“This is where I was born, that is the school I studied in,” said 80-year-old Mohammad Aslam, looking out at the Banbhoolpura government school just across the road from his home in the Uttarakhand town of Haldwani. Till a Supreme Court breather on Thursday, Aslam had fretted about answering his grandchildren’s question: “If our home is demolished, where will we go?”
He worried about being turned out of his home in the bitter winter, with the “use of force”, if needed, as the Uttarakhand High Court had ordered on December 20.
The High Court had ordered the eviction in response to a public interest litigation claiming that Banbhoolpura, a predominantly Muslim section of Haldwani, had come up illegally on railway land. Many residents, who say they have lived in this settlement for decades, had moved the Supreme Court to contest the decision.
On January 5, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court order, arguing that 50,000 people – Aslam and his family among them – could not be displaced in a week. “This is a huge relief for us,” said Faizan Mikrani, a 26-year-old resident, whose home had been marked out for demolition. “We could not sleep well in the last 10 days, but our struggle and protests have worked. We had faith in the Supreme Court. We knew it won’t let us down.”
Situated near the Haldwani railway station, Banbhoolpura is a dense jumble of buildings – shops and homes, several mosques and a temple – its roads narrow and lanes narrower. To make their case, residents point to the government presence in the area: three government schools, a public health centre, a water tank.
“If this is railway land, then why did they allow us to build a house here?” said Shiv Charan Sahu, a 70-year-old shopkeeper, who said he had settled in this area in 1971. Though most of the residents are Muslim, a few Hindus live here too.
“There is a government school behind my house which proves this is government land,” said Sahu, who said he was a Bharatiya Janata Party voter. “We pay electricity, water and housing tax.”
The document trail
On Thursday, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Abhay Oka observed that there was a humanitarian aspect to the dispute.
“What is troubling us is how do you deal with the scenario of people who have purchased the land in auction,” Justice Kaul said. “Other is [that] people have lived there for 50-60 years, some rehabilitation scheme has to be done, even assuming it is railway land.”
In Haldwani, many residents showed property documents and other official papers to emphasise the legal status of their homes.
“For seven decades, we have lived peacefully here,” said 80-year-old Gaus Raza Khan. He said that his grandfather had arrived in Haldwani from Afghanistan in 1935. He showed a lease document dated 1937, which he cited as proof that the government had leased “nazul land” to his grandfather to build their home.
Nazul land is a type of property whose ownership has reverted to the state (in instances such as an owner dying without any legal heirs), which it can then lease out.
“We say this land is nazul property and belongs to the local municipal council,” said Mohammad Yousuf, an advocate who represented Banbhoolpura families in the lower courts. “A number of families have legal documents to prove they own freehold property and leases.”
The Uttarakhand High Court, however, in its December 20 ruling held as invalid a 1907 document on the basis of which the residents had claimed Banbhoolpura was nazul land.
Waris Shah, a 60-year-old resident of Banbhoolpura, said his house belonged to a Muslim family that had moved to Pakistan at the time of Partition. “My house is built on evacuee property,” he said. “It belonged to a Hindu family, which bought it in an auction in 1956 under the Displaced Persons (Compensation and Rehabilitation) Act, 1954. I have documents to show it.”
More recent residents, too, say they have not broken any law to build homes. Husn Bano lives in a small, two-room brick structure near the railway track. “Our home is not illegal,” said the 59-year-old. “We constructed it with the money that Modiji gave us.”
The home was constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna in 2015, she said. On April 15, 2015, the municipal council transferred Rs 77,500 to her Baroda Bank account for the construction of the building, according to an entry in her passbook.
“The municipal council took tax from us but now they are saying they have nothing to do with this,” she said.
How it started
The dispute over the area began in 2007, when the High Court Bar Association of Nainital filed a public interest litigation demanding a direct train between Nainital and Allahabad. When the railways said that it does not have sufficient land to lay new tracks, the High Court ordered the demolition of a few structures near the existing line. Some homes close to the tracks in Banbhoolpura were razed.
In 2013, social activist Ravi Shankar Joshi filed a public interest litigation alleging that a bridge over the Gaula river, on the other side of the railway station, had collapsed because of sand mining. He demanded action against those involved in illegal mining but did not seek eviction of the inhabitants of the locality.
In November 2016, however, the High Court, while disposing of the petition, directed the railways to carry out a survey and issue notices to families who had encroached on areas close to the railway tracks under the Public Premises Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants Act, 1971. Lawyers representing the residents say they were not given a hearing at the time.
The Congress government of the time filed a review petition in the Uttarakhand High Court, which was dismissed in January 2017. Five years later, in its most recent order, the High Court remarked that the state government had filed the review petition because it was providing a “reckoning political shield…for its political gains from the illegal occupants”.
In January 2017, the matter reached the Supreme Court, which asked for status quo to be maintained. It also allowed residents to approach the division bench of the High Court within a month to contest the eviction notices. The division bench directed the railways to issue notices to those allegedly occupying railway land in Banbhoolpura.
“The notices were issued but they declared our occupation as unauthorised ex-parte, during the Covid-19 lockdown, without hearing our side,” said Mohammad Faizan, a local activist.
Between 2013 and 2021, two surveys were conducted and reports were filed to map the disputed land. “According to submissions made by the railways in 2007, they had claimed just 29 acres of land near the tracks,” said Yousuf, the advocate. “That stayed consistent in the case filed in 2013. But in 2020, they claimed 78.5 acres, without any proof and source for their claim.”
Residents and lawyers representing the families questioned the role of the current state government has played in court. While the Congress government had disputed the claim of the railways in 2016, the BJP government did not back the residents’ claim in court, pointed out Ovais Raja, a social activist from Banbhoolpura.
Yousuf alleged that while the largely Muslim locality of Banphoolpora was served eviction orders, other illegal settlements around railway tracks such as Sheeshmahal, Rajpura, Gaujajali Uttar and Awaas Vikas Colony have not been penalised. “This is discriminatory,” Yousuf said. “The people of this area are being targeted on account of their religious identity.”
The local administration denied any role. “We have got nothing to do with this,” said Jagdish Tiwari, the public relations officer for the municipal commissioner. “It is a matter of law and order.” The sub-divisional magistrate of Haldwani did not respond to Scroll.in’s requests for an interview.
Appeals from local leaders to the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami to intervene in the crisis had not made a difference. “Our chief minister has not uttered a word for us,” said Waris Shah. However, all parties in the state, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, have welcomed the Supreme Court stay, The Indian Express reported.
The Uttarakhand government has also been silent about the matter of rehabilitating residents. The Supreme Court, however, has issued notices to both the state government and the railways.
“The court has asked them to come up with a solution to the problem,” said Kawalpreet Kaur, who is part of the legal team representing the Banbhoolpura residents in Supreme Court. “Our first case is that this is not railway land. But even if the railways is able to show some documents, rehabilitation has to follow,” she said.
The next hearing is scheduled for February 7.