X-ray of a communal flare-up: Report details run-up to Haldwani violence

A report by an NGO finds that the communal flare-up could easily have been avoided if basic precautions were taken; eagerness to please higher-ups may have played a part
The report being released at Press Club of India
The report being released at Press Club of IndiaKarwan-e-Mohabbat

Uttarakhand police and Haldwani municipal authorities displayed a remarkable lack of sensitivity and common sense while handling the demolition of two religious structures in Haldwani, which led to a flare up of communal violence in the Uttarakhand town earlier this month, according to a report prepared after a visit to the area by a delegation comprising activists such as Nadeem Khan, Harsh Mander and Ashok Kumar Sharma. The report also indicated that the transfer of a high-ranking official of the municipal corporation may have played a part in the premature demolition of the religious buildings that served as the trigger for violence. 

The report — ‘Bulldozing Peace: State Violence and Apathy in Muslim Settlements of Haldwani’ — was prepared by the Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR) in association with Karwan-e-Mohabbat, an organization headed by human rights activist Harsh Mander after a fact-finding mission. The fact-finding team visited the violence-hit area on February 14 and the report was released on 16th February at the Press Club of India, New Delhi. 

The violence took place in the Banbhoolpura locality of Haldwani in Uttarakhand on February 8. According to official reports, six people were killed, and more than 250 people including policemen, journalists and others were injured in the violence that broke out after the Municipal Corporation of Haldwani demolished a mosque (Maryam Masjid) and a madrasa (Abdul Razzaq Zakariya Madrasa) in the locality, alleging that these were built on government land. 

The action by the authorities took place even as the dispute was pending in the Uttarakhand High Court and was due to be taken up on February 14. However, even before that, the local administration arrived with bulldozers to demolish the religious sites, leading to conflict between the locals and the police. 

The report highlighted the role of Pankaj Upadhay, the Haldwani Municipal Commissioner who led the demolition drive, as – according to the report – he had already been transferred to a different department and was not legally fit to initiate the procedure. 

The report also pointed out the administration did not take the local elders into confidence as advised by the local intelligence before the demolition. 

“A ridiculous statement was made by the district magistrate that respected leaders of the community were called prior to demolition on February 8 but their phones could not be reached as they were switched off.” 

The report noted that “80 individuals can not have their phones turned off at the same time,” adding that the clerics have demanded the administration to prove their claims. 

Though official records set the death toll due to the violence at six, “local reports suggest there have been 18-20 casualties, although specific details about the individuals involved are not available,” the report noted. The report, however, put the number of deaths due to bullet injuries at seven.

“All deaths happened due to police bullets except one individual who was shot dead by Sanjay Sonkar, a person from Valmiki Samaj,” the report said. 

How it unfolded

The incidents began on January 30, when Haldwani Municipal Corporation issued a notice to remove Maryam Masjid and Abdul Razzaq Zakariya Madrasa on February 1, coinciding with the transfer of Municipal Commissioner Pankaj Upadhyay on January 31 to the post of GM of Kumaon Mandal Development Corporation. 

“Upadhyay was however not relieved. He did not take charge of his new position until the fateful day of February 8 and played a major role in exacerbating the situation to please the ‘people in power’,” the report alleged.

“Social activists and clerics held a meeting on February 2 with the municipal corporation concluded with high-voltage drama following tensions throughout the city,” the report noted.

“A non-written demolition order from the government for February 4 added to the sense of impending crisis. Intervention from local MLAs to appeal to the Chief Minister for a pause in demolition proceedings provided temporary relief. An order passed from Dehradun to seal the Masjid and Madrasa at midnight on 3-4 February at around half past one. There was no reported violence in between but a sense of cooperation from the locals easing tensions momentarily with a commitment to pursue a legal battle. 

“On February 6, the matter was taken to the High Court by Sofia Malik on behalf of the landowner and her husband Abdul Malik. The vacation bench heard the matter on February 8 and the judge without passing any order gave the date for the next hearing on February 14,” the report noted.

“On the evening of February 8, the police force advanced to the scene of the incident with municipal corporation workers, sanitation workers, and two bulldozers at around 4.30 pm. The preparations were underway following a meeting with the district magistrate. Locals informed that more bulldozers arrived later. Regardless of his transfer to another department Pankaj Upadhyaya continued to serve in the position of Municipal Commissioner. 

“Despite the local intelligence advising the administration to take action in the morning to prevent public disorder and take clerics and locals in confidence, the forces initiated the demolition without prior notice. It happened like an attack. A large number of women gathered upon this to protest against the demolition.

“The Masjid and Madrasa were technically under government possession as they were sealed. Following the protest sparked by the threat of demolishing the Masjid and Madrasa, the situation escalated when women were subjected to mistreatment, including physical violence and forceful removal. The women were abused, manhandled, beaten, and dragged. The incident captured on video and in photos fueled anger among locals leading to clashes with the police who used mild force. 

“Amidst the chaos, the police opened the seal of the Masjid and Madrasa. The intelligence had also instructed that the sacred books and other belongings must be submitted to Mualana after inquiry. The police did not make the list of the holy Quran and other belongings kept there and also refrained from handing them over to the responsible authority. This resulted in religious sloganeering in rage, and stone-pelting from Muslims and consequently from the police,” the report said.

The report faulted the administration’s hurry for the turn of events.

“Why was the administration in such a hurry to demolish the Masjid and Madrasa despite the impending hearing on February 14 in the High Court? Besides, why was the Muslim community not taken into confidence for the second time when they 13 already cooperated at the time of sealing,” it asked.

Communal Angle

According to the report, the initial trigger provided by the hasty demolition soon lit the fuse for a communal conflict, with the local Valmiki community getting involved.

“Sanitation workers, the majority of whom belong to the Valmiki Community, backed the police when the clashes unfolded. They mobilised their community to support the police in attacking Muslims. It ultimately led to communal violence. Vandalism and attacking Muslims with slogans “Jai Sri Ram (Glory be to Lord Ram)” were also reported by the locals,” the report noted.

Legal Status

The site where the recently demolished Maryam Masjid and Abdul Razzaq Zakariya Madrasa stood lies in Malik Ka Bagicha, a southeastern part of Haldwani city- between Banbhoolpura and the railway track, according to the report. Both the religious place and Islamic institution were two decades old and established around 2003-2004.

“The property in 1937 was given on lease by British, which later came into possession of Sadiya Begum in inheritance. However, the matter of land regularisation has been pending at the government administration level for a long time since 2006. The district administration had to decide on when to do the regulation after the High Court order. A sum of 29,000 was also submitted for it.

“Despite proposals for regularisation, including one put forth during the previous year’s Gairsain session of the Assembly, the bill awaits approval at the President’s level. Notably, approximately 4 lakh hectares of land are under lease across the state including Haldwani. These areas host various settlements, markets, temples, and mosques built in cities, towns, and villages,” it noted.

Post-violence crackdown

The fact-finding report also highlighted the police crackdown on the Muslim community post-violence.

“A new cruelty unfolded in the afternoon of February 10 when heavy police raids began in the colony near the incident site. They barged into the home, beating women and children. Everybody including men, women, and children fled their homes..running on foot to find a safe place towards the Gaula River forest and Lalkuan,” the report said.

The fact-finding report accused the police of severe human rights violations including attacking women and children and setting up detention centres similar to torture chambers.

“Police have set up detention centres resembling torture chambers where numerous individuals, including those from Haldwani who were away in other cities for various reasons are being held captive.”

The report also noted that the situation worsened with the curfew being declared and shoot-at-sight orders still in place forcing the locals to stay at home. The residents of the area have been struggling due to a shortage of essential supplies, noted the report.

“The “shoot at sight” order remains in effect with people unable to access basic medical care. Fearful residents are resorting to locking their doors to show their homes as empty, but the police are breaking these locks and mercilessly beating anyone found inside,” the report said.

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