Anti-encroachment drive triggers fear, uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Anti-encroachment drive triggers fear, uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir

ByMir Ehsan, Srinagar
Feb 14, 2023 08:12 AM IST

Hundreds of families, many of them shop owners, have found their names on a list on social media with a warning of demolition.

Shuaib Wani, a resident of Srinagar’s Barzulla locality, waved a bunch of papers to government officials outside his four-storey shopping complex after it was sealed at Bemina last week as part of the ongoing land eviction drive in Jammu and Kashmir.

An automobile showroom being demolished in Jammu. (PTI) PREMIUM
An automobile showroom being demolished in Jammu. (PTI)

Wani, who is also a lawyer, argued that despite paying 42lakh to the Srinagar municipal corporation (SMC) through an open auction in 2004 and building the structure over the years, he has now been told that it stands on government land. “I don’t understand. Why was my property sealed without any notice on February 4 when I have all valid documents?” he said. “I got bank loans against these documents and now revenue officers have threatened to demolish the structure.”

Wani is not alone. Hundreds of families, many of them shop owners, have found their names on a list on social media with a warning of demolition.

“We have heard bulldozers have been kept at the police station and will be used to demolish our houses. We have decided to resist any such bid. If our homes are taken away, where we will go?” said Bilal Ahmad, who lives on a three-marla plot (roughly 817 sqft) in interior Dal in Srinagar. “We built a single-storey house at Beighmollah in 1996 and are now being threatened with demolition.”

Though the J&K administration has clarified it has not issued the list being circulated on social media, the clarification has done little to allay the fears of residents wary of government using bulldozers on their houses and business establishments under the anti-encroachment drive, which was launched in the last week of January.

“A fake list of encroachment on nazul property (government land for non-agriculture purposes) in Srinagar district is being circulated on social media,” Srinagar deputy commissioner Ajaz Asad said. “A case is being registered against miscreants spreading panic.”

Officials familiar with the ongoing drive said over the past three weeks, the Union territory administration has retrieved hundreds of kanals of land that it claims belonged to the government. Several buildings have also been razed using bulldozer under the drive, said on official, requesting anonymity.

According to court documents, 2,046,436 kanals (roughly 255,805 acres) of government land is under illegal occupation in the Union territory.

J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha has assured that the common would “not be touched” under the drive. “Only the state land under powerful and influential people, who have grabbed government property due to their influence, will be retrieved,” Sinha told reporters last week.

J&K chief secretary Arun Kumar Mehta said the “encroached state land” is being retrieved only for giving it back for public use. “This retrieved land belongs collectively to the masses. It will be used for their benefit. Nobody can usurp the rights of the common man,” he said, pointing out that such measures should be supported by people as the retrieved land will be used for building public utilities, such as hospitals, schools, playgrounds, bus stands, industries and parking spaces.

The eviction drive has raised hackles among several powerful people, including politicians. Properties of several former ministers, including Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed, Maqbool Dar, Haseeb Drabu, Taj Mohiudin, and Ali Mohammad Sager, besides former legislators Farooq Andrabi, Mir Qasim and Sofi Yousuf, have been sealed.

“We lived there and have all documents. Time will prove that sealing our property was illegal,” said former MLA Yousuf, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Though his shopping complex was sealed on Thursday, Yousuf said he supports the drive to retrieve state land from encroachers.

As part of the anti-encroachment drive, the UT administration has demolished boundary walls of properties of former Budgam deputy commissioner Farooq Renzu and advocate Shabnum Lone, sister of Peoples Conference chairman Sajad Lone.

Around 40 kanals were retrieved from the Nedous family — related to National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah — in the heart of Srinagar. Though the family claimed it possessed the ancestral land for centuries, tehsildar Moin Kakroo, who is leading the drive, rebutted allegations of bias, saying his team did not touch any land with valid papers.

“I retrieved 40 kanals that was in illegal possession of the Nedou family,” he added.

In Jammu, protests broke out in Muslim-dominated Sanjuwain and Bhatindi areas as residents claimed their properties were being deliberately targeted.

Several political parties have raised questions about the ongoing drive, which has found support from the BJP. National Conference leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah asked the government to stop “harassing” the people of J&K. “We are not supporting land grabbers. But there should be a procedure. The bulldozer shouldn’t be the first option, but it should be the last resort,” he added.

Sajad Lone blamed the “cabal of tourist officers” for the drive. “They (officials) are not even serving notices. In villages, they come with bulldozers and demolish the property. Do they want to retrieve land or humiliate the people of Kashmir?” he said. “J&K is a part of India. Has land been retrieved from all parts of the country? Lt Governor Manoj Sinha is from Uttar Pradesh. Has every portion of illegally occupied government land been retrieved in UP?”

PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said: “The use of bulldozers has made Kashmir worse than Afghanistan.”

BJP state spokesperson Altaf Thakur, however, said: “The drive has nothing to do with Hindu or Muslim. Encroachments by BJP leaders, if any, should also be demolished, but illegal colonies should be regularised. Our policy is clear.”

Experts questioned the manner in which the drive was being implemented.

Irfan Hafeez, an activist and district development council member from Sangrama, said the government should have first ascertained the encroachment on a “case-to-case basis”. Apart from categorising the properties, it should have also checked the duration of occupation and quantum of encroachment. “People at the helm say marginal ones won’t be touched but there’s no order to protect them. This is a violation of natural justice as many have not been given the opportunity to be heard even if they are in possession of a piece of land for decades, sometimes with the fourth generation in possession,” he said. “The mental agony due to this action is against the spirit of welfare state and law of adverse possession.”

Meanwhile, The Resistance Front (TRF), an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Taiba, has threatened bulldozer owners, drivers and officials of the revenue department, who are at the forefront of the eviction exercise.

The TRF has claimed that the drive is part of “establishing illegal settlements” in Kashmir. “When the properties of Resistance Lovers were being destroyed, you were watching as mute spectators but Resistance Fighters will fight for your cause,” read a TRF statement on social media.

Police said revenue officials were being provided adequate protection.

The ongoing drive started after the Supreme Court on January 20 refused to stay a circular issued by the J&K government, directing all deputy commissioners to remove encroachments on state land, including Roshni and Kahcharai properties by January 31. The deputy commissioners subsequently issued notices asking people to remove encroachments before January 31 or face demolition.

In August 2011, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the J&K high court by SK Bhalla against illegal occupation of state land. Sheikh Shakeel, Bhalla’s lawyer, said: “The petition did not mention people with small landholdings or shops. Later, advocate Ankur Sharma filed a PIL about Roshni land. Other petitions were clubbed. In 2020, the high court passed a judgment to retrieve the land from these influential people.”

“So far, land from former deputy chief minister Kavinder Gupta in his native village has been retrieved after my efforts. There politicians, particularly of the BJP, who have occupied prime state land but have not been touched. Neither have we seen action against many former bureaucrats, police, revenue officers and powerful businessmen.”

Despite repeated attempts, J&K chief secretary Arun Kumar Mehta and revenue commissioner VK Bidhuri did not respond to phone calls and text messages.

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