The Delhi demolitions have stopped — for now. Thanks to the intervention of the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court. But the debate over “Bulldozer Justice” and “Bulldozer Politics” rages on.
What is surprising is how many people, even those one would normally consider sober and sensible, defend the razing of shops, structures, and vendor stalls—thankfully no homes or dwellings for now—all in the name of upholding the law or meting out instant justice. Of course, almost every single protagonist or antagonist in these shouting matches is a politician or represents one of the established political parties or party-affiliated positions in India, whether of the ruling dispensation or the opposition. Given how highly politicised this issue has become, it is imperative to question the bulldozer politics. But first let’s dispense with bulldozer justice — or, rather, injustice.
“Bulldozer” does sound rather dramatic. It certainly acquired instant currency and recognisability during the Uttar Pradesh elections. But in almost every instance, it is not a bulldozer that has been used to fell or raze the targeted edifice. A bulldozer signifies a powerful, engine-driven vehicle, often on caterpillar tracks rather than wheels, with a blade in front, deployed to level or flatten obstacles.
What has been utilised in India is a JCB, more properly called an excavator, digger, or earth mover. JCB are the initials of the British company, J C Bamford, which is credited with inventing the machine in the 1960’s. Even United Kingdom Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, during his recent visit to India, rode one to show off the might of British machinery. He may not have been so cowboy like had he noticed how JCBs were used against rioters and other politically identified targets. But a JCB or digger simply doesn’t sound as provocative as a bulldozer. Hence, the latter name has stuck. A purely political play or ploy of words?
Whether you call a JCB a bulldozer or not is, however, not the issue. The machine implied has been shown on national TV bringing down walls, shops, fences, and all kinds of buildings with ferocious and effortless efficiency. The question is whether such action by civic or municipal authorities is justified?
What we notice, once again, is a pattern. Religious rallies, marches, shobha yatras of Hindus attacked by Muslim mobs, gangs, groups, or crowds. Or so the communal and counter-communal rhetoric in the endless narrative war runs. And in many of these cases what follows is swift retaliatory action by JCB “bulldozers” against targeted structures, often in the very areas where the riots occurred.
Bulldozer justice is bad in law
What are the arguments in favour of such action? First, that the perpetrators needed to be punished, so the action is justified. This argument does not hold much water because guilt must be established before punishment is administered. Here, on the contrary, merely on the basis of media or other reports, shops, structures, or other constructions are destroyed. What procedures, if any, are carried out to identify the guilty? Are those accused allowed the opportunity to defend themselves? Who, moreover, is tasked with the administration of justice? Judicial authorities? If not, how can municipal or civic officials intervene in criminal matters? The argument that “they deserved it” therefore doesn’t stand.
The next argument is that the structures were illegal in the first place. If so, why is their demolition being linked to the riots? Aren’t these two different offences punishable under different sections of the law? Clubbing them together opportunistically is bad in the eyes of the law and not at all sustainable morally.
Let us now examine the contrary idea that the demolitions had nothing to do with the riots; they were merely anti-encroachment drives. If so, were adequate notices provided? Was due process followed? It appears not. The counter-argument from the civic authorities is that encroachment of public space and roads is routinely removed without any prior notice. Again, this does not seem very convincing given the sequence of events and over-zealous application of a provision that is observed more in its breach than in practise.
So much of Delhi is riddled with unauthorised and illegal structures, some encroaching not only streets, parks, and other public spaces, but also protected monuments. One never hears of “bulldozers” removing those encroachments. But Jahangirpuri reels and quakes after a swift demolition drive that comes soon after a riot. Even anti-encroachment efforts need minimum and humane procedures because both lives and livelihoods are at stake. Were these followed in the present instance?
Now to bulldozer politics, which seems equally unsustainable, whether by the ruling party or the opposition. The ruling party is anti-Muslim, cry it detractors. Not so, screams back the former—Hindu shops and vendors were also the victims of “bulldozers.” Hindu temples in Rajasthan are being demolished too. Both arguments seem untenable in the form they are presented in. The idea that because Hindu constructions were targeted elsewhere, Muslim ones ought to meet the same fate smacks of retaliation and revenge, not the rule of law. The real question is whether all illegal structures are dealt with in the same fashion by the State authorities? That would be good practice. Neither selective targeting, nor selective censure.
The fact is that much illegal encroachment and occupation of public land, especially what is cloaked or countenanced with religious affiliations, happens under political protection. It is directly linked to vote-bank politics. Illegal shops and structures abound next to mosques, gurdwaras, and temples in several parts of the country simply because the offenders have political clout or muscle to back them. Given that the police are controlled by the ruling party, it is difficult to bring culprits to book.
Under the circumstances, the last and often fatal accusation must also be refuted, “The other side threw the first stone.” “They started it” is a dangerous excuse and will only lead to endless retaliation and continuing violence. As Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar famously said in Pakistan or the Partition of India, “This spirit of retaliation bids fair to produce the ugly spectacle of gangsterism against gangsterism” (p. 269).
If we want peace in our country, we must invest in peace, not strategic violence and retributive counter-violence. An even-handed, rather than partial or prejudiced application of due process and the rule of law to all communities and constituents of the republic will induce trust and accomplish much better. Which vigilante (in)justice or instigated riots, either by majorities or minorities, cannot.
A violent and internally divided republic is totally against the spirit of India@75. Instead of the nectar of Azadi ka Amritmahotsav, those planning and executing such violence are playing with fire and spewing poison. Both will hurt — not only the intended targets but also the perpetrators of such instigated or incited riots.
This is part one of a series on the demolition issue. The next part will focus on solutions.
Makarand R. Paranjape is an author and professor. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)