Fast-tracked bulldozer justice in Madhya Pradesh

The heavy-duty vehicle’s sharp teeth have become a symbol of control and dominance, and are allegedly being used as a political instrument in the BJP-ruled State. A report on the victims, who say the administration and police do not follow due legal procedures before the earth movers arrive at their doorstep

March 01, 2024 01:10 am | Updated 06:58 am IST

Swift action: A building belonging to Pyare Miyan, a 68-year-old man accused of raping minor girls and running a sex racket, being demolished by the district administration in Bhopal on July 14, 2020. He was convicted in the case and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2022.

Swift action: A building belonging to Pyare Miyan, a 68-year-old man accused of raping minor girls and running a sex racket, being demolished by the district administration in Bhopal on July 14, 2020. He was convicted in the case and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2022. | Photo Credit: A.M. FARUQUI

In the early hours of December 13, 2022, when Rahul Langri, a 42-year-old moneylender in Madhya Pradesh, was in jail in connection with an alleged case of abetment to suicide, bulldozers arrived at two houses his family members lived in, and broke down about 20 feet of their front portions. The properties were owned by Langri’s mother, Vimla Gurjar, 65, and wife, Radha, 38. The Ujjain Municipal Corporation (UMC) said they had been built without government clearance.

“They had served notices to my family on the night of December 12, and arrived just a few hours later. My mother, wife, and three children kept crying in front of the officials, but nobody listened to them,” says Langri, adding that the authorities came with several police personnel, forcing the neighbours into silence.

Bulldozers have been the symbol of hasty ‘justice’ in several BJP-ruled States in north India, with the administration and security forces swooping down to demolish a person’s home, days or sometimes hours after they are accused of a crime. The wrath of the bulldozer in M.P. has been largely faced by the socially and economically vulnerable. In August 2022, news website Newslaundry had published a report saying that 332 properties had been demolished in the State since March 2020, of which 223 belonged to Muslims; 92 in April 2022 alone, after Ram Navami.

Court orders

On February 12, 2024, the Madhya Pradesh High Court came down heavily on the UMC over the demolition of properties owned by Langri’s family, and ordered the administration to pay ₹1 lakh each to the owners as compensation.

“My elderly mother and wife did the rounds of the court and government offices when I was behind bars,” says Langri, adding that he gets emotional just thinking about it. In his observations, Justice Vivek Rusia of the Indore Bench of the High Court noted that it had become “fashionable” for local administrations to demolish houses “without complying with the principle of natural justice” and then publicising them in the press. The High Court also pulled up civic officials, including the Municipal Commissioner and the Building Officer, flagging the violation of norms.

The court added that previous notices for “illegal construction” had been sent in the name of Parvez Khan in October 2023, and not to the owners of the properties. “Had the Building Officer gone to the spot, he would have been informed about the name of the petitioner and the ownership. There is no such person in the name of Parvez Khan,” the court said. Disciplinary action against the government employees was advocated. The court also permitted Vimla and Radha to approach the local court to claim the “actual compensation” for their houses.

The razed ancestral home of Ashraf Hussain, whose sons were accused of spitting on a Hindu procession in Ujjain.

The razed ancestral home of Ashraf Hussain, whose sons were accused of spitting on a Hindu procession in Ujjain. | Photo Credit: A.M. FARUQUI

Bulldozers turn saffron

Just 2 km from Langri’s house is 52-year-old Ashraf Hussain’s Indian Soda Shop. Above the ground floor, a green curtain shrouds the two demolished floors of his ancestral home. Most of it was bulldozed in July 2023, days after his sons — Adnan Mansoori, 18, and a minor — were among three arrested in the Ujjain Mahakal procession spitting case. The alleged incident took place on July 17 when the trio, standing on the terrace of a building, was accused of spitting at Mahakal Sawari, a Hindu religious procession.

Hazy videos, purportedly showing the boys spitting on the procession, went viral on the Internet. Hussain says the videos spread in the area, and some Hindutva outfits created an uproar. “Within an hour, an FIR was registered, and the boys were arrested,” he says.

Just as the family was struggling to deal with the shock of police station visits, the authorities issued a notice “saying that the house was old, in a poor condition, and was a safety threat”. An hour later, the bulldozers arrived at the family’s door, a heavy police force accompanying them. “My two young sons had been arrested. I was running around to get them out, and suddenly they came to demolish my house. I had no clue what to do and whom to approach at that time,” Hussain says with tears in his eyes. His wife had not eaten for days since the arrests. Hindutva outfits played drums as the rubble came tumbling down, he remembers.

Sultan, a neighbour who ran a paan shop, tried to reason with the officials about documents and legalities. A bulldozer, Hussain recalls, turned towards his small shop and tore it down. “This scared other neighbours too, and the fear of being seen as close to us still lingers in most minds in the locality,” he says.

Ashish Pathak, who assumed office as the Commissioner of UMC in December 2023, denies that the demolitions had anything to do with a person being accused in a criminal case. “It could just be a coincidence,” he says. “A property or its portions are only razed if they were built without permission or more than what was permitted or illegally on encroached land.” Pathak says the civic body serves notices to the owner to break the illegal structure themselves.

While Sultan has since gone to work in Indore, his brother, who runs the paan shop now, says the two neighbours have not been on talking terms since the incident. He says he has filed a petition against the demolition of the shop in the High Court.

A house in Dimani, Morena district, that was demolished days ahead of the Assembly poll in November 2023 after its residents were named in a murder case.

A house in Dimani, Morena district, that was demolished days ahead of the Assembly poll in November 2023 after its residents were named in a murder case. | Photo Credit: A.M. FARUQUI

Politics at play

There is still palpable tension in the neighbourhood, with people asking The Hindu’s team questions in hushed voices about its motive behind speaking with Hussain or taking pictures of the demolished structure. Farhan Gori, a local independent journalist and another neighbour of Hussain, says, “The whole incident was created to benefit the ruling party. At the time, the BJP was believed to be losing the upcoming Assembly election [in November 2023]. All the surveys were against them. Incidents like these were used to breathe some air into their prospects.”

Neither the government nor the police are interested in the case now, but local BJP leaders referred to the incident during the election campaigning and thumped their chests, says Gori.

While the two minor boys in the spitting case secured bail two months after being arrested, Hussain’s elder son, Mansoori, was granted bail by the High Court only on December 15. The order came after the complainant, Sawan Lot, and the prime witness, Ajay Khatri, said they were made to sign blank papers at the Kharakua police station. In their statements, Lot and Khatri said they had not seen anyone spitting and reached the spot only after hearing a ruckus. The duo, along with many others in the crowd, was asked by the police to come to the local police station.

Now, Hussain’s family of five (including their youngest son) live with his brother. They don’t intend to fight for their rights. “We can’t afford to mess with the government. I just want to help my father at the shop, so we can meet our daily needs,” says a subdued Mansoori. Hussain smiles sadly and adds, “We were just used in a political game before the election.”

Muslim population in M.P.

Senior journalist, author, and political observer Rasheed Kidwai says demolitions have become a way of political messaging. “You resort to such actions against the members of one community so that the majority community feels politically pumped and gratified,” he says. The minority Muslim community has long felt alienated and disempowered due to the lack of Statewide representation. Comprising just 6.57% of the State’s population, as per the 2011 Census, the community is not a formidable political force, except in districts like Bhopal and Burhanpur. In the 16th Assembly, the community is only represented by two MLAs — Atif Aqueel and Arif Masood, both from the Congress, from seats in Bhopal.

While in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is called ‘Bulldozer Baba’ by his supporters, the first Statewide usage of the machine to demolish properties in M.P. can be traced to the 15-month Congress government of former CM Kamal Nath. Soon after coming to power in 2018, Nath had launched a campaign called ‘Shuddh Ke Liye Yuddh (War for purity)’ against the sand and land mafia, those running dairy adulteration rackets, and others engaged in crime. Several properties were demolished, especially in the Gwalior-Chambal region.

In March 2020, the Congress government was toppled and the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan returned to the CM’s chair. In his earlier stint, Chouhan was known for his moderate image. “After 2020, Chouhan was compelled to resort to the practice [using bulldozers] for two main reasons. One, he wanted to follow Adityanath, like most BJP CMs. Two, his own Home Minister, Narottam Mishra, had become very proactive with demolitions,” Kidwai explains. In an internal handbook published just weeks before the Assembly election, the Chouhan-led government claimed that it had freed around 23,000 acres, worth about ₹15,000 crore, from the land mafia.

Rubble heaps

In April 2022, over 50 properties of people accused of rioting, mostly from the Muslim community, during a Ram Navami procession, were demolished in Khargone district. Mishra had given the slogan: “Jis ghar se pathar aaye hain, us ghar ko hi patharon ka dher banaenge (We will turn the houses from where the stones were pelted into a heap of rubble).”

In June 2023, five months before the election, portions of Ganga Jamuna Higher Secondary School in Damoh district were razed, with the local municipal body terming the construction “illegal”. The school had been facing allegations of forcing non-Muslim students to wear hijabs (headscarves). There were also reports of the recital of Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal’s over-a-century-old poem, ‘Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri (A prayer on my lips becomes my desire)’, about the hope of the soul. Iqbal had propagated the idea of Pakistan.

In July 2023, just a day after a viral video showed Pravesh Shukla, an alleged local BJP leader, urinating on a tribal man, his properties were demolished in front of several media cameras. The BJP also distanced itself from Shukla. As Kidwai points out, atrocities against tribals bring “too much bad press to the BJP”.

Independent journalist and activist Kashif Kakvi, who has reported on demolitions in the State, says, “During Kamal Nath’s tenure, local courts used to be vocal about demolition practices. They even imposed penalties against senior officials in case of a violation. Now, everyone is silent.” He adds that many such cases on the outskirts of the State don’t make it to the news.

Advocate Aashar Warsi, a lawyer practising in the M.P. High Court who has taken up the cases of about 20 people whose homes were razed in the mass demolition drive following clashes during Ram Navami processions in 2022, says the administration takes no time in declaring as “illegal” a structure existing for years and razes it “without following any procedure”. “Just see the irony. Many of these houses were built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana,” he says.

Warsi points out that the courts do take these cases seriously, “but the respondents in such cases, usually government bodies, do not reply in time or give a proper response”. This forces many petitioners to give up on their cases, he adds.

Following the BJP’s victory, Mohan Yadav, the newly elected CM, spoke of providing meat sellers with a designated space rather than having them in main markets in his first Cabinet meeting on December 13, 2023. Over the next few days, bulldozers ran through several meat shops in cities like Indore and his hometown of Ujjain. The CM had not issued orders for demolitions.

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