Two nations and a daughter at war over house

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2007, 12:00am

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The house by the sea has all the hallmarks of a stately home. Although the white paint has peeled and the garden is overrun by snakes and weeds, Jinnah House in Mumbai, which stands on a hectare of land billed as one of the world's most expensive pieces of real estate, is worth US$500 million.

But the prized property, built by Pakistan's charismatic founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah before the subcontinent's partition in 1947, has too many claimants.

Locked in a bitter legal dispute with the Indian government is Jinnah's daughter, Dina Wadia, a US national, who insists she is her father's lone legal heir and the owner of the palatial house in the posh Malabar Hill district overlooking the Arabian Sea.

But the Pakistani government has thrown a spanner in the works. Islamabad wants the house for its Mumbai consulate. And New Delhi, rather than hand it over to Ms Wadia, 88, or nuclear rival Pakistan, is bent upon converting the bungalow into a South Asian centre for arts and culture.

Although the property is in the Indian government's possession, its hands are tied because the matter is before the courts.

Ms Wadia is suing the government over its 'illegal possession' of her father's house. Government lawyers this month ripped apart her claim in a 37-page affidavit filed in the Bombay High Court.

The judge has ordered Ms Wadia to submit a counter-affidavit by the middle of next month.

The three-storey house, built in the 1930s, has a chequered history. According to one account, it was built 'brick by brick' in 1936 by Jinnah, a wealthy, British-educated barrister and leader in the pre-independence Muslim League. It was designed by British architect Claude Batley and cost 200,000 rupees.

It was from this base that Jinnah, who relished the walnut panelling and Italian marble, led the campaign for the creation of Pakistan. He lived there until moving to the new state at independence in 1947.

The elegant building, with its pointed arches and pleasant columns, was the venue for hard bargaining between Jinnah and Congress Party leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on the subcontinent's partition. The last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was pictured with his wife, Edwina, strolling in the garden.

As Jinnah's political career blossomed, his personal life suffered one blow after another. His wife, Rattanbai, a Parsi who converted to Islam to marry him in 1918, died in 1929 at the age of 29. After her death, their daughter, Dina, who was born in London in 1919, was brought up by Jinnah's sister, Fatima.

In 1938, Dina married a Christian, textile tycoon Neville Wadia, breaking her father's heart.

Muhammad Currim Chagla, who was Jinnah's assistant at the time, wrote: 'Jinnah, in his usual imperious manner, told Dina that there were millions of Muslim boys in India, and she could have anyone she chose. But she reminded her father he had married a non-Muslim, to which Jinnah replied that 'she did embrace Islam'.'

Dina's marriage destroyed her relationship with her father. He turned very formal, addressing her as Mrs Wadia in public and in private. By the time he left India in August 1947 to become the first governor general of Pakistan, Ms Wadia was all but estranged from her father.

While Dina stayed in India, Fatima accompanied her brother to Pakistan. Jinnah died in Karachi in 1948 of tuberculosis and lung cancer.

Significantly, on May 30, 1939, Jinnah bequeathed the mansion to the unwed Fatima. To his daughter, he bequeathed a monthly income for life from 200,000 rupees he deposited in Habib Bank.

After partition, India appropriated immovable and movable property left behind by those who went to Pakistan, designating such assets evacuee property.

In 1948, Jinnah House was rented out to Britain's deputy high commissioner. Vacated in 1982, it has been unoccupied for 25 years and is reportedly in a dilapidated state, with leaking roofs, rotten wood panels and overgrown, snake-infested grounds.

Ms Wadia, who moved to New York after divorcing her husband, divides her time between New York, London and Mumbai, where her son Nusli runs one of India's largest textile companies. She says she wants to spend her remaining days in the home her father built.

According to her, Jinnah's will was not probated - meaning registered in court - and is therefore not legally binding.

New Delhi rejects this, stating that 'the late Fatima Jinnah was his rightful legal heir as Jinnah had willed the house to her. Only Fatima or her legal heir could have applied for restoration of the property.'

Describing Jinnah as an 'important historical figure', the affidavit adds that there are 'competing claims based on sentiments attached to his legacy, like that of the Pakistan government.

'While the Indian government respects these sentiments, it cannot yield to them and has therefore decided to convert the bungalow into a South Asian centre for arts and culture, which will foster and nurture the shared cultural ethos of the South Asian region,' the affidavit states.

But Ms Wadia's lawyers are unfazed. 'Being the only child of Mr Jinnah, she is the sole heir to his property,' says lawyer Shrikanth Doijode. 'This is the only property in India which she is claiming and which is in the possession of the Indian government at present.'

Meanwhile, Ms Wadia has lobbied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. 'It is now almost 60 years since my father's death and I have been deprived of my house ... where I grew up and lived until I married,' she wrote in a letter. 'I request you return it to me.'

She promised to use the house purely for her residential purpose and not to exploit it commercially, although it is extremely valuable real estate.

The Wadias have criticised Islamabad for trying to appropriate the house.

'Jinnah House has absolutely nothing to do with Pakistan,' Nusli Wadia said. 'It was my grandfather's personal residence and one that he loved dearly. The Pakistani government is nowhere in the picture.'

Backing the Wadias is Bal Thackeray, who heads the ultra-nationalist Shiv Sena party.

'Today Pakistan is asking for Jinnah House. Tomorrow they may want the Taj Mahal and the day after the Qutab Minar,' an historic tower in Delhi, he said.

Liaquat Merchant, chief administrator of Jinnah trusts in Pakistan, says handing over the house to Ms Wadia or Islamabad will not serve any public purpose.

According to Mr Merchant, it should be turned into a museum showcasing the Pakistan founder's achievements - an idea unlikely to go down well with New Delhi, which holds Jinnah responsible for carving a new nation out of a piece of India.