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Welcome to the Bulldozer Republic

The BJP has picked up a playbook of authoritarian regimes when it razes homes and buildings of the poor and its critics. As in the past, people are paying the price for it today.
bulldozer jahangirpuri

In his seminal work, Freedom Movement and Indian Muslims, Shantimoy Ray recounts many revealing examples of British atrocities on Muslims during the Great Revolt of 1857. For example, the present Gorakhpur thana was built on the ruins of a Muslim landlord’s home who had revolted against the British. Apparently, demolishing houses belonging to enemies was an accepted form of revenge during the medieval and ancient periods, and the British did not change this. The present dispensation, whose ideologues are known for their affinity to the British imperialists, is trying to emulate them by utilising a democratically-achieved mandate and a modern machine—the JCB, which it calls a ‘bulldozer’.

Bulldozer Baba’ and Hindu Rashtra

Since law and order is a State subject in the constitutional scheme, the head priest of the Gorakhnath Peeth, headquartered in Gorakhpur and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Adityanath, has found an opportunity to initiate “bulldozer justice”. It started during the anti-CAA protests when the properties of participants were seized or razed. Adityanath openly declared that the government and administration would tackle the demonstrations “in their style”. This “style” was to seize or bulldoze the properties of the agitators. The rule of law took a backseat, and revenge became a style statement in governance.

On 31 August 2020, the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Act was notified to whitewash and legalise such actions. However, the Supreme Court did not validate the ‘strategy’ and directed the state government to refund the money recovered from anti-CAA protesters. The state announced the withdrawal of 274 recovery notices against the protesters. But the bloody chariot of the bulldozer republic is rolling on despite this.

Recently, the state bulldozed a petrol station belonging to a Samajwadi Party legislator immediately after he had spoken out against the Chief Minister. This impunity should explain why Adityanath takes pride in his nickname, “Bulldozer Baba”.

The modus-operandi is quite simple. Local officials replace the courts and law, and any voice of protest or opposition is avenged by demolishing the property of those marked as the “enemy”. This instils fear amongst the Opposition parties and public opponents alike and gives an adrenaline shot of sadistic pleasure to the already poisoned supporters. It helps the latter forget the pain of living with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

The instant justice apparatus is diagonally opposed to any modern legal system, but such tactics were very close to the hearts of all varieties of fascists, from Germany to Israel, Pakistan to India. Hitler used this to terrorise the Jews; Israel has demolished numerous villages to horrify and displace Palestinian Muslims; General Zia’s Pakistan resorted to it to crush political opponents. Rightist forces in the second-largest democracy are now boosting majoritarian anarchy using these methods. No surprise, in most cases, the victims belong to the minority community.

Bulldozer as Guarantee to Power!

In the recent Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, bulldozers were deployed as symbols by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Adityanath’s party. The machine has almost replaced the party’s lotus symbol thanks to bulldozer replicas as decorative items and mass-publicised “bulldozer rallies” the machine has virtually replaced the party’s symbol. The bulldozer was unleashed to propagate a macho image of the Chief Minister. It was an apparent attempt to signal to the majority community that, if chosen to power, the persecution of minorities would continue—and the ploy succeeded.

The image has attracted other Chief Ministers of the BJP. But there is another reason why Shivraj Singh Chauhan, an otherwise suave leader, was inspired to emulate the Adityanath model in Madhya Pradesh. Earlier, Union Home Minister Amit Shah was presented as the obvious Number-Two in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. But internal politics has changed, and now the spot of future prime minister appears vacant. Adityanath had tried his best to present himself as the most eligible candidate, and his consecutive wins in the most populous state have boosted his candidature. His hardline Hindutva image is popular among party workers and sympathisers. This has compelled Chauhan, who has won Madhya Pradesh thrice for the party and successfully dethroned Congress after his loss in the last Assembly election, to project a similar image. In fact, he exceeded Adityanath. After communal clashes at Khargone after a Ram Navami procession, the state police bulldozed a house where a Muslim family lived, which had been built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana! Another BJP-ruled state, Gujarat, did not lag, taking similar steps in violence-affected areas. The Union government seems to be okay with this model. After all, bulldozers were deployed in Jahangirpuri under the Centre’s watch.

Vilifying Victims: New Variant of Fascist Justice

Ram Navami processions are quite a new trend, and Hanuman Jayanti was never a famous festival. But they provide excellent opportunities to the rightist forces to create communal disturbances. Thus we find processions where young men and boys openly brandish lethal weapons, DJs buzzing with communal songs and slogans designed to incite violence. It is their wont to choose a route through Muslim ghettos, where they, more often than not, attempt to defile a mosque as a last resort to infuriate and aggravate the minority. That is why these processions often result in minor skirmishes and stone-pelting. It gives a perfect opportunity to vilify victims and launch legal proceedings against them. Since action by bulldozers often precedes legal steps, thus negates any chance of justice.

Another specific characteristic of this modus operandi is how the area for action is selected. Such processions never pass through middle class, upper-middle-class or elite colonies. The selection is limited to neighbourhoods where Muslims live and urban slums with mixed populations. Jahangirpuri is a glaring example of such a neighbourhood where both Hindus and Muslims live.

Religious processions, offensive sloganeering and stone-pelting in response, set the stage to persecute the poorest Indians. While around 16 people, including a minor from the minority community, were arrested in Jahangirpuri, one was labelled the mastermind. Attempts to implicate the organisers of the “illegal procession” were met with stern opposition from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Still, reports say the police have registered an FIR against the organisers for holding the procession on the evening of 16 April without permission. The police later said Prem Sharma, a local VHP leader, was also arrested. The police statement names VHP “organisers” and members of the Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal who did not seek permission. Yet, when the Parishad warned Delhi Police about acting against its members and threatened to “battle” over the issue, it retreated. The police withdrew its statement within hours, putting out a version that does not refer to the Hindutva outfits. The police said Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (related to disobedience to order of a public servant) is a bailable offence and clarified that the person who had joined the investigation was let off after questioning.

The buck didn’t stop here. The bulldozer came into the picture now, under the pretext of action against encroachment! Gung-ho media and page-three personalities had revolted when influential actress Kangana Ranawat faced demolition. The same people openly rejoiced when hutments of the poor were demolished. A TV anchor rode a bulldozer as she broke the news. Shamelessness mixed with class interests and communal hatred presents one of the most pathetic pictures of the immoral nexus of media, government and right-wing organisations.

The demolition went on for two hours despite a stay from the Supreme Court. (Imagine the violations that must occur in smaller cities!) And it was a pity that while the Congress party arranged the legal battle and the CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat reached the site with court orders to stop the demolitions, the rest of the opposition chose to ignore these incidents.

Remember, Jagmohan came into the limelight after demolitions at Turkman Gate during the Emergency. The barbaric massacre of residents of this area by the police under his command is seldom remembered. The savage act earned him notoriety, and he was suitable to be made Governor of Kashmir. The rest is history.

The silence of an otherwise vocal Prime Minister and Home Minister in charge of law and order in the capital city was a forgone conclusion. Yet the absence of the Delhi government from the site needs to be explained and understood.

Does Delhi Have a Government?

Busy showcasing his Delhi model through hefty advertisements and a section of the media, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has learnt the art of silence well. He was silent when riots broke in northeast Delhi in 2020, and he remained mum when demolitions took place in Jahangirpuri.

Two key members of his core team, Aatishi Marlena and Raghav Chaddha, said the reason for the clash at Jahangirpuri was the “settlement of Bangladeshi and Rohingya Muslims” there. The official handle of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) shared a video of Atishi claiming that the “BJP has settled Rohingyas and Bangladeshis illegally in India to perpetrate riots”. In another video shared on the official handle, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia repeats the statement. So, AAP is backing the BJP’s claim that “Rohingyas and Bangladeshi illegal migrants are behind the riot”.

This is competitive communalism, with no questions asked of the majority of right-wing groups like the VHP about their procession and endless hate-mongering. In his only statement on this issue, Kejriwal criticised stone-pelting and ignored the actions of the Hindu right-wing groups. Remember that he had organised “Hanuman poojas” in Delhi and a massive “Laxmi Poojann” ceremony during Diwali last year. He has also promised free pilgrimages to the elderly Hindus in election rallies. Citizens will never find him participating in a festival of the minority or criticising right-wing ploys to incite tensions. Blessed with a clear majority in the Delhi Assembly, and a decisive victory in Punjab, AAP leaders are boasting that they are an alternative to a declining Congress party. However, its competitive communalism and absence from Jahangirpuri indicate that apart from dubious freebies and showcasing schools, their politics is of the status quo with overtly majoritarian characteristics.

Second Stage of Fascist Regime?

The 2019 Lok Sabha election victory established the BJP and its Hindutva politics on the national scene. Soon after, it reversed its defeats in Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, occupied Left space in West Bengal, and established its dominance in the northeastern states. Now, BJP has expanded from its Hindi heartland Brahmin-Baniya party image. Its recent wins in four of five state Assembly elections have boosted its morale and made the RSS confident enough to proceed toward its Hindu Rashtra dream rapidly. Almost all institutions have been saffronised, and the success of The Kashmir Files has established RSS hegemony over a non-institutional domain—culture.

On the other hand, the Indian economy is in ruins; inflation is at an all-time high, and stagflation has been replaced by a situation where growth and employment are continuously declining. In this scenario, “minor” communal clashes and creating a threat perception among potential opponents borrows from the Fascist playbook to cover governance failures.

However, here also lies an omnipresent dialectic. The BJP has blamed everyone for the so-called “mess of 70 years” and now faces an economy in shambles with few signs of a recovery. They have created a larger-than-life image of their leader, and here is a situation where he appears helpless. The adrenaline rushes and sadistic pleasures from a bulldozer that crushes minority hutments will not help stabilise the material conditions—economic recovery, employment and funding for welfare schemes. It is a historical fact that Fascist repression and communal clashes increase as the financial crisis deepens and may ultimately turn the tables against the ruling dispensation—as is happening in Sri Lanka.

However, the process is not as smooth as it may seem in retrospect and in instances from history. India may face a brutal period marred with violence and anarchy in the near future. The bulldozer symbols midless destruction, and a Bulldozer Republic is marked by a regime that spreads devastation. The irony is that those celebrating this devastation are destined to be the next target of the ever-hungry bulldozer.

Ashok Kumar Pandey is the author of several books and a political commentator. The views are personal.

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