Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh): The Uttar Pradesh government’s alleged plan to remove over a dozen houses in the vicinity of the Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur “for the deployment of police forces to provide a security cover to the temple” has triggered an uproar. The families affected by the state government’s move allege that they were made to sign the consent forms under pressure and were not given the complete information. The district administration, on the other hand, claims that the security plan is still in its nascent stages and no one is being coerced – all the families have signed the memorandum of understanding (MoU) without any pressure, it claimed.
The families who signed the said MoU seem scared and worried. Most of them have either switched off their mobile phones or are not picking up calls. Members of three affected families told The Wire that they signed the MoU after the lekhpal and other officials from the district headquarters visited them and measured their property. One of the families said that revenue officials told them about the acquisition of their house, but claimed that they would be able to provide detailed information once they get a notice in writing.
The matter was first highlighted on social media on May 28, when a copy of a consent letter began circulating. The letter stated, “In line with the government’s decision for the deployment of police force in the Gorakhnath temple area for providing security to the Gorakhnath temple, we, the undersigned residents of village Old Gorakhpur Tappa, Qasba Pargana Haveli, Tehsil Sadar Janpad, Gorakhpur, situated on the south-east corner of the Gorakhnath temple, have agreed to transfer our land and houses to the government. We have no objection whatsoever. Regarding our consent in the matter, please find our signatures below.”
The document bears the name, father’s name and mobile number of 19 people from 11 families. The last column includes their signatures along with the date of signing. For six people from two families – Iqbal Ahmed and Anwar Ahmed, S/o Late Imadul Hasan, Mohd. Akmal, Mohd Sahil, Mohd. Sharjil and Mohd Israel – their signatures and mobile numbers are missing. The document no official’s name, nor any signature or seal on it.
After the consent letter went viral on social media, the district administration’s actions quickly came under the scanner. A Delhi-based news portal, The Quint, and another portal, IndiaTomorrow.in, carried reports on it. Masihuzzama Ansari, who reported the matter on IndiaTomorrow.in, alleges that when he tried to seek inputs from the district magistrate, Vijayendra Pandian, regarding the notice, Pandian threatened to invoke the National Security Act (NSA) against Ansari. “When I tried to speak to the DM regarding the notice served to Muslim families to vacate their houses adjoining the Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur, I was subjected to misbehaviour and threatened with charges under the NSA, accusing me of spreading rumours. I have lodged a complaint with the NHRC,” tweeted Ansari.
State president of the Congress’s minority cell, Shahnawaz Alam, released the audio of a conversation between the journalist and the Gorakhpur DM on June 3. In his statement, Alam said, “The administration has forcibly got the consent letter signed asking Muslim families to vacate the land, who have been settled there for 125 years on the south-eastern corner of Gorakhnath Math. The affected families have stated it on record while speaking to several journalists. There are several news reports about it too. But instead of ensuring justice to the people, DM Vijayendra Pandian is not only refuting the claim of forcing people to sign the consent letter but is in fact threatening to impose NSA charges against journalists reporting the matter.”
Alam has demanded the immediate suspension of the DM and a judicial inquiry into the entire matter. “The chief minister should not resort to such immoral and anti-democratic work, keeping in mind the dignity of his post and that of the great saint, Gorakhnath ji,” he added.
Upon investigation, it was found that on May 27, the lekhpal and other employees of Sadar tehsil, along with the police, took measurements of houses located close to the bank and post office near the main gate of the Gorakhnath temple. While speaking to the residents the next day, the lekhpal and other officials mentioned the deployment of police forces in the area for security reasons and said that the houses and land would be acquired for this purpose in exchange for a compensation amount of twice the circle rate. The local residents were then asked to sign a piece of paper. Revenue officials of Sadar tehsil also met residents of three more houses located near the boundary wall just behind the temple and raised the matter, but they have not been asked to sign anything yet.
Meanwhile, the administration has failed to provide any concrete information regarding the proposed security arrangements around the Gorakhnath temple and the amount and location of land required for the purpose.
The Gorakhnath temple complex is spread over an area of 52 acres and a police security post is situated inside the complex. The Gorakhnath police station is located on the eastern track of the road near the main gate of the temple.
The signatories of the said ‘consent’ letter include Mohd Faizan, Mohd Imran and Mohd Salman s/o Late Fazlur Rehman, Mohd Zahid, Mohd Tariq and Mohd Aashiq s/o Late Sajid Hussain, Mohd Shahid Hussain, Mohd Shahir Hussain, Khurshid Alam, Mohd Jamshed Alam s/o Late Abdul Rehman, Musheer Ahmed s/o Late Nazir Ahmed, and Noor Mohammad s/o Late Deen Mohammed.
Forty-five-year-old Noor Mohammad lives with his five brothers and their families in a 2,200-square-foot house. The compound has a TV repair shop owned by the family as well as a grocery store. He says that the lekhpal and other officials visited them consecutively for 2-3 days and told them that the house would be acquired for security reasons. They claimed that a compensation amount twice the circle rate will be paid in exchange for the house. Mohammed says that he was made to sign a paper which was plain, without any letter head. It bore no official name or seal on it.
According to Mohammad, the family’s livelihood depends on the house. “My grandfather’s grandfather has lived here. There is no other place for us to go. The government might give compensation but what about our livelihood?”
Mohammad says he is not very educated and does not understand the matter properly. “We have discussed it among ourselves. I will do what everyone else decides.” He says that he did not sign the paper under any pressure. “Baba (chief minister Yogi Adityanath) is about to visit Gorakhpur. We will speak to him together.”
A retired railway employee, 71-year-old Jawed Akhtar, who signed the purported MoU, says he signed the paper under pressure and that he was threatened with consequences. The lekhpal and other officials who visited his house told him that if he did not sign the paper, they would resort to other ways, he alleges. Even those who have signed did so under pressure and are not ready to give up their house, according to Akhtar.
Akhtar says that on May 27, when the lekhpal and other officials were taking measurements of his and his neighbour’s houses, he thought that they were planning to widen the road and so each of the residents might have to give up about two feet of their property. However, the revenue personnel later told them that the entire house would be acquired and in its place a police post would be constructed. There was no discussion of compensation for the house owners. “On the paper I signed, everyone’s names were already printed. It mentioned that the house would be taken for security reasons,” he says.
Akhtar, who retired in 2010, says that he runs a general store while his brother operates a flour mill in the house. His house has a commercial value and they do not possess any property anywhere else. Therefore, he insists that they should not be evicted from the house. When asked what he would do if his house is acquired, Akhtar says that they will fight for it. “We have discussed the matter among ourselves. We will take a decision according to the next step taken by the administration,” he says.
Another signatory of the so-called MoU is a 70-year-old weaver, Musheer Ahmed. He says that on May 27, the lekhpal and other officials, who came with the police, measured his house and nearby houses. The next day the same people came again and said that due to security reasons, work has to be carried out here and asked him to sign a consent form. “I signed it but later learned that my house would be taken over for this purpose. Since then my family members have been crying,” says Ahmed.
He says that on June 2, the tehsildar, lekhpal and other officials had visited them and said that the government needs their land. They claimed that the property would be acquired with the owner’s consent. “I do not understand why my 150-year-old house is being taken away. I feel scared. But before raising our voice against it, we want to meet the chief minister and discuss it,” he says.
“I hope I have not signed a death warrant for myself and my family,” says a visibly worried Ahmed.
According to Ahmed, his grandfather and great-grandfather lived in this house built over 2,000 square feet. Earlier, the house had mud walls. Now, they have constructed a concrete structure in its place. “I share the house with the families of my two brothers,” he says. “One of my sons earns a living from a book shop while another runs a flour mill. There are four powerlooms in the house but we earn nothing from them. The powerlooms have not been used for the last 1.5 months. They are in such bad condition that using them can only fetch as little as Rs 100-Rs 150 in a year.”
Ahmed has no land or property other than this house. “This house is our residence as well as our source of livelihood. How can we give it up? The administration will only get this house over my dead body.”
Firoz Ahmed and Intezar Hussain’s house is located right behind the Gorakhnath temple complex. Hussain, a teacher, says that on the afternoon of May 28, officers and employees of the tehsil visited him. They told him that his house is being acquired for security purposes and asked him to vacate it. In exchange, they said, he would be paid appropriate compensation. “I asked them to give it in writing, only then I will be able to give a reply. The officials visited me again on June 2 and tried to coerce me, but I gave the same reply. Then I was told to visit the tehsil at 4 pm and speak to senior officials but I did not go there. So far, I have not been handed any paper nor asked to sign anything. I have come to know that the houses of my neighbours Afzal Ahmed and Wasi Ahmed have also been measured and a discussion has been held with them. There is a graveyard nearby which might be acquired as well, it is said.”
Hussain lives with his elder brother Firoz’s family in this 2,100-square-feet house. Firoz runs a shop in the house. Hussain says that his sister-in-law has taken ill after learning about the government’s intention to take over the house.
According to Hussain, their house is to the south-west of the temple. “I came to know that 11 houses on the south-east side of the temple are being acquired by the government. I went to meet the affected families and tried to find out why the government is eyeing our land and property but found no clear answer. Those who have signed the MoU are now regretting it as they do not want to give up their houses.”
When The Wire contacted Jamshed Alam, another signatory of the purported MoU, he said that everyone else has also signed it and immediately disconnected the call. Another local resident, Shahid Hussain’s phone was switched off while Shahir Hussain and Khurshid Alam did not answer The Wire‘s call. Attempts to contact Mohd Faizan, Mohd Imran and Mohd Salman also failed.
In this regard, Sadar tehsildar Sanjeev Dixit says, “No action has been taken officially nor has anyone been served a notice. Neither any land measurements have been carried out at tehsil level nor any papers have been signed. This plan is still in its nascent stages. When a plan is devised, action will be taken as per the rules. Only consent has been sought as of now. DM sahib has issued a statement in this regard. We have received information about the paper which is circulating on social media. It has been circulated by an outsider. If you ask the people here, they will tell you that no coercive action has been taken.”
Many localities around the Gorakhnath temple – Naurangabad, Zahidabad, Purana Gorakhpur, Humayunpur and Rasulpur – are predominantly inhabited by the weaver community, which constitutes a population of about one lakh people. Their living conditions are rather poor now. Till 1990, Gorakhpur had more than 17,000 handlooms but now less than 150 handlooms are left.
Post 1990, weavers switched to powerlooms and 8,500 such looms were installed in Gorakhpur, but now their number has reduced to 3,000. The weavers have been forced to sell their looms as junk and are instead pulling carts and running shops. Ahmed is one of those weavers who, despite having four powerlooms, is facing a severe financial crisis. With the government’s plan to acquire his house, he is worried and uncertain about the future.
Manoj Singh is the editor of the website Gorakhpur Newsline.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.