Jahan Ara, 35 is among the many Muslims attending a sit-in protest with other women, men and children, in Haldwani, a city in Northern India’s Uttarakhand, to demonstrate against the demolition of over 4,000, mainly Muslim, homes.
The families were handed over eviction notices by the local authorities, asking them to leave their homes within seven days.
“We are mentally disturbed since the notice was handed over to us,” Jahan told The New Arab.
Amid a harsh winter, Jahan, along with other Muslim women and children in Haldwani, have come out of their homes to fight for their rights.
“We cannot eat or sleep. Children are crying and women are praying day and night on the roads. Where shall we go,” Jahan adds.
On December 20, an order passed by the high court of the northern state declared that 4,365 houses adjacent to the railway line in Haldwani’s Banbhulpura colony were “illegal” and therefore had to be demolished.
The Indian Railways claims to have old maps and revenue records from 1971 as well as results of the 2017 survey to prove their ownership of the land.
But the residents say that they have lived in Haldwani for decades and in fact, also have papers of ownership.
In 2013, a public interest litigation on illegal mining in the area was filed after which the legal battle began in this case. It was further widened by authorities to look into the alleged encroachments as well.
Indian news website India Today reported that the British government had settled the residents in Haldwani by giving them land on lease for 90 years.
The demolition of Muslim homes
In December last year, a Uttarakhand High court directed the Indian Railways and the Indian government “to use the paramilitary forces to evict Muslim families,” after which the railway officials said they will begin the process of demolishing the houses and other structures built on the 2.2 km strip of supposed railway land.
Amid the outrage, Muslims held sit-in protests, candle light marches and started praying on the roads to protest against the order.
This pushed India's Supreme Court to put a halt to the eviction process on January 5 taking into consideration “the human angle," and directed the local authorities to find a "workable solution."
The higher court ruled that “there cannot be uprooting of 50,000 people overnight.” It also ordered a halt to any construction in the area and sought responses from the railways and the local government in India’s Uttrakhand. The case will again be heard next month.
Areeb Uddin, an Indian practising lawyer, told The New Arab that the order by the local court was “insensitive and disproportional.”
“Even if we look around and find statutes which talk about demolition or eviction, there is a minimum notice period of around 30 days," he told The New Arab. “In this case, it was surprising that the High Court had directed that the place should be vacated within seven days and even mentioned that 'paramilitary' forces could be used," Areeb added.
“Needless to say, the Supreme Court also raised apprehension of this and asked why paramilitary forces should be used to evict families who have been living there for decades.
"More than targeting a minority community, it is more concerning that the authorities did not even keep the 'human angle' in mind. The Supreme Court had to remind them of this. The right to shelter also includes the right to fair accommodation and an appropriate scheme with regard to rehabilitation,” he told The New Arab.
Although there is a sigh of relief among locals in the affected areas, the residents say they will continue to peacefully protest to have their demands of ownership met.
Jahan recalls her grandfather's time when he was living in their house. “My grandfather and father had been living here for decades and we have our land documents to prove our claim over our properties. Now we are being treated as encroachers.”
Targeted attacks on Indian Muslims
A 2022 report by the Council on Foreign Relations says, “Indian authorities have been accused of turning to extrajudicial means to punish Muslims, through a practice critics call ‘ bulldozer justice’.”
It mentions how in 2022, authorities in several states in India destroyed people’s homes, alleging that the demolished buildings lacked proper permits.
Critics have been saying that Indian authorities are using “bulldozers” to harass and intimidate Muslims.
After Halwani Muslims came out in large numbers to protest against the authorities, they were called “land jihadis” and encroachers” by Indian mainstream media.
Jahan’s brother, Mohammad Siraj told The New Arab that although they are happy with the top court’s order, their “fight with authorities” will continue and they won't let Indian media propagate their vicious political agenda.
He said that the bias they are facing currently is only because a large population of them are Muslims.
"It is shameful that Muslims are being called land jihadis in their own land. This is the agenda of this government to defame Muslims. They want to attack our right to live or educate our children so that tomorrow we do not question their policies," he told The New Arab.
Local activists told The New Arab that the incident is part of the ongoing targeted attacks on Muslims in India, which was backed by the local government in Uttarakhand, belonging to India’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Rights group Amnesty International condemned the proposal of the Indian government’s railway authorities to forcibly evict families.
“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 organisation said.
Taslim Ansari, a local activist called it a “targeted attack” on a Muslim-majority area, which also has around 100 homes belonging to members of the formerly lower-caste Dalit community.
“It has become so important for us to be educated in these times, especially when Muslim communities are being demonised a lot. Muslims also need to be aware of how important documents play a role. Residents in this area wouldn't take it seriously due to unawareness,” he said.
Haldwani’s demolition drive case is the recent but not the only case where Indian Muslims have been accused of being the “encroachers.”
Experts have warned that the demolitions in India should not be looked at in isolation. It has been regarded as a part of the bulldozer justice and selected targeting of Muslim communities in India.
There have been instances in the last year where a steep increase in the number of demolitions mainly in Muslim-majority areas were reported in India, mostly in the states governed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In April 2022, the properties of Muslims were demolished in a predominantly Muslim-majority locality in India’s capital New Delhi after the communal violence. The authorities demolished the properties of Muslims “selectively”, as reported by a few Indian and international media. At the time, India’s top court had to intervene to stop the demolition.
Brahma Prakash, a cultural theorist and an assistant professor at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said by selectively targeting a community, the state and media are trying to create a social and cultural perception of Muslims as the figure of encroachers.
“It adds to the already existing narratives and perception of Indian Muslims as terrorists, anti-nationals, outsiders, invaders and anti-socials elements,” he told The New Arab.
While the stay on the demolition drive in Haldwani by the top court is a big relief for the community, experts say the drive has already done some of its jobs.
“It has already created Muslims as the figure of encroachers, from UP to Uttarakhand. It has also already created a socio-psychological fear among the communities,” Brahma added.
He said while the Indian Supreme Court put a stay on the drive, the message is clear that the apex court has shown tolerance and given a stay based on humanitarian grounds, seeing the poor situation of people there.
“But they still remain 'encroachers.' The stay remains, so the fear among the communities is that the bulldozer will come again at any time,” he said.
Although the residents in Haldwani have resumed their daily work and their children are back to school, there is a general sense of anxiety over what could transpire for them in February when the court will make its decision.
Quratulain Rehbar is an independent journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir and reports on politics, health, insurgency, human rights and gender
Follow her on Twitter: @ainulrhbr