The Haldwani case: how an eviction battle ascended to the Supreme Court and why it never should have
By JAKUB FEGYVERES
After almost a decade of litigation, the Indian Supreme Court has decided to ‘stay’ the eviction of thousands of residents of the north-western city of Haldwani in the state of Uttarakhand. The court case began in 2013, after a Public Interest Lawsuit (PIL) was filed by the Indian State, alleging that the thousands of residents were ‘encroaching’ on land belonging to North-Eastern Railways.
The Supreme Court’s decision means that a ‘workable arrangement’ will need to be found, though the possibility of mass eviction remains a terrifying prospect for almost four thousand families and over fifty thousand residents. This would obviously exacerbate India’s pressing issues with homelessness, as over 1.5 million people are forced to live on the streets. Adding insult to injury, the mountainous state is currently experiencing a cold wave, with temperatures fluctuating around 1 degree Celsius.
The case ascended to the Supreme Court after a controversial High Court Decision, which ordered the demolition of the area marked as encroached upon. However, most of the homes destined for demolition have been standing for over a hundred years, calling the timing of the PIL into question. If the homes have been illegal since they were built, why has it taken a century for them to be prosecuted for it? Even more perplexingly, the ‘encroached land’ includes fourteen places of worship, a bank, and fifteen schools, four of which are state-built. How often does a state fight a decade-long legal battle which – in the event of their victory – involves the destruction of their own property?
While the verdict may seem strange, a simple search of the state’s judicial database reveals that the High Court judge leading this case (Honourable Justice Sharad Kumar Sharma) advocated on behalf of the Uttarakhand Transport Corporation before ascending to the bench. This means that, in a country like the USA, conflict of interest laws would most likely have prevented Justice Sharma from ever adjudicating on this case.
However, the Indian judicial system ostensibly relies more on v
ague principles than codified laws when it comes to conflict of interest, with the Business Standard reporting that ‘’there is a crying need for attention in this space’’. Hence, a judge who previously represented the Uttarakhand Transport Corporation (as an advocate) is able to adjudicate this case involving Haldwani Railways. To be clear, I am not implying any illegality, but it seems unfair that Justice Sharma was assigned to this case. His involvement could possibly explain the absurd High Court verdict, which has since been condemned by Amnesty International, among other organisations.
In a completely unrelated 2022 statistic, 86% of Indians think India is a corrupt country.
There are also other factors to consider in this court case. For instance, a nation-wide poll conducted in 2013 - the year the PIL was filed - revealed that a staggering 94% of Indians view Pakistan as a threat. On a related note, a religious dimension has also been thrust upon the evictions, as Uttarakhand has a much higher percentage of Muslims than most of India. This has led some to speculate that the evictions are religiously motivated, as Muslims are a minority religion in India, with Hindus being the majority.
Islam also has a noticeable presence in the area marked as ‘encroached’. Ten of the fourteen aforementioned places of worship are mosques, for instance. As well as this, there is significant evidence of the disenfranchisement of religious minorities in India more generally. Research conducted in 2020 revealed that 83% of Hindus (from a collection of states including Uttarakhand) agreed that ‘’being Hindu is very important to being truly Indian’’.
The case has also become heavily politicised, as some residents claim that the demography of the region has hindered the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) from making substantial gains. Indian opposition leaders, who have joined the residents in protest of the evictions, support this point, which the BJP strenuously denies. The statistics are clearly on the side of the opposition, however, as only 19% of Muslims said they voted for the BJP in the 2019 parliamentary election.
Could the lawsuit have been intended as a way to further marginalise political and religious minorities, or dissua
de potential Pakistani migration?
The data laid out above makes for troubling reading, especially in the context of this case. It includes all but damning evidence that the case for eviction is not only thin at best, but also carries a potential demographic undercurrent, supplying a motive for an otherwise questionable lawsuit.
What is, in my opinion, even more troubling is the lack of international coverage this case has received. Journalists have the power to present a much needed magnifying glass to issues like this, where thousands of lives could be needlessly ruined yet they don’t. Arguably, it is only because of the limited coverage within India that the eviction was ‘stayed’ in the first place, now it is time for it to be fully overturned.
Another Supreme Court hearing is scheduled for the 7th of February.
Image: Unsplash/ Amol Sonar