‘Illegal’ Detention, ‘Torture’ and ‘Selective’ Arrests: How Haldwani Limping Back to ‘Normal’ Post Violence

The police are accused of vandalising properties during raids and illegally detaining and torturing hundreds of people — denying them access to lawyers.
As the Uttarakhand’s city in Kumaon division of Nainital district is limping back to normalcy, roads leading to Muslim-concentrated Banbhoolpura are still blocked.
As the Uttarakhand’s city in Kumaon division of Nainital district is limping back to normalcy, roads leading to Muslim-concentrated Banbhoolpura are still blocked.

Haldwani/New Delhi: Mohammad Sohail lost his uncle and one of his cousin brothers allegedly in police firing during violent clashes between residents and the cops at Banbhoolpura in Haldwani on February 8 following demolitions of a madrasa and a mosque. His father — Mohmmad Israr — is battling for life. He is admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) of a local hospital.

“My father was shot in his head. He continues to be unconscious. He has been on oxygen support for days,” he told The Mooknayak.

Narrating the horror, which unfolded the fateful evening, the young man in his early twenties said, “The policemen were resorting to targeted firing. Their bullet pierced through my uncle’s chest, and he died on the spot. My cousin (the uncle’s son), who was with him, too received a bullet and succumbed to injuries at the same time.”

Mumtaz’s grandson died of a bullet injury. 

“He had gone to buy milk. There was chaos everywhere. People had set the (Banbhoolpura) police station a blaze. He received a bullet from a distance of 200-250-step from the police station. People rushed him to a doctor who refused any treatment and referred him to the hospital,” she said.

As he was being taken to the nearby hospital, she narrated the ordeal, there was a stampede-like situation as the police were firing “indiscriminately”. Those accompanying left him and escaped to save their lives. 

“The hatred of the police can be gauged from the fact that despite him being already injured, they mercilessly thrashed him till he breathed his last,” she alleged.

She said upon receiving the information, her son ran towards the spot to find him lifeless.

The police also allegedly barged into the home of a journalist Saleem Khan of ‘Uttaranchal Deep’. His wife and children became victims, sustaining fractured hands.

One incident reported in Malik ka Bagicha, the epicentre of the violence, involves a heart patient with two blind children. When police allegedly entered his home, he pleaded, “I am a heart patient and an elderly. If my children have done something wrong, take them.” 

However, instead of taking action against the children, the police purportedly beat his wife brutally, leaving them praying for death to escape the “cruelty”.

These are not isolated allegations. Many people of Haldwani are accusing the police of bias and targeting Muslims pre and post shoot at sight was ordered. After it was over, the cops, they alleged, are now harassing the residents, detaining and torturing them and ransacking and vandalising their houses during crackdowns.

And therefore, even after 11 days of the incident, people are still running away from their homes.

As the Uttarakhand’s city in Kumaon division of Nainital district is limping back to normalcy, roads leading to Muslim-concentrated Banbhoolpura are still blocked. Noone is allowed to enter the violence-hit area. 

People in large numbers have fled the locality, fearing alleged “repressive” police action.

More than 300 houses are said to be locked.

Noone is allowed to enter the violence-hit area.
Noone is allowed to enter the violence-hit area.

Deadly clashes erupted in the city after Abdul Razzaq Zakariya Madrasa and adjacent Mariyam Mosque at Malik ka Bagicha in Banbhoolpura’s Indira Nagar was brought down by municipal corporation officials on February 8 evening.

The administration claimed these were “illegal” structures constructed on ‘nazul’ (revenue) land — the lease of which had expired and and the occupants of the land did not have freehold rights.

“If Banbhoolpura is on ‘nazul’ land, as being publicised far and wide, so is almost the entire Haldwani. The residents here have lease deeds, with a large number of people having freehold rights. They have been living here for generations even before independence. They pay electricity bills and property taxes,” said a face mask-clad local, who refused to be named.

He asked if the land in question, which was housing the madrasa and the mosque, belongs to the government, how have thousands of people been residing there for over 70 years. How does the area elect its ward councilor?

“When the religious structures came up there, it became a thorn in the eye. And the municipal corporation — refusing to grant time to the caretakers enough time to get freehold right, for which an application is already pending with the district magistrate — declared it an encroachment and razed the structures in haste even without waiting for the (Uttarakhand) High Court to pass an order,” he alleged.

The violence resulted in seven deaths. The deceased include six Muslims and one Hindu. Over 300 people, including 150 police personnel and journalists, suffered injuries in the violent clashes between the residents and the police.

Though the official death toll stands at seven, locals put the number between 15 and 18. Thirty-one people have so far been arrested and over 90 detained for questioning. However, locals alleged over 100 people have been picked up by the cops in the aftermath of the clashes.

An unnamed first information report (FIR) has been registered against 5,000 people. 

More than 70 vehicles and a police station was set on fire. According to the police, properties worth Rs 2.44 crore have been destroyed.

Among those who have been detained or arrested is the husband and son of a woman at Gafoor Basti — who spoke to this correspondent on strict condition of anonymity. She said she doesn’t know the whereabouts of her husband-son duo.

“It was 5 in the evening when a posse of policemen raided her house and picked up my husband and son. I don’t know where they are,” said the veil-clad woman — with her face covered with a purple-colored head scarf.

Broken utensils, entrance gates, furniture and other belongings stand testimony of the vandalism, which was allegedly carried out by the men in uniform.

“They broke everything they found in the house. While hurling abuses and communal slur at us, they thrashed everyone — including me and my minor children,” she alleged.

Most of the houses in the area were locked. When asked where the occupants went, the locals said that they had run away to escape police “atrocities”.  

Deserted Streets, Food Shortage

Days after the curfew was imposed, the streets of Banbhoolpura are still deserted. People at some places were seen walking near their doors, avoiding the eyes of the police. A slight glimpse of the men in uniform makes them move from their place.

With male folks on the run or detained, Muslim residents of the locality said they are struggling to get food and other essential commodities even though the administration claims that it is facilitating the availability of all essential items.

“We are faced with a pathetic situation. There is fear of the police outside. There is no ration at home. Our children are hungry,” said an elderly woman, sitting on a cot with her daughter-in-law in the courtyard of her house.

She claimed that the policemen descend in the area at night to pick people up, giving them sleepless nights. “We have not slept peacefully since the violence broke out,” he added.

Down with fever, she said she is unable to buy medicines because the policemen allegedly chase them away whenever they step out. 

“I had gone to get medicine from a local chemist shop, but the cops stationed there, hurling abuses, asked me to run away or they would beat me. I came back empty handed,” she said, asking, “If we go, you tell us where to go”.

Being a foothill area, Haldwani regularly faces water shortages. The municipal corporation provides running water for only two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Hence, residents store water for their daily needs. 

The police allegedly demolished water tanks in several houses.

Despite claims by the SSP that women were treated with dignity, the incident involving Khan’s family exposed the administration’s claims. 

While the curfew was lifted throughout the city on February 11, restrictions remained in Banbhoolpura with shoot-at-sight orders still in effect. 

How can the government claim that the situation is peaceful and normal with the curfew and shoot-at-sight orders still in effect?

‘Police Action Would Serve as Deterrent’ 

The violence — which began at around 5:30 pm — escalated to the issuance order of “shoot at sight” within a few hours. The city was placed under curfew by 9 pm by the order of Nainital District Magistrate (DM) Vandana Singh. Mobile internet services were shut down.

The locals alleged that the police had already resorted to targeted firing even before the shoot at sight was ordered. The statement made by Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Prahlad Meena strengthens the allegation.

Describing the clashes an “attack on the state and government machinery”, he said police officials and other staff got stuck inside the Banbhoolpura police station when it came under attack.

“Miscreants were firing bullets. In the wake of the prevailing situation, orders to open fire were given to take back control of the police stations and ensure safety and security of those who were trapped inside,” he said.

He asserted the police will take such a “strict action” in this case that it will serve as a “deterrent” for future.

“The anti-social elements did not attack the police to save the structures constructed on an encroached land, but to challenge the state,” he said.

However, DM Singh said teargas and water cannons were used to disperse and chase away the crowd — which had allegedly surrounded the police station.

“The officials and other staff of the police station were first pelted with stones and then attacked with petrol bombs. Vehicles parked outside were set ablaze. Dense smoke resulted in suffocation of people who were stuck inside. Therefore, teargas and water cannons were used to disperse the mob and protect the police station and its workforce,” she said.

SSP Meena said the police’s preparations (ahead of the demolition) were complete, and there was no shortage. “It is being ascertained as to where a mistake happened,” he said.

The DM too claimed that all necessary arrangements were made ahead of the action. “The way the team went for the demolition was attacked, it suggests it was well-coordinated and planned in advance,” she alleged.

The police have accepted involvement of outsiders in the violence. They said people from Bareilly, Rampur, etc. were also involved in the vandalism and arson.
The police have accepted involvement of outsiders in the violence. They said people from Bareilly, Rampur, etc. were also involved in the vandalism and arson.

Sequence of Events

Before the incident, signs of escalating tension were evident with the administration possessing detailed information on potential unrest. Contradictory statements from the officials further stressed the lack of a balanced response to the unfolding situation. Three days before the incident, the government ceased surveillance via drones, despite earlier efforts to conduct aerial surveys to assess potential threats on building terraces.

Haldwani Municipal Corporation on January 30 issued a notice to remove the madrasa and the mosque on February 1 — coinciding with the transfer of Municipal Commissioner Pankaj Upadhyay on January 31 to the post of general manager of Kumaon Mandal Development Corporation. 

Upadhyay was, however, not relieved. He did not take charge of his new position until the fateful day of February 8 and allegedly played a major role in “exacerbating the situation to please the people in power”.

Members of the managing committee of the madrasa and the mosque along with social activists and clerics held a meeting on February 2 with Upadhyay, City Magistrate Richa Singh and Sub Divisional Magistrate Paritosh Verma in the civic body’s auditorium.

The meeting — alleged those in the knowhow of the developments — concluded with high-voltage drama following tensions throughout the city.

Upadhyay — they said — was “adamant” about demolishing the madrasa and the mosque.

A non-written demolition order from the government for February 4 added to the sense of impending crisis. Intervention from local MLA to appeal to the chief minister for a pause in demolition proceedings provided temporary relief. 

They said an order was passed from Dehradun to seal the two religious structures at midnight on February 3-4 at around half past one. There was no reported violence in between but a sense of cooperation from the locals, easing tensions momentarily with a commitment to pursue a legal battle.

On February 6, the matter was taken to the High Court by Sofia Malik on behalf of the landowner and her husband Abdul Malik. The vacation bench heard the matter on February 8, and the judge without passing any order gave the date for the next hearing on February 14.

On the evening of February 8, the police force advanced to the scene of the incident with municipal corporation workers, sanitation workers and two bulldozers at around 4.30 pm. The preparations were underway following a meeting with the district magistrate. The locals said more bulldozers arrived later. 

Regardless of his transfer to another department, they said, Upadhyaya continued to serve in the position of municipal commissioner. 

“He abused the entire Muslim community, including misbehaving with the women on the demolition day. His video also went viral on social media,” they alleged.

Despite the local intelligence advising the administration to take action in the morning to prevent public disorder and take clerics and locals in confidence, the forces initiated the demolition without prior notice. 

“It happened like an attack,” they described. 

A large number of women gathered to protest against the demolition. The mosque and the madrasa were technically under government possession as they were already sealed.

Following the protest sparked by the threat of demolishing the structures, the situation escalated when women were allegedly subjected to mistreatment, including physical violence and forceful removal. 

“The women were abused, manhandled, beaten and dragged,” alleged those who were present at the spot.

The incident captured on video and in photos fueled anger among locals, leading to clashes with the police who used mild force. The situation was worsened by media live-streaming the demolition, drawing more protesters to the scene.

Amidst the chaos, the police opened the seal of the madrasa and the mosque. The local intelligence had also reportedly instructed that the sacred books and other belongings must be submitted to the cleric after inquiry. But the police allegedly did not make its list and also refrained from handing them over to the responsible authority. 

“This resulted in religious sloganeering in rage and stone-pelting from Muslims and consequently from the police,” they narrated.

According to the administrative statement, the firing order was for after darkness. The eyewitnesses, however, said there was an aerial firing in gross daylight.

Why was the administration in such a hurry to demolish the madrasa and the mosque despite the impending hearing on February 14 in the High Court? Besides, why was the Muslim community not taken into confidence for the second time when they already cooperated at the time of sealing?

District Magistrate Vandana Singh responded to the queries. “The structures, one of which is called a mosque, were illegal encroachments. The property in question is a ‘nazul’ land, the lease of which has expired. Absence of a freehold right technically made it a government property. The aggrieved party approached the High Court, which refused to give her any relief. It just posted the matter for another date, without any direction of stay on the proposed demolition,” she said.

According to ‘nazul’ rules, she further said, the land belongs to the municipal corporation, and it is well within its right to take the property in possessions and raze illegal encroachments.

When asked about taking the locals and religious leaders into confidence before carrying out the exercise, she said respected leaders of the community were called prior to demolition on February 8 but their phones could not be reached as they were “switched off”. 

However, the Muslim clerics and leaders deny this statement. “It’s ridiculous. Eighty individuals can not have their phones turned off at the same time,” they said. 

They demanded the district magistrate’s accountability to prove her claims.

A Brief History of Land in Question

Both the religious place (mosque) and the Islamic institution (madrasa) were two decades old and established around 2003-2004. 

The land in this area has been on lease since 1937 with a settlement registered under category one or ‘A’ in the slum scheme. This categorisation denotes its status as only regularised without the risk of being seized or removed.

The property in 1937 was given on lease by Britishers which later came into possession of one Sadiya Begum in inheritance. However, the matter of land regularisation has been pending at the government administration level for a long time since 2006.

The district administration had to decide on when to do the regulation after the High Court order. A sum of 29,000 was also submitted for it. Despite proposals for regularisation, including one put forth during the previous year’s Gairsain session of the Assembly, the bill awaits approval at the President’s level.

Notably, approximately 4 lakh hectares of land are under lease across the state, including Haldwani. These areas host various settlements, markets, temples and mosques built in cities, towns and villages.

Role of Civic Body’s Commissioner

When asked about the situation that unfolded, Haldwani MLA Sumit Hridayesh said when he came to know about the planned demolition, he spoke to Leader of Opposition Yashpal Arya as well as the chief minister because the issue was sensitive.

“I requested the chief minister to halt the proposed demolition and grant the aggrieved parties enough time for a legal recourse,” he said.

However, soon after his words with the chief minister, the two religious structures were hurriedly sealed late in the evening before letting the bulldozers roll.

Upadhyay, the commissioner of the civic body, is a much talked about name in Haldwani these days as he has emerged as the main architect of the controversial bulldozing excercise.

Without naming him, MLA Hridayesh said, “Suddenly, the religious place was brought down. The administration did not consider it necessary to take the local public representatives and senior people into confidence before going ahead with the exercise — which was undertaken on the instructions of an officer who has been posted here for the past 15 years. The action resulted in the deterioration in the peaceful atmosphere of the city. He is known for making provocative statements.”

Upadhyay’s remains suspicious. Why is an individual with objectionable actions still allowed to manage prevailing circumstances despite his transfer to another office?

Addressing the media after the violence, DM Singh said, “This was not a communal incident. So it should not be given a communal colour and made sensitive. No particular community retaliated. It was miscreants who attempted to challenge the state machinery, the state government and the law and order situation.”

It is also worth noting that the district magistrate had already identified the miscreants in her order. The order dated February 8 declares curfew in view of the crisis arising due to protest/arson/stone pelting by a “particular community”.

Cops Have Setup Torture Chambers?

Bringing to the fore a damning allegation, a fact finding team claimed the police have set up detention centers, resembling torture chambers, where a number of  individuals — including those from Haldwani who were away in other cities for various reasons — are being held captive.

Titled ‘Bulldozing Peace: State Violence and Apathy in Muslim Settlements of Haldwani’, the fact-finding report — prepared by the Association For Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) in association with Karawan-e-Mohabbat and other rights activists — alleged an unspecified number of people have been “detained by the police illegally in a school 15 km from Haldwani, which has been turned into an interrogation-cum-detention centre”.

The team, the report recorded, was told that the “detainees have no access to legal help and their whereabouts are unknown owing to a curfew and Internet shutdown”.

The allegation has, however, been denied by the police administration, which termed it “baseless”.

Involvement of Outsiders?

The residents also expressed apprehension that the miscreants were not local people. Some of them also paid attention to their language.

“Banbhoolpura residents themselves saved a medicine shop in the area from being set on fire by miscreants. The accent in which they were speaking was completely different from ours,” another local said.

The police too have accepted involvement of outsiders in the violence. They said people from Bareilly, Rampur, etc. were also involved in the vandalism and arson.

They claimed to have found important evidence in support of their claim, and police teams have left for the western Uttar Pradesh districts to identify and apprehend the alleged trouble makers.

The locals alleged involvement of people from Valmiki Basti of Gandhinagar also, in the riots. They said when the administration was demolishing the mosque and the madrasa, they were “celebrating” the action by “beating drums and chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’”.

They further alleged Valmiki Basti residents also resorted to firing bullets on local Muslims.

A purported video footage accessed by The Mooknayak shows a few people pelting stones, indulging in torching vehicles and hurling abuses on the Muslim community. But the publication cannot vouch for its authenticity and claim who these people were and which caste they belonged to.

Many people at different places in Banbhoolpura also talked about alleged bullet firing from Sanjay Sonkar’s house.

Also Read-

As the Uttarakhand’s city in Kumaon division of Nainital district is limping back to normalcy, roads leading to Muslim-concentrated Banbhoolpura are still blocked.
‘Illegal Madrasa, Mosque’? What Exactly Lit Fire in Haldwani
As the Uttarakhand’s city in Kumaon division of Nainital district is limping back to normalcy, roads leading to Muslim-concentrated Banbhoolpura are still blocked.
Mumbai: Why Bulldozer Actions Often Come After Violence, Crime if It’s Really Routine Affair, Ask Mira Road Residents

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