India top court halts demolition drive in violence-hit Delhi area

Indian authorities riding bulldozers have razed a number of properties in a New Delhi neighbourhood before the Supreme Court halted the demolitions days after religious violence shook the area and saw dozens arrested.

On Wednesday morning, bulldozers demolished a string of shops on the roadside in Jahangirpuri while the owners peered out from windows in their homes, watching helplessly as their stalls were destroyed or taken away on trucks.

A couple of hours after the drive began under the protection of police and security forces, the Supreme Court stayed the demolition of properties in the residential area, about 25km (14 miles) from the Indian Parliament.

Rahema, 30, cries after officials demolished her shop in Jahangirpuri, New Delhi [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

A three-judge bench of the top court, headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, ordered that the status quo should be maintained in the case until the next hearing, slated for Thursday.

The petitioner to the court said the municipal authorities had not alerted the local shopkeepers before the razing operation.

But for nearly an hour after the top court order, officials continued to demolish structures, including the outer entrance and stairs leading into a mosque.

They stopped the bulldozers just outside the entrance of a Hindu temple, about 50 metres from the mosque, and began to retreat, spurring outrage from mainly Muslim residents who said they were being targeted.

“They don’t want Muslims to live in this country. Why? Are Muslims terrorists?” said Sabiran Bibi, 31, who has lived in the area all her life.

India demolition
Police officials and security forces oversee the demolition drive in Jahangirpuri [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Several Muslim residents in the area said shopkeepers were not given advance warning about the operation.

“My entire shop has been ruined. Equipments, bikes that were standing for repair are all destroyed in the demolition drive,” said a Muslim man who gave his name only as Ashu.

Officials said their demolition drive targets illegal buildings and not any particular community.

But critics argue this is the latest attempt to harass and marginalise Muslims, who are 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population. They point to a pattern of rising religious polarisation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Raja Iqbal Singh, mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation which is governed by the BJP, said authorities were bringing down only “illegal buildings that have encroached onto the roads”.

He added that the action had nothing to do with the earlier violence but that some of the shops belonged to people accused of rioting.

The drive occurred as the area in northwest Delhi was swarmed by paramilitary forces in riot gear and comes after the city’s BJP chief Adesh Gupta urged the municipal corporation to “take action on the illegal construction and encroachment of the rioters”, he said in a tweet on Wednesday.

“I congratulate the corporation for taking quick action on it,” he said.

While authorities have termed it a “routine exercise”, the call from Gupta and the timing of the move – four days after the violence in the neighbourhood erupted – have raised questions.

India demolition
Residents watch the demolition of properties in Jahangirpuri [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

A similar demolition drive was seen last week in central Madhya Pradesh state’s Khargone city after a Hindu procession on April 10 to mark the birth anniversary of Lord Ram erupted in violence, with Hindu mobs brandishing swords and sticks as they marched past Muslim neighbourhoods and mosques.

Soon, groups from both communities began pelting stones at each other, according to police.

A day later, bulldozers razed about 50 buildings, including homes and shops, in five areas of Khargone. Many of them, though not all, belonged to Muslims, reported local media.

“The buildings demolished were illegal structures set up on encroached land belonging to people from both communities,” Khargone District Collector P Anugraha told Al Jazeera last week.

This month, several homes and shops were torn down in Madhya Pradesh and western Gujarat state in the aftermath of violence on the day of another Hindu festival.

Both the states are ruled by the BJP.

On Monday, prominent Muslim organisation the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind filed a petition in the Supreme Court “against the dangerous politics of bulldozers that have been started to destroy minorities especially Muslims under the guise of crime prevention in BJP-ruled states”.

“This kind of so-called instant justice is similar to mob lynching,” Majeed Memon, former parliamentarian and top criminal lawyer, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

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