Protests erupt as bulldozers roll into Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh
The dreaded bulldozer rolled into Shaheen Bagh, the epicentre of the anti-CAA protests two years ago, on Monday after keeping the Muslim-majority neighbourhood on tenterhooks for a fortnight but the “anti-encroachment drive” found little to pull down.
Although the demolition machinery left after two hours, its lone scalp being scaffolding put up by wall painters, protesting residents suggested the exercise — carried out amid heavy police and CRPF deployment — was meant to intimidate Muslims.
“There are illegal constructions at several locations across Delhi, so why the hype around Shaheen Bagh only? It shows the authorities’ intention of targeting a particular community,” PTI quoted Shaheed Siddiqui, a resident, as saying.
“Such drives go on everywhere but Shaheen Bagh has been turned into an atom bomb by the hype created around this drive,” Shaheen Bagh Market Association secretary Rohit Sankhyan told The Telegraph.
Shaheen Bagh’s protests against the new citizenship matrix had turned it into a bugbear for the BJP, with the party’s campaigners for the February 2020 Assembly elections consistently maligning the neighbourhood.
Last month, after a communal clash in the Jahangirpuri locality on April 16, the BJP-led North Delhi Municipal Corporation had demolished roadside dwellings, shops and even a mosque’s entrance, continuing for almost two hours after the Supreme Court had ordered a halt.
BJP leaders had insinuated that this was retribution on Bangladeshis and Rohingyas for rioting — in line with similar demolitions of mostly Muslim-owned property in some BJP-ruled states that have virtually turned the bulldozer into a BJP mascot. No foreigner has been named by the Delhi police in rioting cases.
Since late April, the BJP-led South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) had repeatedly scheduled an anti-encroachment drive in Shaheen Bagh but it could not be carried out so far because police did not provide the additional security the civic body had demanded.
On Monday, a bulldozer was seen at one end of G.D. Birla Marg at Shaheen Bagh around 10.30am with the police and CRPF — both of which report to the Union home ministry — deployed along a 2km stretch.
As the bulldozer approached showrooms of lifestyle brands around 11.15am, some 30-odd Congress members blocked its path. The Supreme Court was at the time due to hear a plea by the CPM against the demolition. It later dismissed the plea and asked the petitioner to approach Delhi High Court.
Television crews egged the bulldozer on, asking why the drive was taking so long and urging the machine to pull down the entrances of shops.
In the absence of significant encroachments, the bulldozer finally stopped before a scaffolding being used by wall painters. Facing protests, and on the cops’ advice, municipal officials allowed the painters to dismantle their scaffolding themselves before the demolition team left around 12.30pm.
“There was just one extended iron structure that the bulldozers found and even that was removed manually by the locals here. What exactly are the authorities trying to do here? Scare us?” Siddiqui told PTI.
Iftakar, 45, who said he was born and brought up in the area, told the news agency the drive was a “sham”.
Anis, another resident, was quoted as saying: “I don’t think there was any necessity to send a bulldozer to this area. It was sent just to threaten residents.”
Hawkers had not been vending in the locality for the past few days for fear of punitive action, and most showrooms had downed their shutters after being harangued by TV crews and finding the police at their doorstep.
“Not a single shop here has encroached on even an inch of this road which is under the public works department (of the Delhi government, which has not complained of any encroachments on this stretch),” Sankhyan, the market association secretary, said.
“Fear-mongering and the use of bulldozers for routine drives has scared away customers.”
A few local youths waved the national flag — which has become the vogue here since the vilified citizenship agitators felt compelled to resort to this symbolic assertion of Indian identity.
A resident, Shakeena, said: “Garbage is never cleared here regularly. Now, just when the current municipal council’s term is about to end on May 18, they do this drama for TV cameras. Why is this hype created only for action against Muslim areas?”
As Congress activists surrounded the bulldozer, they were caught up in one-upmanship with the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, which holds the municipal ward and the Assembly constituency.
Before being detained by the police, Okhla block Congress committee president Parvez Alam told reporters: “The BJP has sent these bulldozers of hatred to uproot the livelihood of people.”
Local municipal councillor Abdul Wajid Khan and MLA Amanatullah Khan of the AAP soon appeared on the scene. The councillor referred to the Congress protesters as “BJP men sent to create tension here”.
Amanatullah told reporters: “Three days ago we held a meeting of residents’ welfare associations and market associations and people voluntarily removed encroachments. Even a mosque demolished its own ablution washbasins that were abutting on a road. I repeatedly told the officers to show me an encroachment and said I would get the owner to demolish it on their own.”
Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta accused the AAP and the Congress of backing illegal immigrants.
SDMC mayor Mukkesh Suryaan has been saying the demolitions are targeted against Bangladeshis and Rohingyas — communities that many are quick to brand illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
But the retail kiosks — and even toilets — that the bulldozers have knocked out over the past fortnight have been in parts of Delhi without any prominent settlements of Rohingyas or Bengali Muslims.
An FIR has been registered against Amanatullah under penal sections 186 (obstructing public servant), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant) and 34 (common intention). The last section allows the police to book anyone in the case who allegedly acted in concert with the MLA.