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"Where will we go": Forced land seizure leaves hundreds of migrants in Jammu homeless

Is the administration targeting a particular community?


The Maratha Basti shantytown, which was packed by migrant workers for the last 40-50 years, wore a devastated look after they were directed by the Indian authorities to leave.


In the Indian administered Kashmir, Maratha Basti, a railway land in the northern area of Jammu, often remains occupied by migrant workers from different Indian states. Hundreds of workers earn their livelihood by picking waste plastics from garbage heaps across the Jammu city.


The impacted also includes some Rohingya Muslims who escaped from Myanmar’s persecution. Along with Indian migrants, they too have been left under the open sky. 


Within a few days, many families departed after the land’s evacuation, while others kept returning for a few days to see if there was any prospect of returning. But after seeing all their hopes vanish, they left the place with tearful eyes.


“We’ve lived here without issue for decades. But now, the government has asked us to vacate, leaving us with no choice but to seek shelter elsewhere. Where will we go? We don’t have any place to take shelter. We looked at a few places for shelter, but the rent was too exorbitant for us to afford,” said Vishal, a Maharashtra native.


According to Vishal, migrant workers from all across the country, including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Punjab, were residing in the large area. Muslims from Myanmar, who live in a separate cluster, also reside in the slum.


Pooja, a Bihar resident, said they had lived on this land for years and were taken aback when police passed the sudden notice. 


“We don’t get more than one square meal every day. Where will we relocate with our children?” she said, adding, “We requested authorities with folded hands to allow us to stay here until we made some arrangements to shift to another location, but nobody listened to us.”


“We haven’t done anything wrong, and we’ve been living here in peace. However, I’m not sure why we’re being asked to leave,” Pooja explained.

 

Representative Image | Shutterstock


“The Maratha Basti has been gutted with fire three times in the last decade, leaving many families devastated and claiming a girl’s life,” Vishal, 26, told South Asian Today.

 

A big blaze at the slum on June 3, 2019, damaged over 150 huts, including 41 belonging to Rohingya Muslims, while another significant fire destroyed dozens of hutments in April 2021. While residents were able to overcome such incidents, they are now discouraged by the government’s decision to cleanse the area of all occupants.


According to official sources, the railway land was home to approximately 100 migrant labourer families and 38 Rohingya households.


The notice to vacate was served in response to the issue raised by the railway authorities with the district administration, officials said, expressing hope that the land would be handed over to the railway authorities in the shortest possible time.


Facing persecution, Rohingyas fled Myanmar, and many of them entered India illegally through Bangladesh and took shelter in different parts of the country, including Jammu.


According to government data, over 13,700 foreigners, including Rohingyas and Bangladeshi nationals, are settled in the Jammu and Samba districts of Jammu and Kashmir. Their population has increased by over 6,000 between 2008 and 2016.


Over 200 Rohingyas are also lodged in a holding centre in Kathua after they were found living illegally in Jammu city during a verification drive in March last year.


The Jammu and Kashmir High Court had given the administration six weeks to identify the unlawful immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh residing in the Union Territory.


When his family members were busy collecting their possessions, Mohammad Zakir, a Rohingya Muslim worker, stated, “If we return to our homeland, we would be slaughtered.”


Shamsul Alam, also a Rohingya Muslim worker, claimed that many of them were observing Ramzan fast and found it difficult to find shelter due to the extreme heat.


It is pertinent to mention that the Jammu and Kashmir administration has started an encroachment drive against land encroachers for the last few years. Many people have alleged that the administration makes selective drives against a particular community. In many places, administrations have received a stiff public response, but in some areas, the government has successfully vacated the land.


In March 2022, authorities carried out a massive anti-encroachment drive in Bathindi, a Muslim majority area in Jammu, which triggered massive protests by people. During that drive, 84 structures, including six large commercial buildings, were demolished, and 32.5 acres of land worth crores of rupees were retrieved. 


Dozens of structures, including buildings and shops, were demolished wholly or partially by the revenue department amid heavy deployment of police and paramilitary forces.

 

The inhumane treatment by the authorities casts further uncertainty on an already vulnerable group.

About the author

Mubashir Naik is an independent journalist based in the Indian administered Kashmir. Tweets | @sule_khaak

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