Bulldozer: The new mascot of majoritarian politics, writes A L I Chougule

The Uttar Pradesh government’s bulldozer drive, under the self-righteous claim of the tough state moving against “anti-social elements” and similar actions by other BJP-ruled state governments earlier, marks a new level of brutalisation in public discourse. It also stands out as a clear and sordid pattern of selective punishment.

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Tuesday, June 21, 2022, 10:25 AM IST
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Bulldozers arrive outside the house of Afreen Fatima, the daughter of Mohammad Javed, who has been accused over his involvement in the violence in Prayagraj | Photo: Twitter

Whether in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat earlier in April, or Uttar Pradesh as recently as 10 days ago, demolition of homes and other properties of alleged rioters in states that are ruled by the BJP are increasingly viewed as retribution and collective punishment, given that the targets of demolitions in these states have been primarily Muslims. While the process is unlawful, violating a series of laws and court judgements, the act of demolition is also humiliating and menacingly theatrical, considering that it is used as drama to conjure a grand spectacle of ruin, which itself becomes punishment for the victim.

Sometimes, the justification for these demolitions is couched as ongoing action against encroachments – like in New Delhi on April 20, four days after a riot during a religious procession and in Prayagraj on June 12, two days after a violent protest against offensive remarks against Prophet Mohammed. Demolitions have also happened in Saharanpur and Kanpur under a similar pretext recently. At other times, there has been little attempt to find justification, as in MP on April 11. Such use of bulldozers has become a part of the BJP’s majoritarian political playbook, deployed successfully in UP where Yogi Adityanath, who won a second term as chief minister in March, was projected as “Bulldozer Baba”.

One of the cardinal principles of natural justice is that no one should be condemned without being heard. This has not been followed in the cases of demolition cited above. Arbitrary demolitions not only reverse the burden of proof against the alleged offenders, but also prevent those accused from defending themselves. The wave of demolitions not only violates the fundamental principles of justice but also disregards landmark Supreme Court judgements in 1985 and 2017, which ruled that evictions and demolitions must follow clear rules and procedures; include “meaningful” consultations; be “fair, just and reasonable”; and be “consistent with rights of life and dignity”.

According to reports, none of these directions have been followed in the use of bulldozers against alleged and primarily Muslim protestors/rioters, with demolitions violating municipal and other laws and, in the case of MP and UP, even special laws promulgated to hasten action against rioters and protestors. India does not have a Union law to regulate such demolitions but every state has its own laws and procedures which need to be followed before punishment is handed down. In simple words, demolition is a drastic step that cannot be taken without careful deliberation or by short-circuiting Constitutional rights.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s bulldozer drive, under the self-righteous claim of the tough state moving against “anti-social elements” and similar actions by other BJP-ruled state governments earlier, marks a new level of brutalisation in public discourse. It also stands out as a clear and sordid pattern of selective punishment. There is little doubt that in urban India, violations of municipal and urban planning laws are rampant. But bulldozers are being used selectively to punish and silence a particular community. For political purposes, such actions are presented as stringent action against anti-social elements for rioting and for legal purposes, they are portrayed as removal of illegal structures. But in reality, the rampaging bulldozer symbolises the new playbook of majoritarian politics.

The bulldozer is neither accidental, nor is it incidental in some of the BJP-ruled states, particularly UP. The fact that some states take pride in demolishing buildings shows that they want the bulldozer to symbolise their purported resolve in keeping the minorities under check. While the brazen use of bulldozers has been challenged as a violation of due process and fundamental rights in three courts – Supreme Court, Madhya Pradesh High Court and Allahabad High Court – the cases have not travelled much distance, though the bulldozer policy has travelled wider from UP to MP and Delhi. This is not only distressing but a painfully predictable exercise of targeting a community.

What is equally disturbing is that the punitive demolitions bear a striking resemblance to Israel’s playbook against the Palestinians. According to reports, in the occupied Palestinian territory, Israel practices something similar known as “punitive demolitions” as punishment for “terrorism”, a fact that is well-documented by the United Nations Human Rights office and even flagged as a war crime. Israeli authorities have reportedly stated on record that the demolitions are meant to send “a severe message of deterrence to terrorists and their accomplices – that they will pay a price if they continue their terrorist activities and harm innocent people”.

What is happening in India is strikingly similar, and several BJP leaders have openly justified the use of house demolitions as punishment. While lower-level executive authorities offer some pretence of legality such as eviction notices, it is done in such a manner as to deny the accused any time to seek legal recourse. According to reports, this is exactly how activist Javed Mohammed’s house was demolished in Prayagraj on June 12, while he was in jail. The demolition did what it was meant to do: punish his entire family. Such arbitrary demolitions as punishment for protests that sometimes become violent have become a repeated practice in many BJP-ruled states in recent times. Even in Assam it is happening in different form and degree.

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court cautioned the Uttar Pradesh government against the controversial practice of demolishing the homes of Muslim protesters accused of instigating violence amid nationwide protests on June 10, but it did not order a halt to the demolitions. “Demolitions have to be in accordance with law, they cannot be retaliatory,” observed the apex court, which will hear the case again today. One doesn’t know what will be the outcome of the case, but what is needed is that the court must intervene forcefully in targeted demolitions and do justice to the community that is at the receiving end of punitive action by the state.


Whether in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat earlier in April, or Uttar Pradesh as recently as 10 days ago, demolition of homes and other properties of alleged rioters in states that are ruled by the BJP are increasingly viewed as retribution and collective punishment, given that the targets of demolitions in these states have been primarily Muslims. While the process is unlawful, violating a series of laws and court judgments, the act of demolition is also humiliating and menacingly theatrical, considering that it is used as drama to conjure a grand spectacle of ruin, which itself becomes punishment for the victim.

Sometimes, the justification for these demolitions is couched as ongoing action against encroachments – like in New Delhi on April 20, four days after a riot during a religious procession and in Prayagraj on June 12, two days after a violent protest against offensive remarks against Prophet Muhammad. Demolitions have also happened in Saharanpur and Kanpur under a similar pretext recently. At other times, there has been little attempt to find justification, as in MP on April 11. Such use of bulldozers has become a part of the BJP’s majoritarian political playbook, deployed successfully in UP where Yogi Adityanath, who won a second term as chief minister in March, was projected as “Bulldozer Baba”.

One of the cardinal principles of natural justice is that no one should be condemned without being heard. This has not been followed in the cases of demolition cited above. Arbitrary demolitions not only reverse the burden of proof against the alleged offenders, but also prevent those accused from defending themselves. The wave of demolitions not only violates the fundamental principles of justice but also disregards landmark Supreme Court judgements in 1985 and 2017, which ruled that evictions and demolitions must follow clear rules and procedures; include “meaningful” consultations; be “fair, just and reasonable”; and be “consistent with rights of life and dignity”.

According to reports, none of these directions have been followed in the use of bulldozers against alleged and primarily Muslim protestors/rioters, with demolitions violating municipal and other laws and, in the case of MP and UP, even special laws promulgated to hasten action against rioters and protestors. India does not have a Union law to regulate such demolitions but every state has its own laws and procedures which need to be followed before punishment is handed down. In simple words, demolition is a drastic step that cannot be taken without careful deliberation or by short-circuiting Constitutional rights.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s bulldozer drive, under the self-righteous claim of the tough state moving against “anti-social elements” and similar actions by other BJP-ruled state governments earlier, marks a new level of brutalisation in public discourse. It also stands out as a clear and sordid pattern of selective punishment. There is little doubt that in urban India, violations of municipal and urban planning laws are rampant. But bulldozers are being used selectively to punish and silence a particular community. For political purposes, such actions are presented as stringent action against anti-social elements for rioting and for legal purposes, they are portrayed as removal of illegal structures. But in reality, the rampaging bulldozer symbolises the new playbook of majoritarian politics.

The bulldozer is neither accidental, nor is it incidental in some of the BJP-ruled states, particularly UP. The fact that some states take pride in demolishing buildings shows that they want the bulldozer to symbolise their purported resolve in keeping the minorities under check. While the brazen use of bulldozers has been challenged as a violation of due process and fundamental rights in three courts – Supreme Court, Madhya Pradesh High Court and Allahabad High Court – the cases have not travelled much distance, though the bulldozer policy has travelled wider from UP to MP and Delhi. This is not only distressing but a painfully predictable exercise of targeting a community.

What is equally disturbing is that the punitive demolitions bear a striking resemblance to Israel’s playbook against the Palestinians. According to reports, in the occupied Palestinian territory, Israel practices something similar known as “punitive demolitions” as punishment for “terrorism”, a fact that is well-documented by the United Nations Human Rights office and even flagged as a war crime. Israeli authorities have reportedly stated on record that the demolitions are meant to send “a severe message of deterrence to terrorists and their accomplices – that they will pay a price if they continue their terrorist activities and harm innocent people”.

What is happening in India is strikingly similar, and several BJP leaders have openly justified the use of house demolitions as punishment. While lower-level executive authorities offer some pretence of legality such as eviction notices, it is done in such a manner as to deny the accused any time to seek legal recourse. According to reports, this is exactly how activist Javed Mohammed’s house was demolished in Prayagraj on June 12, while he was in jail. The demolition did what it was meant to do: punish his entire family. Such arbitrary demolitions as punishment for protests that sometimes become violent have become a repeated practice in many BJP-ruled states in recent times. Even in Assam it is happening in different form and degree.

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court cautioned the Uttar Pradesh government against the controversial practice of demolishing the homes of Muslim protesters accused of instigating violence amid nationwide protests on June 10, but it did not order a halt to the demolitions. “Demolitions have to be in accordance with law, they cannot be retaliatory,” observed the apex court, which will hear the case again today. One doesn’t know what will be the outcome of the case, but what is needed is that the court must intervene forcefully in targeted demolitions and do justice to the community that is at the receiving end of punitive action by the state.


(The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule)

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