In Delhi suburb, some Muslims say demolitions target them unfairly

·3 min read

By Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's Supreme Court will soon rule on whether the demolition of shops in a residential area on the outskirts of New Delhi is legal but, for Mohammed Akbar, whatever decision it makes will come too late.

Authorities say they want to remove illegal stores in Jahangirpuri, where clashes broke out between Muslims and Hindus over the weekend near a mosque and temple in which several people, including police officers, were injured.

As the bulldozers moved in on Wednesday, India's highest court intervened to stop them, but not before Akbar's shop selling cigarettes and cold drinks was destroyed.

"They took my only source of earning. How will I feed my children?" the father-of-three asked. "I have loans to pay and how will I pay for clothes for children for Eid?" added Akbar, whose daily earnings are less than $5.

He, along with some other Muslims in the area, suspect that authorities are punishing those they blame for recent communal violence. Akbar, who said he was not involved in the clashes, has had his small shop in Jahangirpuri for the past 20 years.

Residents said fighting broke out on Saturday when a crowd of Hindu worshippers, some carrying sticks and knives, moved through the area during a Hindu religious festival. At least 20 people were arrested.

Similar clashes in other parts of India have been followed by demolition drives, which critics say are an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to intimidate India's 200 million Muslims.

Vinit Goenka, a BJP spokesman, said the demolitions were not related to religion or retribution.

"Indian criminal procedure code deals with rioters and municipal law deals with illegal structures and illegal construction," he said, when asked about the criticism. "When implementing the law, name and religion is never asked."

Goenka added that people who attacked peaceful celebrations should be punished.

"A message has to be sent to rioters as prescribed in law, irrespective of his language, community, religion or belief."

The Commissioner of Municipal Corporation of Delhi responsible for overseeing the demolitions, which target buildings that authorities say encroach on to roads and pathways, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

'JUSTICE FOR ALL'

Hundreds of police in riot gear armed with batons, guns and tear gas canisters were deployed on Wednesday morning in the area before the drive to remove illegal structures.

After intervening on Wednesday, the country's top court on Thursday asked authorities to halt demolitions until further notice. The Jahangirpuri case will be heard in two weeks.

Home to scores of low-income families, some residents of the area in northwest Delhi complained that the heavy security presence made it hard for them to worship freely during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"We have been locked in our alleys for the past four days. In the month of Ramadan police have restricted our movement. We cannot even go to pray," Mohammed Ishtiyaq shouted from a locked gate in an residential alley besides the main mosque.

Marginalized members of India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority live in close quarters along the narrow alleys of Jahangirpuri. Around a dozen shops were flattened before the court's intervention, of which one was Hindu-owned.

The area was peaceful during riots that swept parts of India in 2019 and 2020, in the country's worst communal clashes in decades over Modi's new citizenship law that Muslims said discriminated against them.

Now residents fear those tensions have reached them.

An imam, who declined to be named, said the mosque where he worked had been damaged during the clearance operation.

"Justice should be equal for all, they have broken parts of the mosque and not touched the mandir," he said through the mosque's gate, referring to the nearby Hindu temple.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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