Over the last few days, posts claiming that over 200 Muslim shanties in Meerut had been set on fire by the police have been doing the rounds on social media. These posts claim that a mosque was destroyed in the fire and that slum-dwellers were beaten up by police during an anti-encroachment drive.
میرٹ میں مسلمانوں کے دو سو پچاس گھروں کو آگ لگا دی گئی۔— Riffat Wani (@waniriffat) March 7, 2019
I strongly protest against this Shocking incident at Meerut on March 6...250 Muslim houses were destroyed by throwing petrol bombs .. and the weird thing is that police arrested the victims who lost their houses ... @UN pic.twitter.com/dkiqct9tXC
Meanwhile, PTI reported that a joint anti-encroachment drive by the Cantonment Board and the local police, coupled with resistance from a mob, left over 150 shanties gutted in the fire and damaged several vehicles in Meerut’s Macheran slum on 7 March.
Amid varying reports and little clarity on the exact details of incident, The Quint visited the slum in Meerut’s Cantonment area to understand what exactly happened that afternoon. While there is no clear evidence about the cause of the fire, a few things have come to light from testimonies on the ground and the police.
Here’s What We Know
- Over 150 shanties were gutted in the fire.
- It is clear that the mosque was in the slum and was burnt as the fire spread.
- Police have denied allegations that they beat people up, but several people have claimed they were injured in lathi-charge by the police.
- Along with the shanties that got burnt down, a couple of state transport buses were ransacked by a violent mob, according to one police official.
Bribes Asked For, Stone-Pelting, and Lathi-Charge
According to 55-year-old Chaudhary Anees, on 7 March, a team of Cantonment board officials and local police had arrived at Macheran to demolish a new structure whose roof was being laid.
He claimed that “the officials had asked for bribes, following which a brawl broke out between the two parties.”
Chaudhary added that some miscreants “who are residents of the slum, had pelted stones at police officials, after which a police team lathi-charged both men and women in the slum.”
Chaudhary was echoed by Chandni, who claimed that officials from the Cantonment board had come asking for bribes.
" “They were asking for Rs 5,000 as bribe, but the house owner refused to give it. After this, they lathi-charged everyone.”" - Chandni, Resident
Women Say Police Beat Them
50-year-old Sameera, too, lost everything she had in the blaze. She had helped a young boy from the neighbourhood escape the slum, but that made her a police target.
“The boy was from a different locality and he shouldn’t have been in this tense situation. So, I helped him escape. Some police officers saw this and questioned me about the boy. I told them that he was not from here, but they beat me with sticks on my arm,” she said.
Prodded by family members, Sameera went on to show the bruise that she received, allegedly from the police lathi-charge.
How Did the Fire Start?
The fire that erupted in the slum destroyed over 150 shanties belonging to Muslim families, who make up over 90 percent of the unauthorised settlement. The fire spread quickly in the jam-packed space, burning a mosque located at the centre of the slum. But how did it start?
Locals say the police team hurled petrol bombs at the slum-dwellers from an adjacent compound, which is what set the place aflame.
From young kids to the elderly, every single Muslim resident of the slum The Quint spoke to said that they had either seen or heard that it was police officers that hurled petrol bombs at the settlement.
Located at the extreme left of the slum, Shayada’s house was one of the first to go up in flames. According to her, a fight ensued after the police razed the house of a fellow resident, resulting in a lathi-charge.
"“We went to the Masjid and there was a fight there as well. All of us ran for our lives, forgetting we had a house and family. The police were everywhere. We managed to hide in a house. Then the police broke the boundary wall and set fire to the house.”" - Shayada, Resident
Meanwhile, Jamrud, who had to flee to the terrace of her house to get away from the police, said she believes that it was the police who set the place on fire. She, however, could not see the perpetrators, who she says were hiding behind trees.
“We think the police set the place on fire as there was no one on the street except them. But I did not see the police triggering the fire themselves,” she said.
‘Why Would Police Beat Them?’: Cops Deny Allegation
Meanwhile, the police have denied claims of the slum-dwellers that the police had resorted to lathi-charge. Dismissing the allegations, CO of Sadar Police Station in Meerut Ram Arj said:
"“On Thursday, a police team had accompanied the cantonment board officials to the Macheran slum. It was an anti-encroachment drive as the land on which the slums stand belong to the cantonment board. Notices were served and they had even promised to comply. But they didn’t comply.”" - Ram Arj, CO, Sadar Police Station, Meerut
Arj said that on the day of the incident, the police had taken down a new encroachment, after which some people threw stones at the team, adding that they have no information of the Cantonment board officials asking anyone for bribes.
"“This is incorrect. Why would the police beat them? In fact, Cantonment board officials were injured. They have even filed an FIR.”" - Ram Arj, CO, Sadar Police Station, Meerut
Contradicting the residents’ statements that it was police officials who set fire to the slum, police claim they only received the news of the fire at the slum a full hour and an half after the police had left the site.
CO Ram Arj said,
"“This as absolutely wrong. A probe into the cause of fire is underway. Why will police set the slum on fire without any reason? We have nothing to do with that piece of land. We had gone there only to assist the cantonment board officials.”"‘Our Lives Have Been Destroyed’
25-year-old Firdoz started living with her parents and brother after her husband divorced her two years ago. She lost her fridge and TV among other belongings in the fire.
"“I work as a cook. My brother had purchased a bike on EMI. We have lost everything. Our lives have been destroyed.”" - Firdoz, Resident
With a two-year-old daughter to support and no financial help from her ex-husband, Firdoz said their lives are now in tatters.
For 45-year-old Afsana, who has been living in the slum for the last two years, the sense of loss is deep. She had purchased the plot for Rs 4 lakh, before the house was gutted in the fire. She had also collected clothes and other articles for her daughter’s wedding, all of which was burnt in the fire.
"“We had not even paid the full amount and the house got burnt. How will we survive? Where will we go? We’ve been out in the streets.” " - Afsana, Resident
28-year-old Tahir, who has been living in this slum for the past 12 years, had purchased this plot of land after a lot of hard work.
"“It’s all been razed. Some are saying we set our own houses on fire. What would we get out of that? They have bothered us too much. They should construct new, pucca houses for us.”" - Tahir, Resident . Read more on India by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsLatest News: SC to Hear PILs Challenging Electoral Bonds . Read more on India by The Quint.