Is bulldozer culture becoming the new normal?

Abdul Bari Masoud analyses the bid to evict over 4,000 families in Haldwani at the orders of the Uttarakhand High Court, noting that the fear- and anxiety-ridden families of the town must have taken a sigh of relief as the Apex Court has stayed the HC order, calling it a ‘human issue’.

Over 4,000 families (mostly from the Muslim community) in Nainital’s Haldwani town would have breathed a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court stayed an order passed by the Uttarakhand High Court to evict them from their residences on the alleged railway land. A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and A. S. Oka observed that the matter was a “human issue”, and that 50,000 people couldn’t be evicted in seven days. The court’s eviction decree hit the headlines across the globe and would have caused a human catastrophe of unimaginable proportions as bulldozers were set to roll at Ghafur Nagar, Dholak Basti, and other neighbourhoods like Indira Nagar, Nayi Basti, and Lines No. 17, 18, 19, and 20. These places are all very populous.

Fear and anxiety have gripped the residents of the town’s Banbhoolpura locality, following the Uttarakhand High Court’s order that would have rendered them homeless in the middle of the harsh North Indian winter where they have been living prior to the country’s Independence. On December 2, 2022, a division bench of Justices Sharad Sharma and RC Khulbe gave a one-week notice ordering the demolition of construction over “encroached railway land” next to Haldwani Railway Station in Banbhoolpura.

The court said that the alleged encroachments along a 2 km stretch of the railway line would be demolished on January 8. Interestingly the alleged encroached land locality has 4 government schools, and 1 Primary Health Centre and other civic facilities built by the town authorities.

Without hearing the defence and taking all the issues related to the case into consideration, the Uttarakhand High Court passed an order to evict over 4,000 families from land claimed by the Railways in Haldwani. Besides protests, several petitions were also filed in the Supreme Court to challenge the High Court order.

After the court’s ruling was contested at the nation’s top court, the Supreme Court decided to stay the HC order on January 5, 2023. It noted that there was a humanitarian component to the case that needed to be taken into account.

In its interim judgment, the Apex Court observed:

“There cannot be uprooting of 50,000 people overnight. There has to be segregation of people who have no right on the land and the need for rehabilitation while recognising the need of Railways.”

“Even in those cases where there are no rights at all, even in them, rehabilitation has to be done. But, in some cases where they acquired title… you have to find a solution. There is a human angle to this issue,” said Justice Kaul.

“There are two aspects of the issue. One, they claim leases. Two, they say people migrated after 1947 and the lands were auctioned. People stayed there for so many years. Some rehabilitation has been given. There are establishments there. How can you say, in seven days clear them off,” Justice Kaul asked.

“What is troubling us is that, how do you deal with the scenario of people who have purchased the land in the auction. You may acquire the land and utilise it. Other people have lived there for 50-60 years. Some rehabilitation scheme has to be done, even assuming it is Railways land,” Justice Kaul said.

“It may not be correct to say that paramilitary forces have to be deployed to remove people who have been living there for decades,” Justice Oka said.

Now the residents of the Banbhoolpura neighbourhood, who have been holding candle marches, sit-ins and prayers to stop the eviction order, may be more at ease thanks to the stay order. The district administration had published a notice in the local newspapers, urging that the occupants leave the home within a week.

A young girl told a website: “We want to request the Prime Minister that our homes are not demolished. How would we study if our schools and colleges are demolished? We have siblings, where would we take them this harsh winter.”

They challenged the government and railway authorities’ assertions about land. The railways stated it possessed 29 acres of property in 2007. It was unexpectedly expanded to 78 acres in 2022. Why is that? The state government and the Haldwani Municipal Council responded to the railway authorities’ allegations in the High Court in 2016, but for whatever reason, they mysteriously withdrew from the lawsuit in 2022. According to an activist, they asserted in 2016 that the state owned the land.

Only the property next to the rail tracks where Muslim settlement is present is under claim by the railway. Hindu homes can be found in a few.

Several residents claimed to hold title deeds for the homes where they have lived for many years. In addition to various shops established over many years, the neighbourhood features four government schools, eleven private schools, a bank, two overhead water tanks, ten mosques and four temples.

Residents are determined to save their locality at any cost, saying, “We wouldn’t run away from our homes even if we died. There have been generations of people living here who are 80 and 90 years old. Our demands will be taken into consideration by the government. If we died, we wouldn’t disappear.”

AMU student leader and activist Sharjeel Usmani said in a tweet: “Out of the entire 90 km stretch – from Bareilly station to Kathgodam – this is only 2.1 km area (the Muslim settlement) ownership of which is claimed by the railway. Here they’re claiming 820 metres deep from the track and in the rest of 87.9 km, they claim merely 68-70m deep from the track.”

Another activist Kawalpreet Kaur tweeted underlining that Railway authorities have been unable to present a single document attesting to their ownership rights. Before the High Court, they haven’t even shown a roadmap or plan outlining why they need the land. Additionally, the full territory has not been demarcated.

It is not a simple encroachment issue, there is a communal angle involved as residents assert that because Muslims make up the bulk of the population, the neighbourhood is being targeted.

A young resident pointed out: “They seek to exclude Muslims from voting by evicting them. No one is listening to us. Evictions affect 50,000–60,000 persons on a yearly basis. The government would have stepped in if such a large number of people had been impacted in any other region.”

Some locals also noted that the railway officials should have established their claim over all land along the track falling in the area if they were honestly concerned about the encroachments over their land. If residents were treated equally, they would abandon their claims.

GENESIS OF THE ISSUE

The High Court of Uttarakhand was created in Nainital in 2000 after Uttarakhand was split off from Uttar Pradesh. The Uttarakhand High Court Bar Association, who had travelled here from Allahabad, then demanded a train between Allahabad and Kathgodam for their transportation in the year 2007. However, it was rejected with the justification that there wasn’t enough area to run a new train there. The topic of purported encroachment then came to light. Near the Haldwani train station, 29 acres of railroad property allegedly have been encroached upon. The Railway notified the High Court of Uttarakhand in an affidavit filed in the same year that it had successfully cleansed 10 of the 29 acres of land of encroachers.

The railways petitioned that the court issue an order telling the state to assist it in reclaiming the remaining 19 acres. There was no longer a problem, thus no more demolition was done.

It came up once more in 2014, when one Ravi Shankar Joshi urged that the High Court conduct an investigation into the collapse of a bridge that had been built in 2003 on the Gola River for a cost of `9.40 crores in a Writ Petition in the form of Public Interest Litigation. Within three to four years of its completion, the bridge gave way.

On November 9, 2016, the High Court issued an interim order instructing officials to remove the alleged encroachment from the Railway property. The state government then requested that the court revisit its order from November 9, 2016, in an appeal. It said there was no delineation of the Railway property, making it impossible to remove the “encroachers.” Additionally, the petition cited a few sale deeds. The state has submitted a counter affidavit, claiming that the Revenue Department is the rightful owner of the land. The state government was previously ordered by the High Court to ensure the removal of the claimed encroachment on January 10, 2017.

Here is a catch: the land in dispute was 29 acres, but the notices were issued to people residing on 78 acres of land. Nowhere in the official record is the land in question 78 acres.

Upon receiving the notices, the residents filed their objections. But no hearing took place because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. No further public information was issued, informing people that re-hearing of the objections has begun after COVID-19 restrictions were over. And all the objections were rejected ex-parte as residence in absence of any information with regard to the re-hearing failed to turn up.

The documents showing that they are in possession of the land due to government leases signed in their favour were also brought to the Court’s attention by the petitioners. In other instances, they asserted ownership on the grounds that an allocation had received preferential treatment relative to the highest bidders at an auction. Therefore, they asserted that their ownership was approved, genuine and legal.

NO DUE PROCEDURE FOLLOWED

It was noted that none of the eviction notifications sent to the petitioners in accordance with the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1971, was addressed to each one of them specifically as required by the law. “All Unauthorised Occupants of Railways Land, Adjacent to Haldwani Railway Station from Km. 78/0 to 83/0 Haldwani” was the target of the notice.

Senior Journalist Prashant Tandon, who visited Haldwani along with a fact-finding team, told Radiance that the issue was twisted communally as it’s not only  problems of the Muslim community but of Hindus too as there are temples in the area. He said a section of the media dishonestly portrays Muslims as ‘encroachers’ which is utterly a lie.

However, it seems that bulldozer culture has become a new normal in the BJP ruled states as we saw Muslim homes being demolished on one pretext or another in Assam, UP and Madhya Pradesh. It’s an irony that a government that promised to provide shelter for all, indulges in demolition of homes, making fun of its own slogan “har sar par chat”.

Now it is the turn of Uttarakhand.  Let’s see what happens as the Supreme Court has fixed February 7 for the next hearing of the matter.

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