The Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) organised a seminar evocatively titled “Qabza, Qatl, Muqadma” (Land grabbing, Murder, Justice) to demand the redressal of illegal occupation of lands belonging to the minority communities. The title succinctly captures the precarious situation of minority groups in Pakistan, where their property is stolen from them, their lives are constantly in danger and the justice system only makes them jump through hoops in vain. Needless to say, the issue of illegal land occupation is broadly contextualised in the larger milieu of intolerance, degrading of non-Muslims and general corruption at a bureaucratic and investigative level. As the seminar attendees mentioned, the toxic land mafia finds it that much easier to exploit weak legislation and ineffective policing to take over lands either allotted or outright belonging to religious minority groups because of the aforementioned culture of contempt for minorities. ETPB demanded a rectification in the relevant Illegal Possession Act so that loopholes are not exploited by powerful land grabbers, and for that end they are setting up a committee headed by a former judge to make practical recommendations that will be presented to the Senate and National Assembly. To their credit, the government, as claimed by Federal Information Minister Pervez Rashid, intends to consider and implement the recommendations of the ETPB committee and furthermore is taking steps to computerise land records with the cooperation of the land revenue departments, thereby lessening the influence of corrupt patwaris.
While these steps and stated intentions are indeed welcome and the role of ETPB in trying to safeguard the interests of the minorities’ properties under its purview is to be commended, the hope for meaningful reform remains slight. The perceptive title of the seminar reveals this truth, and optimism is dampened when the overall milieu is once again brought into focus, as illegal occupation of minorities’ properties, which include residence colonies, graveyards and places of worship, is facilitated by easily abused laws. It is imperative to make attempts to transform the hateful culture that promotes insecurity of life, liberty and property for non-Muslims. Delayed justice is once again a societal level problem and it does not seem likely that a single-issue committee has the ambit or wherewithal to implement any effective change in the judicial system. In the same vein, the bid to digitise records is also a semi-herculean endeavour, and can only happen over multiple years and that too without any guarantee that this process will not be influenced unduly by the land mafia groups and patwaris on the ground. Serious political will and continued pressure by civil society members are the only way to climb this steep mountain. *