In the 2014 battle for India’s biggest State, Uttar Pradesh, the first casualty has been a young IAS officer, Durga Shakti Nagpal, suspended by the UP government, ostensibly for demolishing a masjid wall in a UP village. But the serious charge is that the real reason for this unduly harsh punishment to a young IAS officer, without any inquiry giving her a chance to explain, is that she had taken on the mighty sand mafia of the State.

In the ping-pong of allegations and counter allegations being made over the officer’s suspension, the ugly face of vote bank politics has once again surfaced. For the SP, this is a timely and excellent way of telling its Muslim supporters that their interests are safe with Mulla Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi getting into the fray and urging the Prime Minister to ensure that the officer was not unfairly treated is a clear bid to woo the young, urban middle-class voter who is getting increasingly drawn to Narendra Modi. Remember the recent party meet where she had asked senior Congress leaders to ruminate on why the urban middle classes were getting disenchanted with the party?

The SP, and others too, have hit back asking where her concern for honest and upright officers was when Ashok Khemka was shifted by the Haryana government for questioning her son-in-law Robert Vadra’s land deals.

An angry UP government has also slapped a chargesheet on the suspended Durga, asking her to explain why she had “flouted rules” and demolished the makeshift mosque. With the BJP and the Left parties getting into the fray and slamming both the Congress and the SP, it is virtually a free-for-all. The BJP has cleverly used one of its Muslims faces, Shahnawaz Hussain, to criticise the SP for “punishing an honest officer”. But the most disgusting comment reportedly came from SP senior leader Azam Khan: Ram naam par loot sako toh loot lo.

Terrible timing

In any story, there are layers and shades of truth. But the two factors that jar in Durga’s case are the timing of the demolition and the extremely harsh decision taken by the State administration in suspending her.

Taking the second first, it is well-known that in their initial postings most IAS and IPS officers come with full josh and the determination to make a difference. After taking a few knocks they mellow or “mature” and go in one of two directions; either joining the politicians in looting the exchequer or turning deaf and mute against all injustice and wrongdoing. Only a rare few take on the system, the criminals, the mafia, the politicians, land sharks and such entities and face a plethora of transfers to insignificant posts. Sometimes they do get suspended.

Coming to the demolition, it is clear that the structure built on gram sabha land was illegal and unauthorised. Kadalpur, the village in question, has a population of 5,000, with 80 per cent being Muslim, but that doesn’t give anybody the right to encroach on government land. But reports from the ground in local newspapers, including Urdu publications, have quoted the villagers as saying that by consensus the land had been set aside for the mosque.

Panchayat Pradhan Sher Mohammad told the Urdu daily Inquilab that he appealed to the SDM (Durga) not to demolish the mosque as it was the month of Ramzan. “I told her we have built the mosque with great effort and after Ramzan we will get the official papers ready. But she refused to listen and ordered the demolition of the mosque. The policemen first smashed the tarpaulin, threw away the prayer mats, then they broke the water tank which we had bought after collecting donations for 20 days.” He added that Hindu villagers too had donated money for this mosque. By force or voluntarily, we don’t know.

More than one villager asked if the officer would have dared to touch a temple! Taking that forward, one should ask which IAS officer would dare to demolish an unauthorised temple during a major Hindu festival or a church during the Christmas season. A little experience or counselling by a senior, in this case the District Magistrate, would have cautioned Durga to consider Muslim sensibilities during Ramzan and wait a couple of weeks to act.

Temple demolition

It is not as though illegal temples have not been demolished in India, but sometimes heritage and local sensitivities have to be considered. Nearer home, in Chennai, I remember vividly the drama that took place around 2003-04 when the East Coast Road, from Chennai to Puducherry, was being widened. There was a Valmiki temple bang in the centre of the planned expansion. Legend has it that poet Valmiki, after writing the Ramayana , had rested here while heading south along the coast, and hence the area got the name Valmiki Nagar.

The temple was tiny and looked more like a mandapam , but was at least 1,300 years old, reported The Hindu . Despite court orders, the temple could not be demolished to facilitate the road expansion. The final call to leave it alone was taken after even Muslim workers refused to raze it to the ground! Finally the road weaved its way around the temple, and heavens did not fall!

Bureaucrats deal with the tricky business of unauthorised structures with more tact than zeal that the young and inexperienced Durga showed. About three decades ago, in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu, a scheduled caste colony sprang up over a 3-acre area meant for a bus terminus. Many collectors were petrified of evicting SC encroachers, till a smart young man came to the post. Using tact, he drew up a road map for clearing all encroachments from the area, and after demolishing some other structures, this colony too was cleared and he didn’t end up getting an anti-SC tag!

Talking of encroachments, there is this unauthorised temple bang outside my house in Chennai. Around 2003, when the slum dwellers — a vote bank that has been allowed to encroach on temple land in a prime city area — were putting it up, I called the Chennai Corporation for help. They came promptly early morning and demolished the makeshift temple. After that, I backed my car and left for office with my defiant son daring the gathered mob to attack me as threatened.

A few years ago the local slumlord put it up again, literally overnight, to honour his mother-in-law who is periodically “possessed” by the goddess to whom this temple is dedicated. Her son, when not in an inebriated condition, performs puja and collects money from passers-by. But that is small change compared with the collection during the annual festival when the entire road is closed for two days and our senses assaulted by deafening music.

This time, thanks to either maturity or a weaker spine, I did not complain. Now I am in search of a knight in shining armour and a strong spine, of the Durga variety, to take down this encroachment.