After more than two weeks on the streets, full of protest, tears, close to 50,000 people in Banbhoolpura in Haldwani turned to celebrations and relief on Thursday after the Supreme Court of India stayed a Uttarakhand high court order that ordered the demolition of 4,365 homes which the Railways alleges are illegal encroachments.
This adds a new chapter to a longstanding dispute that revolves around a railway line between Haldwani and Kathgodam, first built in the 1880s by the British to transport timber from the hills to mills in northern plains.
The Railways have claimed in court that 4,365 houses have encroached on its land, and need to be removed for the expansion of the Haldwani railway station. They argued that in 2007, the North Eastern Railways attempted to remove the encroachments, and a demolition exercise was conducted to clear 10 of 29 acres that are part of the Railways land, but fresh encroachments were built in the years after.
The locals of Banbhoolpura have, for decades, argued that they have lived in the area for over a 100 years, and are rightful leaseholders.
History of legal struggle
Government records and multiple court orders seen by HT show that the then British administration acquired land in the Bhawar region of the Uttarakhand hills, named the township Haldwani Khas, and intending to settle residents of the interior hills of Haldwani in the area. In 1859, some parts of the land — it is unclear exactly how much — was acquired to build the railway line between Haldwani and Kothgodam. The construction of the railway line was completed in 1880, when Kathgodam was connected to Bareilly by way of a 66 mile-long Rohilkhand-Kumaon railway line.
The Himalayan Gazetteer records British officer Thomas Gown, giving parcels of land, including railway land, to a wealthy businessman, Dan Singh of Pithoragarh in 1896. Dan Singh then started executing sale deeds of different parts of the land to different people from then on, the documents show.
In 1907, the then British department through an office memorandum gave all the land in Haldwani Khas to the local municipal department as “nazul land”, saying no sale of land or perpetual lease will be allowed. It is this act that is the primary contention of the residents of Banbhoolpura, who claim that they are leaseholders under “nazul” property. In Urdu, “nazul” means land, and parcels are commonly called “jaayajaad munjaapaata” left behind by a principal occupier.
Commenting on this, the Uttarakhand high court in its December 20 order maintained that the conferring of a right of management in accordance with the nazul rules does not itself make the land of Haldwani Khas acquire the status of nazul land. “If the records which are available with the local authorities are scrutinised, in fact, in Haldwani Khas, there happens to be no property, which could be termed as to be a nazul land on which the local body or the commissioner could have at all executed any of the leases, which could be said to be under law or in accordance with law,” the court said.
After the attempts to remove parts of the alleged encroachment in 2007, the issue kept simmering until a PIL was filed by litigant Ravi Shankar Joshi in 2013 in the Uttarakhand high court, arguing that a part of railway land measuring 29 acres around the Haldwani railway station, under the jurisdiction of the North Eastern Railway Zone, has been encroached. The PIL claimed that the encroachment was hampering the extension of railway facilities, including new trains to Haldwani and Kathgodam junctions, “the only destination to the ‘Gateway of Kumaon’.”
Acting on his PIL, in 2016, the HC asked authorities to remove encroachments, but there was little movement on the ground. Joshi then filed another PIL in March 2022, arguing that the court’s orders were not carried out. Responding to this PIL, the Railways told the HC that it had conducted a demarcation of the encroached land and found 4,365 homes to be illegally occupying 78 acres of railway land in the Banbhoolpura area. The demarcation also found that there were four government schools, three public health centres and one community health centre, one temple, five mosques, and two dharamshalas on the “encroached land.”
In May 2022, the court directed the affected people whose houses and other structures were marked as encroached to present ownership documents within two weeks. Seven months later, on December 20,2022, the HC ruled in favour of Mishra, and asked the Railways and district administration to remove the encroachments, giving residents one week to vacate. In its 176-page order, the HC rejected the argument that the contested area is nazul land.
On January 1, the Railways issued notices to residents of the 4,365 homes to remove the encroachments, threatening demolition by January 7. They put out notices in local Hindi newspapers for the evacuation of all “illegal encroachments” from “railway kilometre 82.900 to 80.710”. If not, the notice said, all encroachments will be demolished, and the cost recovered from the encroachers.
Locals from Banbhoolpura then approached the Supreme Court on January 2, with the appeal heard on Thursday, and put a a stay on demolition, while also halting any new construction.
Rajendra Singh, public relations officer of North Eastern Railways in Bareilly, maintained that the 4,365 homes on Railway land were “encroachers.” “We acted as per the court’s order,” Singh said. Officials of the Railways said that, in May 2022, the district administration of Nainital had even framed a strategy to remove the encroachments and sought ₹23 crore from them to this end.
If the Supreme Court had not stayed the demolition on Thursday, senior government officials said that they had planned to deploy 4,000 policemen including five companies of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) what would have been the biggest demolition exercise in the state’s 22-year history. “We have divided the entire area into 36 zones and demolition would have happened zone wise. It could have become a law and order issue,” said a senior Uttarakhand police officer.
What the protesters say
Sumit Hridayesh, Congress MLA from Haldwani, who has been at the forefront of protests, alleged things came to this pass because of the “lackadaisical attitude of the Uttarakhand government”. “The state government did not represent the affected people version in court and let the Railways dominate the proceedings. The Railways seems to keep emerging with imaginary surveys, which says 79 acres of land have been encroached against a 2016 affidavit submitted in the HC which mentioned 29 acres,” he said.
Sharafat Khan said that it was the lack of support from the state government that led him and 10 others to approach the Supreme Court. “I, along with 10 other affected people, approached the SC because the state didn’t argue well on their behalf in the HC.”
Meanwhile, in Banbhoolpura, in the run up to Thursday, the fear of losing homes loomed large. The protests began in mid-December — on some days, there were candle-light marches; on others “only women” protests. There were children praying to the SC, and banners saying that they were being targeted because the majority of those that live in the area are Muslims. “It was a question of our survival. If our homes would have been demolished, where would we have gone? The government has provided us with no help. We would have been left homeless,” a resident named Raja said.
There was even a crowd-funding campaign to collect funds for the legal battle. “Everyone gave whatever they can. Local political leaders also helped,” said Aman Aseem, who coordinated with the lawyers and residents.
Through Thursday morning, thousands of residents spent their time nervously in front of TV sets, praying for a stay. One of them, Abdul Waaris, said: “In lane number 17 of Banbhoolpura, children, women, elderly, all have just prayed from early in the morning. This is the beginning of our success.” Mohammad Akram, Imam at Namra Masjid, said that residents must now prepare for another long legal battle ahead. “A panel will be constituted for a better representation in the Supreme Court which will include people of all religions. We have got support from every community. We will ensure justice is served by the apex court,” Akram said.
Through the last two weeks of protests, residents said that they were grateful for support from opposition parties, with representatives of the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) urging the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government to stop the demolition on humanitarian grounds. On Monday, former chief minister and senior Congress leader Harish Rawat staged an hour-long silent protest at his Dehradun home to “support people who are facing eviction from their houses in the name of removal of encroachments”.
On Wednesday, an SP delegation visited the area and said it would submit a report to the government on the matter. “The eviction is a conspiracy to make over 50,000 people from the minority community homeless,” said Naresh Uttam Patel, president of SP’s Uttar Pradesh unit.
AIMIM president and MP Asaduddin Owaisi said, “In Delhi, the Modi government regularised illegal colonies just before the elections. How can it be encroachment when there are government schools, and inter-colleges in the area?” The ruling BJP, on the other hand, has reiterated that the government and authorities are “bound to abide by the court’s order”. Suresh Joshi, the state BJP spokesperson, said: “When the Congress was in power, they didn’t take action on time and let the matter reach the court. The matter is subjudice in the Supreme Court, and should not be politicised. If there was something wrong with what was happening, why didn’t they come up with a resolution when they ran the government?”