India's top court halts demolition of shops in area near New Delhi clashes

NEW DELHI, April 20 (Reuters) - India's Supreme Court stepped in to stop authorities from demolishing illegal shops and walls around a mosque in a predominantly Muslim area of New Delhi near the site of clashes between Hindus and Muslims over the weekend.

At least 20 people were arrested in connection with the clashes which erupted during a procession at a Hindu festival. read more

Local police and members of the paramilitary forces who report to the federal home ministry were present on Wednesday in Jahangirpuri, a residential area that is home to scores of low-income Muslim families, when bulldozers razed shops and walls to the ground.

Recent communal clashes in several parts of India have been followed by demolition drives, which critics say are an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to intimidate India's 200 million Muslims.

BJP leaders and hardline Hindu groups affiliated with the party have defended the demolitions, saying they are enforcing the law.

A three-judge panel ordered a stay on tearing down structures in Jahangirpuri, which was led by a civic authority affiliated with the BJP and carried out under the protection of police and security forces.

The stay, which followed a petition stating that municipal authorities did not alert local shopkeepers ahead of time, will remain in force until a hearing scheduled for Thursday.

Deependra Pathak, a senior police officer overseeing the demolition, said adequate forces had to be deployed to ensure authorities could do the job peacefully.

Several Muslim residents at the site said area shopkeepers were not given advance warning about the operation.

"My entire shop has been ruined. Equipments, bikes that were standing for repair are all destroyed in the demolition drive," said a Muslim man who gave his name only as Ashu.

India in recent weeks has witnessed a rise in small-scale religious clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

Earlier this month several homes and shops were torn down in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and western Gujarat state in the aftermath of communal violence on the day of another Hindu festival. Both states are ruled by the BJP.

(This story refiles to correct typo in para 6: BJP not BHP)

Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Edmund Klamann

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