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Nuh violence: Is bulldozer punishment trampling justice in India?

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Mohammad Saud
Image caption,

Mohammad Saud’s shop was demolished by authorities in Nuh district

“They destroyed everything within seconds,” said a tearful Mohammad Saud, standing before a towering mound of debris.

He and his younger brother Nawab Sheikh were looking at the broken remains of shops they ran in a neighbourhood in Nuh district in the northern Indian state of Haryana. As he spoke to the BBC on Saturday, a yellow bulldozer rumbled noisily behind him.

“We owned 15 shops which were built on our family’s land. We had all the documents but they [the police] insisted the buildings were illegal,” Mr Saud said.

The brothers’ buildings were among hundreds of shops and houses demolished by district authorities in the aftermath of communal violence which broke out last week in Nuh, a Muslim-majority district that is among the poorest in India’s national capital region (which includes Delhi and its suburbs).

Police have said the clashes between Hindus and Muslims began after a march led by a hardline Hindu organisation was pelted with stones when it passed through Nuh. As news spread, violence also broke out in Gurugram, just outside Delhi. Six people were killed in Nuh and Gurugram as rioters set fire to shops, vehicles and a mosque.

Days later, in what has become a pattern in many states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), bulldozers descended on shell-shocked residents of Nuh and tore down hundreds of structures, alleging they were built illegally. The action only stopped after four days, on Monday, when the state’s high court on its own accord issued a notice to the government.

“Apparently, without any demolition orders and notices, the law and order problem is being used as a ruse to bring down buildings without following the procedure established by law,” the court said. It also asked if the state was conducting “an exercise of ethnic cleansing” by targeting buildings mostly owned by Muslims.

Demolitions in NuhIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,

Hundreds of structures were demolished in Nuh

Civil society groups and opposition parties say there has been a surge in violence and hate speech against Muslims since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power.

In BJP-governed states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam, it is now common for bulldozers to swiftly demolish the houses of people who have been accused of crimes. The reason cited is illegal construction but legal experts question this. The chief ministers of these states have also often linked the demolitions with their government’s tough stance on crime.

While the victims include the families of Hindus, opposition leaders and several activists say that the action is mostly targeted at Muslims, especially after religious violence or protests.

In Nuh, officials gave contradictory answers when asked about the reason for the demolitions. District Magistrate Dhirendra Khadgata told BBC Hindi that only illegal buildings were being razed. But Vinesh Singh, planning officer for the district, said that authorities were demolishing houses from which “stones had been pelted”.

Nawab Sheikh
Image caption,

Mr Saud’s brother, Nawab Sheikh, wept at the sight of the demolished shops

Critics say these demolitions are particularly brutal as they leave innocent family members, including children, homeless.

“Arbitrarily demolishing someone’s home or shop is a very crude and medieval form of collective punishment,” says political scientist Asim Ali. “Their presence in contemporary India indicates that the rule of law regime has broken down.”

Legal experts agree that dispensing instant and collective punishment is inhuman and illegal.

“How can the State club everybody and put them in one basket, regardless of the facts, without ascertaining the truth and go on a demolition spree? In situations like this, collective punishment is anathema to the rule of law and constitutional rights, regardless of religion,” says Justice Madan Lokur, a former Supreme Court judge. He points out that according to reports, “the owner is not given due notice or time to remove the belongings from the home and is also not given even a day’s time to find alternate accommodation”.

The deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure is not allowed under any law, adds Shadan Farasat, a Supreme Court lawyer. “If you want to charge someone for violence, you need to arrest them and put them on trial – you cannot simply destroy their house within a day.”

bdul Rashid showing their property paper outside demolished shops in Nalhar village near Shaheed Hasan Khan Mewati Medical College after District administration started a demolition drive against the illegal construction in Nuh after the communal violence on August 7, 2023 in Mewat, India.IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,

Many in Nuh say they had the documents to prove their buildings were not illegal

Justice Lokur says that authorities do have the power to demolish illegal buildings but only according to rules. The owner has to be served a notice and given the chance to pay fines or file an appeal. Even then, authorities have the option of demolishing only the parts built in violation of the law. If the structure is entirely illegal, authorities must provide a “reasoned” explanation to the owner before razing it. “The entire demolition exercise is reportedly being conducted arbitrarily and in complete violation of constitutional rights,” he said.

In Nuh, police said that they served notices to the alleged encroachers, but several families told the BBC that they didn’t get a warning. Others claimed they were not even in their houses at the time of the riots but were punished anyway.

Musaib, 20, could not stop crying as he watched authorities demolishing his week-old tuck shop, built with his father’s savings.

“How do I build a life again?” he asked.

His question was echoed by others, including Hindus. Chamanlal, whose barber shop was destroyed, says he had built it with a loan.

“A family of 10 people survived because of this shop. We have been forced to come out on the streets now,” he said.

Chamanlal
Image caption,

Chamanlal says his shop was razed without prior notice

Others fear that communal polarisation could shatter peace in Nuh, where Hindus and Muslims lived mostly in harmony for decades.

While the demolitions have stopped for now, some Muslim residents say they no longer feel safe.

“We are being oppressed every day. Where will we go if something like this happens again?” Mr Sheikh said.

But not everyone agreed that the authorities were wrong.

“The government did the right thing, these rioters should be taught a lesson,” said Ashok Kumar, who had accompanied his friends to watch the demolitions.

Even Harkesh Sharma, whose pizza place was demolished, agreed – with a caveat. “Just that, if the government had punished only those who were involved in the violence, it would have been better.”

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