On Thursday, February 8, acts of arson and vandalism unfolded in the Haldwani city of Uttarakhand as clashes erupted between police and a Muslim mob. The incident stemmed from an attempt by officials to dismantle an illegal madrasa constructed on government land without permission near the Banbhoolpura police station.
Reports indicate that the situation escalated quickly, with the mob engaging in stone-pelting and arson. Tragically, multiple fatalities were reported, and over 100 police personnel sustained injuries during the confrontation. The mob besieged the Banbhoolpura police station, setting ablaze vehicles parked in the vicinity. Furthermore, municipal workers, including a Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), were targeted by the violent crowd.
In response to the escalating violence, the district administration swiftly implemented a curfew and authorised shoot-at-sight orders in Haldwani to restore order and safeguard public safety.
The municipal team had been dispatched to dismantle an illegal structure located in Malik’s garden within the Banbhoolpura area. Before the operation, officials had issued a notice to the madrasa-mosque management, notifying them of the illegality of the construction. However, the management failed to produce any documentation validating the legality of the structure. Additionally, the municipal corporation had previously seized three acres of land adjacent to the site.
Legal proceedings regarding the demolition were underway, with a plea challenging the municipal corporation’s notice being heard by the Uttarakhand High Court on the same day. Despite the plea, the vacation bench, presided over by Justice Pankaj Purohit, did not grant relief, leading authorities to proceed with the demolition.
Authorities maintain that the removal of encroachments is being carried out lawfully, in compliance with court orders. They assert that ample opportunities were provided for concerned parties to raise objections or provide evidence of ownership before the initiation of demolition activities.
Railway Land Encroachment
The seeds of discontent were sown in January last year when a wave of protests engulfed Haldwani following a directive from the Uttarakhand High Court. The court’s order, issued on December 26, 2022, mandated the immediate eviction of nearly 4000 families occupying land belonging to the Indian Railways. The decision, aimed at reclaiming railway property, faced vehement opposition from residents, predominantly from the Muslim community.
Voices of dissent rose as protesters argued that the eviction would disproportionately impact vulnerable segments of society, including women, children, and the elderly. Notable figures such as Mohammad Zubair of AltNews and organisations like Amnesty India rallied in support of the encroachers, amplifying the contentious nature of the issue.
Central to the dispute was the clash between developmental imperatives and the rights of those residing on the encroached land. The Railways Department underscored the hindrance posed by encroachments to infrastructure expansion efforts, citing stalled projects and unrealised development plans. Plans for track expansion and the construction of pit lines were repeatedly thwarted due to encroachment-related constraints.
However, a glimmer of reprieve emerged on January 5, 2023, when the Supreme Court intervened, staying the eviction and halting any further construction or development on the disputed land. The apex court, comprising justices SK Kaul and AS Oka, emphasised the need for a pragmatic resolution, acknowledging the complexities of the situation and the rights of affected residents.
While recognising the railway’s ownership of the land, the court emphasised the obligation of the government to ensure full rehabilitation for eligible residents. The stay order reflected a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted issues at play, acknowledging the long-standing presence of residents and existing establishments on the land.
Despite the legal interventions and judicial deliberations, the impasse in Haldwani persists, with approximately 4000 families continuing to occupy railway land. In a recent development on February 7, 2023, the Supreme Court granted an eight-week extension to authorities, urging the Indian Railways and the Uttarakhand government to devise a viable solution for rehabilitation.
Statewide Issue of Illegal Encroachments
The issue of illegal encroachments on government properties extends far beyond the confines of Banbhoolpura or Haldwani, permeating throughout the state of Uttarakhand. In a decisive move last December, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami underscored his administration’s commitment to reclaiming land usurped through what he termed “Land Jihad,” announcing the liberation of 5000 acres of encroached land.
Building upon this declaration, CM Dhami issued directives to both the state police and forest department to meticulously identify and address all instances of illegal construction. By May 2023, authorities had identified a staggering 3,793 such encroachments, underscoring the pervasive nature of the issue. Nainital district emerged as a hotspot, tallying approximately 1,433 encroachments, closely followed by Haridwar district with 1,149. Other districts grappling with significant encroachment challenges include Tehri (209), Almora (192), and Champawat (97). Notably, a vast majority of these encroachments were situated on forest land, exacerbating environmental concerns.
Government Action and Demolition Efforts
In a concerted effort to curb the encroachment epidemic, state authorities embarked on a relentless campaign of demolition. By May 2023, over 330 Mazars, religious structures often implicated in encroachment cases, had been dismantled within a span of 90 days. This proactive approach was exemplified earlier in March 2023, when the Uttarakhand government, wielding bulldozers, obliterated illegal Mazars encroaching upon reserved forest land. These actions underscore the government’s resolve to combat illegal encroachments and safeguard vital natural resources.