Authorities in Uttarakhand state’s Haldwani town bulldoze a mosque and religious school, triggering anger among the residents.
At least five people have been killed and dozens others injured during a protest sparked by the demolition of a mosque and a religious school in India, the latest in a spate of demolitions targeting Muslim structures.
Municipal authorities in Haldwani town in the northern state of Uttarakhand bulldozed the buildings on Thursday, saying they had been built without permission.
Police said Muslims torched vehicles and threw stones at them in the protest that followed, prompting them to fire live ammunition and tear gas in response.
A top police official in Uttarakhand on Friday told The Indian Express newspaper five people were killed in the protest, but did not identify them. Dozens of others, including police officers, were wounded and are being treated in various hospitals of the city.
Vandana Singh, the district magistrate of Nainital district, where Haldwani is located, said at a news conference the demolition and its aftermath were “not communal and should not be seen as such”.
She said the protest was linked to a government drive to demolish a “property that is neither registered as religious site nor has it been given any such recognition”.
“Some call the structure a madrassa,” she added.
But residents said the mosque and the school in Haldwani’s Banphoolpura area were nearly two decades old and had been unfairly targeted. They also said all those killed in the police firing were Muslim.
“When the police arrived with bulldozers, the men were at work. When the women protested the demolition, the police batoncharged and teargassed us,” Najma Khanum, 21, a resident of Malik Ka Bagicha in Banbhoolpura told Al Jazeera.
Authorities in Haldwani have given shoot-on-sight orders, imposed a curfew, suspended internet services, closed schools and banned large gatherings.
Sumit Hridayesh, a state legislator from the opposition Indian National Congress party who represents Haldwani, said the violence was a result of “hasty action” by the administration. He said locals in the area, including Muslim leaders, should have been notified before the demolition was carried out.
Uttarakhand’s chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, said the government would take the “strictest action against rioters and miscreants”.
“Police have been given clear instructions to deal strictly with unruly elements,” he said in a statement. “Every rioter who indulged in arson and stone pelting is being identified. No miscreant who disturbs harmony and peace will be spared.”
In January last year, there were widespread protests in Haldwani, a Himalayan town about 270km (170 miles) northeast of New Delhi, after authorities ordered the demolition of nearly 4,000 homes that had allegedly encroached on land owned by the state-run railways.
The drive was stayed by the Supreme Court, which said 50,000 people “cannot be uprooted overnight”.
Hindu supremacist groups have been emboldened in their campaign against Muslims and their religious structures since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office a decade ago.
Last month, Modi inaugurated a Hindu temple in the northern city of Ayodhya, built on the site of a centuries-old Mughal-era mosque that was destroyed by Hindu zealots in 1992.
Muslim groups have also accused governments controlled by Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) of using bulldozers to illegally demolish the homes and businesses of people accused of violence.
In two reports published together this week, the human rights group Amnesty International documented the “punitive” demolition of at least 128 Muslim properties from April to June 2022, rendering at least 617 people either homeless or without livelihoods.
“The unlawful demolition of Muslim properties by the Indian authorities, peddled as ‘bulldozer justice’ by political leaders and media, is cruel and appalling. … They are destroying families – and must stop immediately,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Rights groups have also accused Modi of looking the other way and sometimes enabling hate speech against Muslims, who comprise 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people. Modi’s BJP denies the accusations.__Al Jazeera