They knew a verification drive was coming but little had prepared the Sapera Basti of 500-odd 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, around half-a-dozen youngsters had been caught and taken away.
It was a fortnight into the verification drive that started on April 21, ahead of the Char Dham Yatra. Following demands raised by some sadhus that the entry of “non-Hindus” should be banned in the Char Dham area 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 would have to undergo “proper verification” so that those who may pose a threat to peace did not enter.
According to DGP Ashok Kumar, they are doing a detailed verification of those coming for the Yatra, and identifying any elements which may “disturb the peace”, including labourers, street hawkers and tenants.
The Char Dham Yatra began on May 3, with the opening of the portals of Gangotri and Yamunotri temples. The portals of Badrinath Temple will open on Monday.
Till the past week, the Uttarakhand Police claimed to have finished verification of over 67,000 people across the state, finding at least 2,526 to be “suspicious”. As per the Police Act, they were issued a challan. At least 10 people have been taken into custody.
The Sapera Basti once housed traditional snake charmers, who have moved to doing odd jobs since the ban on keeping serpents. Many of them in this illegally developed settlement are now beggars; police say a large number also trade in marijuana.
“These people have settled here from different states and have nothing here. The land they have built huts on is government land. We keep getting information that some are involved in crimes like chain-snatching and vehicle thefts,” says Manoj Nainwal, SO of Prem Nagar Police Station, as he supervises Wednesday’s drive, adding: “This is why we have to remove them from here. And we will remove them.”
He catches a man originally from Nagpur, and puts him in a police vehicle, ignoring his pleas that he makes a living removing ear wax. Another who claims to be a local is also picked up as he does not have any ID on him.
Police also check the shanties for “suspicious items”, and find a plantation of cannabis. Some motorcycles are seized after their owners cannot provide documents for them. Some are frisked for drugs. Many are picked up as they “appear suspicious” and taken to the police station.
Several settled in the Basti from other states are asked to go back. Those who claim to be Dehradun residents are asked to vacate the government land; officials also threaten to use bulldozers to clear the huts if they are not gone by the next day.
The SO says they will take the “suspicious elements” to the police station for verification. “The persons taken into custody… we will check their documents and call police stations in their hometowns to check if they have a criminal history. If not, we will let them go. The vehicles we have seized will also be given to their owners when they provide us the papers.”
DGP Kumar says the drive is only to verify “outsiders”, and brushes away questions on threats made by officials during the verification. Police can only take action when a “criminal element” is identified, and some people may be “adding some things on their own”, he says.
“Police only have the right to ask someone to leave a place if the suspect is a foreign national. No person can be asked to leave any state as long as the person is an Indian national and has documents to prove the same. If the person is living in an illegal basti, police do not have the right to ask for eviction. Only the administration and the government can do that… The police officials have been briefed,” he said.
On the briefing, Sub-Inspector P S Negi, who is part of Wednesday’s drive, says: “We were informed that we have to raid the area and do physical verification of people. Our duty is to check their identity proofs, see if they have any drugs, and check their vehicles and papers.” Negi says they were told to videograph the entire process.
Wednesday’s drive lasts two hours, and as police leave, there is silence in the basti. A meeting is called by residents to discuss their next course of action. The first priority is to get those detained released.
Sunawwar Devi claims that among the seized motorcycles is one belonging to her husband Sameen Nath. “They took it and threatened to drive a bulldozer on our house if we did not leave. My husband is not here. I told them I have the insurance and purchase bill but they wanted the registration certificate, and that is with my brother-in-law, who is in a de-addiction centre. I do not know what to do,” she says.
Raghubir Singh, 72, who has an Aadhaar card showing Dehradun as his local address, is worried about what comes next. “We are banjaras and do not have a permanent home. I have been living here for 12 years and sell medicinal herbs… The last time police were here was three years ago,” he says.
Claiming that most of the Basti residents have voter ID cards with a Dehradun address, Mukesh, 35, a ragpicker, says that during elections, politicians come seeking their votes, and don’t return for the next five years. He also claims that it is outsiders who use their area to consume drugs, getting them a bad reputation.
Congress state president Karan Mahara says that while similar drives were held under previous governments as well, the motivation of the current one had raised suspicions. “The drive started after a so-called saint wrote a letter to the CM demanding a ban on non-Hindus. The saint was even made a hero for raising the demand… If the drive starts after a demand for action on non-Hindus, one can imagine what it will bring,” says Mahara.