Protests erupted in Shaheen Bagh ahead of an anti-encroachment drive on Monday as hundreds of people including women started dharna in the area as soon as the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) officials reached the spot with bulldozers to carry out the exercise. Protesters raised slogans against the BJP-ruled South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) as well as the central government and demanded to stop the action.
The SDMC on Wednesday had launched an anti-encroachment drive as part of a 10-day action plan to remove illegal structures from areas within its jurisdiction, including Shaheen Bagh which was the venue of gathering for the protracted anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in 2019. According to an official, the drive will cover areas such as the Shaheen Bagh main road, Kalindi Kunj, MB Road, Meharchand Market, Sriniwas Puri and Khada Colony. The demolition in Shaheen Bagh was eventually cancelled on Thursday due to the lack of availability of adequate police force.
The move has led to backlash from civil society workers and the government who have termed the demolition drive as being against the interests of the common people. Critics have claimed that the BJP, which is in power in three civic bodies of the national capital, is using anti-encroachment drives as a tool to harass the minority community in Delhi.
The allegations gathered steam after the illegal demolition drive in Jahangirpuri on January 20 which followed communal clashes on Hanuman Jayanti in the area. According to reports, the demolition was carried out following orders from Delhi BJP unit president Adarsh Gupta who wrote to the NDMC mayor and urged him to demolish the houses of ‘Rohingyas, Bangladeshis and anti-social elements’.
In light of the plans of demolition in Shaheen Bagh, many human rights activists have urged authorities to reassure the Muslim residents that they belong to the city as much as any other community does and will be offered full protection of the law.
When asked if BJP was specifically targeting only Muslim dominated areas for demolition, BJP spokesperson Harish Khurrana told News18 that he wondered why AAP and other parties had an issue with removing illegal constructions and sending the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis to their respective countries. "They are a national threat to the country," he said.
History of Shaheen Bagh
Shaheen Bagh, which gets its name from the Persian word for ‘falcon’ started emerging as a colony in its present form in the 80s. Today, it has become synonymous with the power of democratic movements and an important example of women-led movements in India. In 2020, The Shaheen Bagh protests started as a form of collective public action against CAA and NRC which critics claimed was unfairly targeting minorities. The protests, named after the northeast Delhi neighbourhood, started on December 15 2019, at the peak of the anti-CAA movement, and continued till March 24, 2020, when the government announced a total lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
The protests became an important and much-needed space for debate and discussion. One of the hallmarks of the peaceful protest was that it was led almost entirely by women and became a platform for Muslim women, one of the most marginalised sections of the population, to come out of their homes and shackles and voice their protests. It was one of the first movements in India that were led by Muslim women at such a mass scale. From students, homemakers, children to even the ‘Dadis’ (grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh became part and prominent faces of the protests. The solidarities formed mostly by Muslim women at the peak of the protests have continued and converted into new collectives, protests sites, emotional support groups and individual acts of courage in the face of attacks on freedom and faith of the Muslim community in India.
The demolition, which is slated to be held just metres away from the protest site ay Shaheen Bagh, is being seen by many as a way to silence the voices of protest that had grown out of the Muslim dominated neighbourhood. The other areas that have been demarcated under SDMC’s 10-day plan include Kalindi Kunj, Meharchand Colony, MB Road, Srinivaspuri and Khada Colony. Speaking to the media, the SDMC has said that the demolitions are routine and meant to remove illegal encroachments.
Delhi government’s response
Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia on Thursday alleged that the BJP, which is ruling the three civic bodies here, was planning to raze constructions in 1,750 unauthorised irregular and 860 slum colonies. Addressing a press conference here, Sisodia also said the BJP-ruled municipalities -- south, north and east -- had issued notices to nearly three lakh people in the last two years. There was no immediate response from the Delhi BJP to Sisodia's allegations.
"The BJP has made a plan to run bulldozers in 1,750 unauthorised colonies and 860 Jhuggi Jhopadi (slum) colonies because these are illegal. First, their councillors allowed illegal construction and made money and now they want to demolish them. The BJP should first run bulldozers on houses of their councillors who allowed such illegal constructions," he said.
The deputy chief minister also said he will write a letter to the Centre to not resort to such tactics. "On one hand, you (Centre) talk of regularising illegal colonies, while on the other your MCDs give notices for demolition action. I will write a letter to the Centre on this," he added.
The DDA has reclaimed 27,734 square yards of land spanning various districts of Delhi through a series of anti-encroachment drives from January to March, officials said on Wednesday. In a statement, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) said 12 such exercises were carried out in that period.
Calls against demolition politics
About 35 eminent citizens have written to the Delhi government and the municipal corporations, urging them to immediately stop the "illegal and unlawful" demolitions in the national capital.
The signatories of the letter include economist Jayati Ghosh, All India Democratic Women's Association members Malini Bhattacharya and Mariam Dhawale, social activist Anjali Bhardwaj, and All India Progressive Women's Association member Kavita Krishnan.
In the letter addressed to Delhi Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, they said it was "appalling" that bulldozers hired by civic authorities were targeting temporary structures essential to the livelihood of people.
They said the recent visits and subsequent statements by the SDMC mayor about areas earmarked for future demolition point to the "real and present danger" that the actions in Jahangirpuri and Kalyanpuri have caused over the past week.
"We call upon all authorities to offer just compensation, rehabilitation and restoration of lost livelihoods to residents whose property has been illegally destroyed by the state, subjecting them to loss of livelihood and personal trauma," they added.
Demolition is not all that the civic bodies are busy with. On Wednesday, Health department teams at the BJP-led North Delhi Municipal Corporation conducted "raids" across its six zones and sealed several meat shops which were selling it illegally, The NDMC zones include City Sadar Paharganj, Karol Bagh, Rohini, Keshavpuram, Civil Lines and Narela.
The raids were conducted by the health department of the respective zones with the help of local police to curb illegal selling of meat by shops or by vendors in the street, officials said. "Such raids would continue in the coming days to curb the illegal selling of meat," the NDMC said in a statement.
(With inputs from PTI)