A little after nine bulldozers began a demolition drive in Delhi’s Jahangpuri on Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court ordered a stay. It was just before 11 am. Yet, despite the court’s order being communicated to the city officials, the demolitions continued. The officials claimed that they had not received the order.
When lawyers informed the Supreme Court about this, it ordered court officials to communicate the order to the municipal authorities. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat also arrived at the venue to try to stop the demolitions.
Despite this, the demolitions stopped only at around 12.15 pm, more than an hour after the court had delivered its oral orders.
Some lawyers believe that the North Delhi Municipal Corporation did not follow the court’s order properly and its actions could be liable for contempt of court.
The Supreme Court will hear the matter on Thursday, along with another petition challenging similar demolition drives in other Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states.
Why were the demolitions being carried out?
Communal violence had broken out in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri on Saturday during a rally for Hanuman Jayanti, celebrating the birth of the Hindu god Hanuman. At least 25 people, mostly Muslim men, have been arrested in the case so far.
The BJP alleged that “illegal” Bangladeshi and Rohingya Muslim migrants had started the violence.
On Tuesday, Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta wrote a letter to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation commissioner asking him to bulldoze the illegal constructions and encroachments of the “rioters” and anti-social elements who had thrown stones at the Hanuman Jayanti processions.
After that, the assistant commissioner of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation sent a letter to the deputy commissioner of police (North West) Delhi, informing him about a “special joint encroachment removal action programme” in Jahangirpuri on Wednesday and Thursday. He asked the commissioner for 400 police personnel to maintain law and order.
How did the matter reach the Supreme Court?
On Monday, as the demolitions were underway, several senior advocates mentioned the matter before the Supreme Court. Lawyers informed the court that the demolitions were illegal and that no notice had been given to those who were being targeted.
Subsequently, Chief Justice NV Ramana passed an order asking to maintain the “status quo” and agreed to hear the matter on Thursday. As per the order, the authorities could not continue with the demolitions until further orders from the court.
Along with this case, the court also agreed to hear a petition filed on Monday challenging similar demolitions of the properties of people accused of crimes in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
Was the delay in stopping demolitions legal?
The order, initially conveyed in court, was shared widely by the media people present in Jahangirpuri.
The petitioner’s lawyer also sent a letter to the city officials informing them about the court’s order and asking them to stop the demolitions. He would communicate the order as soon as it was available, the letter said.
Even then, the demolitions went on for more than an hour.
Lawyers told Scroll.in that the government officials did not follow the spirit of the court’s orders.
“Often in cases relating to bail, the police delays release by asking for a certified copy of the order,” Advocate Shahrukh Alam told Scroll.in. “However, the courts have not looked upon this practice favourably. In today’s case, everyone knew the court’s directions. However, the officials relied on the technicality that there was no signed and certified copy.”
Alam continued: “But nowadays when court summons and orders are sent on text messages and WhatsApp, the officials should have gone by the spirit of the order, especially since they have a constitutional duty of care towards people.”
Advocate Talha Abdul Rahman told Scroll.in that the officials could be liable for contempt of court. “Once an order is passed by the court and information is communicated, anyone can show it to the authorities and ask them to stop the demolition,” said Rahman. “A written order may not always be necessary.”
He added, “A matter such as this, where orders passed in court are widely reported stands very different from private matters where orders are not known publicly. In case the authorities do not follow it, they could be guilty of contempt for deliberately disobeying the orders whose existence is brought to their knowledge. It affects the majesty of court.”
Even the Supreme Court has held that to establish contempt of an order, it is not necessary for an order to be “officially served” as long as it can be proven that the party has notice of the “order aliunde” or from other sources, and knew that it was “intended to be enforced”.
What does the petition before the Supreme Court say?
In several states where the BJP is in power, demolitions have been carried out in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods that have recently experienced communal violence.
Last week, the Madhya Pradesh government demolished 45 buildings in response to communal violence in the state. Some of these houses belonged to Muslims who had been accused of rioting. In Gujarat too, the properties of people accused of rioting were demolished. In March, the Uttar Pradesh government bulldozed parts of a house belonging to two men accused of rape in order to get them to surrender.
While there are no provisions under Indian law to demolish the house of anyone accused of a crime, this link is often made explicity by state authorities. For instance, in the Madhya Pradesh demolitions, the state home minister announced that the houses of those who throw stones would be turned into rubble.
Citing these instances, the Muslim cleric’s body Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind filed a petition before the Supreme Court asking for such demolitions to be stop. The petition said that the destruction of property is not prescribed as punishment for any of the crimes that people have been accused of. Further, these demolitions were being carried out without any notice or trial.
These actions targeted minorities such as Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, the petition stated, and thus violate the fundamental rights of equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution and the right to housing and shelter guaranteed under Article 21.
Further, the petition stated that the government’s actions also violate the constitutional right to property under Article 300A, which says that no one should be deprived of their property “save by authority of law”.