For as long as she can remember, 62-year-old Sushma Dutt has voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with her extended family. “Hum log jhund mein BJP ko vote karte hai. Jab pichli baar aur logo ne nahi kiya, tab bhi humne BJP ko hi vote kiya (We vote for the BJP collectively. Last time when others didn’t vote for them, we still did),” she says.
By ‘last time,’ Dutt is referring to the December 2022 Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) polls, in which the BJP saw a defeat at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party, ending its 15-year-long rule. The party lost in 146 of 250 wards in the city, including the one where Sushma resides — Tughlakabad.
“Par kya fayda hua? Party ne hamara saath nahi diya (But what’s point? The party didn’t stand by us),” Dutt laments. “We are not Rohingya or Bengali Muslims. The government has issues with them. But why trouble us? If they want to remove Muslims, they should do that. We are Hindus,” she said.
Tughlakabad village has over 2 lakh residents, several thousands of whom are today facing the threat of eviction and their homes being demolished. Dutt resides in the ‘Churia’ mohalla of the village, the only one to have so far received the eviction notice from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). But the Churia mohalla, which has come to be known as the ‘Bengali colony’, for the high number of Bengalis residing there, also happens to be the biggest one in the village .
“Today it is us, tomorrow it will be the rest of the colonies,” says Suman Uday, another resident in the Bengali colony. “BJP says this is Ram Rajya. I worship Ram everyday inside my home. But if my home is demolished, the Ram ji in my small temple will also be evicted. How is it Ram Rajya then?” she asks. All colonies in the area are clusters divided on the basis of castes – there’s the Jat mohalla, the Kumhar mohalla, the Jatav mohalla, the Gujjar mohalla, the Valmiki mohalla, and so on.
Many residents in these mohallas or colonies have been ardent BJP supporters, and their caste-community has traditionally voted for the party. But when, on 11 January, the Bengali colony was served an eviction notice and asked to pack up their bags within 15 days, a wave of insecurity, fear, and sense of betrayal enveloped not just the Bengali colony but the others too.
The Tughlakabad Fort and the Village
The Tughlakabad village lies next to the 14th-century fort, by the same name, built by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty. Back in 2001, a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court arguing that the ASI has “failed to protect, maintain and preserve the historic Tughlakabad Fort” and that “various illegal occupants have since entered the fort premises and constructed their houses.”
When the matter came up for hearing in the Supreme Court in 2002, the apex court directed that no construction of any sort should take place in the area thenceforth. However, that was not to be. Many homes continued to be built in the area next to the fort, on land that wasn’t simply ‘encroached’ on, but bought by the new residents. “None of what you see here is for free. We have all been living here for the last 20-30 years, and each one of us paid several lakhs to buy the land. Then we spent our own money to construct our homes,” says Lakshman Singh.
Singh and a few others of the Churia mohalla have formed a union of sorts to push back against the eviction order. “Moreover, we all paid money to the qila (fort) officers as well, and to the police too. If building a house here was illegal, why did they take money from us?” asks the 44-year-old. The homes also have water and electricity meters, the bills of which they have been paying regularly for years, making the allegations of ‘illegality’ even harder to swallow.
The Tughlakabad fort lies in ruins, but the villagers insist they have nothing to do with it. “We are at least 200-300 metres away from the boundary wall of the fort. We are minding our own business, and have nothing to do with the fort,” says Singh.
After decades of court directions, it was in November 2022 that the Delhi High Court granted ASI six weeks as the “last indulgence” to remove ‘encroachments’ around the Tughlakabad Fort. That is when the 15-day notice was given to the residents, evoking shock and outrage across the lanes of the village.
BJP's Silence, AAP's Support and the Politics of Eviction
“We all rushed to protest to Ramesh Bidhuri’s house. But he has been of no help,” says Roma Singh, who lives with her two children in the Tughlakabad village. “We came here only because Bidhuri ji’s house is also in Tughlakabad. So it felt safe to be in the vicinity of a BJP MP. But if our house falls in the area next to the fort, so does his. He should be served an eviction notice too,” she says.
Bidhuri has represented Tughlakabad thrice as a BJP MLA , and is currently an MP from South Delhi. Every few years, Bidhuri is often in news for his controversial and polarising statements, like when at an even in 2021, he said “Wherever Muslims are in majority, there is violence. There is bloodshed.”
Roma says she expected support from Bidhuri. “He and others at BJP act like kattar (hardline) Hindus. I am also a Hindu. I am a Rajput, then how could they abandon people like me? We thought Modi liked us,” she says.
The common sentiment in the village is that the BJP is “acting out of spite” and is “angry” at the Tughlakabad village residents for not ensuring the party’s victory in the MCD polls. “ They are irked by us, and so are doing this,” says another resident Jyoti Singh.
Interestingly while Bidhuri and other BJP leaders have maintained complete silence on the issue, Aam Aadmi Party leader Atishi has been proactively speaking against the eviction drive, saying that she stands by the slum residents.
Some say there is a difference from the party’s position on a few other demolition drives that have taken place in the last year, most notably the one in Jahangirpuri in April 2022, after which AAP maintained that the BJP was responsible for settling Rohingya and Bangladeshis illegally in the country to “use during riots”.
'We Did Everything Modi Asked Us to: Lit Diyas, Banged Utensils'
Unlike Jahangirpuri, a vast number of Bengalis in the Tughlakabad village are from the Hindu community.
Sulekha Mandal, Amrita Das and Mala Yadav are all from West Bengal’s Kolkata and live as neighbours in Tughlakabad’s Bengali colony. The BJP has traditionally wooed the Bengali Hindu community across states, including the immigrant population in Delhi. “They (BJP) have been against Bengali Muslims and Rohingyas,” says Mandal.
According to surveys before the MCD elections, Bengali Hindus living in Delhi were among the few voting blocs in which the BJP had a decisive lead over the AAP.
“Par ab gehu ke saath ghun bhi pis rahe hai (But now in their attempt to target Muslims, we are also becoming collateral damage),” says Mala. "They should inquire who the Muslims are and remove them, why us?"
Amrita, meanwhile, recalled that she along with most others in the village, “followed everything Modi asked for.”
“During Covid, when he asked us to light diyas outside our home, we did that. When he asked us to bang utensils, we did that. In return, we are being asked to leave our homes,” Amrita adds.
Since 2015, PM Modi has, on multiple occasions, talked about the BJP’s ‘Jahan Jhuggi, Wahi Pakke Makan’ campaign call—meaning that a resident living in a jhuggi or slum can get their homes built on those exact spots, without having to worry about rehabilitation. In 2021, the PM-UDAY or Prime Ministers Unauthorized Colonies in Delhi Awas Adhikar Yojana was launched, under which Delhi residents living in unauthorised colonies can apply online and get ownership rights.
“So, were all these just empty promises?” asks Mala.
Meanwhile, Reshma Begum, a Muslim from West Bengal says that everyone living in the colonies are rightful owners of the land "including the Bengali Muslims." "People and parties love to target Bengali Muslims, but we haven't stolen any land, this is our right. We paid money to buy a place here," she says.
While Bengalis make a majority in the colony, there are also a substantial chunk of residents from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Hem Lata, 52, is from Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, and comes from the OBC Teli caste. “The same as Modi’s,” she asserts. The BJP has often spoken of PM Modi’s OBC roots, and in 2015 ahead of the Bihar elections, BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi even said that “it was only possible in a party like the BJP that a person hailing from the Teli community was chosen for the prime minister’s seat.”
But Hem Lata doesn’t share the sense of camaraderie with him, at least not how she did until a few years ago. “We were told that since he is from our caste, he will stand by us no matter what. But tomorrow if my house gets demolished, what difference does it make?” she asks.
A few lanes ahead is the home of Baby Devi and her daughter Manisha Kumari, hailing from Bihar’s Bhagalpur. Manisha, 20, only recently gained admission to a Delhi University college to pursue B.A. Pass, and she is simultaneously also taking computer classes.
The mother-daughter duo is from the Kurmi caste, another OBC caste that the BJP has tried to actively woo in Bihar. Baby Devi says that all her relatives have been voting for the BJP the last few years.
“Par ab lag raha hi ki inko itna aage badha diya hai ki hami ko ghar se nikal rahe hai/ But it seems like we put the party on such a pedestal and supported them so much that now they are emboldened enough to evict us from our houses,” Baby Devi says.
Pasmanda Muslims in the Village Question BJP's 'Outreach'
Among the Muslims from UP and Bihar residing there, many are from Ansari or Teli castes—all Pasmanda castes. In the last year, the BJP has pursued a focused outreach towards Pasmanda Muslims, with PM Modi reportedly asking its national executive committee members to reach out to the “deprived and downtrodden sections” in communities other than Hindus, such as the Pasmanda Muslims. Pasmanda Muslims are the non-Ashraf Muslims meaning the Dalit Muslims as well as the OBC and Scheduled Tribes (ST) Muslims. But since the Constitution restricts the Schedule Caste status to Hindus, all non-upper caste Muslims then fall in the OBC category.
Zaitunissa Ansari, 40, is from UP’s Gorakhpur and moved to Tughlakabad about a decade ago. Soon, her husband Anwar Ansari developed paralysis, and she has been bringing up their three children all by herself. For the longest time, Zaitunnisa placed tin sheets and cloth on top of the house that served as the roof, but since the growing talk of ‘jahan jhuggi, wahi pakka makan,’ she began getting a solid roof built.
“But now that there is talk of eviction, I have again gotten construction stopped,” she says.
“The BJP keeps talking about Pasmanda Muslims. I am one of them. Most Muslims living in slums are from that background. If we are being removed from our homes, that is not empowerment for us,” Zaitunissa says.
Many Children, Pregnant Women Faced With Threat of Eviction
Despite the eviction notice, the demolition drive didn’t go through and on 1 February, the Delhi court directed the Delhi government to call a meeting with other authorities to discuss a comprehensive plan for the resettlement of the residents of the Tughlakabad village.
But the residents are unwilling to consider any rehabilitation or compensation plan.
“My son’s school is here in Tughlakabad. He has his board exams soon. Suppose they rehabilitate us to another end of the city, how is he supposed to travel every day to reach here? It makes no sense,” says Renu Garg.
However, the ASI insists that it is only acting on court orders. “There is no proof that these people bought this land from some official authority. In any case, it had been made clear to them multiple times over the years that building homes here isn’t right. Now we will wait on the next court order and see what the government decides about rehabilitation,” Praveen Singh, Superintendent Archaeologist of the Delhi Circuit ASI told The Quint.
The residents also point out that many women living in the colonies are pregnant, and they cannot risk being evicted of their homes right now. The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) had also sent a notice to the ASI against the eviction, saying that “Eviction of young children without proper rehabilitation measures is a violation of basic human rights. We urge ASI to take necessary steps to ensure children’s welfare.”
As a sign of protest, the Tughlakabad residents have posted ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ posters on the walls of the colonies, to remind the BJP of its popular campaign call.
“If they want this land back, they can just give us poison, or bulldoze these homes. Because the only way we will leave this place is as dead bodies,” says Parveen Khatoon.