Hero to homeless: House of Muslim man behind India tunnel rescue demolished

Rat-miner Wakeel Hasan was a national hero in November, after helping rescue 41 men trapped in a Himalayan tunnel. Now, he’s on the streets, after authorities bulldozed his house.

New Delhi, India – Wakeel Hasan had to climb his neighbour’s 1.8-metre (six-foot) wall to enter the rubble-filled plot of land where his house stood only a day earlier.

The police had barricaded the front of the land where his home, a single-floored, two-bedroom house that his family had called home for over a decade, was demolished on Wednesday by the authorities in Khajuri Khas, a densely populated neighbourhood in India’s capital, New Delhi.

A day later, he stood on the rubble of his house, tears rolling down his face as he overturned bricks and wood planks to try and recover his 15-year-old daughter Aliza’s textbooks, who had to miss her 10th standard annual examination on Thursday.

“I can’t even look at this demolished home and not cry,” Hasan told Al Jazeera.

Only three months ago, Hasan was a national hero and had made headlines for rescuing 41 construction workers trapped in a Himalayan tunnel for more than two weeks.

His team of so-called “rat-hole miners” was called to the northern Uttarakhand state after professional rescuers armed with tunnel drilling machines repeatedly failed to reach the trapped workers. A nation of 1.5 billion people held its collective breath as the rat-hole miners dug by hand for 26 hours to free the buried men in November.

Hasan and his team received national recognition for their feat, including praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a selfie with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Cash awards were announced and TV channels interviewed Hasan and his team of rat miners for days.

Only three months later, Hasan’s life turned upside down when he got a frantic call from his daughter while at a shop buying groceries.

Aliza Hasan, 15, Wakeel Hasan's daughter, tears down as she sees her home demolished in India's capital, Delhi. [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]
Aliza Hasan, 15, Wakeel Hasan’s daughter, breaks down as she sees her home demolished in India’s capital, New Delhi [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

‘Dragged out of the house’

Aliza said police officers had arrived at their house to demolish it and that she, along with her older brother Azeem, was standing against the door to prevent the police from entering. It was about 9:30 in the morning.

Soon, half a dozen police officers, some of them female, barged into the house and allegedly hit Aliza and Azeem, the assault caught on camera by people in a crowd that had gathered by now.

“I was slapped by the female police personnel and Azeem was pushed around, slapped and verbally abused. We were then dragged out of the house and thrown into a police car,” Aliza told Al Jazeera.

When Hasan reached home, he saw officials from the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the government organisation in charge of planning and development of infrastructure projects in the capital, attempting to demolish his house with large hammers.

Before Hasan could do or say anything, a bulldozer began tearing the structure down.

The DDA claimed Hasan’s house was built illegally on government land. In a statement, it said Hassan’s family was informedbeforeo the demolition and that they were given enough time to evacuate.

Hasan says no prior notice was given and that he had the legal documents to prove it was his house, including an electricity bill issued by the government.

“They claim the act was part of a demolition drive of illegal properties, yet they only demolished one property: mine,” he told Al Jazeera.

The DDA and the police in New Delhi are controlled by Modi’s central government, even though an opposition party governs the capital.

When the DDA was asked about the action, it said it was routine, non-discriminatory and targeted no particular individual.

Munna Qureshi, 29, shows an award that they won for rescuing 41 trapped tunnel workers. [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]
One of the awards that Hasan and his team won for rescuing 41 trapped tunnel workers in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand in December [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

‘Because I’m from a minority community?’

However, Hasan has a different story to tell. “I told them what I did in Uttarakhand. When all their machines had failed, we dug those workers out. I hoped they would consider not demolishing my house,” he said.

The opposite happened.

“When I told them my name it felt as if what little remorse and pity they had left them,” he said. “I don’t understand why I was targeted. Was it because I am from a minority community?”

Labour rights activist Sucheta De says the demolition was both illegal and criminal. “If we see the past instances of demolitions, it looks targeted, anti-poor and anti-minority,” she told Al Jazeera.

Lawyer Kawalpreet Kaur, who often takes up demolition cases and is closely following Hasan’s, suggested that if indeed Hasan’s property was illegal for so many years, it was the government that needed to answer questions.

“He had been staying in his house for over a decade. The question arises: if the government claims it was their land, what had they been doing for so many years?” she asked, adding that the demolition appeared to be “vindictive” as only Hasan’s house was demolished in the neighbourhood.

2. Munna Qureshi, 29, shows a photo on his phone showing himself, Hasan, and another rat-hole miner after tunnel rescue. [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]
Munna Qureshi, 29, a rat-miner and Hasan’s friend, shows a photo on his phone of himself, Hasan, and another rat-hole miner after the December tunnel rescue [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

A tale of bribes

Across New Delhi, a city of more than 30 million people, many residential neighbourhoods are what are known as “irregular” — they do not have all government approvals. Millions of Delhiites live in them, spanning generations. That includes a significant chunk of the city’s Muslim population, which constitutes 12 percent of the city’s residents, and is often forced to relocate to such neighbourhoods after previous targeting of their homes by authorities.

Parts of Khajuri Khas are irregular. While individual residents might have home ownership documents, the grey legal stature of such neighbourhoods gives governments and local officials power over residents, say lawyers and activists. The power to regularise localities, as governments often do to woo voters before elections, eliminating the threat of demolition that otherwise always hovers over those living in these communities. Or, the power to deliver on the threat and demolish homes.

“A large section of the population in Delhi is always under the threat of demolition and can face demolition whenever the government wishes,” De said. “There is no accountability from the government. This is the reality in Delhi.”

Often, the only way to get a temporary reprieve is to pay bribes.  That, Hasan claims, is also the case in Khajuri Khas.

Hasan says that in 2016, authorities came with bulldozers and demolished a portion of his house. “That is when my neighbour and I paid (in total) INR 8 lakhs [about $9,500] to them [as a bribe],” he said.

But the officials he paid transferred to another department, and their replacements came asking for bribes again. “I was threatened by the DDA officials that if I didn’t pay up my house would be demolished,” he said. He didn’t have the money to bribe them.

Then, three months ago, authorities arrived to demolish the homes of a few Hindu neighbours, Hasan said. But the local legislator Mohan Singh Bisht, from Modi’s Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party,  intervened and stopped the demolition, he said.

“However, when I called him on the day my house was being demolished, he said he couldn’t do anything,” Hasan said.

Hasan believes that his inability to pay up was a key reason his house was demolished on Wednesday. That he is Muslim made him especially vulnerable.

“Because I am Muslim and because my name is Wakeel Hasan, it is easier for them to demolish my home,” he said.

DDA spokesperson Bijay Shankar Patel denied the charges. “The allegations are not true,” he told Al Jazeera, refusing to offer details on why the house was demolished.

Yet, the bulldozing of Hasan’s home follows a pattern of government agencies targeting Muslim properties and religious structures across India, especially in states governed by the BJP.

Last month, authorities in New Delhi razed a 600-year-old mosque allegedly encroaching on government land. In the same week, at least five people were shot dead by the police in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani town after they protested the demolition of a decades-old mosque and a school.

In two reports published last month, rights group Amnesty International said Indian authorities conducted the “punitive” demolition of at least 128 Muslim properties between April and June 2022, rendering at least 617 people either homeless or without livelihoods.

When his house was being demolished, Hasan, in a desperate move, telephoned Manoj Tiwari, the BJP parliamentarian from his constituency who had garlanded him when he returned to New Delhi after the Uttarakhand tunnel rescue.

“I contacted everyone, but they did not return my calls. Manoj Tiwari had felicitated me and even came to my residence. I called him multiple times. Even after a day of the demolition, he has not returned my calls,” Hasan told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera reached out to Tiwari who said the demolition was being probed. “I told officials about this. But they demolished suddenly. It’s an investigation,” he said, adding that he would arrange for a better house for him, “legally”.

“I talked to the LG [lieutenant governor] Delhi and the house was arranged yesterday [Thursday], but he denied it due to distance. Now, we are arranging nearby,” Tiwari said, adding that there was “no communal angle” to the demolition. The lieutenant governor is a federally appointed nominal head of the Delhi state, equivalent to the governors in other Indian states.

When asked about the growing number of demolitions of Muslim homes, Tiwari said: “It may be a conspiracy against [the] BJP during the election time.” India is set to hold its general election in April and May.

Shabana Hasan, 41, wife of Wakeel Hasan, 45, and relatives sit on a wrecked bed outside their demolished house to protest the demolition. [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]
Shabana Hasan, centre – looking at the camera, 41, wife of Wakeel Hasan, and relatives sit on a bed on the street outside their demolished house [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

‘They should’ve buried us with the house’

At 9:40am on Wednesday, Hasan’s fellow rat-miner Munna Qureshi was working at a site 35km (22 miles) away when he got a call from his friend. Hasan told him about the ongoing demolition. Qureshi, who had dug out survivors from the Uttarakhand tunnel alongside Hasan, rushed to Khajuri Khas.

There, he says, Hasan and he were detained by police and their phones were confiscated while the demolition was going on.

“At the police station, I was punched in the face and verbally abused,” said Qureshi, who lives in a 2.4-3-metre (8-by-10-foot) rental unit about 400 metres (1,312 feet) from Hasan’s demolished home.

“What will I do with all these trophies and medals? Is this how they treat people who make the country proud?” he said as he held up a box full of medals and prizes he had received for the tunnel rescue.

Hasan’s trophies lie under the rubble of his house.

His wife Shabana was with her in-laws in Modinagar, a small town about 40km (25 miles) from their home, when the demolition occurred. She says they had bought the house in 2013 for 3.3 million rupees ($39,800).

“We had saved our entire lives to buy and build this house and they demolished it in minutes. We borrowed money, sold our village land, and sold our wedding jewellery to buy this property,” she said, adding that they still owed 1.2 million rupees ($14,475) to relatives they had borrowed the money from.

“They knew who my husband was, but they still demolished our house. Just because we are Muslims?” asked Shabana.

Hasan says he is prepared for a lengthy court battle. “I am not very hopeful but we won’t move an inch until we are given our house back,” he said as the family sat and ate on a damaged bed on the side of the road. Over their heads hung a red tarpaulin provided by neighbours.

“They should have buried us with the house,” Hasan’s daughter, Aliza, sobbed.

“Is this a life where we have to sit on a wooden cot by the side of the road?”

Source: Al Jazeera