The bulldozer has now emerged as a dominant symbol of state-backed intimidation of Muslims in the country. After Khargone in Madhya Pradesh, Jahangirpuri in Delhi has seen the use of demolition of shops and houses seemingly as a punitive measure in the wake of a riot that followed a provocative religious procession. The Jahangirpuri demolitions, halted by an order of status quo passed by the Supreme Court, one which had to be reiterated as the drive went on for more than an hour after the order, represent an egregious violation of the rule of law. Even though described as part of a demolition process that had begun a few months ago, and done after prior notice, few would believe that the drive in Jahangirpuri had anything to do with ‘encroachment’, coming as it does in the wake of communal disturbances and in the middle of Ramzan. By intervening in time, the Court may have halted what could have been a series of demolitions of small businesses and households belonging to some of the poorest residents of the capital. CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat, who was present at the site, has highlighted the continuance of the demolition even after the court order was made known to the authorities. The Supreme Court should deal with this contumacious behaviour as part of the ongoing proceedings, in which its main concern, of course, ought to be to push back against the dangerously divisive and partisan manner in which authorities are responding to law and order issues.
There are aspects to the controversy that betray an emerging pattern of the use of state machinery to inflict misery on Muslims. One is the role of the ruling BJP, whose Delhi chief wrote to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation to carry out the demolition targeting ‘rioters’ who had allegedly thrown stones at a Hindu religious procession in the vicinity of a mosque. As the counsel contended in the court, this wish seems to have been treated as a command, and police force mobilised within a day to carry it out. Another aspect is the attempt to conflate the legal consequences of rioting and communal violence with administrative measures to deal with encroachments in public spaces. The official line leans towards the theory of clearing encroachments even as the political message is that ‘rioters’ will be dealt with. It is of concern that the Aam Aadmi Party, which while blaming the BJP on the one hand, has also made an unsubtle insinuation that those fomenting trouble are ‘Bangladeshis’ and ‘Rohingya’, terms that will render the residents of the area vulnerable to denial of their rights. The most dismal aspect is the apparent enjoyment that the BJP’s communal constituency derives from the infliction of suffering on the ‘other’. The challenge before the country’s political opposition is not only to take on the unlawful ways of the state but also to reverse this polarising slide in the wider society.