In Jammu’s Muslim neighborhood, fears of “selective targeting” renew as bulldozers return

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In the wee hours of 22 January, panic gripped Jammu’s Bhatindi. The unannounced arrival of Jammu Municipal Corporation’s bulldozers, escorted by police personnel, led to fear and confusion in the Muslim majority area that has long been an eyesore for the Hindu rightwing.

The broader area around Bhatindi, a Muslim majority, has long been attacked by the rightwing as an “illegal settlement” to alter Jammu’s Hindu demography — the more rabid have called for its demolition. As word spread of the arrival of a demolition team in the neighborhood, fear-stricken residents gathered on the road.

The residents attempted to prevent the JMC team from proceeding and resorted to throwing stones as they refused to relent. According to local reports, two drivers of the JMC suffered injuries besides damage inflicted on the bulldozers and police vehicles. Station House Officer of the Bhatindi police station, Kamal Singh said: “The JMC, perhaps, didn’t serve notices. People gathered, JMC had to retreat and the operation couldn’t be completed.”

Local residents maintain that fears were sparked by the sudden arrival of the demolition team without prior notices. The fears among the region’s Muslim population have compounded after the repeal of the Roshni Act and the administration’s announcement of retrieving “encroached lands”.

“We got scared”

“Whenever someone talks about encroachment, Bathindi’s name comes up,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, who has resided in Bhatindi for generations and has been provided amenities by the JMC itself. “We get electricity, water-supply, we pay bills.”

Ahmad alleged that the area was subjected to neglect by successive governments. “The government should regularize the Bathindi area to put an end to its selective targeting,” he said. “They should first go after people who have amassed wealth by land-grab, not [common] public.”

On the protest of 22 January, another local resident, a shopkeeper who didn’t want to be named, said that the public “didn’t know what building had [the JMC] come to demolish. We thought they had come for the whole area. There were many rumours, and we got scared.”

Previously, some buildings in Bathindi and Nowabad in Sunjwan were sealed for alleged violation of building rules, according to a JMC official, who didn’t want to be named. “The JMC was not going to touch already- existing buildings. The operation was targeting new constructions,” he added.

Avny Lavasa, the JMC commissioner, however, claimed that notices were served but didn’t divulge the details. “We have identified a few under-construction illegal buildings in the (Sunjwan) area,” she said. “Prior notices were served, some buildings were sealed and some were to be demolished.”

Lavasa added that “Private instances of violation of the law should not be made an issue. People were probably misled.”

Perpetual fears

In the run-up to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court repealing the Roshni Act — under which about 44,000 kanals of encroached land was legally regularized — a communal spin was being deliberately given to the issue of land ownership, said Sheikh Shakeel Ahmed, who was the lawyer in a Public Interest Litigation against the land grab enabled through the misuse of the Act.

“After the lists of Roshni beneficiaries came out, it was quite apparent that Muslims had not received any disproportionate benefit from the scheme. It was only a ploy to incite Hindu sentiments,” said Sheikh.

The narrative of land-jihad and Muslim settlements illegally encroaching lands in Hindu majority areas of Jammu was stoked by the Hindu rightwing, propelled further by the National Conference president and three-time chief minister of J-K Farooq Abdullah’s residence in the area, said Sheikh.

In November 2020, members of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing, the Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) shouted slogans outside Abdullah’s residence, much to the chagrin of local residents who saw it as yet another attempt to smear the general public in Bhatindi.

“Why did they have to protest here and raise religious slogans that are bound to create unrest in the area,” said another resident who didn’t want to be named. “The area is constantly targeted. Recently, forms were circulated here by the police asking for details of not only tenants but also unnecessary details about the house-owner’s families.”

In early November, last year, the police had circulated landlord-tenant agreement forms in two Muslim majority localities: Bhatindi and Gujjar Nagar. Local residents were taken aback at the excessive information that was demanded of them.

The chief of Jammu Police, Inspector General of Police Mukesh Singh, admitted that the forms sought more information from the landlords than was required, as he retracted from the process amid a public outroar.

“Why were these forms circulated only in predominantly Muslim areas?” the local resident demanded. “Of course, the public here is scared and fear that they will be the first targets or the casualty of larger politics that stir Hindu insecurity related to demographic change, etcetera.”

Whose land is it anyway?

In recent years, Jammu’s Muslim majority neighborhoods have come under attack from Hindu rightwing. The Muslim majority area of Gujjar Nagar was subjected to a mob attack in the aftermath of the bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama. More recently, the rightwing has termed the building of homes by Muslims as “land jihad” to allegedly alter Jammu’s demography.

Mushtaq Ahmad, the Bhatindi resident, said that many in the area had ownership rights to their lands. “There are other lands that are state or forest lands. However, people have constructed houses [on those] long back,” he said, adding that “People who live here come from Kashmir or other sensitive areas. They come to a safer place. Also, there are more facilities here when it comes to education or healthcare which causes this migration. Would you evict all these people and throw them on the streets?”

“It is not only Muslims from other parts of J-K who settle in Jammu,” pointed out Khalid Hussain, an eminent Punjabi writer and a former deputy commissioner. “Hindus from Poonch [district in Jammu division] also come to Jammu [city]. The main reasons being security, education of children and economic reasons.”

The Sunjwan and Dongian areas are said to have illegal occupations of forest land, said Hussain. “However, these were not a forest but state lands that the revenue records show was under the occupation of the Forest Department,” he said. “The Gujjar community was settled here by Maharaja Hari Singh in the 1930s and they cleared and cultivated the lands but due to lack of awareness, they couldn’t get ownership rights when it was given in the later decades of the twentieth century.”

The land records, Hussain said, show that most of the Sunjwan village land belonged to the state in the 1950s and was cultivated by kashtkars (cultivators) but later records show that certain pockets of state land are recorded as “makbooza e janglaat” (occupied by the Forest Department). 

Hussain that “Forest land is demarcated land and has trees that produce timber and other forest produce. It is divided into compartments. The land in Bathindi was not a forest land as per land records from the latter decades of the twentieth century but state land occupied by the Forest Department.”

Additionally, the J-K administration needed to rethink its policy on regularisation of state lands where people have settled and have been living for decades said Hussain. In the past, the Jammu Development Authority has regularised at least thirteen colonies in 2011. Residents of the bustling Bhatindi believe that their turn has long been overlooked.

“Why can Bathindi not be regularized?” demanded Hussain. “If the government provides municipal services and people pay their bills, why not regularize it so that the tension around it, the communal traction that political groups create can be put to an end and the people here be relieved of regular disturbances, a threat to the safety and selective targeting.”

As the J-K administration rolls out the Forest Rights Act, many from the marginalized Gujjar-Bakarwal community are hopeful of securing their land ownership rights. However, for many others, whose lands had been legalized under the now-repealed Roshni Act, the future remains uncertain — especially with the rightwing upping its ante.

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