allow an Indian consulate in Karachi. He offered to pay quite a lot in rent.
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray rubbished the proposal by saying if it was given to Pakistanis, they would ask for the Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar next. The Maharashtra state government was also against it, for security reasons. The bungalow is right across from the official residence of the chief minister and two other ministerial bungalows.
In 1955, the house was declared evacuee property and taken over by the Rehabilitation Ministry. Mr Jinnah had suggested that it not be sold or auctioned, but gifted to the Pakistan government as a memorial, and that his other properties be donated to the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). However, the Indian government did not listen to either of those requests.
Mr Jinnah was involved in the finest details of the construction of the house, built in 1939 over 1,694 square metres and designed by Claude Batley, from the Italian marble tiles to the walnut woodwork. It was in this house, now hidden by overgrown grass and padlocked gates, that the famous September 1944 talks between Mr Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi took place.
Until about 1983, it housed the British deputy high commissioner, who paid Rs 3,000 a month in rent — an amount fixed by Mr Jinnah himself. The authorities had proposed that the house be demolished and a high-rise for Public Works Department employees be built in its place. The proposal was widely resisted..
Strangely, the controversy has been limited to Mr Jinnah’s property in Mumbai only; Pakistan has never demanded his huge bungalow on the posh Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi. Currently, it accommodates the Dutch embassy. Noted Indian industrialist Ram Krishna Dalmia purchased the Delhi house from Mr Jinnah after he left for Pakistan. Mr Dalmia, owner of The Times of India, had the house washed down with water from the river Ganga before moving in. He also removed the green and white banner of the Muslim League and put a flag of the Anti-Cow Slaughter movement in its place.