Can national security be ensured by alienating communities who have been living along the borders, land or marine, for a long time? This is the issue that has come to the fore in context of the large scale demolitions that have taken place in Devbhumi Dwarka district of Gujarat in the last six months.

The government and the administration have reportedly justified the act on the grounds of national security along the marine borders and the constructions being illegal in nature. But the victims and the civil society activists have been pointing towards the demolitions being selective with only one community being targeted.

In addition to this they have been contesting that a holistic view of the entire issue needs to be taken in this entire issue. They point out that the matter does not concern just the people of Bet Dwarka, Harshad Gandhvi or Navadra where the demolitions have taken place, but it concerns the entire fishing community residing along the over 1,600 km long Gujarat coast.

Activists allege that while close to 150 structures had been razed to the ground in October in Bet Dwarka, 69 structures in Harshad and 122 in Navadra were demolished last month. The demolitions of the ‘illegal’ structures in minority areas have come to be used as political tools, and there have been occasions where bulldozers have been strategically parked at the election rally venues of the ruling party.

“The sad part is that only the minorities were targeted when all these structures were razed. In Harshad a kund, cremation ground, temple and a priest’s house were selectively spared. At the time of putting aside the plea that had been filed in the Gujarat High Court, the people were told by the government to give a representation for regularisation, rehabilitation and resettlement in the close vicinity and it would be followed up as per rules pertaining to rehabilitation.

“But the demolitions in the remaining two places followed after hardly a week of our having submitted the representations to the government. We are left with no option but to approach the court again on the matter which we will be doing in the next few days,” said Mujahid Nafees of Minority Co-ordination Committee (MCC) Gujarat.

Activists have been stating that the people from the fishing community have largely been compelled to stay put around these places with the aid collected by civil society organisations. The fisherfolk cannot move to other areas that hardly have space to accommodate their fishing boats, or they face resistance from the people already residing there.

“The spate of demolitions has been going on since the first week of October starting with approximately 150 homes and commercial establishments belonging predominantly to Muslims in Bet Dwarka. Among the structures so demolished there were also over 15 places of worship such as shrines, mazars and dargahs.

“In January 2023 the fisherfolk of Harshad and Navadra coastal villages of Kalyanpur Taluka of Devbhoomi Dwarka district were given eviction notices by the administration which they challenged in Gujarat High Court. The High Court disposed of their petitions as the government of Gujarat gave an assurance of rehabilitation.

“By March 11 2023 the bulldozers came in, targeting minority shops, shrines, homes and mosques in Harshad village and harbour near Gandhvi harbour and Navadra village.

“This rendered 122 families from Navadra and 69 from Harshad homeless and bereft of the locations from where they carried out their fishing activities, their only means of livelihood. The manner in which the demolitions were carried out seemed to be intended to terrorise the Muslim population, forcing them to flee within 24 hours taking whatever belongings they could retrieve, on their boats.

“The community has been completely scattered and rendered helpless, with the condition of women and children being extremely painful. Most of them have gone to other fishing villages and local harbours, where the local people are not in a position to take care of them or offer them much assistance.

“They also do not have space for their boats; and the local administration is not giving them the online permission to engage in fishing from these new locations,” said the representatives of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in a strong statement.

“This is leading to harassment of these internally displaced families, to unfortunate conflicts with locals, and total despondency due to a complete breakdown of their traditional livelihood. These demolition operations betray deliberate discrimination against and humiliation of the Muslim fisher folk; in almost all these locations Hindu properties have not been demolished.

“Muslim shrines and mosques have been demolished with no sense of reverence. The manner in which the government has been justifying these demolitions also has been extremely humiliating. These traditional fishing communities have lived for generations in these villages over centuries, and they belong to both Hindu and Muslim communities.

“They live on the coast, launching their traditional fishing boats from natural harbours that have been used and preserved since hundreds of years,” said the statement issued by Govind Parmar and Pankti Jog.

It has been pointed out that along the coast the fishing communities have structures that are used for landing the fish, sorting them and temporarily storing them before selling them to wholesale fish merchants; but like all marginalised communities most of them may not have title deeds to the structures they have been using since a long time.

“It should also be noted that the fisher folk have customary rights on the sea coast to effectively pursue their traditional occupation of fishing. This is clearly indicated in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ).

“The government’s narrative that they are ‘illegal encroachers’ and that the structures they use for fishing activities could pose a threat to national security or could be used for drug smuggling, and hence the demolitions have to be done in national interest, has been insensitive and infringes on the right to life with dignity of the traditional fisher folk.

“A government unleashing such a demeaning, generalised narrative can only result in public mistrust and hatred against a hardworking, dignified community. The fact that only Muslim shrines and mosques were targeted while Hindu places of worship were untouched, betrays not just discrimination, but also a form of institutionalised hatred, leading to a situation where the state turns against its own citizens,” the PUCL stated.

The organisation has written to the Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel on the issue last week pointing out that the High Court had dismissed the plea of these citizens based on the government’s assurance of rehabilitation. The government could have waited and ensured rehabilitation first, allowed the people all constitutional remedies before they resorted to the ‘cruel and inhuman’ step of demolitions, stated PUCL.

The activists have stated that the government that is bound by the constitution to protect the life, liberty, and dignity of its citizens itself violated that right by turning a significant number of households into internally displaced citizens without homes, bereft of their means of livelihood, nowhere to go.

“There is another more rational way to look at it in context of the entire fishing community living in Gujarat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of the state had come out with an ambitious programme called Sagar Khedu Yojana where he envisaged a roof over every fishing family’s head.

“He understood that the coastal communities are marginalised. This programme encapsulated the schemes being offered by 18 government departments on one platform. Then there is also the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana that aims to provide a roof over every head. Such demolition drives defeat the very purpose of these initiatives,” Jog told The Citizen.

She further said, “It is not that the fishermen have emerged on the shores of Gujarat all of a sudden. They have been here for centuries. This has been documented by none other than the famous Gujarati poet Narmad Meghani in his Sarv Sangrah. It is a question of their customary rights and livelihood. It is a matter that apart from the legal aspect has a governance dimension as well.”

The letter written to the Chief Minister has sought that the government put an end forthwith to all the demolitions that it plans to undertake along the coastline. It points out in clear terms, “National security cannot be ensured by alienating communities who have been living along the coast since centuries.

“The government should hold dialogues with the leaders of the fishing communities and work out ways and means of continuing fishing while ensuring security requirements of the state. Demolitions may be pursued only after their rehabilitation and the facilities to continue fishing operations are provided.”

It has further been sought that the families whose houses, shops and other structures along the coast have been demolished be provided temporary shelters in the same villages and be explicitly and formally allowed to continue fishing operations as they used to do, till such time that the government provides them with alternative housing and other requisite infrastructure.

There is a call for an immediate survey to ascertain the condition of women and children; and proactive steps are taken to ensure that their right to education and protection and health are protected.

The government has been asked to implement the Sagar Khedu Yojana in letter and spirit for holistic development of the coastal communities. “Allocation of housing plots and permanent housing should be taken up as part of the development plan and should be taken up on priority basis by the government so that coastal communities get their housing rights,” the letter states.