Restitution of Stolen Property

Does a person have a right to property that was not justly acquired even if the consequences of holding that property promote the general welfare?

Robert Nozick didn’t think so. He wrote, “The justice of a given individual’s possession of and discretionary control over certain economic goods cannot be a function of that possession and control contributing to the general welfare or to any other overall social end-state or pattern. All such consequentialist assessments of holdings are ruled out of court. So, if there is any acceptable account of the justice of individual holdings, it must be a backward-looking account. The justification must depend upon how the holdings in question have arisen.”

Anirudh in a recent comment leads with the above quote. He then goes on to ask,

“In the context of the temple reclamation movement in India – even if the courts do recognize the mosques as built over land that was unjustly seized and acquired, and they try to pursue “just rectification of an unjust taking,” whom should the land be returned to? The original land and temple on it was probably built with royal patronage, so in that sense, should the land be returned to a Hindu organization or to the government?”

The basic principle we have to employ in resolving such matters is that of restitution. If someone steals, say, your watch, then the just action is to have the watch returned to you. What if someone stole your grandfather’s watch? Then, as  your grandfather’s inheritor, the watch should be returned to you. That’s clear enough.

But what if some property held collectively — for instance, a temple held by a community — was taken by force by someone, say, an invading plunderer? And, what if the plunder happened centuries ago, and several generations have lived and died since the original plunder? Are the descendants of the plundered due restitution from the inheritors of the plunderers?

That’s a harder problem but not impossibly so. There is no moral justification for the inheritors of plundered property to continue to hold on to it. Even if we are unable to figure out who to restore the property to, we can be certain that the current owners don’t have a right to it. So what’s to be done?

Several schemes can be considered.

    1. The property is transferred to the community of the descendants of the plundered. This is problematic because it would be costly to identify them.
    2. The property could be transferred to the government. This is problematic because then in essence, the property becomes the private property of those in government.

I support a third scheme, which is actually in line with a broader scheme which I will defer for the moment. If you are interested, ask me about “Dhan Vapasi.”

The scheme is that all property that have been acquired through plunder should be methodically auctioned, and the proceeds from them be distributed to every citizen, regardless of whether they are the descendants of the plundered or the plunderers.

Let’s take an example. Suppose there’s a mosque that was built on top of a destroyed temple. It goes on the auction block, and the highest bidder is a Muslim organization. They pay and therefore become the legitimate owners. The proceeds of that sale gets paid out to every citizen. The government doesn’t get a penny of that.

This is a simple scheme. It takes in account the present value of the plundered property. The value of various plundered property would differ based on their location. A two-acre property in Mumbai would be hundreds of times more valuable than a twenty-acre property in Kamptee. The auction determines what’s the best alternative use of the property in an open market.

Who knows, given the amount of plundered property in India, perhaps this scheme would raise enough money that each Indian would get Rs 10k. That’s just the first order benefit; the second order benefit would be to bring currently underutilized property into its most productive use. This scheme is not only justified on economic grounds but it is also morally justified.

The sad fact we have to recognize is that the political leadership of India lack not only the moral sense to do what’s right but also lack the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the predictable murderous response to such a scheme of Indian Muslims. The same goes for the cretinous Indian judiciary.

But I should add that this pusillanimity and stupidity among the politicians and judiciary is not surprising if one realizes that they are a reflection of the underlying characteristics of the population in general. I don’t think Indians place too much value on resisting violence, and on seeking justice and fairness. They are quite ok with buckling under threats of violence and suffering tyranny so long as they are able to somehow survive.

“Give me freedom, or give me death,” proclaimed the American patriot Patrick Henry in 1775. That’s an unlikely motto for Indians. “Give me something to subsist on, like a gas cylinder and free food, and you can rule over me” is apparently the Indian equivalent.

Which brings me to the next point in Anirudh’s comment which relates to what is the right action to rectify the dispossession of Native American lands by European settlers of North America. That’s a very interesting point that I should address in a future post.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

PS: (1) Thanks to Anirudh for the comment which prompted this post.

(2) The image at the top of the post is to illustrate a core conviction of mine that all property should be private property justly acquired.


Author: Atanu Dey


13 thoughts on “Restitution of Stolen Property”

  1. Total clarity. Thanks Atanu.

    On a different note, it felt great to see ‘Kamptee’. Reminded me of all the buses that left from Mor-Bhavan. We needed to go to Ambajhari. And as per Murphy’s law, all the buses leaving were only the Kamptee ones.


    1. On further discussion with my close friends, I lost the clarity I declared earlier. Imagine this:

      I am a tribal, and my ancestry proves I am a tribal.
      I lost my land to a river-dam project. I was not willing to let go of my land. Police forced me to move. The dam is of great good to many, but I cry against the injustice inflicted on me.
      I employ Atanu’s algorithm mentioned in this piece.
      It is proven at court that I am indeed a tribal. The government/police are the ‘offender’ here.
      My land is submerged in a tiny area in the river catchment. So will we now ‘auction’ the entire dam to the highest bidder? Who will buy out my piece of land, which is under water (or covered by a hydel power station) now? Is there any possibility of ‘justice’ here?
      (Maybe this is the same as the native-red-Indian piece, which Atanu will cover later. In that case, I shall wait).


      1. This is a brief response to the comment that baransamn1 posted. The phrase “native-red-Indian” sticks in my craw. Why are the original inhabitants of the landmass that is termed “America” today called “Indians” — qualified with red or pink or orange or green — when they clearly have nothing to do with the region called India? Only people who are from India are Indians.

        I can understand that people who are totally ignorant of geography or history continue to refer to people who are native to the Americas as “Indians” but people who do, and should, know better must cease and desist from referring to them as “Indians” even with qualifiers like “red” or “blue” or “mauve.” They are not red Indians; they are native Americans. Or they are specific native tribes such as the Navajo, or Iroquois, or Sioux, or a hundred different peoples.

        I will comment on the rest in a little bit.


  2. Great post.
    Property right – my favorite topic !!!
    Returning stolen property to rightful owners or heirs is an action based on natural law. It is “dharma” of the rulers.
    “Dharma” of everyone is to fight injustice anywhere they see it. Resisting injustice and tyranny is the most basic commandment of the Bhagavad Geeta. Yet, in the land of Bhagavad Geeta, following this “dharma” is rare. Corrupt judiciary and messed up culture imposed by the likes of Gandhi and others has been ruinous.


  3. Thanks for the response.

    I know about “Dhan Vapasi.” You mean this –, right?

    I do have a few questions about the Dhan Vapasi scheme.

    At the end of the auction period, does the scheme envisage any sort of land or property that the government will continue to control even after the auction? If yes, then what sort of property will the government continue to control?
    Who will be eligible to participate in these auctions? Can non-Indians or foreign investors buy these properties? Seeing how sweeping the scope of this bill is, don’t we run the risk of turning the country from a kleptocracy into an oligarchy or a plutocracy via this scheme? The Dhan Vapasi bill includes not just land but also mineral resources, public sector industries, banks, and other financial institutions. What guarantees are there to prevent the formation of monopolies and cartels during and post the auction process?

    Consider the situation in the USA in the late 19th century – certain wealthy and powerful bankers and industrialists formed what were called ‘trusts,’ which were companies acting together to create holding companies to monopolize a market., form cartels and rip off their customers. At one point during those times, Rockefeller controlled 90% of oil in America. JP Morgan created US Steel to merge all the steel companies and did something similar with the American railroads. Such events later led to the federal government passing antitrust laws to quell the power of these extra-large companies/trusts.

    Won’t these auctions give rise to a similar situation in India? I am not saying that such an “antitrust situation” is grounds for preventing the auction of public assets all together, but the formation of cartels and other monopolistic conglomerates seem like a very likely but undesirable consequence of these auctions, given how sweeping its scope is. What sort of checks and balances are you planning to have to prevent these?

    FWIW, I am unsure of the efficacy of antitrust laws myself, but we need ways of preventing cartels.

    Once you liquidate the public assets, how will the money be distributed without leakage and corruption? We already have massive subsidy and cash handout programs in India, and they usually return with complaints of monetary corruption by the middle men.
    While reading through the details of the bill, I noticed that the money being returned was being returned to families and not individuals. Why is that? Shouldn’t indivuduals and not families be considered as the basic unit of society?

    Looking forward to your post on the restitution of property for Native Americans.


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