Haldwani: Days after the Supreme Court stayed the Uttarakhand High Court’s December 20 order to demolish nearly 4,500 homes in Haldwani, an uneasy calm hangs heavy on the residents of Banbhoolpura, the Muslim-majority neighbourhood that was at the epicentre of raging protests a few days in the past few weeks. There is gratitude and respect for the Supreme Court which brought relief at just the last minute by staying the demolition in a strongly worded order. At the same time, there is disdain and anger against the order of the High Court in the longstanding property dispute between the railways, state government and people, and the subsequent media portrayal of the residents as illegal encroachers doing “land jihad”. Ahead of the SC hearing in the matter on February 7, many in the area feel betrayed not only by the High Court but by the government and media.
"If the top court hadn't intervened, we would have had no option but to consume poison and die," Asifa Ali who lives in a brick-and-mortar house in the disputed zone opposite the railway line says. The mother of three young children, Asifa has grown up in the neighbourhood and has always lived here. "The worst part is that we are being vilified as land grabbers and terrorists. We have families just like yours. You can check inside our homes. Don't call us Rohingya to justify taking our land," she tells Outlook.
The politics of displacement and othering
Large-scale evictions are an unpopular yet inadvertent manifestation of how a state can practice demographic control. Such acts are often justified by the state using the argument of utilitarianism (sacrifice a few for the benefit of some) and by invoking "development" and “public good”. In a majority of cases, evictions fail to serve any public good.
On December 30, the residents of the disputed Haldwani neighbourhood received notices form local authorities asking them to vacate the premises within a week. The move led to panic and protests and thousands took to the streets of the transit town in protest against the proposed demolition. Many media organisations compared the protests with those in Shaheen Bagh in the winter of 2019-20 when thousands of women took to the streets in the winter to protest against CAA-NRC.
Sitting inside his hardware shop in the Railway Market, located a few metres from the demarcated eviction zone, Uzair Ahmed says the comparison is unfair. “This is not Shaheen Bagh. It is not a communal issue. We are fighting for the right to reside on the land that we have owned ancestrally,” he states.
Ahmed, who has grown up in the area and comes from a family of former councillors, has been working on the land rights issue of local populations as well as the triangular land dispute between the railways, government and locals for a number of years now. He and others in the area feel that there has been a deliberate attempt to give the case a communal colour by some for political motivations.
“This is our land. People have been staying in these houses for decades. These are not temporary settlements but homes that people have built with their blood and sweat.,” he says adding that there has been local anger against the media in the recent days. “When we protest against it, we are dubbed “jihadi”, “Rohingya”, “Bangladeshis” and many other such labels. We are Indian. Ye Hindustan hamara bhi hai and we have the right to defend our homes," the activist states.
What is happening in Haldwani?
The eviction order comes in the wake of a land dispute that dates back decades. The North Eastern Railways claims that a large portion of the land surrounding the tracks is its property and that the residents have built illegal encroachments of Railway property. Residents however claim that the land is in fact Nazul land and that the Railways has no basis to prove that it owns the land. They also contend that thousands of land ownership cases and appeals by residents are pending in district courts under the Public Premises Act, 1971.
Who owns the land?
The 78-acre land that the railways have recently claimed include areas like Ghafoor Basti, Indiranagar, Kidwai Nagar among others and is home to nearly 50,000 people. Many residents claim that their land ownership can be traced back to a 1907 government record based on which they claim ownership of the land. Some of the families residing there state that their plots of land were purchased by their ancestors from the Custodian of Enemy Property Department of the Government of India which deals with properties it acquired after its former residents vacated them during the migration to Pakistan post partition. Many plots were part of the “nazul land” or government land used for non-agricultural but public purposes.
Yet others claim that they have ownership of the lands from the “crown” and that it was the British who gave them land pattas (lease deeds) to secure their ownership of the land.
“Five generations of my family have been living on this land since the time of the British. We have records under the Nazul law, we pay house tax and utility bills”, Kidwai Nagai resident Mohammad Ali tells Outlook. He shows the “nazul patta” and the tax receipts that the family has been paying since 1995. He also proof of electric connection dating back to 1976. Uttarakhand HC has however dismissed the 1907 record as a mere ‘Office Memorandum’ and added that any transaction of the land is now deemed invalid.
It observed that “a railway line was laid down by a Company in the year 1884, and it was later on transferred to the Government of India in 1943.” Further, it relied on a 1959 notification of the vesting of land with the Railways.
Outlook has reached out to the offices of the DRM and ADRM of NER Izzatnagar division on the methodology used to demarcate railway land in the Banbhoolpura area but is yet to hear from them.
This is not the first time that the HC has asked the residents of Banbhoolpura to move.
The issue was first raised in 2007 when NER stated that 28 acres of the land surrounding the Haldwani railway station belonged to the railways. It further filed an affidavit in the matter and claimed that it had cleared 10 percent of the encroached area.
In 2008, a bridge that had been built on the nearby Gaula river in 2004 collapsed.
In 2013, a local activist and resident named Ravi Shankar Joshi filed a PIL to investigate the collapse of the bridge and questions were raised about illegal mining in the area being carried out by residents in the so-called encroached land. This brought the focus back on the people living in Banbhoolpoora who were now accused not just of illegal encroachment but also illegal mining.
In 2016, the high court once again ordered the eviction of 28 acres of “encroached” land following a 2015 report by the commissioner which found that some residents of the “encroached” area were involved in illegal mining in the river Gaula.
At the time in 2016, the state government said that it could not remove the “encroachers” from the disputed area and also filed a review petition against the HC order. It also said that there was no demarcation of railway property and filed a counter affidavit in which it claimed that the land was indeed the property of the revenue department.
In 2017, the HC once again ordered the eviction of the area. This time, the residents approached the Supreme Court, contesting the NER’s claims.
Locals believe that at the heart of the controversy is an effort to hide corruption and the communalisation of the issue by the present government and media is not helping the residents.
A case of corruption?
“The Gaula river bed receives a heavy silting and thus the sand in the riverbed is very desirable for construction. For this reason, the Gaula is mined with due permission from the government,” Ahmed states. “Moreover, even if there is some illegal mining, it is not fair to uproot the whole community,” he adds.
Ahmed states that several activists and expert committee reports pointed to the fact that the bridge had collapsed not because of mining but due to shoddy construction and that there was evidence of builders not following design recommendations, the foundations being unsound and which may have added to the early wear and tear the bridge. “It’s clearly a case of corruption that was later turned into a case of illegal encroachment.”. The Kumaon commission report also stated that mining was not the reason for the bridge’s collapse.
Local advocate Vijay Kumar Pandey agrees. “It is said that Rs 26 crore were used for the construction of the bridge. However, no government has yet been held accountable for the collapse. The residents of Banbhoolpura are just being made a scapegoat to cover up a corruption issue”.