A day after Indian Muslim political activist Javed Muhammad was arrested in connection with recent protests in Prayagraj city in Uttar Pradesh, a bulldozer arrived at his doorstep, along with police in riot gear.
“The police was trying to get the rest of the family to vacate the house, saying our home was on a hit list and it wasn’t safe for us to stay here. When we refused to leave, a notice from civic authorities was pasted by the gate claiming the building was illegal and would be demolished the next morning,” said Mr. Muhammad’s daughter, 24-year-old Afreen Fatima.
Since the demolition notice was addressed to her father, and the house was registered in her mother’s name, legal counsel believed it would be illegal for authorities to go through with it.
But on the morning of June 12, she and her family were left with little choice but to watch as the two-storey home they had lived in for more than 20 years came tumbling down in minutes. “All we had time to gather were the important education and legal documents,” said Ms. Fatima, a scholar and researcher.
Mr. Muhammad’s house is the latest casualty in a spate of demolitions in India that opposition parties and human-rights organizations are calling “bulldozer justice.” Excavators are being used as an extrajudicial tool, targeting the homes and businesses of Muslim activists blamed for inciting violence in protest of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In Prayagraj, the local police accused Mr. Muhammad of being the “mastermind” behind demonstrations on June 10 that called for the arrest of BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma over her controversial remarks on Prophet Mohammed during a television news debate in May. Mr. Muhammad’s wife and one of his daughters were also detained for questioning. His family denied the claim, saying he wasn’t at the protest and had appealed for peace.
“This is a bulldozer act that represents a political strategy. It is to demonize a minority community. … This is a government which cannot control prices, provide jobs and therefore wants to divide us all by their bulldozer politics,” said Brinda Karat, a politician with the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Anger has been building on both sides of the divide since Ms. Sharma participated in a TV debate about a Shiva symbol allegedly found in a mosque and mocked a Muslim panelist about the age of Prophet Mohammed’s third wife. The controversial comments (which she later withdrew) have outraged India’s 200 million Muslims and sparked nationwide protests in which at least two demonstrators were killed. More than 15 Muslim-majority countries officially condemned the remarks.
The BJP suspended Ms. Sharma in an effort to preserve trade ties. But that has not quelled public anger. On June 28, a Hindu man who publicly expressed support for her was beheaded on camera by two radical Muslim men. During a procedural hearing on several criminal complaints filed against Ms. Sharma, India’s Supreme Court said on July 1 that she should apologize to the nation because “she and her loose tongue have set the country on fire.”
Demolitions of private properties belonging to Muslims have also been reported in other cities, particularly in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Over the past few years, political experts noted, yellow-and-black wrecking machines have come to symbolize the power of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. He has even been nicknamed “bulldozer baba” by his supporters, after the equipment featured in some of BJP’s campaign speeches, and is increasingly being seen as a tool to maintain law and order in the state.
A similar pattern of bulldozers was deployed as a revenge tactic in April, rights organizations and legal experts say, when Muslim homes and shops were razed in the locality of Jahangirpuri in Delhi after a violent communal clash during a Hindu festival. Officials said it was part of an “anti-encroachment drive” and demolitions were paused after the Supreme Court issued a stay order.
State officials claim that bulldozers are only used against “criminals and the mafias” who grab land from the poor. In response to a Supreme Court notice against demolitions taking place “without following the due process of law,” the Uttar Pradesh government said that they “had no relation to the riots” and that due process had been followed, with adequate notice given.
The call to condemn the demolition drives, however, is gaining momentum.
A group of retired judges and senior advocates are urging the chief justice of India to intervene. “Instead of giving protesters an opportunity of being heard and engaging in peaceful protests, the UP state administration appears to have sanctioned taking violent action against such individuals,” they said.
Another urgent plea came from a group of former civil servants, who wrote that “inflicting brutal punishment on citizens who dare to protest lawfully or criticize the government or express dissent by using ostensibly legal instruments, is now becoming the norm rather than the exception across many Indian states.” They believe that the demolition drives and “the abuse of municipal and civic laws for political ends is just one element of a larger policy for converting the administrative and police apparatus into an instrument of brutal majoritarian repression.”
Farman Naqvi, a lawyer representing Mr. Muhammad, told The Globe and Mail that his client’s chances of fighting the charges are bleak. “The government is adamant to punish him. There is no evidence against him as the police has claimed but once the state is after your life, the entire machinery is utilized to cook the case. He was arrested on June 10 and his house was demolished on June 12. There is a direct connection between the two, even if they claim there isn’t,” he said.
According to a new report from the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, a global project that monitors political and civil-rights compliances around the world, when it comes to “safety from the state” – which covers arbitrary arrest, torture and ill-treatment, forced disappearance, execution or extrajudicial killing – India scores a worse-than-average 4.6 out of 10.
“The marginalization of Muslims has become much worse in the last three years. Demolitions further cement that fear and phobia that is part of a targeted attack,” said human-rights activist Lenin Raghuvanshi, who works with minority communities affected by state brutality in Uttar Pradesh.
For India’s Muslims whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, rebuilding has been slow and chaotic as they make the rounds of courts, hoping for some judicial relief.
Help has been pouring in for Ms. Fatima and her family, including resources to rebuild their house. But the overarching sense of fear and anger, she said, is hard to shake off. “The messaging is clear: You cannot live in a state of safety and security. Our life has been reduced to trying to survive and keeping the community safe. Ours was not the first house to be demolished but I hope it’s the last.”
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