A banner at the protest site read: “Save Paldi from turning into another Juhapura", which is one of the largest Muslim ghettos in Asia. The Sunday protests were held under the banner of Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM)—Karnavati, an affiliate of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing organization.
At the centre of the controversy is Varsha Apartments, which was built around 1970. Few years ago, the contract of redeveloping the dilapidated buildings was given to two Muslim builders. While the initial occupants were all Hindus, today out of the 26 flats, as many as 24 are inhabited by Muslim families. As part of redevelopment plan, an additional 38 flats will also be built. The area falls under the Disturbed Areas Act, allege HJM leaders who claim that it has been illegally occupied by people from the minority community.
“Land Jihad", as it was called by members of right-wing groups, became an election issue in and around Paldi ahead of the Gujarat polls last year. The Disturbed Areas Act, 1991, was first introduced in the mid-eighties as an ordinance by the Congress-led government after the communal riots of 1985. Chimanbhai Patel, who led a coalition government in the state, firmed it up as an Act in 1991.
It was later amended in 2010 and came to be known as the Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, Gujarat.
The Act prohibits a Muslim from selling, leasing or transferring his property to a Hindu, or a Hindu to a Muslim, in a disturbed area unless it gets a clearance from the district collector.
“The movement was initiated by the people of Paldi themselves. After love jihad, our fight is now against land jihad. Many areas of Paldi are being illegally occupied by people from the minority community. A group of people from the minority community will buy residential properties in a Hindu-dominated locality by giving a high price initially and then try and lead to a situation where Hindus get forced to exit at very low rates," said Pinakin Gaur, the organizer of HJM-Karnavati and an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member.
On 20 April, the Ahmedabad collector’s office issued an order that the minority community residents living in Varsha Apartments had violated Disturbed Areas Act norms and ordered the city corporation to cancel the BU (building use) permission granted to the builders for redevelopment. The Muslim builders approached the Gujarat high court on 24 April and the court ordered a stay on the collector’s order in the following month.
The Disturbed Areas Act is currently implemented in many parts of Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat city. Last October, the law was applied in Surat after Limbayat Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of legislative assembly (MLA) Sangita Patil and Surat West MLA Purnesh Modi made representations to the government. Patil had demanded the imposition of the Act in Limbayat to prevent Muslims from acquiring residential properties of Hindus.
Last week, the Gujarat government included 74 additional localities in Ahmedabad under the Disturbed Areas Act, taking the total number to 770. HJM’s Gaur claims that it was due to their efforts that new areas were included in the city, of which 16 are in Paldi.
“Such a law exists nowhere in the country. It divides Hindus and Muslims of Gujarat. Such Acts are usually seen in places where there are communal riots. BJP is claiming there has been no curfew in Gujarat for last 15-16 years. Then why is the area under Disturbed Areas increasing. It’s all being done with an eye on Lok Sabha elections next year," said senior Congress councillor Baddruddin Shaikh.
Meanwhile, a case has been filed in Gujarat HC in May this year by activist Danish Qureshi seeking abolishment of the Act on the grounds that it violates constitutional rights to property and freedom.
According to BJP MLA from Ellisbridge Rakesh Shah, there is no issue of land jihad in Paldi and that there is no violation of the Disturbed Areas Act in his constituency. “As per the re-development scheme, some new residencies by Muslim builders are coming up in Hindu areas and vice-versa. There is no violation of the law from either side," he said over the phone.
In April, chief minister Vijay Rupani had instructed officials to review the Act and plug the loopholes. “When the Act was originally introduced, its main purpose was to give protection to people. Land mafias, in order to grab land, would try and create a situation that led to riots, thus making them feel insecure and ultimately sell their land at cheaper prices. Today, when there are no riots or communal tension, why are the areas being expanded?" said Ghanshyam Shah, a political expert.