Legal battle over demolitions near Afzal Khan tomb in Maharashtra

The Supreme Court on Friday sought reports from officials of Maharasthra’s Satara district on the demolition drive conducted around the tomb of Afzal Khan, the 17th-century commander of the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur.

These reports should indicate the nature of the structures, and whether due process was followed in removing the alleged unauthorised structures, the court said. A Bench of Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud and Justice Hima Kohli was apprised by the Maharashtra government that the demolition drive was over, and illegal structures on government and forest land were razed.

The Hazrat Mohammad Afzal Khan Memorial Society, which has looked after the tomb since the 1950s, had moved the court seeking protection for the monument.

Satara Collector Ruchesh Jaiwanshi said that the administration had only removed “the unauthorised structures that had come up around the grave of Afzal Khan”. On Thursday, the Bench had agreed to hear an interim plea seeking a stay on the demolition.

The demolitions in Satara

Early on Thursday, Satara district officials went to the mid-17th century fort built by Chhatrapati Shivaji in Pratapgarh with earthmovers and bulldozers to demolish the “unauthorised structures” constructed around the medieval tomb of Afzal Khan, whom Shivaji had killed on November 10, 1659. According to Maratha sources, Afzal Khan’s remains were buried at the fort and a tomb was constructed on Shivaji’s orders.

Several orders passed by the Bombay High Court were cited for the action, which in 2017 had called for the removal of structures around the spot. The demolition incidentally occurred on the 363rd anniversary of the killing of Afzal Khan by Shivaji, celebrated as ‘Shiv Pratap Day’.

Hindu groups including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), have alleged the Afzal Khan Memorial Society had expanded the tomb by carrying out unauthorised constructions. In 2004, one Varsha Laxmanrao Deshpande had filed a PIL demanding their demolition.

The PIL and Bombay HC order

Deshpande contended that in the name of the original tomb of Afzal Khan, certain persons were encroaching upon the land for their personal benefit.

Hearing the PIL, the Bombay HC Bench comprising Justices A A Sayed and J N Patel observed in 2007, “It will be in larger public interest if the respondent state through its instrumentalities removes all unauthorised constructions from this disputed site by following due process of law. ”

Referring to the forests in the area, the court said, “There is no dispute over the fact that the site is situated within the protected forest and if that is so, the state should not permit the use of the site for non-forest purposes as the same is prohibited under the Forests Conservation Act, 1980, without obtaining permission from the competent authority.”

It asked the Conservator of Forests to file an affidavit in the matter after verifying all the necessary records on whether any permission was taken from the Forest Department. In 2008, another Bench of the court directed the authorities to comply with the 2007 order.

The court heard the matter after VHP member Milind Ekbote pointed out that a proposal to regularise the “unauthorised construction” was being sent to the state government. The Bench observed that they were quite sure that the state would refrain from regularising any construction as it had directed authorities to remove encroachments, and that the land in question was under the Forest Conservation Act and could not be used for non-forest purposes.

In a 2017 order, the High Court asked the authorities to comply with the earlier order of the court, and to submit affidavits on details of the illegal structures and their future demolition. Otherwise, the court said, the Conservator of Forests would be held personally liable.

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