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Communalism

Ranchi's Islamnagar Highlights How Even in Eviction, Everyone Is Not Equal

Eleven years after their houses were demolished, the residents of Islamnagar are still waiting for rehabilitation and justice.

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While encroachment and eviction are two of the most common words in the vocabularies of urban expansion and development, rehabilitation and resettlement are their bête noire. Amidst the unbridled growth of urbanities and successive imaginations of smart cities, a few questions are always left unaddressed: What are the reasons behind encroachments? Can the issue be understood as one of compulsive settlement instead of encroachment? Is it just about illegal encroachment or are there underlying factors that make some communities more vulnerable than others? How do a few people get rehabilitated while others are left in the lurch?

In the last 11 years, since their eviction from Islamnagar (a central locality in Ranchi, around four km away from the main road), there has not been a single night when Khurshid didn’t think about these questions. Still, the sound of a bulldozer breaking down his home wake him up in the middle of the night. On April 5, 2011, his life changed forever – as did the lives of another 1,200 people who were made to stroll between unkept promises and unheard grievances. Our research in Islamnagar made us realise one thing: even in eviction, some are more equal than others.

From Kachda Pada to Islamnagar: The story of a compulsive settlement

Bihar Gazette, 1961: the record of Polytechnic land acquisition. Photo: Author provided

Islamnagar, as it is called now, is situated in the middle of the city, flanked by the Pathal Kudwa chowk and KM Road (Kureshi Mohalla Road). It is predominantly a Muslim locality, with a few Adivasi and Harijan households.

As per reports of the Bihar Legislative Council (December 24, 1996) on May 15, 1961, the Bihar government acquired 28.54 acres land (vide land case no. 3159) in this area to found an Industrial Training Institute (ITI), State Polytechnic College and Women Polytechnic College. However, as both the Women Polytechnic College and ITI were founded in Hehal and Tharpakna respectively, only the State Polytechnic college got established in this land. Thus, more than half of the land was left unused and unmaintained for long.

In 1967, Ranchi witnessed the most horrendous communal riots in its history. Though as per the Raghubar Dayal Commission Report around 180 people had been killed, the actual number is believed to be much higher. Muslims earlier settled across the city through Chutiya, Upper Baazar, HEC and Hatia had to flee for their lives, leaving behind their properties and businesses. Searching for secure, vacant homes among their ‘own people’, some of them started settling in this empty plot near the Polytechnic. As it was surrounded by the erstwhile established Muslim localities of Pathal Kudwa and Qureshi Mohalla, their safety concerns were satisfied.

The trade-off between lifestyles and lives has been one of the most common features of post-riot scenarios across Indian cities. Ranchi was no different. As per Mohd Mohsin, then secretary of the Hamdard Committee, a welfare society created in the mid-1980s, these riot survivors settled in Mauja-Konka, Thana No. 188, building mud houses with meagre or almost no infrastructure. The absence of roads, water, sewage systems, electricity or any basic facilities, coupled with the presence of Muslim daily-wage workers, made this a place of distrust and disgrace for neighbouring areas.

This hatred had a name – people started calling this locality ‘Kachda Pada’, literally meaning ‘a dirty locality’. The abuses were not limited to naming; poor Muslim residents of the area were charged with criminal activities on a regular basis. In an effort to ‘sanitise’ the environment of the Polytechnic college, the authorities built a wall which cut the new settlers off from basic water resources (taps and wells) that were located within the campus.

Such harassment resulted in a slew of reformist activities led by the Hamdard Committee. According to Mohd Shakeel, president of the Hamdard Committee, it was due to their continuous persuasion that issues of Kachda Pada and its infrastructural issues came to the notice of the Ranchi Regional Development Authority (RRDA) and the then Bihar government. It was during this period that Maulana Shoaib Rahmani of Rangsaaz Masjid, Church Road decided to first change the name of the locality, to at least remove a part of the stigma. He renamed the place ‘Islamnagar’ while spreading the ethics of Islam amongst residents. From then onwards, in every record, this area was referred to as Islamnagar.

Communalisation of Islamnagar and the burden of the new name

Article by Vinay Pathak, Panchajanya, January 30, 1993.

The renaming, however, didn’t pass without the wrath of RSS-BJP groundworkers, who started questioning the identity of the settlers and called for immediate removal of “encroachments”. This ground-level rhetoric was concretised with the publication of an article by Vinay Pathak in the RSS mouthpiece ‘Panchajanya’. The piece, published on January 30, 1993, was titled “Bas Gaya ‘Islam’nagar (‘Islam’nagar is founded)”. The emphasis on the word ‘Islam’ in a communally surcharged environment of post-Babri Masjid demolition days was intended to enhance further communal tensions across the city.

Pathak, in this article, not only alleged that these people were Bangladeshi intruders, but also took a leap to claim that the Lalu Prasad Yadav government was working hand-in-glove to create Muslim settlements across Dhanbad, Jamshedpur and Ranchi. In this article, Pathak wrote, “One of the largest encroachments of this region happened in the Polytechnic land of Ranchi district. The land of the polytechnic college reserved for the hostel got occupied by these Bangladeshi intruders. Not only that, they have changed the name of the place to ‘Islamnagar’. Ranchi district administration even after knowing about such illegal occupation has been conspicuously silent. Instead of taking actions they are giving unannounced legitimacy to these settlements.”

Such diatribes against the Lalu government were not only borne out of the national political scenario and RJD-BJP rivalry. Rather, they were the consequence of a few steps the Bihar government and RRDA took for the development of Islamnagar during early 1990s. In early 1991, from a public meeting at Azad High School, Karbala Chowk, Lalu (then the chief minister) instructed the district collector, Ranchi to look into the issues of Islamnagar and asked him to take steps towards ‘bandobasti’ (regularisation) of the lands. The intervention on regularisation of the land, though a far-fetched promise and a protracted issue, resulted in few sporadic developments of basic resources. According to S. Ansari, then the executive engineer of RRDA, a community hall, public well, roads and naalis were constructed in Islamnagar during 1992-93.

Along with such developments, there were strong voices within the administration that called for the regularisation of the lands. The circle officer, Ranchi, in his letter no 794 (ii) dated August 22, 1995, mentioned that around 350 landless and homeless families had been staying on this land for decades and there must be steps taken toward their fixed settlement. He also pointed out that the reluctance of the Polytechnic to use the land made it clear that they didn’t need the land anymore. The administration just had to collect a no-use notice from the college to start the process of regularisation. The district collector, Ranchi, in his letter no 92 (i) dated September 12, 1995, written to the secretary, Revenue and Land Reforms Department, Government of Bihar, also sought instructions on regularisation.

Letter of the circle officer, Ranchi.

Following the request of Mohd Shakeel of the Hamdard Committee, Professor Jabir Hussain, then the working president of the BLC, had sent a team to Islamnagar for surveying the situation. In their report published in 1996, they clearly pointed out ambiguities in the words of Polytechnic authorities and maintained that the RRDA’s actions were clearly indicative of the fact that the government wanted to settle the people on the land.

These developmental activities and clusters of support were not received well by the RSS-BJP forces. Instead of the issue calming down, communal frenzy resulted in threats of evictions. The letter of Syed Shahabuddin (MP, Lok Sabha) to the then minister of revenue and land reform, D.N. Yadav (July 8, 1992), makes it further clear. Referring to Lalu’s promise of regularisation of Islamnagar, he noted, “The chief minister had made a public declaration in Ranchi a year ago that the colony would be regularised and the occupants shall be granted long term lease. However, no progress has been made by your department. In the meantime, the residents are being harassed by anti-social elements inspired by the RSS and BJP.” The fear of the RSS-BJP was as real as the fear of evictions in the name of illegal encroachment.

Islamnagar, due to its name, Muslim population, allegation of encroachment and being product of the 1967 communal riots, thus became a perfect mix for the Hindutva laboratories to rake up communal tensions. As the communal fire was ready, every agent was on their mark. The demolition of Islamnagar was just a matter of time.

Eviction and promises: The remanent of demolition

In the next decade, the political scenario of the region changed to such an extent that the earlier promises became shallow. The state of Jharkhand was carved out from Bihar in 2000 and BJP became the political master of the newly formed state. However, the situation of Islamnagar experienced some sporadic developments as Rajya Sabha MP from Jharkhand Parimal Nathvani ‘adopted’ it in 2009. Following requests from the Hamdard Committee, a water tank of one lakh litres was installed in the area temporarily, resolving the water crisis. Provisions for a children’s park had also been made, along with upgradation of the ‘kaccha naali’. The span of such incremental developments was nevertheless too small to be counted.

Eviction notice served to Islamnagar residents.

On February 28, 2011, deciding on a PIL filed by one Asit Kumar, the Jharkhand high court gave instructions to the district administrations to remove illegal encroachments from both governmental and non-governmental lands. Consequently, in the evening of March 29, 2011, the residents of Islamnagar received a notice from district administration, pointing out that the land was illegally encroached upon and as per the high court order, they must vacate the land or otherwise be ready for forceful eviction. The notice came as a reminder of those days of the 1990s when every night used to be filled with the threat of evictions. Receiving the notice, Mohd Shakeel and other activists of the Hamdard Committee rushed to the then chief minister Arjun Munda and deputy chief minister Hemant Soren. However, their efforts were in vain as the high court order became the moral fulcrum for the long-awaited eviction.

Parimal Nathvani called up Mohd Shakeel and asked him to come to Delhi as soon as possible. Arranging all the documents that he collected throughout his life, perhaps for this unforeseen day, Shakeel left for Delhi on April 2, 2011. Through the senior lawyer Dushyant Dave, they filed a petition in the Supreme Court on April 4, 2011.

On the other side, on April 6, 2011, the district administration started the ‘Atikraman Hatao Abhiyan’ (Remove Encroachment Drive) and after demolishing the neighbouring Naga Baba Khatal, they gathered with police and bulldozers at Vikrant chowk. Protests were spreading fast and Congress leader Subodh Kanti Sahay was on a sit-in near the gates of the Polytechnic. Though Shakeel and other activists termed it as ‘political drama’, the situation got tenser by 11 am. While the bulldozers already dismantled several houses on their way from Vikrant chowk to Islamnagar, near the Polytechnic they faced stiff resistance. To quell the crowds, police started indiscriminate firing resulting in deaths of two youths – Guddu and Golden, both residents of Islamnagar. The deaths, however, couldn’t stop the eviction drive.

Status quo ordered by the Supreme Court, April 6, 2011.

The same day at around 2:20 pm, the Supreme Court started hearing the case. While S. Chandra Sekhar and Manoj Kumar, representing the state of Jharkhand, mentioned that the encroachment is over and that the government is done with its requirements, Dushyant Dave, from the petitioner’s side, denied such claims and asked for a stay order. The bench of Justices D.K. Jain and H.L. Dattu asked the petitioners to file an appropriate application to the high court within two days and directed that until then, the “status quo in regard to the nature, title and possession of the existing structures and the land shall be maintained”.

The fax of the verdict reached Islamnagar around 5 pm; until then almost 1,300 people had lost their homes. Gathering a few belongings, the dispersed settlers took shelter in different masjids and madrasas.

As per the Supreme Court’s directions, Mohd Shakeel approached the high court and asked for rehabilitation of the evicted population. Hearing the plea, the bench of then Chief Justice of the Jharkhand high court Bhagwati Prasad on May 12, 2011 directed the government to allot flats to the ‘verified’ families who had been staying in Islamnagar for the last 10 years. The high court verdict also gave a maximum 13 months’ timeline to complete the process of rehabilitation. Though Shakeel earlier asked for land to be given to the evicted, the government had settled for flats, against which the government’s demand of 20 years’ residential evidence was reduced to 10 years’.

Even in eviction, everybody is not equal

The process of verification that started under the supervision of district collector K.K. Shom in April 2011 enlisted only 131 people under the 20 years’ rule. However, as per the new instructions, further verification had been held and among 1,172 applicants, only 444 people were considered to be legitimate claimants of the flats. In the mean time, the evicted people were spread across Muslim localities of the city, mostly in Kantatoli and Hindpir. The concerns over security and memories of 1967 haunted them throughout. As most of the families were unable to bear the cost of the rents, Shakeel asked them to come back to their old plots and made ‘jhopdis’. Beside demolished wells and the rubble of houses, they made temporal settlements with flex, tarpaulin, cardboard and other waste materials.

In the next four years, with no progress in sight, Shakeel approached the high court, asking for its intervention. In January, 2015, hearing his plea, this court instructed Vinay Kumar Chaube, then the secretary of the State Urban Development and Housing Departments, to immediately rehabilitate the verified families. In the mean time, at Madhukam (Chanho block, Ranchi) the construction work was ongoing and the flats were being prepared for rehabilitation. Following the instructions of the high court, the decision was made to hand the flats over to verified Islamnagar residents.

However, as we already noted, even in evictions all are not equal. On January 29, 2015, a large mob came to the streets of Ranchi under the leadership of then the minister of urban development, C.P. Singh from the BJP, claiming that ‘No outsider would be allowed to come and settle in Madhukam’. As per reports, Singh said, ‘Yahan pe bahari log, Miyan logon ko rehne nahi denge (We will not let Muslims and outsiders settle here).” The logic cited by the protestors was that the first rights on the Madhukam flats would be of erstwhile residents of Naga Baba Khatal and Khadgarha. They formed the Khadgarha Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (KBSS) to stop ‘Muslim entry’ into their area.

The communal frenzy that made them leave their houses in 1967, the stigma that made their locality ‘Kachda Pada’, the institutional conspiracy that made them illegal intruders in the 1990s now made them ‘outsider Miyans’ who don’t deserve rehabilitation. Even in eviction, their rehabilitation is less significant than that of the non-Muslim residents of Naga Baba Khatal and Khadgarha.

Shakeel again moved the high court in 2017, telling the court that the residents of Islamnagar would not be safe in Madhukam and Khadgarah. Instead, he asked for their settlement in Islamnagar only. Realising the gravity of the situation, the high court allotted 6.9 acres of land, carving it out from the 28 acres of the Polytechnic land, and asked the Ranchi municipality to overhaul the construction. Under political and judicial pressure, chief minister Raghubar Das allocated Rs 33 crore for the constructions of flats in Islamnagar.

However, situation was still far from being resolved. The verification drive was initiated in 2018. Even after several objections to the second round of verification, it went on and suspiciously the clause of ‘having no pucca house in any part of the country’ was attached. The construction responsibility was given to JUDCO (Jharkhand Urban Development Corporation) and in the last four years only 291 flats had been constructed. Not a single flat had been handed over to the residents yet. On being asked what would be the fate of the 153 people whose names were listed, one of the contractors who didn’t want his name to be disclosed told us that neither they do have land provision nor money left for the construction. During our research, we nevertheless found that only 3.9 acres of land had been used, leaving three acres intact.

Constructed flats in Islamnagar remain unoccupied. Photo: Author provided

In all these years of unkept promises and protracted waiting, what people of Islamnagar have got could be summarised through the words of Jahanara Khatun: “You people take shelter during rains; we come out of our shelters as they can collapse any time.” Open defecation, water scarcity, broken roads and overflowing drains have been the eternal realities in Islamnagar. Whenever they see some new people entering their locality, their eyes sparkle with hopes: “Maybe s/he can arrange a flat for us!” Daily-wage labourer Jabir’s words elaborate on their expectations. He told us that several agents since the last verification drive, a few representing the ward councillor as well, have been giving tokens against some money with the promise that their names will be listed in the next round.

The living situation in Islamnagar. Photo: Author provided

Shabnam, in her 30s, who works as a domestic worker in the neighbourhood, gave us more difficult stories. Her mother is one of the verified claimants of the flats. However, since the beginning of the construction, neither she nor her mother could ever get into the construction site to check on the progress. She told us that nobody was allowed inside without the permission of the councillor. Not only that, when the authors planned to enter, we faced uncomfortable questions and decided to come back. There are guards placed in civil dress who have been playing the role of protectors of the property. Though Mohd Shakeel said that he expects the work to be done and the flats be allocated within another year, the residents no longer know what to below.

Since the communal attacks of 1967, throughout the struggles of the 1980s and 1990s, surviving the threats of BJP-RSS, fighting the eviction drives tooth and nail, the people of Islamnagar have forgotten how to live. In the month of Ramzan, they don’t have to keep roza as one of them laughingly said, “Humara to pura saal hi roza rehta hai! (We are on roza everyday!)” And if somebody is on roza, s/he doesn’t know where from s/he will arrange water during iftar.

When anonymity becomes the norm, perhaps people want to come out with their names. As we used to take notes in the field, several people came to us telling something that we rarely heard, “Jo bhi likh rahe hai usme mera bhi naam bhi likh lijiyega (Whatever you are writing, please add my name as well).” Islamnagar and its residents have been living anonymously for almost 45 years. Wasim, a rickshaw-puller in his early 50s, perhaps best incapsulated their feeling: “Musalman hona hi shayad humara gunah hai. Malik se hum kirayadar ban gaye aur ab to kahin ka bhi na rahe (Perhaps our biggest offence is our Muslim identity. From owner of the house, we became renter and now we don’t belong anywhere).”

Note: We have changed the names of Islamnagar residents quoted since given the environment, there were concerns over their safety. 

We want to thank Mohd Shakeel, president, Hamdard Committee for his support as without him, this research wouldn’t have been possible

Abhik Bhattacharya is a Doctoral Research Fellow, School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. He works on silencing and segregation of Muslims in Ranchi.

Arshad Raza Khan is the admin of the Facebook page ‘Muslims of Ranchi’. He is also currently pursuing his MTech from the Central University of Jharkhand.