May 22, 2020
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Allah’s Left The Building

Meant for Muslim welfare, Wakf lands are being sold for a song by its trustees

Allah’s Left The Building
Sandipan Chatterjee
Allah’s Left The Building

Wakf Deconstructed

  • ‘To tie down’ is the literal meaning of the Arabic word Wakf. It's used across the Muslim world to denote property donated by individuals and institutions in the name of Allah for the benefit of the poor in the community.
  • 800 years is how old the institution of Wakf is in India. It began when Muslim rulers donated huge lands for charity.
  • 3,00,000 is the approximate number of registered Wakf properties in India
  • 4 lakh acres is the land Wakf properties account for. According to the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, K. Rahman Khan, this makes the board the third-largest landholder after the railways and defence.
  • 35 is the number of Wakf boards in India, many of them non-functional
  • 5 is the minimum number of members a board must have. The number, however, varies according to the Muslim population of a state. Members are nominated by ruling parties in each state.
  • Wakf Acts The 1954 and 1995 central laws endow huge powers with the state governments that set up and run Wakf boards in their states


Modus Operandi

Outright sale

  • Builder or businessman identifies a Wakf property
  • They approach members of the board
  • The land is sold for a pittance
  • Board members get their cut

Cheap rent

  • Happens in states where outright sale is not encouraged
  • Builder/ businessman approaches board members
  • The land is given on a ridiculously low lease
  • Land use is changed to facilitate commercial exploitation
  • Members pocket their cuts

Allegations against the board

  • Although Wakf is a national resource to be used to develop institutions and earn income for Muslims, it is so terribly managed that it is the only system where virtually no accountability is demanded
  • Cases of blatant corruption abound. Land is sold off for buildings, hotels, malls or factories for a pittance or given out for shockingly low rents to commercial interests.
  • The boards have become an avenue for political patronage. Muslims who cannot be accommodated in ministries are sent off here. They mostly never do anything for the community. In most cases, they are hand-in-glove with the land mafia and encroachers.
  • The "Islam in danger" sentiment is crudely raised to hoodwink the Muslim public and stop any real scrutiny of the functioning of boards, whose members are out to make a fast buck
  • Ironically, Wakf boards keep claiming properties protected by the ASI as "living" religious shrines. In many cases, there is a clear monetary incentive under the guise of religion.
  • The mess in the boards is also a reflection of the apathy of state governments. Many have not constituted boards; none have carried out a survey of Wakf properties as required by the 1995 Act.
  • As a result of this mess, 70 per cent of Wakf properties are encroached upon, often in connivance with board members or government department overseeing.

Allow encroachments

  • The board covertly encourages Muslims to encroach on a monument. Friday prayers begin to be held on a regular basis. Wakf board then attempts to make it a ‘living’ place of worship. Very often, the encroachers are board members or persons acting on their behalf.
  • Later  surrounding land is sold/ leased as  private property for  commercial  purposes.


It is collectively the biggest land scam in India’s history. Wakf can be described as a religious endowment made in the name of Allah for the benefit of the poor and needy in the Muslim community. There are approximately 3,00,000 registered Wakf properties in India on about four lakh acres of land. It is a national resource that should have been developed for the welfare of the community, as it is meant to.

Instead, this resource has been mortgaged, sold and encroached upon with the connivance of the very institutions and individuals responsible for safeguarding it. This is an investigation into a systemic rot. The Wakf boards in most states of India are repositories of corruption, in league with land sharks and builders. They continue to get away with the daylight robbery of their own community because, whenever there is any demand for scrutiny, they crudely take cover behind the “Islam in danger” sentiment.

Earlier, a sale or exchange of land had to have the approval of the district judge. Now the board pretty much does what it wants.

Rahman Khan, deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, was chairman of the joint parliamentary committee on Wakf that submitted its report a year ago. Having examined the issue in depth, he says: “If the Wakf properties were managed properly, many problems of Muslims such as joblessness, lack of education and resultant poverty would have been resolved. Today, even if we presume that 70 per cent of these properties have been encroached upon or sold off, even the remaining 30 per cent is a huge resource that can be developed.” He has already recommended to the Manmohan Singh government that there be a “total change” in the constitution of the boards and a national Wakf development corporation be set up with professionals at the helm. “Imagine what great institutions can be built as the land cost is zero,” he says.

Wakf property now encroached upon: Fatehpuri Mosque, Delhi
In one instance, the board got a property with Punjab National Bank vacated and then leased it to a society headed by one of its own members. Shops too have been given out on lease.

But that is some distance away and will happen only if public awareness about the scale of the problem is created. Currently, those who purport to be leaders of the community are complicit in the conspiracy to rob resources while perpetuating a siege mentality. They want to capture existing institutions and sell them off piece by piece. They are adept at fanning fears and feeding into the victimhood syndrome but quite incapable of building institutions or shepherding the community towards modernity. Atyab Siddiqui, advocate and standing counsel of the Jamia Millia Islamia university, says that “anytime we talk of reforming Wakf, they bring religion into it”. According to him, the 1995 Wakf Act actually increased corruption within the boards. Earlier, any sale or exchange of land had to be cleared by a district judge. “But now,” he says, “the board can pretty much do what it likes, and shocking decisions are taken all the time.”

Some examples of suspect land deals from across the land:

  • Chennai: In 1997, the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board took the decision to outright sell 1,710 square feet of land in the commercialised Triplicane High street in Madras for a paltry Rs 3 lakh. A sale like this would have required the sanction of two-thirds of the board members.
  • Mumbai: The Maharashtra Wakf Board got a measly Rs 16 lakh for 4,532 square metres in the upscale Altamount Road on which none other than Mukesh Ambani is building his plush 27-storey home.
  • Bangalore: Developed on about five acres of land, the Windsor Manor hotel here was till recently giving the board a rent of Rs 12,000 a month for a property worth Rs 500 crore.
  • Faridabad: The Wakf board has been giving out about five acres of land on 11-month leases for several years at a ridiculously low rent between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 per month. A factory was built and land use altered.

When Outlook approached Salman Khursheed, the Union minister for minority affairs, he admitted that “Wakf is one of those areas in which accountability has not been demanded. The community itself has not demanded accountability possibly due to a level of ignorance”. Can things change? Khursheed says he has proposed changes in the existing laws. “Once there was no accountability in the management of Haj. Now questions are asked all the time,” he points out. “Although the Wakf situation looks impossible, things do and can change once awareness builds up.”

Wakf land now a hotel: Windsor Manor, Bangalore
The hotel was paying a lease of just Rs 12,000 a month for this five-acre plot till the courts recently ordered a rent of Rs 6 lakh a month for a property worth Rs 500 crore

The heart of the problem lies in the constitution of the boards. A senior bureaucrat familiar with the issue says bluntly: “The boards are ill-constituted, not constituted or politically constituted. Often, they’re nothing more than a gang of thieves.” Mostly, political hangers-on and operators from the minority community are sent off to man the boards. The policies of successive governments have created a class of “sarkari Musalmans” adept at capturing institutions and bagging positions through which they can patronise others down the pecking order. The incentive they have, besides authority, is to pilfer as much as they can get away with.

The policies of successive governments have created a class of ‘sarkari Musalmans’ who are adept at capturing institutions.

There are enough examples of how a small group of “insiders” at Muslim institutions benefit from the overall laxity in the boards. For instance, there is the case of a member of the Delhi minorities commission running a private school on a large tract of Wakf land in the expensive Nizamuddin area and paying the board a pittance of Rs 1,000 rent per month. Mohammad Arif, section officer in charge of properties in the Delhi Wakf office, admits reluctantly that there are “some schools running on Wakf land but they are not for the poor and charge fees”. Further digging reveals that, two decades ago, Delhi Wakf ran a charitable dispensary but it was shut down. Now the main service they provide is paying salaries of imams attached to masjids (see On a Wink and a Prayer).

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Wakf land now Ambani Home: Altamount Rd, Mumbai
The market value of this 4,532 sq m plot on which Mukesh Ambani is building a 27-storey skyscraper is Rs 21 crore but the board ratified its sale for a "contribution" of Rs 16 lakh

There are two revealing cases linked to the huge Fatehpuri mosque in Delhi. According to some documents accessed by Outlook, what was listed as “Wakf estate number 6540 in masjid Fatehpuri” was occupied by a branch of the Punjab National Bank. The board fought a case and got the property vacated. Subsequently, however, it leased the property to a society headed by one of its own members, a Maulana Moazzam Ahmad. A blatant case of insider trading? Three years ago, a lawyer representing a school running inside the Fatehpuri mosque tried to get a shop at the entrance removed. The Wakf board claimed that the documents relevant for that plot of land were missing—it was widely suspected that the shopkeeper was paying off members. Salman Khursheed also pleads helplessness. “What do we do when the boards let their own properties be encroached upon and then say the documents are missing and they have lost the title deeds?”

That is, in fact, the most common tactic used when the boards are in league with encroachers. RS deputy chairman Rahman Khan says that there is no doubt that almost 70 to 80 per cent of Wakf land is encroached upon. Often, it is the government that simply takes over the land. But all too often Muslims themselves are the encroachers who pay off board members to live inside mosques and shrines or run shops and businesses on the premises. “Corruption in the boards is rampant,” says Rahman Khan, “and this is made worse by the attitude of state governments to Muslim institutions. They don’t want to interfere in case there is a reaction and they also don’t care because Muslims are involved.”

Wakf land sold cheap: Lal Bagh, Bangalore
This 90,000 sq ft of prime property in the city’s posh area was sold for just Rs 1 crore when it could have fetched over Rs 90 crore in the market

Standing counsel for Jamia Millia Islamia Atyab Siddiqui says that whenever there is an initiative from educated Muslims to preserve a legacy, build an institution or perhaps even introduce modern education, there is a run-in with the Wakf board. “We believe the Wakf does not have the instruments to preserve old mosques and we have been arguing that the ASI is better positioned to manage properties. But the problem that enlightened sections of society face is that they run up against monetary interests of a few who hide behind the guise of religion.” K.K. Mohammad is a veteran ASI archaeologist who has worked across India. Now the superintending archaeologist for the Delhi circle, he says, “My experience shows me that whenever people claim protected monuments as living shrines, there is a commercial incentive of occupying the monument or developing the land around it. All communities have people who do this.”

Most old Wakf properties have caretakers who treat it like a personal fiefdom, building houses and businesses and destroying the character of the shrine. Siddiqui has been part of the initiative to preserve the historic Anglo-Arabic school in Delhi’s Ajmeri gate area. He says, “The high court ordered the removal of encroachers (about 50 families) from the heritage property. But the same lot of property dealers, local toughs, interlopers are again trying to move in under the Wakf umbrella.”

Andhra has the largest number of Wakf properties registered in the country. Here the government has simply taken over land.

Across the country, there are examples of the huge Wakf mess. West Bengal has many cases of properties being encroached upon and made into little slums. Some examples: 4,000 illegal occupants are in possession of a property in Calcutta known as the Mysore Family Fateha Fund Wakf Estate. Over a hundred mosques in Calcutta and Howrah have been encroached upon. Sixty-four other mosques in the state have been illegally occupied. The story is somewhat different in Andhra Pradesh, which has the largest number of Wakf properties registered in the country. Here the government has simply taken over huge tracts of Wakf lands. For instance, Hyderabad’s hi-tech city stands on Wakf land. There is the interesting case of the government taking over 6,000 acres of land worth Rs 500 crore in Visakhapatnam and allotting 900 acres out of this to NTPC and 800 acres to the Hindujas at the rate of Rs 2.25 lakh per acre. When the Wakf board contested this, the Supreme Court ruled in its favour saying that the land was theirs and transferred it back to them. The government had to then transfer the money to the Wakf board.

Wakf land now sold to developer: Aurangabad
Notified as Wakf property in 1973, 14 acres of this Rs 60-crore property was allegedly sold for Rs 8 crore to Nirman Bharti Developers, owned by Vilasrao Deshmukh’s brother Dilip

Clearly, Wakf is a remarkable resource that can be tapped for the community. In a state like Kerala where people are literate and demand accountability, the board is manned by professionals and headed by two advocates, not by racketeers. Bureaucrats in the ministry of minority affairs in New Delhi cite the work done in Kerala as an example of what is possible. But that is an exception. The norm is rampant corruption, in the firm belief that no one will demand accountability.

More than anything else, the terrible state of Wakf properties in India reflects on the Muslim community’s failure to build institutions. Compare this with the manner in which the tiny Christian minority has preserved and built schools, colleges and hospitals. There is a complex set of reasons for this state of affairs in institutions that purport to work for the welfare of the country’s largest minority and the world’s second-largest Muslim population. In the case of Wakf, many illiterate Muslims just see their placards and presume the land belongs to them. They are encouraged to believe there is some higher religious purpose to Wakf, little knowing that it has become a synonym for daylight robbery. The greatest hypocrisy perhaps is that the men who violate the spirit of charity behind the concept of Wakf then pretend to be devout and pious believers.

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