On 4 February, the stillness of cold winter morning at Srinagar’s Padshahi Bagh was taken away by the screams of Sara Sofi, an old woman crying helplessly. Hundreds of locals and media personnel have gathered near their shop where they collected solid waste.
Officials from the state Revenue department with the Tehsildar and a brigade of workers have arrived. The bulldozer is waiting for the signal. Firdous Ahmad Sofi who owns this place tries to negotiate with these officials but nothing works.
“It’s state land,” revenue officers said.
The J&K Administration has launched a major eviction drive, clearing state land from the encroachments. The drive has caused major resentment among the common people and politicians who say that the drive also is affecting poor and common people possessing small land holdings for living or survival for decades.
J&K LG Manoj Sinha stated that only “influential people” who encroach on “state land” will be targeted. But the scenes at Padshahi Bagh narrated a different tale.
“I am running this shop here for the last 30 years, from these decades no one ever told me that this is a ‘state land’. I belong to a poor family. Where should I go now?” Firdous Sofi asks Maktoob
“I am a heart patient, they are demolishing my son’s property. Aren’t they humans? We only have this place to make our livelihood. If they will demolish it, I will die here,” screams Sara Sofi.
The family alleges that they received no eviction notice before the bulldozer knocked on its door.
“We were sleeping in the morning when we heard people gathered before our shop. We reached here in complete confusion because we haven’t received any eviction letter from the authorities. It came as a shock to us. They rushed inside. We even showed them papers of this land but no one even looked at them.”
Within the next hour, a bulldozer knocked the boundary walls of another shop. A non-local Muslim family who work as rag pickers went out of their makeshift tent when they saw a bulldozer approaching it. They made a human chain to protect their home.
“We are working here for the last 20 years. We never left Kashmir. We were here when article 370 was abrogated. No one threatened us to leave but now our own government tried to demolish our makeshift home. They want us to live on roads, but we have three little daughters. Where will we go” Sakeena said.
“I belong to Dehli. I don’t have anything there. We don’t have a home in this makeshift place and ragpicker’s job is all that I have. If they will snatch this from us, we will die” cries Riza non-local labour working in this shop.
“It was Firdous bhai who gave me this job and this place in 2000. At that time he said to use this land so we made makeshift tents on it. We are living here for the last twenty years now. These officers came without any notice and ran bulldozers over our livelihood,” Sakeena exclaimed.
Firdous Ahmad Sofi lives along with his parents, he has three daughters, today around 400 non-local rag pickers work under him he started this job thirty years.
“I have a 20 lakh loan from the bank. How will I pay back that loan? For the last three days, we haven’t left this shop. We sleep here… These non-local labours are doing the job under me. I have to pay them. They don’t have anywhere to go.”
“LG administration said we will not touch any poor, but look at us it’s hardly one kanal of land. We even have documents of this land. They are forcing us to evacuate it. They are not demolishing big complexes and hotels which have encroached Hundreds of kanals of state land but, they are threatening the poor like us. Is this justice?”
“Modi had said he will make “Naya Kashmir”. Is this what he was referring to? kindly give our “old Kashmir” back to us. We were happy.”
The Jammu and Kashmir administration claims to have retrieved over 1000 kanals of state and ‘gascharai ‘(grazing)’ land from 94 influential persons, including several senior leaders, businessmen and senior police officials, across various parts of Kashmir Valley since an anti-encroachment drive was launched in early January.
Responding to the demolition of homes and businesses in Srinagar, Budgam, Anantnag and Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir that are ongoing since 4 February, Aakar Patel, chair of Amnesty International India said, “The ongoing demolitions appear to be an extension of the brutal human rights violations the region of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority region of India, has historically witnessed. These demolitions could amount to forced evictions which constitute a gross violation of human rights”.