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'Should Look Fair': SC Asks UP Govt to Show How Recent Demolition Drives Followed Laws

"Demolitions can't take place without notices, we are conscious of that," Justice Bopanna said while hearing pleas against the use of bulldozers against activists in the state.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday, June 16, asked the Uttar Pradesh government to not carry out demolition activities “except in accordance with law” and gave it three days to demonstrate how its recent drives had followed procedural and municipal laws.

Demolition drives taken up by the Adityanath-led government have so far targeted Muslim residents who have been labelled ‘masterminds’ within a day of clashes or protests. Soon after, buildings associated with them have been demolished with the administration deeming them ‘illegal’. Most recently, in Prayagraj, the administration destroyed the home of Welfare Party leader Javed Mohammad, a day after naming him a ‘key conspirator’ in the June 10 protests against BJP leaders’ comments against Islam. The house was notably in Mohammad’s wife’s name, even though the notice was in Mohammad’s name.

A vacation bench of Justices A.S. Bopanna and Vikram Nath was considering an application by the Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind in an already pending suit seeking directions to the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure that no further demolitions are carried out in the state without following due process and that such exercise is done only after adequate notice. The pleas also sought action against officials responsible.

The organisation had already filed a plea on the issue of demolition of buildings in the Jahangirpuri area of the national capital. In response, the apex court had declared status quo against the North Delhi Municipal Corporation’s demolition drive, which followed a model similar to Uttar Pradesh’s. The two fresh pleas were added to this petition.

Senior advocates C.U. Singh and Nitya Ramakrishnan, appearing for Jamiat, noted that the Uttar Pradesh authorities had taken advantage of the fact that the Jahangirpuri status quo did not apply to the state. Singh also said that notices, according to the Uttar Pradesh Urban Planning Act, should be given 15 days ahead of any demolition drive to the owner or responsible person.

Not just Mohammad’s house, but those of many others who were named accused in the June 10 protests were destroyed, as news reports – including those by The Wire – have demonstrated.

“Demolitions can’t take place without notices, we are conscious of that,” Justice Bopanna said at the outset, according to LiveLaw.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, arguing for the Uttar Pradesh government, said Jamiat had no locus in the matter. UP was also represented by senior advocate Harish Salve.

“We have to be conscious of the fact that those people whose houses are demolished may not be able to approach the court,’ Justice Bopanna responded, according to LiveLaw.

According to LiveLaw’s live tweets from the hearing, SG Mehta also noted at one point, “There’s nothing happening, [and] everyone wants to ride the bandwagon.” At another point, he said, “Petitioners rely on newspaper reports, we rely on official records. We are better informed.”

On his part, Salve sought to submit that in three instances, including in Mohammad’s case in Prayagraj, “notice was issued in May, much before the riots.” He said that because the property is “valuable”, it was therefore not owned by people who could not approach the courts. He also sought three days to put the legal papers on record.

“How do we ensure safety in meantime? We have a duty. We should ensure safety in meantime. If this court doesn’t come to rescue, that wouldn’t be proper. It should look fair,” Justice Bopanna said orally.

When the Supreme Court bench asked if proceedings had been held before demolition of properties, advocate Singh said there was none, highlighting how the chief minister and other high-ranking government position-holders have spoken of bulldozer action.

“Houses are demolished bringing in bulldozer. Highest functionaries from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and downward have said bulldozers will be employed against those who take law into their own hands,” Singh said, according to LiveLaw.

The matter will next be heard on Tuesday, June 21.

Ramakrishnan: ‘UP should know the court is serious’

While reiterating both its opposition to any form of illegality by the state, and the need to protect the people and the rule of the law, the Supreme Court did not pass interim orders in writing but did orally assert that any wrongful act of the state would only expose them.

Speaking to The Wire, Nitya Ramakrishnan said, “Normally one would not need to go to a court asking for an order that the state should not act illegally. Normally, it would be a given. The open elevation of demolitions as a law enforcement mechanism by the administrators of UP, followed through by word and gesture, has driven us to court for what should be the norm. Therefore, the fact that UP has been asked to answer our charges of illegally using demolitions against protesters or even law breakers, is significant in itself.”

She added that this and the observations made by the court through the hearing – that people must be protected, that a certain state of affairs is appearing in the reports, and that the common people should be assured of protection, of which the law officers too must be aware –  should suffice to indicate to the authorities in UP  the seriousness with which the court is viewing the issue. Whether a “stay is given” or “not given” is not an operative binary, what is important is that the State is now yoked to specific proceedings of accountability.”