India top court stays demolition of over 4,000 homes in Haldwani

India’s Supreme Court has put on hold the demolition of more than 4,000 homes that were allegedly encroaching on land belonging to the railways in Haldwani town in Uttarakhand.

“There cannot be uprooting of 50,000 people overnight. There has to be segregation of people who have no right on the land and the need to rehabilitation while recognising the need of the railways,” the top court said in its order on Thursday.

On December 20, an order passed by the high court of the northern state declared 4,365 houses adjacent to the railway line in Haldwani’s Banbhulpura colony “illegal” and therefore to be demolished.

The Supreme Court has sought replies from the Indian Railways and the Uttarakhand government and will next hear the matter on February 7.

The top court’s ruling comes as a relief to about 50,000 people – most of them Muslims – in the Himalayan town, situated about 300km (186 miles) from the federal capital New Delhi.

Braving the biting cold, hundreds of women had been holding a sit-in in Banbhulpura against the eviction drive for more than a week. Residents say they have been living in the neighbourhood for decades and had the government documents to prove ownership.

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A train passing through the Banbhulpura neighbourhood in Haldwani [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Mohammad Siraj Khan, who runs a business making steel cabinets, showed his documents, which go back to 1940 when his ancestors first settled in the area. “I have all the original documents. Why should I move away from here?” the 30-year-old asked Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

Ashfaq Hussain, an autorickshaw driver, moved to Haldwani from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state 20 years ago after selling his ancestral property.

“If the said demolition happens, I will be left with nothing. Though I have valid papers of my land, I cannot fight with the administration,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Either leave our houses or kill us too. I want them to bury me under the wreckage of my house, but I will not leave,” he added.

Besides demolishing residences, the planned “anti-encroachment” drive included nearly 15 schools – five of them run by the government – mosques, shops and health clinics. A government primary school in the colony is reported to be more than 100 years old.

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Women raise hands in prayer at a protest site in Banbhulpura [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Residents said the planned demolition drive was a “targeted attack” on Muslims in the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled (BJP) state.

“Take our lands if you are acquiring from Kathgodam to Lal Kuan but those areas are not on the demolition list,” Hussain said, referring to other neighbourhoods along the railway tracks.

Several legal experts had questioned the high court’s “arbitrary” order to demolish the homes.

Rashmi Singh, a Supreme Court advocate, said the order did not mention a provision for the rehabilitation of the displaced when the law clearly specifies compensation or rehabilitation, or both. She said the order contradicts the Public Premises Eviction Of Unauthorised Occupants Act of 1971.

“Appeals of more than 1000 residents of Banbhulpura were pending before the district magistrate. The court by passing the eviction order has rendered all of that infructuous. You have short-circuited the entire mechanism of remedies available to these people and curtailed their rights provided to them under a proper statute,” she told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

“Instead of addressing the injustice being perpetrated against these people and preserving the fundamental right to shelter guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian constitution, the high court has added to the injustice,” she added.

Banbhulpura also has a small number of Dalits, the former “untouchables” who have been marginalised for centuries and fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy. More than 100 homes in the colony belong to them.

Veervati, who goes by one name, is a 70-year-old Dalit woman who works as household help. She said her in-laws had been living in Banbhulpura for more than a century. Her family, which includes her disabled son, has nowhere to go if their home is demolished.

“Since we heard about the demolition, we are unable to eat anything or go to work,” she told Al Jazeera.

In Uttarakhand, some BJP leaders have been pushing the so-called “land jihad” theory – an alleged conspiracy theory by Hindu groups that claim Muslims are illegally occupying Hindu lands in a bid to change the demography of an area.

Several political and religious leaders in the state had demanded laws to curb the alleged practice.

In August last year, a local BJP politician wrote to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami demanding the formation of an expert committee to study the various aspects of “land jihad”. A month later, Dhami’s government ordered state officials to track “illegal land deals”.

Aquilur Rahman and Vipul Kumar contributed to this report from Haldwani, Uttarakhand, India.