When the bulldozer brigade arrived in Srinagar’s Padshahibagh locality on Saturday, an elderly woman’s helpless cries straightaway defied the Raj Bhavan’s claims.
Amid the ongoing ‘anti-encroachment’ drive in Jammu and Kashmir, the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha repeatedly assured that the axe will fall on the powerful who misused their position.
But the poor woman’s haunting words—“Isn’t there anyone to stop this injustice”—are now compelling many to seek a white paper from the LG administration on the nature of the drive. Even the former union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad sought a formal order to spare poor from the ongoing evictions.
However, as the anti-encroachment drive escalated across Kashmir this weekend—despite the deadline ending on January 31—many videos going viral on social media are questioning the official stance on the drive. While the “powerful and influential” class is facing the unabated action, the poor in possession of some marlas of land aren’t being spared either.
In many places, the families were seen resisting the invading JCBs by making human walls around their properties. A raging argument between revenue officials and citizens is visible on many viral videos. “They’re coming with bulldozers without serving us any notices,” a man who faced eviction in Ganderbal alleged. “This is a clear case of highhandedness.”
Amid the public backlash over the drive, JK Chief Secretary Arun Mehta said the retrieved land will be used for the common good. But many aren’t pleased with the manner these drives are taking place.
“If there was a war between India and Pakistan,” said Peerzada Ashiq, Kashmir’s senior scribe, “it would not have cost Kashmir so much as this anti-encroachment drive is able to inflict.”
From boundary walls to houses to shopping complexes to educational institutes to poor man’s farming land to rich man’s lifestyle: it has wrecked everything, he said. “'State' land is one FIR against all Kashmiris who have been awarded a new tag: "encroachers", even if you were living on a piece of land before J&K joined India.”
But the LG Sinha has largely justified the drive against the “influential people” and cited the Aftab Market example as a quick course-correction.
However, what happened at the city centre market lately has only highlighted the confusion in the official ranks.
The 25 shops near the Lal Chowk’s Ghanta Ghar were sealed on the encroachment grounds on February 1. But when the shopkeepers protested and showed their legal documents, the shops were unsealed the next morning.
Shopkeepers removing seals
The official orders of demolition/eviction/bulldozer drive started on 18 January when the LG administration issued notices across the J&K to all deputy commissioners directing them to vacate the ‘state land’ classified as Kahcharie (grazing land) and those allotted under the scrapped Roshni scheme by January 31, 2023.
But an official working in the revenue department told The Himalayan Post that it wasn’t the state land but the migrant land under which the action was taken at the Aftab Market.
“The land was being claimed by a migrant and the file was making rounds in government offices for one year,” he said. “It wasn’t a one-day action.”
When asked why they were unsealed within hours if the shops were illegal, the revenue official said the administration understood the livelihood of people was dependent on them.
However, Sheeraz Ahmad, the president of the shopkeepers, denied the allegation of the migrant land and stated that the shops have been allotted to them in 1972, while the migration of Kashmiri Pandits started in 1990.
“We have shown all the Bai’naam [selling-purchasing agreement] to authorities and media,” Sheeraz said. “Our shops aren’t illegal or built on migrant land. We’ve been paying rents to Srinagar Municipal Corporation since 1972, and have submitted advance rent till March 2023. If these shops were illegal, how were they functioning under government rules and regulations till date?”
Sheikh Ashiq, President Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, told The Himalayan Post that there is a lot of confusion over the demolition/eviction/anti-encroachment drives in Kashmir.
“Clear official orders should come in the public domain where state land or other lands must be classified properly,” he said. “Even If there are chronic encroachments, everyone cannot be dealt with the same thing.”
But while the local BJP camp is openly boasting about the “Bulldozer Baba”, many beleaguered political parties believe the LG administration is only filtering Kashmir land.
“Many are reclaiming their land in Kashmir and the authorities are filtering who is legal and who is not,” said a National Conference leader. “Those who have legal documents are safe, while those who don’t have them will be called encroachers. This is what we have understood so far.”
But as an official order sparing poor is yet to come from the LG office, the drive is only intensifying and drawing raging reactions.
In Jammu, the anti-encroachment squad had to face stones from the angry residents on Saturday. In Kashmir, the cries dominated the scene.
Amid all this, the bureaucratic bulldozers are refusing to slow down and are only fanning out new tensions in the region.