New Delhi: It was an unusual day for Zahid aka Jani, who earned a living by driving a pick-up van. The father of four and sole breadwinner for his family, he had returned home (Gafoor Basti in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani) early — unaware of the fact that destiny had something else in store. After having lunch, a little later than his daily routine, he stepped out to have a casual chit-chat with neighbours.
At around 3:30 pm on February 8, he heard about a brewing tension at Malik ka Baghicha at Banbhoolpura’s Indira Nagar — around 1.5 km from his residence. Municipal Corporation’s JCB machines had descended there to demolish a “madrasa” and adjacent “mosque”.
Like others, the 45-year-old rushed there to witness what was happening there. His 18-year-old son Anas alias Umar also accompanied him. As the demolition began, clashes erupted between the police and the locals — who were insisting the authorities not to raze the structures as it was on a leased out nazul (revenue) land and instead allow them to get the property converted into freehold.
To disperse the irate mob and make way for the civic body officials, bulldozers and the posse of police personnel to exit the area after the demolitions were already carried out, the cops allegedly first resorted to lathi charge. The police action was retaliated with heavy stone pelting, torching of vehicles and surrounding of Banbhoolpura police station.
The tension escalated to the extent that the police had to reportedly fire several rounds in the air. Soon after shoot at sight was ordered by Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami, six people — including Zahid and Anas — were allegedly gunned down. The father-son duo, as claimed by eyewitnesses, died on the spot.
However, the district administration has not confirmed two deaths and injuries to many — including several cops.
The locals said one Abdul Malik — an influential figure of Banbhoolpura, which is a predominantly a Muslim locality — sold a portion of his property (which is nazul land) at Malik ka Baghicha nearly a year ago. Those who purchased the land built their houses and began living there.
With the financial contribution of the dwellers, the “madrasa” and the “mosque” were also built on a small piece of the land donated by Malik — said those who are in know-how of the details.
Notably, roughly, 80% of Haldwani has been on the revenue land for decades. The residents have taken the land on lease (patta) and have been residing there for generations since 1947.
Following the state government’s 2009 ‘nazul policy’, many have got their land converted into a freehold land. The then Congress government had decided to stop renewing pattas allotted to well over 50,000 people and freeholding the nazul property.
Freehold property can be defined as any estate which is “free from hold” of any entity besides the owner. Hence, the owner of such an estate enjoys free ownership for perpetuity and can use the land for any purposes in accordance with the local regulations.
Sale of a freehold property does not require consent from the state and hence requires less paperwork.
Following a dispute, Malik’s brother Abdul Majid — local residents said — lodged a complaint a year ago. And this is how the newly established dwelling area came under litigation, and the problem started.
The Municipal Corporation a few months back demolished a few shops owned by Malik in the area — citing it to be “illegally” constructed without its map being passed by the local civic body.
Six days ago, the locals said, the corporation officials along with the police administration came to demolish the “madrasa” and the “mosque” — also calling it to be “illegally” built. The properties were sealed.
But the residents intervened and pursued the authorities to put the action on hold as they had approached the court — seeking a stay. Following talks, the officials agreed and postponed the proposed demolitions.
The residents, they said, urged the civic officials to grant them some time so that they get the land housing the “madrasa” and the “mosque” converted into free-hold. But the proposal was not rejected by the officials — who reportedly said they would go ahead with the demolition if the court refuses to give any relief to the petitioners.
Talking to the media soon after the clashes, Nainital District Magistrate Vandana Singh clarified that it was not a demolition drive — targeting a particular property. The Nagar Nigam (municipal corporation) has been clearing its properties in different areas of Haldwani for the past 15-20 days to free the roads from vehicle congestion.
“The action followed due procedure. Notices were served to everyone, and they were given a fair chance to present their case. Some people even approached the High Court. Some got more time, while some did not. Demolitions were carried out only at the places where the court refused to grant the dwellers more time,” she said, adding that bulldozing of the two structures was part of the same sequence.
She stated that the structures — which some people are calling a madrasa and namaz sthal (place) but “there is no official record of the same” — were vacated and that a notice was pasted there, asking the owners to remove the encroachment in three days.
“On Thursday (February 8), the court refused to grant them (the petitioners) any relief — stripping them off any legal right on the property. The demolition was conducted after the court order,” she said, and added that some miscreants attacked the police and destroyed public properties.
They (the alleged trouble makers), she said, would be dealt with sternly in accordance with the law for engaging in violence, destruction and obstruction of public servants in discharge of their duties.
“We will also issue them notices to compensate for the damage under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act of 1984 (PDPP Act). But at this stage, our priority is to establish peace first,” she added.
State Director General of Police Abhinav Kumar too said that “miscreants attacked the police and administration teams, which had gone to the area to remove an illegal encroachment.
“The action was taken after the High Court ordered removal of the illegal encroachments,” he said.
However, Shakeel Ahmad, councillor of ward number 31, where the incident took place, said the High Court had “not given a final decision in the case of removing illegal encroachment”.
The eyewitnesses, The Mooknayak spoke to, alleged — requesting anonymity, fearing a backlash — the administration was “hell-bent” to demolish the “madrasa” and the “mosque”.
“Creating unrest was pre-planned; and therefore, a programme of the chief minister — which was scheduled to take place in the Uttarakhand Open University’s campus in Haldwani was suddenly canceled. Entire Banbhoolpura had been turned into a fortress with strong deployment of the police force since morning. In the afternoon, at around 3:30 pm, the Municipal Corporation’s bulldozers, accompanied by another batch of massive police force, descended at Malik ka Baghicha at Indira Nagar,” claimed an eyewitness.
Locals also assembled and tried to reason with the officials, he said, adding that the attempt went in vain. The crowd further swelled when the demolition began.
“Instead of pacifying the protesters and cooling them down, the police lathicharge the protesters and razed the “madrasa” and damaged the “mosque” to the extent of demolition at around 5:30 pm. It further enraged the locals who went berserk and resorted to stone pelting, set vehicles on fire and surrounded the Banbhoolpura police station and also burnt the seized vehicles parked there,” he alleged.
Video footage accessed by the publication — which cannot vouch for its veracity — shows the bulldozer action, a strong crowd opposing it, the men in uniform resorting baton charge and a heavy stone pelting between the two sides.
In between, said another eyewitness, when the lathicharge and teargas shells did not work to push back the agitators, the police “fired several rounds in the air”. Gun shots can be heard intermittently in the video footage.
The crowd refused to back off even after it became dark and continued with surrounding the police station and violent protest. Then came the order of “shoot at sight” by the chief minister.
“At around 8:30 pm, they (the police) began targeted firing which hit many and killed six, including a 16 year old. In addition to Zahid and Anas, Aaris (the minor who too was a resident of Gafoor Basti), Fahim from Gandhi Nagar and Israr and Siwan from Banbhoolpura also succumbed to gunshot injuries,” he claimed, adding that one of the deceased lived at stone throw away distance from his house.
However, neither the police nor the health department had confirmed more than two deaths.
Haldwani MLA Sumit Hridayesh in a Facebook post too alleged the “administration’s haste” resulted in riots in Haldwani’s Banbhoolpura.
“I visited the hospital to meet the police personnel, journalists, municipal corporation officials and local citizens who suffered injuries in the riots that took place in Banbhoolpura because of the haste of the administration. I spoke to the doctors and took information about their health. I pray for their speedy recovery,” reads the post, appealing to people to maintain peace and not lend ears to rumours.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML) too alleged “short-sightedness, unnecessary haste and communal mindset of the state’s BJP government and the district administration” are responsible for the tension in Haldwani’s Banbhoolpura area.
“The tension erupted after the Municipal Corporation and the district administration forcibly demolished the sealed “madrasa” and the “mosque” — which were built on the nazul land.
The party described the action as “violative of the Constitution”. “The police should have maintained restraint to prevent the situation from worsening, but it appeared to be missing,” said the Left party in a statement.
However, the police denied the allegation of bias and use of excessive force.
“The police were deployed there to maintain peace and order. We did not use unnecessary force. The mob tried to challenge the state by attacking the police station, government officials and men in uniform. And therefore, reasonable force was used to ensure safety,” said Senior Superintendent of Police Prahlad Narayan Meena.
He confirmed two deaths but did not specify what caused the casualties and the nature of injuries sustained by the deceased.
“There are two deaths. We are trying to verify what caused it. The injuries that caused the death will be ascertained only after postmortem of the bodies,” he said, adding that “three persons have suffered serious injuries out of which one has a gunshot injury”.
There are allegations that people from the majority community too attacked the protesters. Some videos have emerged where they can be seen setting vehicles on fire and hurling abuses on the Muslim protesters.
Trying to clarify the confusion over the toll, District Magistrate Singh said it was actually two deaths, not four. “Initially, there was a confusion on the actual number,” she said.
“Initially, we got information of four deaths. When we collected information from hospitals in Haldwani, we got information of two bodies from Krishna Hospital and two bodies from Sushila Tiwari Hospital, because of which the initial information of four bodies came. When we verified this, we found that Krishna Hospital did not entertain them (the victims) and sent them to STH. Those same deaths were counted in both hospitals,” she clarified, officially confirming two deaths.
Earlier, news agency ANI had quoted Additional Director General (Law & Order) A P Anshuman as saying, “Four people died in the violence-hit Banbhoolpura and more than 100 policemen were injured.”
The Chief Minister Dhami said the violence was “unprovoked” that took place “within half an hour after some anti-social elements gathered and indulged in pelting stones from roof tops on the police and Municipal Corporation teams”.
He claimed stones were gathered when the legal process was in progress to use in the attack. “It shows it was a planned attack to demoralise the state machinery,” he added.
ADG Kumar said though what caused the unrest is a subject of investigation, prima facie it began following “stone pelting by miscreants”.
“An administrative inquiry will reveal the exact sequence of events that led to the volatile situation. We will check what was the cause for this kind of public anger, and if there is some conspiracy, we will look into it,” he added.
Haldwani had been boiling for a long time. Earlier this year, at least 50,000 people, who have been residing there for decades and generations, faced eviction after a Uttarakhand High Court’s order in December 2022 directed removal of 4,365 households on 29 acres claimed by the Indian Railways in Banbhulpoora locality.
Following confrontations and massive protests, the Supreme Court came to their rescue on January 5 last year and stayed the High Court’s order.
The apex court observed that thousands of people cannot be uprooted overnight without any rehabilitation plan in place even if the land belongs to the Railways.
The court emphasised that the issue is required to be dealt with sensitivity and a humane angle since the occupants had been living on the disputed land even before Independence. It also wondered how the occupants could be evicted without a rehabilitation plan in place.
“What is troubling us is how you deal with a situation where people brought (the land in question) in auction, took possession after 1947 and acquired title. You may acquire the land, but to do now. People have been living there for 60-70 years. Some rehabilitation has to be done. They (petitioners) claim leases, and some say they migrated post 1947 and these properties were auctioned. How can you (them) ask to clear (the land) in seven days?” the bench had said.
Many residents of Banbhulpoora claimed they have been living in the locality for the past 82 years. They have a land lease of the nazul property issued to their forefathers in 1940. Records show they have been regularly paying house taxes as well. Still, they are on the verge of losing their homes.
They claimed that 80% of Haldwani lives on nazul land.