Delhi: On the morning of 20 April 2022, Ashu Khan, a 36-year-old shopkeeper, was at home watching a live news telecast of a yellow backhoe excavator devouring shops in north Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, one of about 55 “resettlement colonies” that successive government have created to rehouse slums.
The news telecast that Khan was anxiously watching was reporting how the Supreme Court had ordered a stop to a demolition drive by the New Delhi municipal corporation (NDMC), a civic body run by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), right outside his door.
Khan, a mild-mannered man dressed in a grey T-shirt and yellow pants, thought the demolition would stop with the Supreme Court’s intervention, but as the excavator—popularly called a bulldozer—swung around, Khan realised that his bicycle shop nearby could be destroyed.
Khan ran out of the house, hoping and praying that he could somehow save it or at least the tools in it. He and other Muslims whose shops were demolished in an anti-encroachment drive carried out by the MCD on 20 April, four days after the communal violence in Jahangirpuri, told Article 14 that they did not receive any notice of eviction, which makes the drive illegal under Indian law.
“My entire livelihood has gone,” said Khan, who confessed to crying for two hours after his property was demolished. “There was no work for two years because of the pandemic and now this has happened. Now customers will also hesitate in coming here, they will say this and this has happened to Hindus.”
Hoping for the cycle of communal hatred to end and for better days, Khan said, “Look, there is a shop near the mosque by the name Dinesh Kataria that has existed for the past 13 or 14 years. He is Hindu and nothing has happened to him. Nothing has happened.”
The Jahangirpur violence was one of many nationwide that have followed Hindu processions celebrating with swords, guns and tridents, shouting religious and anti-Muslim slogans in front of mosques. Hindu extremists in the Jahangirpuri procession, which had been denied permission by the Delhi police, were carrying weapons, as they jeered and abused Muslims in front of the local mosque.
Shop owners we interviewed spoke of not just economic losses but the implications and gravity of recent events on their way of life: their fading hopes of being treated as equal citizens. They asked for an end to anti-Muslim feelings, everyday indignities and violence, the attacks on Muslim homes, shops and establishments, and fair treatment by the police and media.
That the properties of Muslims of Jahangirpuri, home to over 10,000 families, were singled out for attention by the local municipal corporation, run by the BJP, after the violence of 16 April, was made clear, said experts, by the fact that millions in Delhi, including its tony areas, live and work in partly or wholly unauthorised buildings.
Only A Quarter Of Delhi Lives In Authorised Areas
Only 23.7% or 5.4 million of Delhi’s 23 million people live in planned colonies, and the rest are slums or unplanned or unauthorised settlements, according to a 2015 report from the government-run Delhi Urban Environment and Infrastructure Improvement Project.
The Delhi Municipal Corporation Act (DMC), 1957 and the Delhi Development Authority Act, 1957, do not allow demolition without advance notice to the affected parties. The Supreme Court in Sudama Singh and others vs Deepak Spoila and others, 2017, ruled that before the eviction by the state, it must carry out a survey to identify people eligible for resettlement and carry out meaningful rehabilitation, relying on the UN Special Rapporteur’s basic principles and guidelines on development-based evictions and displacement, which say eviction should be “unavoidable”.
“When the (north Delhi) mayor said you don’t need to give notice for an anti-encroachment drive, this is blatantly false,” said Gautam Bhan, an urban development expert. “Under the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Street Vending) Act, 2014, there needs to be a survey, you need to be asked for your licence, you have to have the ability to show your papers.”
The mayor, Raja Iqbal Singh, a former councillor of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), who recently joined the BJP, said under sections 321,323, and 325 of the DMC Act, the municipal corporation did not have to give advance notice over ‘temporary encroachment’ on roads or public land, even as videos made clear brick buildings, including the gate and walls of the mosque, were demolished as well.
Opposing an urgent appeal to stop the evictions before the Supreme Court, by Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind, a Delhi based organisation of Islamic scholars, solicitor general Tushar Mehta argued that notices had been served, four eviction drives had been carried out in 2022 to remove encroachments from the footpath. Hindu properties had also been demolished, said Mehta.
“They have the right to demolish [properties] for sure, under the MCD Act or the Public Premises Act, 1971, but in both those acts, you have to issue a notice,” said Bhan. “People have the right to notice and people have the right to appeal. You have the right to say, here are my papers.”
Bhan said the way Delhi was built, there was no clear line between legal, illegal, authorised, unauthorised structures, and there is mostly always some claim to the property, whether it is an allotment letter from the DDA, a street vending survey car, a tax receipt, and the procedures for anti-encroachment drive and for establishing illegality had not been followed.
How The Govt Violated Its Own Laws
“When a structure has existed for 20 years, it has been constructed at least in part with the state,” said Bhan. “So if you begin to hold someone responsible for encroachment, it is the state that has to be questioned first, not the person who builds the structure.”
“In our laws, if for 20 years you exist on a piece of land, you can claim that land under adverse possession,” said Bhan.
The Hawkers Joint Action Committee issued a statement, saying that a count of vendors in Delhi was underway, and no vendors could be evicted during this time period under the Street Vendors Act. “The way the vending carts of poor street vendors were broken by bulldozers is highly condemnable,” said the statement.
When the demolition started in Delhi, in response to an appeal by Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind, the Supreme Court held an urgent hearing on 20 April and called for the status quo. But the destruction continued for two hours after the order, forcing the country’s top court to re-issue the order.
Lawyer Dushyant Dave told the Supreme Court that the absence of an opportunity to be heard was guaranteed under section 343 of the MCD Act, and not providing one was in violation of the right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
“These are poor people…if you want to remove encroachments, go to south Delhi, go to Sainik farms. Come to Golf Links where I stay and every second home is an encroachment somewhere, but you don’t touch it at all,” he said.
In a tweet thread on the urban history of Jahangirpuri, Sukriti Nagpal, Urban Fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, said the “association of ‘unauthorised’ with Jahangpuri is misleading, in the context of Delhi. Jahangirpuri is, in fact, a resettlement colony—a space granted by the state to resettle its residents.”
“In Jahangirpuri, most residents and shop-owners will have documentation to support ownership,” wrote Nagpal. “What is happening here is not the demolition of illegal structures but the state-sponsored violence, with clear ramifications for one community.”
“My Entire Livelihood Is Gone”
Khan could not reach his shop even though it was a two-minute sprint from where he lives with his two children and mother in a colony of mostly low-income Bengali Muslims and some Hindus.
The authorities had barred the exits of the narrow bylanes leading up to the road, and by the time he had run across a park and made it across the street from his shop, it was gone. The single father, who lost his wife in 2015, and the sole breadwinner of his family, stood staring at the rubble, mentally registering his loss: Rs 200,000.
Khan begged the policemen to let him save his tools. Shooed away, he returned at around 10 pm at night still hoping to recover them, but three tired-looking policemen were still there, lounging on white plastic chairs.
Looking at them from a bylane close to the street, Khan negotiated whether to try again, joking that their “busy day of destruction” would have tired them out and the policemen would want to catch some shut-eye.
When Article 14 asked him about the loss of his shop, Khan said, “When one is laughing, remember the person who is laughing is profoundly sad, and that sadness is coming out as laughter.”
Looking at a poster of a beaming Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which governs Delhi but not the MCD or police, Khan said, “Look he is laughing. He is looking at the destruction and laughing.”
‘Everyone Is Saying You Are Rohingya, Bangladeshi’
A few hours earlier, AAP leaders had blamed the ruling-BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for fomenting communal violence in the country by deliberately settling Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to create conflict.
Jahangirpuri, residents said, was home to Bengali Muslims and some Hindus, resettled by former prime minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s from a slum across the river Yamuna, then on the periphery of Delhi.
After her husband was arrested for alleged involvement with the communal violence, Sahanara Bibi, a 35-year-old mother of three sons, said the official who came to carry out a “survey”—to gather information about him, 45-year-old Sheikh Saurabh—asked if they were actually Bengali or not.
“If we were Bangladeshi,” she said, “could we speak such good Hindi?”
A relative standing close to her said, referring to the chief minister of West Bengal, said, “If Mamata Banerjee is Bangladeshi then we are all Bangladeshi, but she is not Bangladeshi.”
A man in the crowd said, “Everyone is saying you are Rohingya, Bangladeshi, mini-Pakistan.”
“All Hope Has Left Me”
Meer Shanul Islam, a 28-year-old shopkeeper, sat close to the mangled remains of his kiosk and a beef kebab cart that he borrowed from a “good friend” after his stall was destroyed in the demolition. It was a much smaller one, but Islam was grateful because he had to earn an everyday fare of Rs 500 and feed his three small children that day. But he had to pay the meat seller for the second round of supplies that day.
“He is not as large-hearted,” said Islam.
Bringing out the laminated plastic sheet with his license in his and his wife Asma Meer’s name, Islam said the kiosk had cost him Rs 30,000 to 35,000 to purchase. Recalling how he had begged policemen for a few minutes to remove it from the scene of the demolition, Islam said that he had no choice but to borrow money to get a smaller one.
“The bulldozer was coming, destroying shops on the way. I saw a few policemen and I said, ‘Sir, I’m a poor man, my entire family runs on this, give me five or six minutes, I will put the gaddi (kiosk) inside.’ But they didn’t listen, they pushed me and said, ‘chal’ (go).”
“They crushed a poor man’s stall,” he said. “While reading namaz, I cried and expressed ill-feeling. What can one do?”
Islam said that felt without hope.
“The police here cooperate more with our Hindu brothers than Muslims,” said Islam. “That is why all hope has left me. I know I will not get any compensation. This is my destiny.”
“It Is A Matter Of Suppressing Muslims”
Hours after the bulldozer stopped as per the status quo order of Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, extended on 21 April for two weeks by Justice L Nageswara Rao and B R Gavai, policemen had cordoned off the area of the demolition in Jahangirpuri where most shops had been shuttered since the communal violence on 16 April, yelling at shopkeepers, journalists and residents to go away and find other routes.
Having been barred into the colony, residents who had witnessed the destruction from their roofs and balconies that day, videos of which were with almost every person we spoke to, four days after the rioting, called it a “plan”.
In a conversation where he kept repeating that the “Supreme Court” order had come,” Mohammed Ashraf, a 32-year-old shopkeeper running a general store, said, “Before they reached the temple, they stopped citing the court's decision. The court’s decision had come earlier but they didn’t stop, it was their plan to destroy the mosque and go.”
A father to four children, Ashraf said, “It is a matter of picking a fight and suppressing Muslims. We don’t want to fight with them. We have been living here for so many years and nothing like that has happened. How did this happen suddenly? It was all a plan.”
Ashraf spoke for a long time, accusing the police and media of favouring Hindus over Muslims, demanding a fair investigation and reportage on incidents of communal violence.
“You are showing the story of one side and blaming the other,” he said. “Whichever side there has been at fault, make a compromise and just cool things down so that the fight does not continue. If this goes on, both sides will suffer.”
On whether he was mulling somewhere else, Ashraf said, “Where can we go, they will do the same thing there. We can’t keep running.”
NSA On 5 Muslims, Selective Action In MP, Rajasthan Too
The police invoked the National Security Act, 1980, against five Muslims, whom they alleged were the main conspirators. That means they could be detained without charge for a year. One of those five was Sonu Chikna, who was reportedly seen in a video opening fire during the violence, and Mohammad Aslam, who allegedly shot at a sub-inspector.
The police said they also registered FIRs against members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, but a statement linking the violence to the Hindu-right groups was reportedly withdrawn within hours.
The selective action against Muslims in Delhi was reflected in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh and Congress Party-run Rajasthan. In both states (here and here), violence was reported to have erupted after Hindu processions played abusive and provocative songs in front of mosques.
In MP, where home minister Narottam Mishra had called for the destruction of the homes of alleged stone-throwers, after communal violence broke out in Khargone on 10 April, of the 29 shops and 16 homes razed by the government, most belonged to Muslims.
In Rajasthan, where 70 Muslim and 10 Hindu shops were looted and burnt in communal clashes on 2 April, SP Shailendra Singh told Article 14 that of the 30 people arrested, 20 were Muslim and 10 were Hindu.
Nikita Sonavone, a Bhopal-based lawyer, said she had spoken with some Muslim victims of the communal violence in MP who told her that no FIRs were registered against their complaints.
“Multiple attempts have been made by multiple people and they refuse to take their FIRs. This entire facade of investigation that is being carried out is entirely lopsided. They want to associate criminality with certain communities. It is entirely disproportionate.”
“If We Are Not Safe Here, Where Will We Be Safe?”
Anwara Bibi, a 40-year-old mother to three daughters and wife of a garbage collector, said that she has not met her brother Sheikh Noor Alam, a 28-year-old repairman, who was arrested in connection with the rioting on 16 April.
Both she and Sahanara Bibi, whose husband Saurabh Sheikh was arrested, said they were not allowed to see their family members inside the police lockup and they had not received a first information report (FIR) or any other official paperwork.
“They say India is a land of brotherhood. Can you see brotherhood from any angle?” said Anwara.
Despite all that has happened, Anwara said she wanted to continue living where they had for the past three decades. “This is the capital (of India),” she said. “If we are not safe here, where will we be safe? If a riot can happen in the national capital, then it can be worse in a village.”
“I feel it is safest to live where we have spent most of our lives,” she said. “If there is any humanity left, the Hindu brothers will come and stand with their Muslim brothers.”
(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14.)