Even if the headline moniker of ‘Bulldozing’ ignites a spark relating to the recent developments in Jahangirpuri, this article, is no attempt to conflate the current nationwide anti-encroachment drives with the Turkman Gate demolition riots that flowered during the Emergency.
History has a tendency to be pulled out of frozen narratives to often justify or call out actions in the present. When Senior Advocate and Congress Leader Kapil Sibal argued before the Supreme Court that encroachments that have been demolished so far have been associated with Muslims in the country, he was reminded that the properties owned by Hindus were demolished as well.
The attempts of communalising the demolitions, while suggesting that encroachments have ‘no religion’, are itself demolished when one runs through the Emergency era’s Delhi Beautification campaign that drove off more than 7 lakh people from Delhi’s unauthorised slums in less than two years. Perhaps, one also needs to be reminded of the grim Turkman Gate massacre that saw the police opening fire on residents opposing the demolition of their homes.
Sanjay Gandhi’s Delhi Beautification Drive
During the Emergency years, Sanjay Gandhi, whose only claim to power was being the Prime Minister’s son, launched the demolition drive to clear Delhi of unauthorised slums and settlements. This would force the poor to relocate to the nearby villages in large numbers. Vice-President of the Delhi Development Authority, Jagmohan Malhotra was prompted to carry out the demolition at Sanjay Gandhi’s behest. Many orders for the demolitions were given by Gandhi orally, while he did not hold any constitutional post to carry out the operations officially.
Demolitions in Karol Bagh, Jama Masjid area and Turkman Gate were carried out with a special interest. The growing support for the Jana Sangh from the shopkeepers of Karol Bagh had miffed Sanjay Gandhi. Muslim residents in Delhi’s old areas had also criticised Gandhi’s ‘Beautify Delhi’ plan. Bulldozers embarked upon the houses in Karol Bagh and shops were razed because Gandhi, once had not received a cordial reception during his visit. Reportedly, when the shopkeepers requested Sanjay Gandhi to take back the demolition, he returned back saying, “you shall pay for supporting the Jana Sangh.”
Emma Tarlo’s book “Unsettling Of The Emergency: Narratives Of The Emergency In Delhi”, estimates a total of 70,000 people being displaced from slums and commercial properties in large areas of old Delhi, within a mere 21 months. While no official record of demolition exercises is found, the authorities were actively involved in damaging evidence with the help of civic officials. Even the media was barred from reporting the incidents owing to the censorship imposed by the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency.
The Turkman Gate Massacre
On 18 April 1976, the police opened fire on protesters opposing the demolition of their homes in the Turkan Gate area. With a clarification that they are living in the area since the Mughal times, the residents living in the alleys which run beyond the Darwaza refused to cooperate in the slum clearance drive. On the morning of April 18, around 15 bulldozers rammed through the Turkman Gate and started razing houses, and shops of the residents. Temporary shelters for the herdsman Ghosi community were also not spared. When people objected, police resorted to violence and started fire upon the dwellers.
There have been reports of stone-pelting on the demolition squad, which are counted as a trigger for the violence in some narratives. A local guide has claimed that nine of his friends were killed by police. The prelude to the Turkman Gate massacre however was the sterilization camp championed by Sanjay Gandhi in the area. His aide Rukhsana Sultana, also actor Amrita Singh’s wife, was tasked to carry out sterilization camps in the Turkman Gate area. The resentment against Sanjay Gandhi among local Muslims was triggered after attempts of Sultana to propagate the benefits of Nasbandi among the populace in the area, which is considered Haram in Islam.
According to the Shah Commission report, the bloody conflict took around 20 lives after the police resorted the arms and brutality against the residents. As bulldozers traversed through the dark area of Turkman Gate, with electricity cut off, the Turkman gate episode remains yet another whitewashed incident in India’s modern history. As Journalist Michael Henderson noted in his book, “Turkman Gate is where it came to grief. People speak the words now in the way that they spoke of Jallianwala Bagh after General Dyer’s massacre in 1919.”
The unrelenting demolition carried around by Sanjay Gandhi to settle personal scores is a grim reminder of the overreach of the state inside the lives of the citizens. Marked by Police brutality and political agony, the Emergency demolitions remind the authoritarian overtones of the Indira Gandhi regime in the 1970s.