In a leaf right out of Israel’s playbook, several state governments in India are bulldozing the houses and properties of Muslims on the pretext of their being involved in violence and rioting. Critics say the measure is being used to target the Muslim community of 220 million people and inflict “collective punishment”.
The policy of arbitrarily razing the dwellings of mostly Muslims accused of violence is also being viewed as part of a wider pattern of retaliation against the community for expressing dissent. It continues their violent dispossession and harassment under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The demolitions come against the backdrop of a surge in violent communal and Islamophobic incidents reported in different parts of India in recent months, including calls for a ban on halaal products and wearing the hijab in educational institutions.
On 20 April, authorities in Delhi demolished a number of Muslim-owned buildings in Jahangirpuri, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood and the site of clashes between Hindus and Muslims just days earlier. Social media was flooded with photos and videos of bulldozers ploughing through the neighbourhood as crying families looked on helplessly.
The demolition drive, which was carried out by a civic authority affiliated to the BJP, was halted only after the Supreme Court of India ordered that it be stopped. Those targeted were low-income families who had been living in basic dwellings or makeshift shops. Although officials claimed they were demolishing illegally constructed dwellings, many people, including opposition parties, said it was a retaliatory measure targeting Muslims.
The neighbourhood had witnessed clashes after Hindu right-wing groups gathered on 16 April to commemorate the birthday of Hindu god Hanuman. Locals said people walking in procession were armed with swords and tridents and used provocative slogans. Violence broke out when some men holding a saffron flag tried to enter a mosque.
The police arrested at least 24 suspects, mostly Muslims, in connection with the violence and filed a case against the organisers for organising the procession. They named the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal – Hindutva organisations affiliated to the BJP – in a statement, but these names were retracted after the VHP issued a warning to the police that it will “launch a battle if they try to lodge a false case or pick up any activists”.
Days earlier, a similar demolition campaign against the Muslim community was carried out in reprisal for violence that had erupted in Madhya Pradesh state’s Khargone city during a Hindu procession on 10 April. The BJP-led state government demolished as many as 16 houses and 29 shops belonging to Muslims authorities accused of being involved in violence.
In the aftermath of the demolitions, many families have been left in dire straits. Over 100 people, almost all Muslims, have been arrested so far and 89 sent to jail.
BJP politicians and local administrators publicly portrayed these demolitions as punitive measures in retaliation for some occupants allegedly participating in riots. The state’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, said those who had thrown stones would be punished and made to pay for the damage to both public and private properties. “The house where the stones have come from will be turned into a pile of stones itself,” Chouhan added. The district administration, however, claimed that it had demolished only illegal buildings.
In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which is also ruled by the BJP, local authorities in Anand district demolished makeshift shops belonging to those they alleged had been involved in riots on 10 April in which one man was killed.
Bulldozing the residences and properties of Muslims accused of crimes – even while still standing trial – is a recurring practice in BJP-ruled states. It began in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which is controlled by a militant Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, who is notorious for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In recent weeks, a similar pattern of hate speech and violence against Muslims was also reported in several other states, including Jharkhand and West Bengal in the east. Muslim families have also been forced to leave the northern state of Uttrakhand following violence and fearing reprisals.
As the Hindu community celebrated Ram Navmi, the birthday of the god Ram, several Hindutva groups formed processions in Muslim neighbourhoods carrying swords and clubs. As they marched past Muslim areas and mosques, some gave speeches that led to violence.
Dozens of videos went viral on social media showing processions of Hindu men wearing saffron scarves – and, in some cases, carrying sticks and swords – stopping their motorcycles in Muslim neighbourhoods, playing provocative songs and uttering hateful slogans. In some places, the provocations led to members of the minority community throwing stones at the processions, leading to tensions. In some instances, even police personnel were seen joining the mob.
Many Muslim leaders, opposition parties and rights groups have condemned the bulldozing and questioned its legality. “Under what law has the government of Madhya Pradesh demolished the houses of the Muslim community? It clearly shows the biased attitude towards the Muslim minority,” said parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi. He called it “state-complicit violence and a grave violation of the Geneva Convention”.
Rahul Gandhi, India’s main opposition leader, attacked the BJP government over the use of bulldozers in violence-hit areas of Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. “The BJP must bulldoze the hatred in their hearts instead,” he tweeted.
The prominent Islamic body Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind urged the Supreme Court to interdict the razing of houses, saying “only one community” was being targeted under the guise of crime prevention. According to its petition, resorting to such actions is against the Constitution’s ethos and violates the rights of accused persons.
“Such measures by the governments [of states] undermine the criminal justice system of our country, including the important role of the courts. The legal process, including the pretrial and trial stage, is hindered by these acts of the state. Therefore, immediate action is needed to prevent such incidents from repeating,” it added.
Global rights group Amnesty International said the unlawful demolition of properties owned by Muslims could “amount to collective punishment” and was a “violation of human rights laws”. It called for a “thorough, impartial and transparent investigation”.
Opposition politicians have also accused the BJP of stoking tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslims in states that it rules. On 17 April, the leaders of 13 opposition parties issued a joint statement expressing deep concern over the recent incidents of hate speech and communal violence in the country, and demanding punishment for the perpetrators.
“We are shocked at the silence of the prime minister, who has failed to speak against the words and actions of those who propagate bigotry and those who, by their words and actions, incite and provoke our society,” they said.