Manoj Singh/Al Jazeera
Families in Gorakhpur city say they were forced to sign a ‘consent letter’ to give up their homes and land for the ‘security’ of Gorakhnath temple.
Gorakhpur, India – Javaid Akhter, 71, has lived all his life in his 100-year-old ancestral house built by his grandfather. The house is located just a few metres away from a famous Hindu temple in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state.
Akhter, a retired engineer with the Indian railways, says Gorakhpur district officials, including the police, visited his house recently and took measurements of the surrounding land.
The next day, he was asked to sign a “consent letter”, which said the residents living on the southeastern side of the Gorakhnath temple had given their “consent to transfer or hand over (their) lands and houses to the government” for the “safety of the temple premises”.
“We have no issues and as of our consent, we have our signatures as followed,” reads the letter, with the names and signatures of residents concerned.
Nearly a dozen families, all from the minority Muslim community living in the vicinity of the temple, were asked to sign the consent letter, with the signatories alleging they have been asked to vacate their houses.
Akhter told Al Jazeera that he saw a few families had already signed the letter.
“The officials told us that if we do not sign the letter, they have other ways to get our signatures as well. We were pressured,” he said.
Incidentally, Uttar Pradesh’s right-wing Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the “mahant” or chief priest of the Gorakhnath temple.
Before he became the chief minister in 2017, Adityanath, a saffron-clad hardline leader from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was a member of parliament from Gorakhpur for nearly two decades.
Spread across an area of 52 acres (21 hectares), the temple traces its origin to the 11th century monk, Guru Gorakhnath, who belonged to the Shaivite tradition within Hinduism.
With a population of 220 million, nearly 20 percent of them Muslims, Uttar Pradesh has long been a flashpoint for religious tensions which intensified after the BJP came to power in 2014.
Last month, the local administrators in the state’s Barabanki district demolished what Muslims in the area claimed was a 100-year old mosque, causing anguish in the community.
‘Have I signed on my death certificate?’
Retired engineer Akhter said local officials in Gorakhpur told the signatories they will be compensated for their land and properties.
“But we don’t want any compensation. We just want to continue to live here because this is the place where our parents, grandparents have lived for over a century,” he said.
Akther says that despite Gorakhpur being a BJP stronghold, Hindus and Muslims have “always lived in peace and harmony in his area”.
On May 27, Musheer Ahmed was not at home when officials from the local revenue and police departments visited his house.
The officers also measured Ahmed’s house. The next day, the 70-year-old was asked to sign the “consent letter”.
Ahmed, who has suffered from hypertension and depression for 10 years, says he is worried about his 125-year-old ancestral house.
“My tension has since then increased. Have I signed on my death certificate?” he says. “I do not understand why my house, which is 125 years old, is being taken away. I am scared.”
Ahmed says he wants to raise the issue with Chief Minister Adityanath.
Intezar Hussain’s house is lies southwest of the Gorakhnath temple. He says he has been “verbally told” by local officials that his house would be “acquired” for security reasons and that he would be compensated for the loss.
Hussain says he asked the officials to give their assurances in writing first before coming to a decision.
“We came to know that 11 in the southeast direction [of the temple] are being taken by the government. I went and met everyone there and tried to know why the government wants to take our land and homes but there was no clear answer,” he told Al Jazeera.