The 16th-century structure Rohtas Fort currently hosts thousands of squatters. Successive governments, despite all legal support in their favor and the might of police and civil administration, have badly failed to relocate residents of about 450 illegal houses which have been constructed within the boundary wall of the fort. Nobody has a clear idea when the first house was constructed within the fort. The fortifications at Rohtas are about 5.2 km in circumference and cover an area of 12.63 acres. After it was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1997, there is no legal justification for these illegal buildings in the fort. By-laws of the UN body – which are also adopted by the Punjab Archeology Department – prohibit the construction of any structure within a 200-feet radius of any such historic place.
Within the mighty, centuries-old boundary wall of the fort there are not only houses and a marketplace but also government facilities including schools and a post office. Electricity, water supply and sewerage are available for the illegal settlers. According to SDO Archeology Department Jhelum Imran Zahid, there was no mention of settlers in the legal documents when the Rohtas Fort was handed over to the Archeology Department in 1962 from the Forest Department. He says settlers have approached the apex courts, but they have been unable to prove their ownership rights over houses built within the fortress. According to Mr. Zahid, these settlers have not been able to provide any legal document in their favour and courts have issued verdicts against them.
The Rohtas Fort Management Committee proposed a Rs. 1,200 million housing scheme for over 4,000 illegal occupants in the fort
Some worry that an influx of illegal settlers could also pose security threats as the Rohtas Fort grabbed global attention after winning the status of a World Heritage Site. Every year hundreds of foreign tourists arrive here. Although no unpleasant incident has taken place so far, the local administration always remains wary of the movements of foreigners who mostly come to see extraordinary Muslim military structures of central and south Asia without informing local police. In the presence of the hundreds of illegal structures, no proper security plan for the foreign tourists can be devised. Moreover the irregular shapes of houses and shops also spoil the beauty and might of this historic building. “The population residing in the illegal buildings has a very bad taste in architectecture. They have not retained old structures and in some cases demolished them. If they had retained old structures, there might have existed some possibility of tolerating them. These structures provide a very nasty sight to tourists,” Imran Zahid says.
“We have been living here for centuries and nobody can separate us from our ancestral place”
Recently the Rohtas Fort Management Committee prepared a Rs. 1200 million proposal to establish a housing scheme for over 4,000 illegal occupants residing in the fort. The proposal envisages free land for all illegal occupants and a soft loan of about Rs. 500,000 to each household for the purposes of construction. This proposal can provide a strong foundation for any future effort to relocate the illegal occupants. But local residents reject this proposal.
“Such efforts have been made in the past as well. This is just paper work to stuff the files. Nobody can relocate us,” says Raja Moeen, a shopkeeper in the small bazaar of the Rohtas Fort. He adds, “We have been living here for centuries and nobody can separate us from our ancestral place.”
Merely a proposal for an alternate housing scheme cannot work because the religious affiliation of the local population and their political strength – 2000 registered votes – make these illegal occupants confident to retain the current status of their occupation. On the 9th of Muharram, the biggest mourning procession of District Jhelum is organised in the colony of illegal occupants of Rohtas Fort. “Mourners from all across Jhelum District on 9th Muharram throng this place. Four licensed Muharram processions are also held here. Graves of saints are also there at every entrance of this 12-gate fort. We have religious traditions here. Nobody can relocate us on the lame pretext of protecting this fort. This fort belongs to us and we best know how to protect it – far more than any government agency,” another resident of Rohtas Fort, Mohammad Yousaf, says. 40 percent of the population illegally residing in the fort belongs to the Shia tradition and the remaining is Sunni – and they are living in ideal harmony and participate warmly in each other’s ceremonies. There are fourteen mosques and three imambargahs in the fortress.
Old and new multi-storey houses can be seen here. The local settlers are very confident that they cannot be removed from here. And even young educated people among them do not realise that they are spoiling this centuries old structure. The presence of government buildings gives them a sense of protection that any plan to relocate them does not enjoy the support of the entire government machinery. “We have to relocate them, otherwise this place can lose the status of a World Heritage Site given by the UNESCO. From 2005 strict vigilance of the area is being ensured and nobody is being allowed to raise new structure. In 2009-10 about 30 illegal structures built from 1997 to 2005 were demolished,” Imran Zahid says.
Raja Waqar, a local journalist who has an interest in historic buildings, says a phase-wise plan should be made to relocate the illegal occupants of Rohtas Fort, adding in the first phase government buildings – schools and post office – should be relocated because the government can use authority over its own departments – even if their location at the fort is illegal. He suggests that measures be taken to persuade settlers to leave, and loans and lucrative packages – including a house and agricultural land – should be offered to those who wish to move.