They knew a verification campaign was coming, but little had prepared the Sapera Basti of some 500 people in Dehradun for Wednesday morning, when a team descended from the local Prem Nagar police station with a reserved force, two buses , two SUVs and motorcycles, blocking their main exit.
Within minutes, half a dozen youths were captured and taken away.
This was a fortnight after the start of the verification campaign which began on April 21, before the Char Dham Yatra. Following requests from some sadhus to ban the entry of “non-Hindus” into the Char Dham region to “preserve the dharma and culture of the Himalayan region”, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami announced that people coming to the state for the Yatra should undergo “proper vetting” so that those who might pose a threat to the peace do not enter.
According to DGP Ashok Kumar, they carry out a detailed check of those who come for the Yatra and identify any elements that may “disturb the peace”, including laborers, street vendors and tenants.
The Char Dham Yatra began on May 3, with the opening of the gates of the Gangotri and Yamunotri temples. The Badrinath temple gates will open on Monday.
Until last week, Uttarakhand police claimed to have completed vetting of more than 67,000 people across the state, finding at least 2,526 ‘suspects’. In accordance with the Police Act, they received a challan. At least 10 people have been taken into custody.
The Sapera Basti was once home to traditional snake charmers, who started doing odd jobs since the ban on keeping snakes. Many of them in this illegally developed settlement are now beggars; police say many of them also deal in marijuana.
“These people moved here from different states and have nothing here. The land on which they built huts is government land. We continue to receive reports that some are involved in crimes like chain robbery and vehicle theft,” says Manoj Nainwal, SO of Prem Nagar Police Station, as he oversees Wednesday’s conduct, adding: “That’s why we have to get them out of here. And we will remove them.
He grabs a man from Nagpur and puts him in a police vehicle, ignoring his pleas that he makes a living by removing earwax. Another who claims to be a local is also arrested because he has no ID on him.
Police also check shacks for “suspicious items” and find a cannabis plantation. Some motorcycles are seized after their owners cannot provide documents for them. Some are searched for drugs. Many are arrested because they “look suspicious” and taken to the police station.
Several settled in the Basti from other states are asked to leave. Those who claim to be residents of Dehradun are asked to leave government land; officials also threaten to use bulldozers to clear the huts if they are not gone the next day.
The SO says they will take “suspicious items” to the police station for verification. “People taken into custody…we will check their papers and call their hometown police stations to check if they have any criminal backgrounds. Otherwise, we will let them go. Vehicles seized by us will also be released to their owners when they provide us with the paperwork.
DGP Kumar says the will is only to verify “outsiders” and dismisses questions about threats made by officials during the verification. The police can only intervene when a “criminal element” is identified, and some people can “add some things on their own”, he says.
“The police only have the right to ask someone to leave a place if the suspect is a foreign national. No one can be asked to leave a state as long as they are an Indian national and have documents to prove it. If the person lives in an illegal basti, the police have no right to request eviction. Only the administration and the government can do it…Police officials have been informed,” he said.
During the briefing, Sub-Inspector PS Negi, who is part of Wednesday’s campaign, said: “We have been informed that we have to raid the area and carry out a physical check of people. Our duty is to check their identity papers, to see if they have drugs, to check their vehicles and their papers. Negi says they were told to film the whole process.
Wednesday’s trip lasts two hours, and as the police leave, there is silence in the basti. A meeting is called by the residents to discuss their next course of action. The first priority is to get the detainees released.
Sunawwar Devi claims that among the motorcycles seized is that of her husband Sameen Nath. “They took it and threatened to blow up our house with a bulldozer if we didn’t leave. My husband is not there. I told them I had the insurance and shopping bill but they wanted the registration certificate, and it’s at my brother-in-law’s, who’s in a rehab. I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Raghubir Singh, 72, who has an Aadhaar card showing Dehradun as his local address, is worried about what happens next. “We are banjaras and have no permanent home. I have lived here for 12 years and I sell herbal medicine… The last time the police came here was three years ago,” he says.
Claiming that most people in Basti have voter cards with an address in Dehradun, Mukesh, 35, a rag picker, says that during elections politicians come to collect their votes and do not return for the next five years. He also claims that it is foreigners who use their area for drug use, earning them a bad reputation.
State Congress Speaker Karan Mahara said that while similar campaigns had also taken place under previous governments, the motivation of the current one had raised suspicions. “The campaign started after a so-called saint wrote a letter to the CM demanding a ban on non-Hindus. The saint even became a hero for raising the demand…If the drive starts after a demand for action against non-Hindus, one can imagine what that will bring,” says Mahara.