New Delhi: As a JCB excavator retreated from the capital’s Shaheen Bagh area Monday, Mohammed Rao Iqrar held aloft the Indian Tricolour and exhorted people to join him in a march for ‘peace’. But many residents here say that if anyone has disrupted peace and harmony, it is the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, which targeted the Muslim-dominated locality in an ‘anti-encroachment drive’.
When a ‘JCB’ rolled into the main market area, a swell of residents came out on the streets of Shaheen Bagh — which had become a household name for a major protest by women against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019-20 — and seemed ready to resist.
However, while the atmosphere was tense and occasional scuffles broke out between security personnel and residents, Monday’s demolition exercise was relatively muted, largely because many people defused the situation by voluntarily taking down their makeshift kiosks and stalls.
“They sent bulldozers to bring down our homes and shops, but now they have left without anything, so we are thankful. Peace should be restored,” Iqrar, a carpenter who has lived here since 1996, said. The Tricolour in his hands, he explained, was his way of expressing this sentiment.
Speaking to ThePrint, BJP councillor and SDMC Central Zone chairman Rajpal Singh said that he was “happy” that people had removed illegal structures themselves. “Our demolition drive for Monday is over. The use of bulldozers was minimal today,” he said.
After the demolition drive in Northwest Delhi’s riot-hit Jahangirpuri last month, the capital has reportedly seen bulldozer action against ‘encroachments’ in other areas too, including Kalyanpuri and Tughlakabad.
There is more to come, Singh confirmed. “We have an anti-encroachment drive programme of 15 days. A list has been prepared. The next is New Friends Colony,” he said.
‘They wanted it to be a law-and-order situation’
Many residents of Shaheen Bagh allege that the ongoing demolition drives by Delhi’s BJP-controlled civic agencies are largely targeted at Muslims.
Amanatullah Khan, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA from Okhla, also expressed this view when he arrived at Shaheen Bagh Monday.
“There are no illegal structures here. Everything is legal. Whatever tiny shops were there, people removed them themselves. They have just got the bulldozer here to showcase their strength, nothing else,” Khan claimed.
Other residents told ThePrint they had been “warned” about the upcoming demolition and so took pre-emptive action to minimise damage and prevent disorder.
“Our MLA warned us, so since the day of Eid, people started removing whatever temporary kiosks and shops were set up, to avoid damage to their goods. This is a market area… tell us one market place where people don’t shop on the footpath,” Mohammed Salman, a local resident, said. “They came here to do nothing.”
Mohammed Shaukat, who walked with Iqrar as he held the Tricolour, said he believed the tension being defused may have disappointed some.
“It has become a joke now. [Politicians] wanted it to be a law-and-order situation but we already knew they were going to come,” Shaukat said.
“Look at the bulldozer leaving!” he added, pointing at a retreating vehicle.
The said ‘bulldozer’ returned a while later to remove scaffolding on a building, but Shaheen Bagh residents insisted they would do the job themselves. Soon, 15-20 people climbed the scaffolding and took it down in full public view.
Ashad Haider, who rents the building and an apparel shop called Front Row, said the scaffolding was not ‘illegal’ to begin with.
“This wasn’t any illegal construction. The advertisement branding board had got loose due to wind, so pipes were set up to fix it. We have removed it ourselves now,” Haider said.
Overall, there seems to be a sense of satisfaction among residents that they lawfully took matters into their own hands.
“This is all drama — they want to target Muslims, that’s all. See what they did in Jahangirpuri. Here, they failed. Here, even if a needle moves, we come to know,” claimed Malka Tasleem, who has been living in the locality for nearly three decades.
“We already knew they were coming, unlike in Jahangirpuri where the residents were taken by surprise. They forget this is the place of one of largest protests,” she added.
‘Where are the illegal Rohingyas and Bangladeshis?’
Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta had Saturday asked the national capital’s residents to alert authorities about “Rohingyas and Bangladeshis living illegally” in their locality.
“Bulldozer action should be taken wherever these people have captured our lands illegally,” Gupta had said. “No nationalist, deshbhakt (patriot), or any person belonging to any religion will be harmed, but we should not let outsiders live in our country. If we have to use bulldozers, we will.”
Last month, too, Gupta had urged the mayors of BJP-controlled South and East municipal corporations to identify and demolish “illegal encroachments” by “Bangladeshi, Rohingyas, and anti-social elements”.
Shaheen Bagh residents, however, alleged that their locality’s targeting indicates that it is not just Bangladeshis and Rohingyas that are being targeted.
“This is just blatant misuse of power. The BJP has ruled Delhi [municipal corporation] for 15 years, and they have realised just now that Shaheen Bagh has illegal encroachments? Where are the illegal Rohingyas and Bangladeshis?” Fatima, who has lived here for 13 years, said.
Anita Mondal, another local resident who runs a vegetable shop, said the demolition drives were affecting poor people.
“Covid crippled the poor. Now the government wants to take away our livelihood,” she alleged.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Monday refused to hear a plea by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) against the demolitions carried out by SDMC, asking it to approach the high court instead.
The Jahangirpuri demolition drive, after communal clashes broke out, was stopped mid-way after the top court had ordered a status quo.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)