New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday directed all individuals whose property was razed during the demolition drive in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri the previous day to file affidavits affirming that no notices were issued to them by the municipal authority prior to the action.
It issued the directions after both the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (North MCD) and Delhi Police sought to defend the coercive action taken on 20 April against “unauthorised” structures in the Northwest Delhi locality.
A bench of Justices L.N. Rao and B.R. Gavai was hearing a clutch of petitions on the demolition drive, conducted by the North MCD in Jahangirpuri just four days after a communal flare-up during a Hanuman Jayanti procession in the area led to stone-pelting and use of firearms, leaving at least nine people injured. The petitioners have contended that the civic body’s move was “unauthorised” and “unconstitutional”.
Among the petitions was one argued by senior advocate Dushyant Dave, which was specific to Jahangirpuri. Another was by the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, a Delhi-based organisation of Islamic scholars, which was represented by senior advocate Kapil Sibal.
Although the bench said it will take a “serious view” of the Jahangirpuri demolition, which continued despite the apex court’s direction for status quo, it declined to issue the general direction sought to put on hold any demolition drives being carried out across the country in areas that have recently seen communal clashes, including Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone.
A bench led by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana had Wednesday ordered status quo when the petitions were mentioned before it for urgent hearing.
After the brief hearing Thursday, Justices Rao and Gavai directed that the day-old status quo order would continue until further orders. They said a detailed hearing would be held two weeks later, and, by then, pleadings in the matter should be over, which means that the affected parties have to file their affidavits and the North MCD must file its response to them.
‘Not the first day of demolition’
During the hearing, the North MCD and Delhi Police claimed that Wednesday was not the first day when bulldozers were sent to Jahangirpuri.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that the drive to remove “what was lying on the footpath and public roads that were encroaching” commenced on 19 January. Other drives took place on 2 February, 17 February and 11 April, he further told the court.
The drive was to continue on 19 April, but happened the next day. This was the fifth day of “removing” what was “necessary to clear the roads”, Mehta told the bench.
The petitioners, meanwhile, have alleged that the exercise was carried out at the instance of Delhi BJP chief Adesh Kumar Gupta, and was in violation of the legal provisions of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, since it was done without issuing notices to the alleged encroachers.
The petitioners contended that, under this law, they have a right to appeal against a demolition notice, which they were denied.
‘Has bulldozer become an instrument of state?’
During the hearing, senior advocate Dushyant Dave, while appearing on behalf of the petitioners, condemned the demolition exercise in Jahangirpuri and said that “wherever riots are taking place, bulldozers are being sent”.
“Has it become an instrument of state? You never did anything of this sort in 1984 or 2002. As for Delhi, it has an Act that protects every illegal encroachment till December 2023,” Dave contended.
He also alleged that Muslims were being targeted: “The [Hanuman Jayanti] procession went to the area despite police objections. Whatever happened is a matter of enquiry by an appropriate judicial process. Even before an enquiry takes place, they arrest people in large numbers from a particular community.”
Sibal, appearing for the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, told the bench that the “disturbing pattern” is that demolition drives following communal violence particularly targeted Muslims.
Mehta, however, countered this view. He submitted that 88 of the houses that were demolished in MP’s Khargone belonged to Hindus, while 26 were of Muslims. “These are government records. The government does not bifurcate data in such a way, but the petitioner has compelled me to do it so that I can satisfy the court,” Mehta told the bench.
In Khargone, demolition notices were issued in 2021, hearings were held the same year, orders for demolition were passed in 2021 or 2022, and those orders were being implemented, he said.
In the case of Jahangirpuri, Mehta said, the drive to free the area of “unauthorised properties” began subsequent to a Delhi High Court order that declined to protect the petitioners in that case from demolition.
He further told the court that the case was filed by a traders’ association from Jahangirpuri. “There are judicial orders to clear government land and this (demolition) was being done in compliance with the HC orders,” he added.
‘Individual would have to establish that no notice was issued’
Mehta further said that no individual had approached the court against the drive, and it was an organisation (Jamiat) that had come forward, demanding judicial intervention. “An individual would have to show locus and also establish that no notice was issued to him/her,” Mehta added.
He objected to organisations filing petitions in such matters and asked the court to hear individuals affected by the demolition drive: “We have issued notices to everyone whose houses were pulled down.”
However, when the solicitor cited provisions under the municipal law to state that demolition drives can also be conducted without notice, the court remarked it was only limited to removal of benches, chairs or boxes kept on public roads, and, for that, the authority does not require bulldozers.
“You don’t need a bulldozer to remove a bench or chair or a box,” Justice Rao said. Justice Gavai went on to add that if the civil agency had issued notice, then it was bound to wait: “The law allows 5 to 15 days of notice period and also permits an appeal.”
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)