Is Disturbed Areas Act Polarising Communities in Gujarat?

Is Disturbed Areas Act Polarising Communities in Gujarat?

India

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

“I purchased the flat directly from the society, therefore this is not an inter-faith transaction. Yet my name has been dragged in the case. Although we have taken possession, our documents are suspended as of now,” said a pensive Ejaz Ansari while pacing around in the parking lot of Varsha Flats, wondering whether or not his family will continue to reside there.

Ejaz moved to Varsha Flats in Paldi area of Ahmedabad West a few months previously, during Ramzan, but was oblivious to his purchased property falling under the Disturbed Areas Act.

Ejaz has been accused of not taking prior permission from the district collector before purchasing, and shifting to his new home in Varsha Flats, as stipulated by the Act. He claims that even the society didn’t know that the property fell under the Disturbed Areas Act.

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The Disturbed Areas Act, introduced in 1991 by then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel, is the common name for the ‘Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provisions for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act.’

The Act bans the sale of property by a member of one religious community to a member of another religious community without the prior approval of the district collector. On 8 July, the government amended the Act to tighten its noose on the transfer of property in areas classified as ‘disturbed’ by giving more powers to the district collector.

However, the latest amendment has received severe criticism as both the Opposition as well as several social activists in Gujarat claim that the Act encourages the ghettoisation of Muslim communities in the state.

What is the Disturbed Areas Act?

The Act was introduced in the state Assembly as an ordinance in the mid-80s in the aftermath of the communal violence which scarred Gujarat, and in 1991, it became an Act, followed by amendments in 2010 and 2019.

The Act prohibits a Muslim from selling, leasing or transferring property to a Hindu, or a Hindu to a Muslim, in a ‘disturbed’ area unless it receives clearance from the district collector. The seller must attach an affidavit along with the application to the collector, stating that they willingly sold the property and got the fair market price.

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However, in July 201, the Gujarat government claimed that the Act was being misused by anti-social elements who were buying and selling property by issuing threats or luring people with a higher price.

“We have found that some elements with malafide intentions have been acquiring properties in disturbed areas using illegal methods and thereby forcing lawful residents to sell their properties to them out of fear or under pressure. We want to plug those loopholes in the present Act.”
Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, Revenue Minister, Gujarat

The state government has claimed that there were several instances where the sale took place without the consent of the collector, by getting a transfer deed registered under the Registration Act which stipulates that the collector’s permission is not required.

The Disturbed Areas Act Amendment Bill has also proposed that property under a disturbed area should be registered only after prior sanction from the collector.

The latest amendment gives additional powers to the collector to check if there is a likelihood of ‘polarisation’ due to the transfer of immovable property. According to the amendment, the collector can now form a Special Investigation Team to probe these aspects; the SIT will include the Collector, Police Commissioner and Municipal Commissioner.

To stop people from acquiring properties in disturbed areas by illegal means, the Bill proposes imprisonment for three to five years along with a fine of Rs 1 lakh or 10 percent of the property’s value, whichever is higher.

The Act is enforced across 770 localities in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Himmatnagar, Godhra, Kapadvanj and Bharuch, and most of these localities are Muslim dominated.

Ejaz Ansari purchased a property in Varsha Flats in Paldi area of Ahmedabad, which is notified under Disturbed Areas Act
Ejaz Ansari purchased a property in Varsha Flats in Paldi area of Ahmedabad, which is notified under Disturbed Areas Act
(Photo: Rahul Nair/The Quint)

‘The Bill Encourages Ghettoisation of Communities’

The Bill has been criticised for encouraging the ghettoisation of religious communities, especially Muslims, by not allowing them to buy property in Hindu-dominated areas and vice versa, thereby creating a polarised society where both communities do not coexist.
This Act is akin to (the now-defunct) Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, where no outsider (was allowed to) buy property. While the ruling party wanted to repeal Article 370 from that state, the same party wants to impose similar rule here. Why this double standard? This Act is a result of a fear that population of one religious community will grow more than others. This Act violates our Constitutional right to buy property anywhere we want.”
Imran Khedwala, Congress MLA, Gujarat Assembly

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the Disturbed Areas Act lies Varsha Flats located in Paldi area of Ahmedabad West. FIRs were lodged against 13 persons for transferring immovable property without the prior sanction of revenue authorities.

However, the Gujarat High Court not only directed the state not to take coercive action against the accused but also refused to stay the investigation in the matter. Mohamad Hanif also purchased a property at Varsha Flats through an auction from the debt recovery tribunal.

“I purchased the flat before it was redeveloped. So far, I haven’t faced any issues but I had to take permission under the Disturbed Areas Act. I purchased it in an auction convened by the Indian government’s Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT), and I still needed a permission.”

But Hanif faced trouble when he purchased a property in Shahpur area of the city through an auction.

“I got all the documents from DRT and even made a sale deed. I sent the sale deed for verification, which is a part of the procedure under Disturbed Areas Act. But the local police have not released the documents yet. The cops will be speaking with my neighbours in Shahpur and if they give a negative mark then the same will be done by the cops and I will not get the possession of the property.”
Mohammad Hanif, Realtor, Resident of Varsha Flats

Does the Act Impact Hindus?

According to Mohammad Hanif from Varsha Flats, it’s the Hindus who are heavily impacted during property sales, especially in Old Ahmedabad.

“Although people from all religious backgrounds live in Old Ahmedabad, Muslims still outnumber them. So, when Muslims purchase a property, the rates go up because of which several Hindu properties in the same vicinity get locked down as it doesn’t get sold due to the higher rates. Clearly, the Disturbed Areas Act has financially affected Hindus.”
Mohammad Hanif, Realtor, Resident of Varsha Flats

RTI activist and member of the Association of Democratic Reforms (Ahmedabad Chapter) Pankti Jog too, has been impacted by the Act and its subsequent amendments.

Pankti, who is a Hindu, and her partner who is Christian, purchased a flat in Swaminarayan Apartments in Jivraj Park area of Ahmedabad West, which was recently included in the list of the disturbed areas in Gujarat.
“There is no documentary evidence of any riots breaking out in Jivraj Park in the last 18 years still the Act now covers this area. When we went to the police department for relevant NOCs, they made us wait for eight months. After eight months, they recommended that we should not purchase the property as it could lead to communal tension in the area. This is because my friend belongs to a different faith.”
Pankti Jog, RTI Activist

According to social activist Danish Qureshi, who has filed PIL demanding a complete annulment of the Act, says that the Act itself is unconstitutional and robs people of their rights.

“Right to Property was not given to us by any government, neither Centre nor state. We got it through the Constitution. And if any restrictions are brought up on these Constitutional rights through the rule of law, then such laws should be abolished.
The law that was introduced to curb the ghettoisation is now escalating with each passing day,” he said.

(With inputs from PTI)

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