Kolkata: After ferrying passengers all day on a southern Kolkata thoroughfare named after one of his ancestors, Sanwar Shah parks his rickshaw, mops his brow and counts his earnings. He keeps Rs15 aside—the rent he has to pay the rickshaw’s owner—and asks, “How do you know how it feels to pull a rickshaw on the road that was named after your ancestor?"

Change of fortune: Sanwar Shah, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, sitting in his rickshaw. The paltry income from his family’s princely estate in Kolkata, designated a Waqf property, has impoverished his family. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

Tipu’s 60-odd living descendants have been reduced to penury and the dead can’t rest in peace. Sanwar and his brothers Anwar, Dilawar and Hassan, live with their families in a run-down structure off Prince Anwar Shah Road, named after their great-great-great grand uncle. While Sanwar and Anwar ply rickshaws, Dilawar runs a tea stall and Hassan upholsters the seats of scooters and auto rickshaws.

And not far from where they live, a graveyard where many of the Sultan’s immediate family were buried has been usurped and vandalized by squatters.

The Sultan’s descendants are heirs to a princely estate in the city, which includes grand mansions in the central business district, lush meadows, mosques and graveyards. But the paltry income from the estate, which in the 1870s was irrevocably vested in trusts, called waqf in Islamic law, is a pittance when divided by 60. And although regulated by the state’s waqf board, these and most other waqf estates in West Bengal have long stopped supporting the intended beneficiaries.

“The state of the Mysore family’s graveyard is symptomatic of the shabby state of waqf affairs in communist-ruled Bengal," says Anwar Alam Khan, a senior advocate in the Calcutta high court who crusades for the protection of waqf properties in the state.

Nationwide issue

Not just the estate of the Tipu family or West Bengal alone. Encroachers occupied thousands of waqf properties across the country even before the end of British rule, officials say.

“There are a number of similar cases all over the country in states, including some that were princely states before independence,...involving disputes due to encroachments or tenants refusing to vacate the waqf properties," says M.R.A. Haque, secretary of the New Delhi-based Central Waqf Council, a statutory body formed in 1964.

“Most encroachments took place during the British rule itself," he says. “Today, large number of waqf properties are still under adverse possession but continuous efforts to retrieve waqfs have been going on."

Waqf is a permanent dedication of movable or immovable properties for religious or charitable purposes recognized by Islamic law. Waqf institutions were set up to deal with the religious, social and economic life of Muslims, supporting not only mosques and dargahs but also schools, colleges and hospitals.

Haque says 350,000 waqf properties have been registered nationwide since independence. The Waqf Act of 1995 envisaged a survey across all Indian states to estimate the number of waqf estates, including details such as land area and extent of encroachments. Haque says reports by the country’s 29 waqf boards, which will indicate the magnitude of the problem, are “still in progress".

In Kolkata, squatters have overrun the entire 8-acre resting place belonging to the Mysore Family Fateha Fund Waqf Estate. Apart from the tombs and graves of many members of Tipu Sultan’s immediate family, the burial ground also has a mosque.

Drinking, gambling dens

While most of the tombs, with their marble floors and calligraphy-covered walls, have been converted into hooch and gambling dens, individual graves have been levelled and dwellings built. The 200-odd shanties that have been built there have power and water connections and mailboxes—a sign of their permanence, and some are even equipped with air conditioners and satellite TV dishes.

“Till a couple of decades ago, it was a typical graveyard —scary but beautiful—and we would lay bets for sweets to walk through it at night," said Goutam Dey, who lives in the neighbourhood. “Now, the inhabitants have become a menace."

For at least a quarter of a century, this heritage site has been vandalized, according to Shahid Alam, secretary of the Mysore Family Fateha Fund Waqf Estate. “The writ of local criminals runs so large that even the police are scared to act."

Hundreds of waqf properties in Kolkata are being sold illegally or overrun by squatters, but the state government does nothing to prevent it, alleged Alam, a lawyer and activist. According to him, some 700 properties have changed hands over the past 30 years, whereas a property once vested in waqf cannot be revoked or sold.

“If waqf properties are well managed then no Muslim will have to ask for money from any quarter. Some of the properties are so large that they can support universities if managed efficiently," says Urdu journalist and social activist Hasan Kamal. Mismanagement of waqf properties and funds by state waqf boards is hurting their intended beneficiaries, he says.

West Bengal Waqf Board chairman and minorities affairs minister Abdus Sattar admits the state of waqf properties in West Bengal is bad, but insists that “it isn’t as bad as it is made out to be". Just 105 waqf properties have been lost in West Bengal, compared with 5,266 in Andhra Pradesh and 2,366 in Maharashtra, he says, citing a Central Waqf Council report.

Sattar has commissioned a detailed survey of waqf properties in the state. He has mandated consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to prepare a digital master roll of waqf properties.

“People who are complaining of lack of transparency will be silenced," says Sattar.

Lease agreements

Though the state’s waqf board has done little or nothing to reclaim the usurped graveyard of the Mysore family, in April-May it helped the trustees of the estates renegotiate lease agreements with long-term tenants such as Shaw Wallace and Co. Ltd, Tollygunge Club and Royal Calcutta Golf Club, or RCGC.

Shaw Wallace, the liquor company, used to pay a monthly rent of Rs32,000 for its famed headquarters in the heart of Kolkata, where many battles were fought for control of the company. The rent for its 50,000 sq. ft office, a landmark in central Kolkata, has been raised to Rs6 lakh a month, and Shaw Wallace has also agreed to a one-time payment of Rs1 crore to settle all dues.

RCGC, which occupies about 26 acres of the Mysore family’s waqf estate, has agreed to pay an increased rent of Rs1 lakh a month, and clear all dues, which are estimated to be around Rs40 lakh. Both Shaw Wallace and RCGC have agreed to a further increase in rent by 12% after three years. The Tollygunge Club, too, which is spread over 126 acres, has had its rent raised to Rs1 lakh a month.

“We have made these agreements because we owe it to the family and hope no one will have to pull rickshaws after this," says Sattar. “Ninety-three per cent of the proceeds is to be spent on the upkeep of the two city mosques named after Tipu Sultan and other religious purposes, helping poor descendants of Tipu Sultan and other welfare activities of the community."

But descendants of the legendary ruler aren’t sure they will benefit, and to what extent. They haven’t received any money so far, they say.

“We have had our hopes raised many times before only to see them dashed," says Dilawar Shah.

Dilawar has requested the Prince Ghulam Mohammed Shah Waqf Estate, one of the two trusts that administers the properties of Tipu’s descendents, for a grant of Rs1.5 lakh for the marriage of his eldest daughter Nazma, who says she had to drop out of college because she was denied a scholarship from the estate. Other descendants have also put in requests for pensions and medical assistance, among other things.

Shahid Alam, who is secretary of both the Mysore family trusts, says the trusts were created some 135 years ago to benefit the larger Muslim community and being descendants of the Mysore family does not give Dilawar and his brothers the right to enjoy the estate’s wealth. “Most of them still have delusions of being princes and blow up all the money we give them," says Alam.

That’s perhaps being harsh on descendants who are barely managing to eke out a living. “We are not asking to be treated as kings, but for our basic rights as beneficiaries," says Dilawar.

Romita Datta and Malathi Nayak contributed to this story.