It took Alim Sheikh five months to pull together the money to finance the reconstruction of his five-storey building after it was demolished by government bulldozers on April 11. The demolition of his hotel and restaurant had come a day after his hometown witnessed a burst of violence on Ram Navami.
“This is the only source of our livelihood,” said the 42-year-old businessman from Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone town. “We have had to take loans amounting to Rs 20 lakh to restart our lives.”
But getting together the funds to rebuild the business has been only one part of Sheikh’s challenges: obtaining municipal building permissions was just as difficult.
Sheikh was among the 49 Muslim residents of Khargone whose homes and businesses were bulldozed that day, ostensibly because they were illegal. Many of them told Scroll.in that municipal clearances for reconstruction have been ensnared in red tape. They alleged that there was a simple reason for this: because they have filed legal cases against officials who carried out the demolitions.
“When we had gone to get permissions, they told us that the petition we had registered against them… we should take back,” said Abdul Sheikh’s cousin, 36-year-old Shahid Sheikh, about his visit to Khargone’s chief municipal officer. “ If we did that, she would give us all the permissions that were needed.”
Alim Sheikh said that his family has suffered enormously since April 11, the day after a procession to celebrate Ram Navami, the birthday of Ram, made its way through Khargone.
The procession, which included hundreds of young men dancing to loud music and waving saffron flags, stopped in front of a mosque. Each community claims that it was the other that began to throw stones. At least 24 people were injured in the ensuing violence.
The next morning, Home Minister Narottam Mishra told the press that the homes of stone pelters would be razed. All the structures demolished on April 11 belonged to Muslims. Among them was Sheikh’s Lazize Hotel, which he said was more than 50 years old and has been in the family for three generations.
On April 16, Sheikh moved a petition in the Supreme Court against the demolitions of his business, which, he said, was carried out without serving up notice or giving him a chance to appeal.
Since mid-April, the Association of Protection of Civil Rights has assisted in the filing of three petitions in the Supreme Court and 36 more before the Indore Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court against these demolitions. The petitioners have asked for a judicial inquiry against Khargone collector, the inspector general of police and the chief municipal officer “for taking arbitrary action without proper investigation”. They also want the petitioners to be compensated for their losses, for their properties to be rebuilt and for officials who carried out the demolition to be punished.
The petitions state that the action of the administration was “against the principle of natural justice and humanitarian ground of law”. They argue that Home Minister Mishra’s comments caused state officials to act in a biased manner against Muslims, giving the authorities “extra-judicial powers” to demolish their properties.
While the court is still issuing notices to the officials concerned to respond to the allegations, Sheikh and several other petitioners alleged that they were being harassed for acting against the Madhya Pradesh administration.
Significantly, none of these petitioners have been named in any of the first information reports registered to investigate the riots. This, say lawyers, means that the police did not have evidence of their involvement in the Ram Navami violence.
With his business destroyed, Abdul Sheikh defaulted on a bank loan repayment. After three months of waiting, he was finally able to get the permissions, but only after he agreed to make a compromise.
“We asked them what rules we were flouting,” he said. “Based on their objections to our establishment jutting into the road, which was against building rules, we agreed that we would reconstruct the building 10 feet-12 feet away from the main road.”
Sheikh added that his was the only establishment on the Hindu-dominated Khandwa Road that was made to follow this rule. “Everyone else’s establishments are continuing to jut into the road,” he said.
Despite this, the cousins were clear that they would not withdraw their case. “We did not mind the losses, but we told them not to pressurise us,” Abdul Sheikh said. “Taking our case back is not an option.”
He said it would take two months for the building to be reconstructed.
Scroll.in attempted to get responses to these allegations from the Khargone chief municipal officer and collector but our phone calls and WhatsApp messages received no response. Khargone sub-divisional magistrate Milind Dhoke said that anyone has the right to move court against any government official, adding that “no one would be told to not seek the remedy they want”.
Like Abdul Sheikh, Khargone business Shakeel Khan is also in debt. “I have a debt of Rs 4 lakh now,” he said.
The two eateries he owned were demolished on April 11 for being “run without required permissions”.
“Ever since I have tried to get them up and running but they keep denying me permissions,” Khan told Scroll.in. “I believe they do not like that I moved court against them.” He said that he filed his petition in the Indore bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court on April 16, but that the case had not yet resulted in anything concrete.
“It is in the initial stages,” he said.
Khan said that his woeful economic situation has led him to open a makeshift restaurant in the area where his shops once stood. “I also live in the continuous fear of this being taken away from me,” he said.
He currently employs only four or five people, compared to the 20 who worked for him earlier – 18 of whom were Hindu. “Now they keep calling me and asking me if they can return for work,” he said,
Khan alleged he has not got the building permissions because his legal challenge involves the same officials from whom he needs permissions. The petition filed in the Indore High Court is by the name of his brother, Ateeq Ali.
“See, all I will say is that they do not like that we went to court against them,” Khan said. “In the hearing the court has issued notice to these officials. They have to respond, they do not like that.”
‘Paying price by losing all my bakeries’
Amjad Khan, another petitioner whose property was demolished on April 11, also alleges that he is being harassed by the officials.
One unit of his bakery was demolished that day even though he showed officials all the documents, he said. He believed that his was a case of mistaken identity and that the officials had actually intended to target someone else with the same name. However, over time, Khan claims he has come to be targeted specifically.
On September 2, he had an argument with the officials who had come to inspect the bakery to see if compliances were consistent with the pollution board rules as well as if the premises were clean. The altercation resulted in a first information report being registered against him at the Kotwali police station. The FIR listed sections of the Indian Penal Code that relate to using obscene language and deterring a public servant from discharging his duty.
On September 7, two other bakeries that he owned were demolished. “In the days leading up to the demolition, I was told by officials that if I took my case [petition] back they would give me all the permissions needed,” he said.
He alleged that a person he did not want to identify told him, “You give in writing that you made a mistake in registering your petition, we will submit it in court and the petition will be dismissed.”
Khargone sub-divisional magistrate Milind Dhoke said Khan’s allegations were baseless. “Not only did he lack building permissions, but he also did not get approvals from the pollution board,” he said.
Said Khan, “They are trying to break me financially.” Despite this, he declared that he will not give up his battle. “I have moved court against them again,” he said.
As the petitioners struggle to rebuild their lives, Muslim residents of Khargone fear that anyone who speaks against the state officials will be a target.
On August 15, activist Zaid Pathan was booked under National Security Act cor disturbing communal harmony, inciting religious sentiments and posting objectionable posts on social media. He has been in jail ever since. Another local activist, Farooq Khan, told Scroll.in that Pathan was playing an important role in ensuring legal aid to the victims of the violence.
“They are trying to scuttle voices speaking against the officials,” Khan said.
Advocate Ashhar Warsi, who is representing several petitioners who have filed pleas against demolitions, said that replies from state officials are now being received in these cases. “The response we have got till now is evasive,” he said. “Let’s see.”
He added that while his clients were approaching the authorities as law-abiding citizens, to rebuild their lives, they were being harassed by being denied permissions. “Even if they are starting their businesses, they are facing some threat or the other from the officials constantly,” Warsi added.