Bulldozer Raj and the Constitutional Order: Why are the Constitutional Courts silent in the face of Punitive Demolitions?

Mar 01, 2024
By PUCL Bulletin Editorial Board

In the last 7 years and more, one of the  sadly distinguishing features of BJP-ruled states in India has been the ushering in of the `bulldozer raj’ – the use of the ubiquitous `JCB’ brand bulldozers to arbitrarily and lawlessly demolish houses and buildings of persons belonging to the minority – read Muslim – people. The demolitions started in UP soon after Yogi Adityanath took over as CM in March, 2017  with the targeting of the supposedly criminal mafia, but very quickly the strategy was used against people protesting against acts of majoritarian violence or against state policy. What started in UP was copied in other BJP ruled states including MP, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Haryana,  Rajasthan and other states.

The pretext has always been that the houses or buildings demolished belonged to people named as accused for participating in cases of protests, demonstrations when stone throwing allegedly took place or rioting and vandalism allegedly took place. Sometimes the overt excuse were that the constructions didn’t have building approvals or permissions or were built on government land. In a number of cases, civil cases regarding the same buildings and houses were pending in courts.

The common factor in all the cases were that the demolitions were done in total – in fact in absolute violation of all laws. Despite the clear legal provision and stipulation that no demolition can be effected by the state machinery without completing the judicial and court process  and in violation of `due process of law’ – the state governments used their police power to first demolish so they present a fair accompli even if the matter was challenged in court.  So popular did these `illegal’ demolitions become as a weapon of state violence against minorities, that there was a race for terms carrying the chilling reminder of what bulldozers and demolitions mean for the minority community – `Bull dozer Baba’ and `Bulldozer Mama’!

The most deplorable aspect of the demolitions, which were publicly carried out and widely covered in the media, was the  silence from the constitutional courts. Barring a few exceptions, notable by the sparseness of such court interventions, the higher judiciary remained mute spectators as the `rule of law’ was brazenly violated with impunity by the various governments. When courts of law meant to enforce the `rule of law’ themselves remained complicit by their inaction, could ordinary citizens, and minority citizens dare to protest or oppose?

It is in this context that the latest incident of bulldozing happened in Haldwani on 8th February of 2024. The state government led by the Chief Minster Mr. Pushkar Dhami and  right-wing groups  has been upping the communal ante by vilifying Muslims as engaging in love jihad, Land Jihad, Vyapar Jihad, and now Mazaar Jihad. Maazar Jihad like all other jihads noted above are a figment of the right wing imagination. Mazaar Jihad spreads the canard that Muslims are ‘building mazaars or sacred mausoleums across the state to overshadow and overpower its Hindu identity’.

The Chief Minister is reported to have stated that, ‘they have demolished sometimes 1,000 mazaars, sometimes 3,000 mazaars.’  It is in the backdrop of this communal campaign that the incident in Haldwani is to be seen. In Haldwani, the issue  of the mosque being built on forest land and hence illegal was raised by the administration and in response the Muslim community members filed a petition in court challenging the state government’s contention that the mosque was built on forest land. In spite of the fact that the matter was before the  High Court, without warning on the evening of 08.02.2024 the officer of the Municipal office arrived with bulldozers and  demolished  the sealed Mosque and the Madrasa despite the matter being sub-judice.

This arbitrary and illegal state action of demolition when the matter was sub-judice angered the local community who gave vent to their anger and frustration  by throwing stones and burning of vehicles outside the police station.  In what has become the playbook of BJP governments, the slightest sign of resistance by the Muslim community to any attempt to marginalise them,  is visited by even more brutal force.

This violence was followed by the  heavy handed response of  police  firing which has resulted in six people being reportedly killed. Post that, police indiscriminately entered houses of Muslims in the surrounding area and arrested  hundreds of Muslim men who are  according to a fact finding report being arbitrarily detained and tortured.

What speaks of a discriminatory intent underlying state action is that Chief Minister Dhami travelled to Haldwani, after the violence and while he met police persons injured in the clash, he ignored the families of those who lost their lives in the police firing that followed the demolition. As a further psychic affront to the community, he announced that a police station would be built at the site of the demolished mosque. This move in particular, shows that the administration under Dhami has no interest in repairing relationships and promoting  fraternity which is the constitutional responsibility of the Chief Minister.

The demolition of the Masjid in  Uttarkhand is part of  a systematic policy of repression of the Muslim minority led by the Chief Minister, Dhami. The proclaimed aim seems to be to make Uttarakhand as a Devbhoomi the holy land for Hindus which would have no place for other religious minorities.

The fig leaf the government is using to justify its actions is that what it is targeting are only illegal structures. However the fact that the illegal structures belong primarily to the Muslim community (while illegal temples of Hindus are not deemed illegal enough to be demolished) bespeaks a discrimination in the way state policy is being carried out and betrays the real intention of the government.

The real intention of the government is not to rid the state of illegal structures but rather to destroy Muslim places of worship, residence and work and thereby relegate Muslims to second class citizenship. These are the dangerous implications of the project to turn Uttarkhand into Devbhumi, i.e. a place without Muslims.

While in Haldwani, illegal demolition was followed by arrests and shooting, in previous instances be it in Uttar Pradesh when the house of Afreen Fatima was destroyed or Nuh in Haryana when Muslim houses and shops were destroyed or Khargone in Madhya Pradesh or Kambhat in Gujarat, demolitions were a way of punishing the minority community.

Punitive demolitions are a new crime on the horizon of  a new India. The aim is to punish the entire community and not just the alleged perpetrator. Innocents who reside in the house, be it children, women or elderly people, suffer an erosion of their rights be it the right to shelter, the right to food, the right to health, the right to dignity or the right to peaceful enjoyment of family life.  Punitive demolitions are a form of collective punishment which are a blot on any country governed by the rule of law.

The judiciary has sadly been silent as punitive demolitions become a part of policy in state after state. This de facto policy has not been seriously taken cognizance of by the courts other than by a brave judicial order by the Punjab and  Haryana and High court, in the context of the Nuh demolitions in which the Court held that, ‘the buildings belonging to a particular community are being brought down under the guise of law and order problem and an exercise of ethnic cleansing is being conducted by the State.’

Chander Uday Singh in an introduction to a Report, titled, ‘Routes of Wrath’ documents how  Ram Navami processions have become a pretext to carry out punitive demolitions. He notes that, ‘bulldozers following in the wake of processionists, ready to demolish the businesses, livelihoods and homes of anybody perceived to have obstructed the procession.’ What is more shocking is that, ‘the civilian administration play judge and jury, pronounce the hapless people in the path of processionists guilty of being stone-throwers, the police play hangman with the bulldozers, and the municipal authorities come in to clean up the mess by post-facto declarations of encroachments, unauthorised constructions and other neat cover-ups for the demolitions.’

The discourse on understanding this  crime of punitive demolitions has been given a fillip by the two recent reports of Amnesty International. The Report titled, ‘If you speak up your house will be demolished’ , focuses on documenting ‘targeted demolition by the Indian statement authorities of at least 128 properties including homes, businesses and places of worship largely belonging to Muslims in the states of Assam, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.’ The second report seeks to ensure accountability of JCB which is used in most demolitions and argues for JCB and JCB India being held accountable under the UN framework of the human rights responsibilities of businesses.

The first report documented the impact of demolitions on, ‘at least 617 people, including men, women, and children, either rendering them homeless or deprived of their sole livelihood.’ The chilling conclusion drawn is that, ‘this selective targeting of Muslims was punitive retaliation for the alleged involvement of some Muslims in protesting discriminatory laws and practices enforced by the Indian state.’ The Report simply concludes that,  ‘In India, bulldozers have now become synonymous with the oppression of Muslims.’ This policy of punitive demolitions according to the Report, ‘amounts to a form of collective and arbitrary punishment that egregiously violates the rights of those affected including the rights to a fair trial, adequate housing, dignity and non-discrimination.’

The PUCL has also been responding with statements and petitions to the issue of punitive demolitions in India. However as the Amnesty Report concludes, there is a need for greater research on this crime which must enter the public discourse as a shocking betrayal of the values of the constitution founded as it is on rule of law and non discrimination. Finally the issue of punitive demolitions, should be highlighted during the electoral process and political parties must in their manifesto disavow punitive demolitions as a form of state policy.

Every punitive  demolition is akin to a hammer blow targeting the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. If the constitutional order is to survive and India is to remain a rule of law society, its vital that the Constitutional Courts end their silence on this most egregious of crimes, punitive demolitions.