The ongoing anti-encroachment drive by the administration in Jammu and Kashmir has snowballed into a major controversy, with opposition parties accusing the authorities of targeting the poor, and political opponents. The massive bulldozer action across the region has triggered protests at several places, as the administration declared land cultivated and inhabited by people for generations as illegal encroachment.
In Jammu, five people were arrested and four detained in connection with stone throwing during an anti-encroachment drive last week.
The opposition has accused the central government of making people homeless and snatching their livelihood.
Bulldozers are being used to remove encroachments across 20 districts of Jammu and Kashmir. Besides retrieving land, many structures have been demolished.
Former state chief minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti alleged that the demolition drive is turning the situation in Kashmir "worse than Palestine". She also said the central government is turning Jammu and Kashmir into Afghanistan, a country ravaged by wars and massive bombings.
"Earlier, we used to think that BJP has taken a cue from what Israel was doing in Palestine. But now they have turned it worse than Palestine. They want to make J&K like Afghanistan," Ms Mufti said.
Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister and National Conference leader, alleged that the centre is trying to reverse the radical 'land to the tiller' reform of Sheikh Abdullah, which had given ownership rights to landless peasants across Jammu and Kashmir in 1950.
The former Chief Minister said that due process is not being followed and bulldozer has become the first response of the Union Territory administration to evict people from the lands they have been occupying.
"Due process has to be followed. Without issuing a single notice, they are directly sending bulldozers. If someone has occupied any property, issue them a notice, give them time to respond and then take action," he said.
The drive, which started in January, was meant to retrieve state land allegedly encroached on by many, including politicians and senior state officials. When the order set off an outcry, J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha and officials of his administration said only the encroachments by the "high and mighty" will be targeted in the drive. But in absence of any formal order or amendment of the original order, a mass eviction drive is being carried across the Union Territory.
The government has directed all district collectors to retrieve state land, leased land, common use land, and also grazing land occupied by people, according to an order issued by the revenue department last month.
The opposition claims bulldozers are being used on communal lines.
Sajad Lone, president of People's Conference, blames the union government of causing homelessness through bulldozer actions, adding that more than 90% people targeted are Muslims. He appealed to the Prime Minister to intervene.
"I appeal to my Prime Minister. I had misconception that you are everybody's Prime Minister. Please tell me who is my Prime Minister. Who is the Prime Minister of the poor people you are bulldozing," he said.
"In this drive, 90-95% encroachers are Muslims. To show that they (administration) act against everybody, a few people from other communities are also being targetted. But the rest of them are Muslims," Mr Lone added.
In 2007, under the Roshni Act of 2001, passed by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, the state government gave ownership rights to occupants of state land.
While the agricultural land was given for free to the people who were cultivating it, non-agricultural land was given away on nominal charges. After the imposition of central rule in 2018, it was repealed by the Governor. Eventually, in 2020, J&K High Court declared the Roshni scheme as illegal.
Even as a review petition filed by the administration is still pending before the High Court, J&K Revenue department issued orders last month asking District Collectors to evict all encroachers.
Since then, a massive anti encroachment drive is underway. Thousands of acres of land has been retrieved, and numerous constructions demolished.
The anti- encroachment drive has left thousands of families vulnerable, facing prospects of homelessness and livelihood challenges.
Last week, Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has formed his own party after resigning from the Congress, met with Home Minister Amit Shah on the issue. Mr Azad said that Mr Shah assured him that poor people will not be touched in the drive.
Mr Azad asked his supporters to suspend protests after assurances given by the Home Minister and appealed to the J&K Lt Governor to issue an order to spare poor people.