The demolition, which was due to be carried out on Sunday, would have rendered over 50,000 people – the large majority of whom are Muslims – homeless.
The top court stayed an order by the local railway authorities, back by Uttarakhand state’s high court on 20 December, requiring the demolition of all “illegal encroachments” along the railway line in the Banbhulpura district of the town of Haldwani.
Hundreds had taken to the streets since New Year’s Day in protest against the demolition order after local newspapers in Haldwani carried notices issued by the North-Eastern Railways for the evacuation of all “illegal encroachments” in a week’s time.
The top court’s order on Thursday came in response to a batch of petitions filed against the high court order.
A bench comprising justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Abhay S Oka issued a notice to the railways and the Uttarakhand state.
“There cannot be uprooting of 50,000 people in seven days,” said the court’s ruling, according to legal news portal LiveLaw.
While the railways claims old maps, a notification of 1959, revenue records from 1971 and the results of a 2017 survey proved their ownership of the land, protesters said that they have been living there for generations.
“A workable arrangement is necessary to segregate people who may have rights/no rights coupled with schemes of rehabilitation which already exists while recognising the need of the railways,” the court order said.
Along with the 4,000-odd homes, the area also includes four government schools, 11 private schools, a bank, two overhead water tanks, 10 mosques and four temples, besides shops.
Activists protesting against the demolition order described it as a “targeted attack” on a Muslim-majority area, which also has around 100 homes belonging to members of the formerly lower-caste Dalit community.
While Uttarakhand’s chief minister – from the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP – had backed the demolitions on the basis that the homes sat on “railway land”, the court highlighted that the case has a “human angle” which needs to be resolved.
During the hearing, justice Oka said the high court appeared to have passed its order without hearing the affected parties.
“Find out some solution. It is a human issue,” he said.
Justice Kaul added: “The human issue arises from long periods of occupation. Maybe all of them cannot be painted with the same brush. Maybe there are different categories. But the individual cases have to be examined. Somebody will have to verify the documents.”
The case will come up for hearing again in the Supreme Court on 7 February.