At around 2 pm on May 9, Mohammad Abbas* stood in front of his building, inspecting the damage.
“This will cost me a loss of at least Rs 20,000,” he said looking at the last rods of metal scaffolding being dismantled. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he might put the scaffolding back “in a few days”.
A few hours before, at around 11.30 am, a bulldozer with South Delhi Municipal Corporation workers had made its way towards a busy market in the Muslim-dominated area of Shaheen Bagh. The vehicle stopped outside Abbas’s Van Heusen shop.
Within minutes, hundreds of residents, party workers from the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party surrounded the bulldozer, restricting it from touching any building. Meanwhile, personnel from the Delhi police and CRPF controlled the crowd. The advocate Arfa Khanum, Congress media cell vice-chairman Parvez Alam, the party's Delhi unit leaders Ashu Khan, Hidayatullah Gentle and his wife along with few more party workers when they tried to stop the demolition.
By 12.30 pm, AAP's Okhla MLA Amanatullah Khan and Congress leader Imran Pratapgarhi reached the spot. A few senior residents, SDMC workers, police and political leaders engaged in a conversation for about 20 minutes.
Six shopkeepers told Newslaundry they received no notice about the demolitions.
Calling Abbas’ scaffolding structure an illegal encroachment, the SDMC workers said they were going to tear it down. Eventually the group decided that local residents would themselves take down the structure, instead of the bulldozer. It took another 20 minutes for the structure to be removed.
Once the scaffolding was removed, the bulldozer retreated and sped off. It did not demolish any buildings in Shaheen Bagh today.
‘Did not receive notice’
Abbas has owned the building since 2008. Two weeks ago, he put up the scaffolding in order to better display a Van Heusen signboard outside. Now, the scaffolding has been removed while the board itself hasn’t been put up.
Abbas said he wasn’t involved in any of the conversations regarding the demolition, even as politicians, residents and SDMC workers huddled together.
“No politician, no worker spoke to me about the demotion,” he said. “And neither did I receive any official notice for anyone regarding this demolition drive.”
According to the , the civic body needs to give at least five days of notice to the owner of any building constructed illegally. During this time, the owner can make required changes. If the owner fails to do so, the demolition drive takes place.
But on April 25, SDMC mayor Mukesh Suryana : “Under the MCD Act, a notice is not given to remove encroachment but where people have constructed illegal buildings, we have already served them notices.”
A few shops away, on the same road, Mohammad Zahid Ahmed, 35, told Newslaundry he reached work earlier than usual. Zahid has run a luggage store in Shaheen Bagh since 2003. The previous day, shopkeepers in the area had been abuzz with the news of an anti-encroachment drive, scheduled to take place the following day.
Mohammad Zahid Ahmed, who runs a luggage store in Shaheen Bagh.
Aftab Ahmed owns a building in Shaheen Bagh that houses six shops.
Zahid accordingly went early to keep an eye on his store. Next door, Farhan*, who has run his shop since 2008, had pulled his shutter halfway closed. Like Zahid, he too had reached his shop early.
A few days before, AAP MLA Amanatullah Khan had gone shop to shop, Zahid added, requesting shopkeepers to ensure that no hawkers or street vendors occupied the streets. “He told us to keep the pavements clean and empty,” said Zahid. “That’s all.”
But Zahid still felt the demolition drive would be postponed. Last week, an anti-encroachment drive had been scheduled to take place a few roads away, at Kalindi Kunj-Jamia Nagar. But it was when the Delhi police informed the SDMC that they did not have enough police personnel available to assist in the drive. The SDMC had also been denied permission to conduct drives in Jasola on April 28 and Okhla on April 29.
But on the morning of May 9, contingents from the Delhi police and CRPF arrived along with the bulldozer at the Shaheen Bagh market. The market has nearly 250 shops, Zahid said, and stretches along a length of around 700 metres.
Newslaundry spoke to six shopkeepers who said that they had not received any notice and had found out about the demolition drive through the media.
‘Where is the encroachment?’
Bulldozer politics first began in Delhi this year after the communal violence in North Delhi’s Jahangirpuri on April 19. A day later, seven bulldozers had rolled into Jahangirpuri and razed down several buildings, including parts of a mosque. The demolition went on for two hours, despite the Supreme Court intervening to halt it.
A day later, Adesh Gupta, the president of BJP Delhi, tweeted that he had written to the south and east municipal corporations to take “strict action against illegal encroachment on government land by Bangladeshi Rohingya and anti-social elements in their areas by running bulldozers”.
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The letter itself did not use the words “Rohingyas” or “Bangladeshis”.
The SDMC then for an anti-encroachment drive to be conducted over 10 days. The list of locations, along with dates, included the market in Shaheen Bagh, where government land had been “encroached”.
But the shopkeepers told Newslaundry they are the rightful owners of their buildings. The only “encroachment” they can be accused of is where their shops spill onto the pavements.
“Where exactly is the encroachment? We have not been told this,” said Aftab Ahmed, 35, who has owned a building that houses six shops since 1997. “As far as I know, none of the buildings themselves are encroaching on anything. If needed, the pavements can be demolished.”
Both Ahmed and Zahid said that while the buildings were not illegal, the Shaheen Bagh market is as an “unauthorised colony” – a term used by the Delhi Development Authority for settlements built in violation of zoning rules, typically on private, agricultural land. The colonies are considered part of unplanned development; Delhi has over 2,000 unauthorised colonies.
People living in unauthorised settlements cannot own property. But many residents in the area, such as Zahid, giving them proof of ownership.
Zahid also alleged the area is “under the process of getting regularised” – referring to the process by which unauthorised colonies are made “legal”. The Delhi government had, in this regard, issued a notification in 2008 titled “”. Nevertheless, media articles point out that some parts of Okhla, where Shaheen Bagh is located, have been from this regularisation process.
It remains unclear whether the said market falls within or outside the regularisation process.
The crowd at Shaheen Bagh on May 9 after the bulldozer departed.
By 3 pm, the bulldozer had left. Residents returned home, the crowd dwindled, and local vendors took up their positions on the pavements. Journalists continued to walk the streets, interviewing locals and shopkeepers.
Javed Khan* stood to the side, visibly frustrated. “First the government makes this a Hindu-Muslim thing,” he said. “Then the media comes and amplifies it.”
But Shaheen Bagh is no stranger to media frenzy. In 2019-20, it was the epicentre of the citizenship law protests, with hundreds of Muslim women spending days on the road at the protest site. Back then, the BJP’s social media head had called the protest a “”, and was like Republic and Times Now with hashtags like #ProtestOnHire. The protesters were also called Islamophobic names including “”, and more.
Ever since, Javed said, locals have stayed angry with the BJP and sections of the media. This anger was evident during the protest today too, with locals raising slogans like “Godi media, go back” during their protest against the demolition drive.
Aftab Ahmed is also frustrated with the media. “Firstly, this is so clearly a political issue and now certain media organisations are out to ruin the reputation of Shaheen Bagh,” he said. “Why is Shaheen Bagh the target for everything?”
Unlike in Jahangirpuri, the Supreme Court on May 9 to entertain a plea by the CPIM against the demolition drive. Furious, the apex court said, “You do not even go to the high court. You come straight to the Supreme Court. What is this? A political party coming here and telling us what to do.”
Meanwhile, BJP’s Adesh Gupta once again , asking that a case be registered against Congress and AAP workers for resisting the demolition. According to Kapil Mishra, known for spewing hate speech, said that Shaheen Bagh is like a “mini Pakistan where entry of bulldozer is banned”.
*Names changed to protect identities.
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