Post-violence Haldwani: women, minors allege harassment amid police crackdown

As allegations of administrative bias emerge, police are accused of neglecting community’s concerns and disregarding proper procedure.

Published : Feb 24, 2024 17:15 IST - 8 MINS READ

Following the demolition of an “illegal” mosque and madrasa, unprecedented violence overtook the hitherto peaceful city of Haldwani, causing widespread police crackdown and unrest.

Following the demolition of an “illegal” mosque and madrasa, unprecedented violence overtook the hitherto peaceful city of Haldwani, causing widespread police crackdown and unrest. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

The dark, narrow, and largely silent streets of Banbhoolpura mohalla in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani seem shaken more than two weeks after the violence that broke out on the night of February 8 following the demolition of an “illegal” mosque and a madrasa by the authorities. Six people died in the violence and over 250 people, including civilians and police personnel, were injured, many severely. The administration issued shoot-at-sight orders to control stone-throwing and attacks on police personnel during a massive protest that day against the demolitions and the killings.

A curfew was imposed the same night and lifted only on February 20. The once serene town of Haldwani, the gateway to the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, is now draped in an ominous silence. Rajeev Lochan Shah, editor-in-chief of the local fortnightly Nainital Samachar, told Frontline that the last time a curfew was imposed in the town was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and before that in 1989 after the gang-rape of a Nepali woman. He claimed that this was the first time Haldwani was in the news for communal violence. 

Also Read | Has police inaction and administrative failure fuelled the communal clashes in Haryana’s Nuh?

More than two weeks after the violence, Banbhoolpura, situated on the eastern side of Haldwani, flanked by National Highway 109 to the South-West and the dried up Gaula river and a dumping ground to the North-East, is still picking up the pieces: shops are open but there are hardly any customers, roads leading to the area are heavily barricaded with hundreds of security personnel scattered every hundred metres. A team of security personnel has been posted at the site of the mosque and the madrassa, now rubble.

The Pushkar Singh Dhami-led BJP government in the State has vowed strict action against the “miscreants” who clashed with the police on February 8. Until February 22, the total number of arrests had reached 78. 

The predominantly Muslim area is mainly inhabited by people who provide skilled labour to the city—from auto mechanics and painters to plumbers and construction workers. A police crackdown on February 10 has left the local community in the grip of fear. While the police say they are hunting down the accused, local residents, including women and girls, accuse the police of targeting and assaulting them.

They also accuse the police of vandalising property during raids and illegally detaining and torturing people from the locality. Shahana, a resident in her late 40s, still has bruises all over her body from the day the police entered her home. While she had bruises on her legs, arms and shoulders, her two daughters suffered bruises on their thighs and neck. “The police stormed our house and started beating us up. My two sons were attending a relative’s wedding outside the village, and only we women were in the house. They didn’t listen to us, didn’t even see the wedding invitation. Even the male officers beat us up terribly. We pleaded with them but they did not listen. Then they broke our wash basins, windows, even mobile phones. Everything in the house that was even slightly valuable is now broken,” she told Frontline. One of her sons, Salman, is a driver and the other son, Rehan, is a shopkeeper.

“I told them to spare my daughter who was only in class 10. They did not listen. Two police officers, both male, took her to a corner. That’s when she started crying,” she said. Shazia (name changed), 15, told Frontline, “They took me to a corner and started asking me questions about whether I knew the stone throwers. I told them I had just returned from my tuition and did not know anything. I had a mobile phone in my pocket, and they started touching me inappropriately in the garb of taking out the phone. Then they broke the phone.” Shazia’s elder sister, Samreen (name changed), said, “I told the police officers that my mother has a cervical problem and that beating or slapping her can cause problems. They told me, ‘In that case, you should come here, and we’ll beat you instead’. But they still beat my mother, and today she was forced to go to the hospital because of the excruciating pain.”

As the police’s investigation to apprehend the accused is under way, the city’s women and children have accused them of physical assault as well as damaging their property.

As the police’s investigation to apprehend the accused is under way, the city’s women and children have accused them of physical assault as well as damaging their property. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Frontline spoke to at least eight families whose women and children were injured in police action two days after the demolition. Among those who were beaten were family members of Saleem Khan, a local reporter, whose daughter called him at 3 p.m. that day to tell him that the police had arrived at their house. Khan’s wife, Rizwana, alleged that the police broke open the door of their house and at least 10 policemen “barged inside”. Khan works at Uttaranchal Deep, a local news website. Rizwana and their two daughters were hurt so badly that they had to receive treatment in hospital for injuries in their hands, said Dr H.B. Singh who treated them. Khan’s sister-in-law had a forehead injury.

“They thrashed us brutally, even though no men were in the house at that time, and broke all our furniture. We thought that because we are the family members of a reporter we will not be dragged into this. We kept pleading with them that we were innocent. They paid no heed. They pushed us to a corner, thrashed us, and even hurled abuses,” Rizwana told Frontline. Both Shahana and Rizwana live within a few hundred metres of the demolished mosque and madrasa. One incident reported in Banbhoolpura involves a 22-year-old woman who had her kidneys operated upon only a few days earlier. Her father, Irfan Khan, said when the police entered their home, he pleaded with them not to hurt her. Khan, who is a heart patient, said he was beaten mercilessly. “She recently had kidney surgery and is still recuperating. She is also on heavy medication. We told the police, yet they beat her blue and black. You can see the bruises on her legs,” said Irfan. His daughter could hardly walk due to her medical condition.

Behind the violence

What triggered the sudden unrest on the night of February 8? Local people say that the reason is that a copy of the Quran was inside the premises when it was bulldozed. “Why did they not remove the Quran? Wouldn’t Hindus get instigated if a temple was demolished along with the idols?” asked Mohammad Haseen, 62, a daily wage worker. The police have questioned his 22-year-old son, Mohammad Azeem, over his alleged involvement in the stone throwing. 

Activists in the area said the police did not take note of local intelligence inputs which warned of possible tensions. Islam Hussain, a former journalist from Haldwani, said that the LIU (Local Intelligence Unit) report was ignored by the administration. The LIU report, in Hindi, accessed by Frontline, mentions multiple letters to the District Magistrate and Senior Superintendent of Police, Nainital, warning of possible violence over a period of four days, between January 31 and February 3. The report requests due procedure to be followed as well as handover of the religious texts to a Muslim cleric.

Despite concerns raised by community leaders and intelligence warnings of potential unrest, the administration went ahead with the demolition. “Why was the demolition not postponed until the court case regarding the land ownership was settled?” asked an activist based in Haldwani, requesting anonymity. 

Abdul Malik, the alleged mastermind behind the violence in Haldwani, was arrested in Delhi on February 24. A well-known figure in the local community, he stands accused of orchestrating the protests and overseeing the illegal construction of a madrasa, which was subsequently demolished by authorities. Police said that last year he was actively involved in providing legal assistance pro bono to families facing eviction during a Railways demolition drive. 

While speaking to Frontline in the Haldwani court, Malik’s lawyer, Arhar Beg, claimed that due legal procedure has not been followed in the demolition of the two structures. “Even if the land is not under the Waqf Board, if there is a religious structure on a private land the Waqf Act ensures protection of such structure even if a lease has ended,” he said. “We will file for restoration of the site, possession and compensation.”

The demolition was carried out by the Haldwani Municipal Corporation, which claimed that the structures were illegal encroachments on government land. The authorities’ failure to follow due legal procedure in the demolition raises questions about their actions, prompting concerns about land ownership, disputes, and potential corruption involving Nazul land. 

Also Read | Delhi Development Authority wipes out centuries-old mosque in Mehrauli

Nazul land is unclaimed land without proper paperwork that had been handed over to State governments at the time of Independence. It is said that more than half of Haldwani, including malls, religious places, shops, and houses, is built on Nazul land. “The whole Nazul system breeds corruption,” said Islam Hussain, a Haldwani-based activist, raising broader questions about the accountability of authorities in overseeing land use. 

Arrests and probe

An investigation, supported by examination of scientific evidence, is underway. Three separate First Information Reports (FIRs) have been filed, resulting in the arrest of a total of 79 accused individuals, including Malik, by the police. Regarding the investigation, the Director General of Police (DGP) stated, “We are committed to carrying out an unbiased investigation. I can’t give more details about the case but prima facie the sheer scale and ferocity of the mob violence suggests that there was an element of preparation”.

In response to allegations of brutality against women, the police have denied any such incidents. “We intend to act without any bias in full accordance with the law. There is zero tolerance in Uttarakhand Police for any kind of misbehaviour with women. If there are any credible allegations, the evidence should be presented to Commissioner Kumaon during the ongoing magisterial inquiry,” said Uttarakhand DGP, Abhinav Kumar. On the allegations from the family of the minor girl, the DGP stated that no such incident has been reported to him. “I reiterate, we in Uttarakhand Police take great pride in our motto of Mitra Police. That means dealing with all law abiding citizens with courtesy, affection and respect. Especially the women and children who come into contact with us during the discharge of our professional duties,” he added.

Meanwhile, in Banbhoolpura a whole community is trying to piece together its shattered peace, a situation that could have been prevented if the authorities had followed proper procedures and taken into account community considerations. Can Haldwani bridge the divide and rise above the debris, or will the echoes of violence continue to reverberate?

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