Hindu community, ETPB stick to their guns over ownership of ‘temple’ building

Updated April 29, 2018

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A banyan tree in front of the disputed Swami Narayan temple in Rawalpindi’s Gawalmandi area. — White Star
A banyan tree in front of the disputed Swami Narayan temple in Rawalpindi’s Gawalmandi area. — White Star

RAWALPINDI: The local Hindu community and the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) stick to their guns over a dispute regarding the ownership of Swami Narayan temple in Gawalmandi.

For resolution of the dispute, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony led by Shagufta Jumani was scheduled to visit the place on Saturday but the visit was canceled.

ETPB Secretary Tariq Wazir and officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony inspected the site and listen to the views of the tenant and the Hindu community representatives.

Officials say NA committee will determine whether the building in Gawalmandi is a temple or private property

But the officials made it clear that it would be determined by the National Assembly committee whether the building was a temple in the past or a private property.

As per the Hindu community, the building had been used as a temple when two decades ago its servants converted to Islam and the property was sealed.

But the ETPB says it was a residential area allocated to a Hindu couple who later converted to Islam.

According to Hindu community representative Mohan Lal, the couple, Babu Lal and his wife Shakuntala Devi, lived in the temple as its servants but converted to Islam and adopted the names of Abdul Hameed and Shakila Bibi.

“The ETPB then changed the status of the worship place and gave the building on lease to Shakila Bibi. She has now planned to transfer the structure to someone else to demolish the building and convert it into a commercial plaza,” he said.

Under the law, he added, the status of a worship place cannot be changed. He said the property was given to the Hindu community in 1949 by the local administration and had been used for worship purposes. All Hindu religious festivals used to be celebrated in this temple after partition of the subcontinent, he claimed.

ETPB Deputy Director Mohammad Asif informed the ETPB secretary that the building was not a temple or worship place but the residence of Shakuntala Devi who converted to Islam in 1992.

“There is no sign of the building being a temple. There are more than four temples in the area which are in their original forms.”

He said if the Hindu community wanted, the ETPB can open one of the temples for worship.

Shakeela Bibi informed the media that the building was not a temple and her father used to live in the building before the partition of the subcontinent. “I am the tenant and have lived in the building,” she said.

The ETPB secretary said the National Assembly standing committee would inspect the building and the area to determine whether it was a temple or a residential building.

“We protect the rights of all communities in Pakistan. The ETPB has more than 1,800 temples in Pakistan but due to less number of the Hindu community members we cannot open most of the temples,” he said.

However, he made it clear that as per the documents available with the ETPB the building was not a temple. “It was a private residential building and religious functions used to be held here in the past,” he said.

When contacted, PPP MNA Ramesh Lal, who is also a member of the standing committee, said Swami Narayan used to be a temple when over a decade ago it was sealed after its Hindu Sewadar - servant - converted to Islam.

“If this building was a residential property it should have been the property of the Hindu-turned-Muslim woman. But she is a tenant as the ETPB gave the property to her on a lease in the recent past,” he said.

He refused to admit the claims of the ETPB that the building was not a temple and said the board’s role across the country had been controversial. Let the NA committee determine the fate of the temple, he added.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2018