Government in India set to oust Muslim families in hill state over ‘illegal encroachment’

Hundreds of people, mainly Muslim women, have been gathering in the area to offer prayers and protest against the demolition order

Sravasti Dasgupta
Wednesday 04 January 2023 12:00 GMT
(RELATED) Muslims targeted by demolitions in India speak of their ordeal

Hundreds of people in India’s hill state of Uttarakhand have been congregating every afternoon in Haldwani demanding that the demolition process ordered over their homes and dwellings in the area be stopped, which authorities have claimed to be “illegal encroachments”.

The protests started last week following an order by the Uttarakhand high court on 20 December calling for the demolition of all encroachments along the railway line in Haldwani.

According to a joint survey of the district administration and the railways in 2016-17, 4,365 ‘encroachments’ had been marked in the area, reported The Indian Express.

Along with the 4,000-odd homes, the area also includes four government schools, 11 private schools, a bank, two overhead water tanks, 10 mosques, and four temples, besides shops, according to a report by Indian broadcaster NDTV.

On 1 January, local newspapers in Haldwani carried notices issued by the North-Eastern Railways for the evacuation of all “illegal encroachments” from “railway kilometre 82.900 to 80.710” in a week’s time.

The notice said that failing evacuations, all encroachments would be demolished and the cost recovered from the encroachers.

Since the notice, hundreds of people, mainly Muslim women, have been gathering in the area to offer prayers and protest against the demolition order.

While the demolitions have been scheduled for 8 January, a batch of petitions challenging the order have been filed in India’s Supreme Court.

The court is likely to hear the pleas challenging the high court order on 5 January.

Petitioners have argued that the Uttarakhand High Court ordered the eviction despite the fact that proceedings regarding the title of the residents were pending before the district magistrate.

“The High Court in complete disregard of settled principles of title and occupation, collectively rejected all documents placed by the petitioners that clearly establish their title. The state in its review application acknowledged the legitimate title of the petitioners as an example of the validity of the title of the residents,” the petition was quoted as stated by LiveLaw.

While the railways claims that old maps, a notification of 1959, revenue records from 1971 and the results of the 2017 survey prove their ownership of the land, protesters have said that they have been living there for generations.

Protesters said that they fear that they will be rendered homeless if the demolition is carried out.

“I am here today and might not be around tomorrow; it’s my children and grandchildren that I am worried about. Where will they go if our house is demolished? Did the railways wake up only after houses, schools and hospitals were built on this land?,” 70-year-old Khairunisa was quoted as saying to The Indian Express.

According to Vivek Gupta, Railway Additional Divisional Railway Manager, Izzat Nagar, the case landed in court in 2013, when a petition was filed regarding illegal sand mining in the Gaula River that flows along the Haldwani railway station.

“With the writ petition came the question of who are the people who are involved in illegal mining and why is it happening, and it was found that people living along the railway line were indulging in such practices. The Railways was then made a party and the High Court directed us to get the land cleared,” he was quoted as saying.

Mr Gupta added that the residents then went to the Supreme Court which asked the high court to listen to the residents.

“Last month, after hearing all the parties, the high court once again found that the land belongs to the Railways and should be cleared after a week’s notice. We now have to follow the order,” he said.

The case has also got political momentum with several opposition leaders, activists and commentators accusing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of targeting Muslims.

In a statement, Amnesty International’s India wing on Tuesday condemned the demolition order.

“Instead of prioritising access to a basic level of housing for everyone, the central government plans to render some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society homeless during one of the coldest winters in northern India,” the statement said.

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