Nuh demolitions: Bulldozer might is right

Even court directions were ignored in the frenzy to raze ‘unauthorised construction’ in Haryana's Nuh. On whose orders?

Shop owners in Haryana's Nuh show their documents shortly after their properties were razed by the administration for allegedly being 'illegal constructions', 5 August 2023 (Photo courtesy: Sushil Kumar Verma/ Frontline
Shop owners in Haryana's Nuh show their documents shortly after their properties were razed by the administration for allegedly being 'illegal constructions', 5 August 2023 (Photo courtesy: Sushil Kumar Verma/ Frontline

Sukriti Vats & Priyansha Chouhan

On the evening of 4 August, district authorities of Nuh in Haryana demolished 18 shops built on Mohammad Sahud’s ancestral land, which he and his brothers claim they inherited in 1998. There were 14 permanent structures, including pharmacies, diagnostic centres and grocery shops spread across a 4,400 square foot area.

Sahud is one of many Nuh residents who, despite holding lawful claims to their properties and establishments, had to bear the brunt of the State’s arbitrary action following the communal violence that erupted in Nuh on 31 July. The five-day demolition drive, which began on 3 August, spread to the Nalhar, Firozpur Jhirka and Nagina areas of Nuh. A few cases of demolition were reported from Pinangwan and Tauru too.

According to a fact-finding report by the Socio-Legal Information Centre, a non-profit legal aid and educational organisation, demolitions were carried out in approximately 11 villages and tehsils.

The municipal council had served notices (including show-cause notices) in different areas for unauthorised permanent structures. The state government maintains that the drive was against unauthorised construction. However, a thorough examination of relevant documents reveals that many of the demolitions were in violation of due procedures and even court orders.

On 19 July 2022, Sahud had filed an application in a district court for an interim injunction against an order issued by the sub-divisional officer (SDO) about encroachment on government land. Taking note of the revenue records, the court in its judgement on 7 October had stated that the ‘settled possession’ of Sahud should not be disturbed ‘till further orders’.

“I tried showing them [district officials] the court orders and the revised revenue records, but they refused to see them. I was told that they had got instructions from above to clear the area. Those shops were the only source of livelihood for us,” said Sahud.

The demolition of Sahud’s properties violates the district court’s mandate, which is binding on all parties, including the government, unless it is set aside by itself or a higher court, said Anjali Sheoran, an advocate practising in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

The demolition drive was halted only after the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu cognisance of it—terming it ‘ethnic cleansing’—and observed that “buildings belonging to a particular community were being brought down under the guise of a law and order problem”.

In response, the Haryana government, represented by Nishant Kumar Yadav, deputy commissioner, Gurugram, and Dhirendra Khadgata, deputy commissioner, Nuh, replied in their affidavits on August 18 that it was a routine measure taken by ‘independent local authorities against the unauthorised occupiers or illegal structures and that too after following the due procedure of law’.

The affidavits mention the dates of the notices served, which range from 2016 to as recent as 15 days ago—and say that the demolitions were carried out in coordination with ‘five departments/public authorities/ULBs (urban local bodies)’. Critics question the timing and the urgency of the drive.

Jawahar Yadav, officer on special duty (OSD) to chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, along with officials from the Haryana Shahari Vikas Pradhikaran (HSVP), the town and country planning department, the police, the forest department and local panchayats were all involved in identifying the properties that were demolished, according to the fact-finding report by the Socio-Legal Information Centre.

According to the affidavits, 443 structures were demolished, of which 162 were permanent and the remaining 281 temporary structures. However, the fact-finding report says that as many as 1,208 structures at 37 sites, spanning 72.1 acres, were razed.

A ground survey by Miles2Smile Foundation, a non-profit organisation working for the victims of violence, disasters and deprivation, puts the number of demolitions at 1,200. In many cases, proper notices were not served before the demolitions.

The government rebuffed the claim that the demolitions were targeted at a particular community and that they were illegal. “The demolition drive is not illegal,” said Dushyant Chautala, the deputy chief minister of Haryana in an interview to Frontline on 13 August.

“I don’t understand why we want to connect the demolition of encroachments with the violence in Nuh. But yes, if someone says that they were not given prior notice, we will file an official written response in the High Court.”

Chautala also said that, as in other states, the town and country planning department in Haryana was trying to prevent the spread of illegal activities.

Lawful ownership, arbitrary action in Nalhar

The demolitions—which did target properties belonging to the Muslim community—resembled the bulldozer justice approach witnessed in BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

A significant number of the demolitions occurred in Nalhar’s Shiv temple area, from where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s rally—which led to the outbreak of communal violence—began.

Tahir Hussain Ruparya, a Nuh-based lawyer, has filed an application in the high court on behalf of the 100-odd families affected by the demolition drive. He claims most cases with documents to prove lawful ownership of their land were from Nalhar, a market area that has sprung up around the Shaheed Hasan Khan Mewati Government Medical College (SHKM).

The 2.6 acre area has over 40 shops, diagnostic centres, fast-food joints and pharmacies, including those owned by Sahud and his brothers. “Though we have had the land since 1998, we didn’t construct shops till 2012, when the SHKM college started functioning.

If these shops were illegal, then why didn’t they just demolish it at the time they were set up? Why wait to raze them now and so suddenly?” asked Abdul Rashid, Sahud’s brother.

He has in his possession a letter from a patwari in Nalhar, which states that the land owned by him was “not pahad”, meaning not part of the Aravalli Hills.

Another family of four brothers, represented by Ruparya, owned 24 shops in the area and almost all were rented out, except two that they operated themselves spread over an area of 3,000 square foot , as claimed by Mohammad Arif, one of the brothers.

“Our shops were pharmacies, [diagnostic] labs, money exchange, book shops and a small restaurant. We were not even directly involved in running most of the shops,” said Arif, “After the incident, we were so scared that we had to move out of Nuh because we didn’t know what else the authorities could do to us.” Arif said they used to earn an average of Rs 4,400 a day, which is all gone now.

Similarly, Mohammad Shareef had six shops in his name and Saleem had one. Saleem said he paid over Rs 2.6 lakh to buy the shop in 2018. Both their properties were demolished without any notice or warning. The government’s affidavits say that the establishment measuring about 300 square foot, owned by Saleem, was an ‘unauthorised permanent structure’.

According to the affidavit, Sahara Hotel, a two-storey building owned by Mohammad Akil and constructed in 2010 in Nuh tehsil, was also an ‘unauthorised permanent structure’. Akil was served notices on 27 October 2016, 16 February 2017 and 21 March 2017.

According to the Haryana Development and Regulation of Urban Areas Act, 1975, and the Punjab Scheduled Roads and Controlled Areas Restriction of Unregulated Development Act, 1963, an opportunity for a hearing ought to be provided.

If the adjudicating authority makes a finding against a person, he or she is given an opportunity to take necessary steps before punitive action (which may or may not include demolition) is taken. As is evident, this mandatory procedure was not followed in most cases.

A few shops ahead of Akil’s hotel is a three-storey, 881 square foot Kajaria Tiles showroom. Part of this showroom too was demolished on the charge of ‘encroachment’. Its owner, Mubin Khan, a Delhi resident, said, “No notices were given before or any reason for such an action. I could not even go back and survey the loss since there was a curfew in the region.”

The land was bought in 2019 in the name of Mubin Khan’s wife Arfina. Sheoran said the title deeds were testament to the fact that the government had gone ahead with the demolition drive without even checking the papers.

Akbari Begum (58) was allotted land  in Nagina under a govt scheme. Yet her house was demolished
Akbari Begum (58) was allotted land in Nagina under a govt scheme. Yet her house was demolished

“Even the high court noticed this and asked for proof of the ways by which they carried out these actions. A proper channel would have required them to send advance notices and give the possessor of the land enough time to show his documents,” she said.

In Firozpur Jhirka tehsil, advocate Mohammad Yusuf, representing nearly 70 demolition cases, said there was a considerable number of cases with legitimate claims of ownership.

In one case in Nagina, the land was allotted to Akbari Begum in 2011 under the Priyadarshini Awaas Yojna, the government’s housing scheme that offers funds for the construction of a house for those below the poverty line. Akbari’s one-room house built nearly 10 years ago was demolished on the grounds that it had encroached on panchayat land.

“The house was given to us by the sarpanch at that time. There had been no issues with the land. We are a family of 12 people and after what happened during the demolition, we were left homeless. Now we are living on rent in the neighbourhood,” said her son Mohammad Shad.

Despite allotment under the scheme, Akbari was not given title deeds to the land. In 2017, the sarpanch wrote a letter to the sub-divisional magistrate, but to no avail. In 2017, Akbari was served with a notice claiming she had built on encroached land with government funds. That was the only notice she got before the demolition this month.

Sidestepping due process

Azad and Aas Mohammad, brothers who have been living in their pucca houses since 1996, had to shift to a house owned by the latter’s son after their properties were demolished on August 3. A notice issued by the forest department stated: ‘illegal encroachment for converting the land protected under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, for “non-forest uses”’.

“We used to get electricity and water bills. There was never an objection regarding papers to show land ownership,” said Aas, 55. He said that he did not even get five minutes to get their things outside, all of which were destroyed along with the house.

On the basis of the forest department’s statement of illegal encroachment, 12 more residential properties in Nalhar, adjoining the Aravalli range, were demolished. Both Azad and Aas claimed that backdated notices were pasted on their houses on the day of demolition. Similar allegations were reported from other areas where residents contended that they were either not served proper notices on time or were not served at all.

Nuh deputy commissioner Dhirendra Khadgata said, “The matter is in court. Being subjudice, I can’t comment.”

Frontline also reached out to the town and country planning department, Haryana Shahari Vikas Pradhikaran, the Haryana forest department, Nuh’s district administration and the police. No response has been received so far.

Legal experts say that even if the properties were encroachments or illegal constructions, established guidelines should have been followed during the demolition process. Last year, the high court had observed in Krishna Nagar Gram Vikas Samiti vs. Union of India that evicting people without first framing a proper scheme of rehabilitation was not just and proper.

In the 1985 landmark judgement of Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation, the Supreme Court had held that the forced eviction of pavement dwellers without providing a reasonable opportunity of hearing was unconstitutional.

Even as questions surrounding due process and fairness persist, entire families—such as Sahud’s—are left homeless or without income, grappling with the devastating aftermath of the demolitions.

(Sukriti Vats is a writing fellow and Priyansha Chouhan a legal research fellow at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers. This article first appeared in Frontline on 25 August)

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