Over the past week, Nuh, a small, poor town in the northern state of Haryana, has become a heaped pile of rock and debris after authorities demolished hundreds of homes and shops with bulldozers. Many of the trampled buildings belonged to Muslims, who form 77% of the district’s local population, according to India's 2011 census.
The demolition drive followed violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims on July 31 and continued over three days, killing at least six people and injuring several others. They began when Nuh’s Muslim residents began pelting stones at a hardline Hindu group passing through town during a religious procession, provoked by rumors that a notorious Hindu vigilante would be in attendance. The situation escalated into street riots, with angry mobs from both communities vandalizing property and torching cars before authorities intervened.
Civil society groups say the demolition drive in Nuh is just one example among many of how bulldozers have become a major extrajudicial tool wielded by politicians from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to destroy homes, businesses, and places of worship of thousands of Muslims.
“The bulldozer is a way for the BJP to circumvent the law and institutions in order to realize its [Hindu-nationalist] goals,” says Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political scientist at Ashoka University in Delhi.
In many BJP-governed states, especially in northern India, demolition drives have not only become a common tactic to quash Muslim dissent, but bulldozers have evolved as a Hindu-nationalist symbol. They feature during election victories, in parade floats in both India and abroad, on packets of chips, and in several Hindu nationalist anthems. Young men have even gotten the symbol tattooed on their arms in celebration of the BJP.
“In a sense, it’s also a symbol of what BJP supporters call ‘quick justice’,” says Mahmudabad.
In Nuh, the bulldozers got to work after Haryana’s Home Minister, Anil Vij, said on Aug. 3 that “the bulldozer could also be part of the remedial action” against those involved in the violence. Authorities later said the shanties and cement structures were built illegally, a charge that many residents deny. On Monday, the high court of Punjab and Haryana halted the demolitions and questioned whether the BJP government, through its use of bulldozers, was conducting “an exercise of ethnic cleansing” of Nuh’s Muslims.
“It's one of the only instances where a court has stepped in to say this wrong,” says Asim Ali, a political researcher at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “Which goes to show how institutions have not been able to step in to rein in the ruling party’s breaches.”
The history of bulldozing
The most high-profile bulldozer case in India occurred when the Babri Masjid, a Mughal-era mosque in the city of Ayodhya, was reduced to rubble in 1992 by Hindu nationalists over claims it stood on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. The case polarized the nation for nearly two decades until 2019, when the Supreme Court handed the land over to Hindus for temple construction, while a special criminal court in 2020 acquitted those accused of destroying the mosque.
Experts say the events around Babri Masjid were vital in advancing the careers of many top BJP officials, including the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who played a key role in overseeing the demolition of the mosque and the construction of the new temple.
Many local Hindu nationalist leaders have only embraced bulldozers in the years since. Yogi Adiyanath, a Hindu cleric and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has even earned the nickname “Bulldozer Baba,” or the “father of the bulldozer."
And the number of demolitions appears to be growing. They also continue to be wielded during highly contentious moments, like the 2019 protests against the controversial citizenship law that rights groups say discriminates against Muslims, and last April, when local authorities defied a high court order to bulldoze another ancient mosque in Uttar Pradesh.
There is no official government data on the total number of demolitions over the years, but researchers have tried to tally them up. The Housing and Land Rights Network in Delhi estimates that the government demolished at least 43,000 homes and evicted about 21 people every hour from March 2020 to July 2021, according to the most recent data they have published.
A disregard for the law
Anmol Gupta, a lawyer at Land Conflict Watch, another independent network of researchers studying bulldozing, points out that in many instances, the use of them has usually been in defiance of the law. Notifying evictees in advance is a legal prerequisite to eviction or demolition, and a basic right protected under the Indian Constitution.
“This means that evictees have a chance to contest the proceedings if they want to and gives them an opportunity to be heard,” she tells TIME. “By not following the due process of law, the evictions are violating key rights under the constitution.”
In the case of Nuh, Punjab and Haryana’s high court said that the violation of both procedural and fundamental rights set a precedent for dispensing instant mob justice with bulldozers. But this was a rare judgment, considering that last July, the Supreme Court toed the government’s line on demolitions when hearing a case to halt them in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. The court also declined to put a blanket stay on the demolition drives, arguing that municipal authorities should have jurisdiction over “unauthorized” constructions.
But Ashoka University’s Mahmudabad says that even where a court might intervene, “a lot has already been destroyed by the time an order stays the demolition.”
For far too many Muslims, he adds, “The damage has already been done.”
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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at firstname.lastname@example.org