Those who lived through the late 1980-90s in the then Bombay will recall the relief or terror, depending on which side of the divide they were on, of bulldozers rumbling into areas that were known or proved to have encroachments and razing these to the ground. However, those bulldozers, accompanied by a posse of policemen, did not attack all encroachments on public land. Under the direction of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation officers, it selectively targeted informal houses and livelihoods of the poorest in Bombay, occasionally turning towards properties of notorious gangsters.
Every such demolition acquired a faintly moral hue for people who railed against blatant illegalities and argued that the demolition was necessary to “save” or “beautify” the city, unmindful of the little and large encroachments they had made at their workplaces, clubs, and housing complexes. The poor were made homeless but they had no business occupying these spaces anyway, they argued. What would you call the act of taking over a lane or pavement to park your cars every night? I had asked an urban activist then. The street is mine, I pay taxes for it, he had retorted.
Taxes, both formal to the civic corporation and informal to the local land mafia, were paid also by those who saw the bulldozers rip through their tiny homes and shops. But they could not claim an equal citizenship or the right to the city the way that the urban activist had. And Bombay’s bulldozer man, civic officer GR Khairnar who went on to collect accolades and awards for the work, acquired a halo of his own. He was a hero to the city’s upper and middle classes, his cult status deepened when he took on politician Sharad Pawar and gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s properties. When he was attacked, his halo enlarged.
Bulldozer politics played out in full public view, the spectacle captured on still photos which were splashed across front pages of newspapers, its victims interviewed for the nth time about their utter loss. Decades later, demolitions continue in Mumbai though with much less fanfare – nearly 1,500 structures were demolished in the P-North ward covering Malad, Marve, and Gorai last year without noise – than during Khairnar’s time but the city has hardly been “saved” or “beautified” as well-heeled activists then wanted. Indeed, informal settlements such as homes and workplaces have expanded and increased, the hold of the local land mafia is as strong as ever, peppered now with overt or covert political involvement, the intellectualisation of demolition still moves on the tropes of encroachments, their illegality, and immorality.
I do not suggest that ranked illegal structures should have been shown mercy, rather, that all illegal structures – especially those of the rich or powerful – did not meet and get crushed by bulldozers then. Bulldozer politics served a warped sense of civic purpose then. Unsurprisingly, the basics of bulldozer politics have not changed through the intervening decades. Instead, as witnessed in recent weeks in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri and Shaheen Bagh, Khargone, Himmatnagar, and other cities where bulldozers ripped through swathes of informal settlements – especially those of Muslims – bulldozer politics has acquired a distinct communal flavour and purpose. It is state violence at its worst.
The “extreme selective” targeting of a certain kind of encroachment or illegal structure while staying blind to others was called out by the Bombay High Court last year in a case. “…in some cases, the officials (of BMC) are ready to demolish structures even before the service of its demolition order…and in some matters, like the present case, the demolition is not carried out even after more than 20 months from the date of the order of the demolition,” noted the bench of Justices SJ Kathawalla and RI Chagla in December 2020.
The selectivity acquired communal overtones during the recent demolitions. Reports after reports illustrate how the demolition drive in Jahangirpuri was sparked off by a local BJP leader’s letter to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which, in turn, was his political response to stone-throwing incidents in the area of Hanuman Jayanti processions which were themselves not fully legal; how demolition orders were not served in time or not served to people at all, how the Supreme Court’s stay on the demolitions was totally ignored by the local body, and how the bulldozer spared a Hindu temple while bearing down on a mosque nearby. In the process, a number of legal properties too faced the maws of bulldozers. This template repeated itself in other cities too.
To put it bluntly, the bulldozer is now yet another instrument in the hands of the State to demonstrate its majoritarian impulses – powered and cheered by the right-wing in governance and media structures – to show minorities their place on the socio-economic ladder, to divest them of their meagre possessions, to close their economic pipelines and thereby throw them to the margins of the “New India”. That’s why the recent round of demolitions must be seen not merely through the prism of legality-illegality but necessarily as a blatant violation of law by those entrusted to uphold it and ensure basic human rights to all citizens. If the Turkman Gate demolitions during the Emergency were a socio-legal affront, the recent demolitions are multiples of it.
People do not set up their ramshackle homes or mobile workplaces on public land, pay taxes and protection money without holding title to the land, are afraid of evictions and demolitions but unable to see ways out of the conundrum because they desire this lifestyle. Hardly so. They are forced into this vicious cycle by a complex set of reasons beginning with the severe agrarian crisis and breakdown of the rural economy which forces them as migrants into cities, ill-equipped to negotiate their way to basic decent life, city and state governments that take pride in their economic value but have not committed to creating affordable housing despite the lip-service to it, beneficiaries and consumers of their labour who welcome it or even rely upon it in their daily lives but do not want the labourers around them. The old class angle to demolition is now class-communal.
The truth is simple: Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life and livelihood which, as eminent legal minds have argued and the Supreme Court has accepted, includes the right to housing. Yet, paradoxically, courts have also referred to people in informal settlements as “encroachers” thus crystallising their status as fit for demolition. But even when demolition is the only government response, it is meant to be carried out within a framework which includes issuing notices, doing surveys, providing alternative accommodation to those eligible and giving an opportunity to the targeted to move away with their belongings and their dignity. When bulldozers are sent in disregarding all this, the message is clear: You, the bulldozed, are not recognised as citizens and do not have basic rights.
Earlier, the targeted were the poor and marginalised. Now, in “New India” they are the poor and marginalised Muslims.
(The author is an independent journalist, columnist, urban chronicler, and media educator who writes on politics, cities, gender, and development. She tweets at @smrutibombay)