Prized property: A court battle enters 40th year
RAWALPINDI: Rawalpindi Cantonment Board’s legal battle to gain the properties left behind by Hindu and Sikh citizens in the garrison city at the time of Partition has entered its 40th year and reached the Lahore High Court (LHC).
Only the second generation of the 1,000 allottees of the 267 such properties would be facing the litigation when LHC Judge Chaudhry Mohammad Younis takes up the RCB’s plea against the judgments of the lower courts, which rejected its claims, in the coming week.
“Most of the allottees have died since the litigation began in 1972,” lawyer Sheikh Nusratullah Waleem, representing about 200 litigants, told Dawn.
“I was 30 when I first appeared to argue this case in a civil court of Rawalpindi. Now I’m 70, and would be doing same before the LHC.”
Dr Aziz Bhatti was just 10 when his late father introduced him to Waleem. He said that some of the residential and commercial properties sought by the RCB are worth billions because of their prime locations, like The Mall, Westridge, Lal Kurti, Saddar, R A Bazaar and Tariqabad.
“But the rest mainly comprise of dilapidated houses. Indeed most of them were classified as dangerous after the 2005 earthquake,” he said.
His counsel Waleem traced the origins of the case to the actions of the Settlement Department the Pakistan government set up under the Displaced Persons’ Rehabilitation Act 1958 for disposing of the evacuee property to people unsettled by the partition of India in 1947.
In the late 1960s, he said, the Ministry of Works directed the RCB to acquire the 267 properties for public amenities. In turn the RCB directed the displaced persons who had been allotted the properties meanwhile to vacate the buildings, without paying any compensation.
As the dispute lingered on, the RCB approached the civil court of Rawalpindi in 1972 for the possession of the properties.
Meanwhile, some allottees, including the owners of Plaza cinema and allottee Fazulur Rehman of a bungalow at prime location of Haider Road, took the matter individually to the Supreme Court which decided the case in their favour in 1987.
Lawyer Waleem insists that the relief granted to Rehman is “a good reference in our case too”.
Over the decades, many judges heard his arguments in the lower courts but could not decide the case until 2009 when civil judge Yasir Hussain Gadhi dismissed the RCB petition and passed an order in favour of the allottees.
The RCB challenged that order in the higher court. But RCB lost there too. Last September, the additional district and sessions judge Akhtar Bahadur dismissed the RCB appeal.Now the RCB has gone to the Lahore High Court.
Barrister Umer Riaz, counsel for RCB, said the properties were never available for the purpose of the allotment. “In fact, the Settlement Department had sold the properties to the cantonment board much before its allotment to the migrants,” he asserted.
Asked why the settlement department, since disbanded, would allot already sold properties to anyone, he replied that it was “done fraudulently”.
According to him the Supreme Court granted relief to claimants in one or two cases of the 267 properties. “But the grounds (for that) were entirely different from the rest of the cases,” he said without any elaboration.
Asif Bashir Chaudhry, another allottee, said he had all the record and documents of the land he got from the settlement department, since disbanded.
“If the RCB had some dispute, it should have raised it with the settlement department or with the federal government which had set it up. It is not fair that the ordinary citizens are made to pay for any irregularity of government departments,” he said.
What to say of transferring or selling it to someone,” he said, “the allottees cannot even repair their houses as it requires permission of RCB which is never forthcoming.”