Bulldozers bear down on India’s Muslim communities

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”.

Nationwide campaign

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.