India: Demolition in Shaheen Bagh halted after residents protest

Authorities stop a demolition drive in Muslim-majority area at the heart of citizenship protests after hundreds gather in protest.

Residents and officials crowd around a bulldozer during a demolition drive in New Delhi
Residents and officials crowd around a bulldozer during a demolition drive in New Delhi, India [Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

Authorities in New Delhi have stopped a demolition drive in Shaheen Bagh – a Muslim-majority neighbourhood at the heart of 2019-20 citizenship protests – after hundreds of residents and a number of opposition party workers gathered in protest.

No buildings were razed down before the bulldozers retreated on Monday.

The demolition drive planned by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled South Delhi Municipal Corporation was the latest in a series of demolition drives that have razed Muslim-owned properties in several states across India.

Critics say bulldozing of Muslim-owned properties and homes in the garb of the anti-encroachment drive is part of the ruling BJP’s majoritarian agenda.

As the bulldozers drove away, Mohammed Niyaz, a 47-year-old resident in the neighbourhood, called it “vote-bank politics” intended to divide the Hindu and Muslim communities.

“They (government) want to trouble us and keep them (Hindus) happy. It’s as simple as that. Trouble 20 percent of the people and take the vote of 80 percent. It’s vote bank politics,” he told Associated Press.

Rising anti-Muslim sentiment

Anti-Muslim sentiment and attacks have risen across India in the past month after Hindu processions were taken from Muslim areas, and in some cases, mosques were attacked, resulting in stone-throwing between Hindu and Muslim groups.

Few state governments led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP have carried out demolition drives following communal violence. Critics say local authorities in those states singled out Muslim-owned properties but the BJP says it is following laws.

The most recent was witnessed last month in Jahangirpuri area of New Delhi where bulldozers destroyed several Muslim properties before the Supreme Court halted the drive.

The demolitions were carried out days after communal violence there left several injured and sparked arrests.

Amid heavy police presence on Monday, bulldozers arrived in Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood that in 2020 became a site of intense protest after the Parliament passed a controversial bill the previous year that amended the country’s citizenship law.

The new law would fast-track naturalisation for persecuted religious minorities from some neighbouring Muslim countries, but excludes Muslims, sparking many to call it discriminatory.

It unleashed months of demonstrations from across India and Shaheen Bagh quickly became a symbol of the resistance, with the protests there led by a peaceful sit-in of Muslim women along a highway that passed through the neighbourhood.

Officials have said these demolition drives target illegal buildings and not any particular religious group.

But critics argue such moves are the latest attempt to harass and marginalise Muslims, who are 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population, and point to a pattern of rising religious polarisation and majoritarianism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP.

Residents in Shaheen Bagh also questioned the timing of the move to bring in bulldozers, saying many buildings in the neighbourhood have existed for decades with no interference from local authorities.

Previously, officials termed the recent demolition drives as “routine exercises” to bring down illegal properties.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies