Demolition Politics in India: An Anti-Muslim, Anti-Dissent Strategy

By AGITATE! Editorial Collective 

In the past few months, the Indian state under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has weaponized yet another mechanism of terror as part of its virulent anti-Muslim pogrom: the demolition of Muslim homes. Since coming to power in 2014, but especially after it was reelected in the 2019 elections, the BJP has pursued various means, such as the National Register of Citizens in Assam (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), to call Indian Muslims’ citizenship into question. Its multi-pronged anti-Muslim pogrom has included imprisoning Muslim students and other activists under the draconian UAPA, scapegoating Muslims for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, attacks on mosques by Hindutva mobs, the criminalization of inter-religious marriages, and violence unleashed in Muslim neighborhoods. Cow-vigilantism and other everyday acts of harassment and discrimination against Muslims that precede the BJP’s advent to power continue with even more impunity, particularly in states under BJP rule. The lynching of Muslims by Hindutva vigilante mobs is everyday news. Legitimate and peaceful protests by Muslims and their allies against this concerted pogrom that employs varied strategies ranging from outright denationalization to everyday marginalization is met with brutal retaliation by the state. The demolitions of Muslim homes and neighborhoods that have taken place in Delhi and other parts of north India recently, are a chilling reminder that the BJP’s rapid rise to power is itself tied to an act of demolition – that of the historic Babri Masjid in 1996 at the hands of a mob incited by the top BJP leaders at the time. Demolition is a beloved BJP-strategy that has been repurposed to crush dissent and protests that have continued despite the threat of imprisonment and harassment. The ideas of secularism, equality, freedom of speech and protest, however imperfectly practiced, along with trees, homes, and settlements have all become victims of this destruction drive. These recent demolitions add to the rubble that is already a mountain. As a recent Washington Post article rightly claims, the bulldozer has become yet another symbol of Hindu nationalism.

In June, the Uttar Pradesh state government demolished the home of a young activist, Afreen Fatima in the city of Allahabad on the grounds that the home that her family had lived in for two decades and paid taxes and utilities on, was an illegal construction. A few days prior to the demolition, her father, Javed Mohammed, a long time activist in the city, was detained on the trumped up charge of instigating unrest and violence. Although the state used the flimsy grounds of “illegal construction” to demolish Fatima’s family home – a claim that is difficult to prove or disprove in Indian cities where the lines between legal and illegal are blurred – the connection between the accusation against Fatima’s father and the demolition of their home are clear. Fatima is a vocal critic of the Hijab Ban in Karnataka, a BJP-ruled state, and participated in the protests against the CAA in 2019, all of which the state deems “anti-national” activity. Refusing to be cowered by the state, Fatima has vowed to fight the illegal demolition of her home and continues to speak out about the regime of intimidation against Muslims. In an interview after the demolition of her home, Fatima says that each of the 500 potted plants that were destroyed in the demolition will curse the people who are behind the act. Fatima’s refusal to even utter a direct curse against the state in the face of this destruction of her family home and her father’s detention is incredible.

The demolition of Fatima’s house is only the latest example in the state’s use of this strategy against Muslims in the country. In April 2022, bulldozers demolished many buildings in the Jahangirpuri neighborhood in Delhi, which has a large migrant Muslim community that has lived there for decades. This happened just a few days after events that the state labels as “communal clashes” between Hindus and Muslims, but that were, as per many reports, instigated by a procession celebrating a Hindu festival. The word “clash” is a misnomer because it implies an encounter between two people or groups with equal power. But the punishment meted out almost exclusively to Muslims after these so-called-clashes points to the unequal power at play in an India where Hindu mobs are condoned by the state and the police. In Jahangirpuri, for instance, regardless of who started the violence or participated in it, most of the structures demolished by Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) as part of its “anti-encroachment drives” were semi-permanent shacks, shops, and carts belonging to poor Muslim women trying to eke out a living. Besides carts selling kebabs, fruits, and household supplies, the demolition destroyed several kabaadi thelas run by women who sort trash and rescue plastics and other recyclable materials. All these women were poor and Muslim. BJP’s anti-Muslim project is also an anti-poor, anti-women pogrom. While, it is Muslim men who are disporpotionately detained or arrested as was the case in Jahangirpuri, it is women who are left pieceing back livelihoods, homes, neighborhoods, and families. After the powerful and peaceful sit-in protest by working class Muslim women in response to the unconstitutional CAA at Shaheen Bagh, Muslim women have become direct targets of the state’s ire. Soon after the demolitions in Jahangirpuri, the MCD’s bulldozers arrived in Shaheen Bagh, mere meters away from the site of those protests. Many have argued that the demolition, that was halted by the protest of local residents, was meant to send a message to the predominantly Muslim residents of Shaheen bagh. Despite outcry against the demolitions and petitions by activists, the threat of further demolitions in Jahangirpuri and other Muslim neighborhoods like Shaheen Bagh, Jasola, and Madanpur Khadar remain.

Other instances of demolitions of Muslim homes also leave no doubt as to its use as a tactic of intimidation and vendetta by the state. In April, many Muslim homes and shops were demolished in Khargone district in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, supposedly after an incident of “communal clash”. The demolition of Fatima’s house is part of several across the state of Uttar Pradesh after protests by Muslims against hateful comments made by a BJP spokesperson. The message is clear: Muslims who protest against hate speech, or respond to provocation from Hindutva groups should expect the homes they have lived in or businesses they have operated for decades to become “illegal” overnight. Never mind that if the civic authorities in these places are truly interested in removing unauthorized constructions and encroachments on government properties, it is the mansions of the rich and powerful that must  fall before the shacks of the poor.

There is nothing unprecedented in the demolition of homes of poor urban dwellers, predominantly Dalit and Muslim, who keep Indian cities running with their sweat and labor. Especially in Delhi, “slum clearances” have long been part of the state’s plans to “modernize” the city. The poor who live in precarious housing have been mowed down to build roads, highways, the Delhi Metro, and the venue for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The displacement of entire neighborhoods of people from central parts of Delhi to places beyond its borders since India’s liberalization in the 1990s is well documented (Baviskar 2006; Bhan 2009). Thousands are yet to receive alternate housing or any form of compensation even after decades. Many domestic workers or daily wage workers in Delhi can tell you the story of how their families were moved from settlements in the city to places beyond its borders, forcing them to commute for hours each way to work to earn the same paltry wages. In re-weaponizing demolitions as a tool in its reign of terror against Muslims, the BJP is perhaps banking on the complacency that most Indians demonstrated during these slum clearances of the 1990s and 2000s.

The Hindi/Urdu phrase “be-ghar karna” sums up the BJP’s strategy more accurately than can be done in English. “Be-ghar karna” translates to the act of expelling someone from their home; but it also connotes something deeper, because home/ghar is part of a person’s sense of self, their place in the community, and its loss is greater than the loss of a building. It unsettles one’s sense of the self. This is what BJP seeks to do to Indian Muslims–shatter their sense of belonging in their own country. Through these demolitions BJP’s de-homing project–which was previously deployed through laws, policy, and violence–assumes yet another dimension. The “ghar” of Indian Muslims–their country and their sense of belonging to it as well as the homes they live and create families in, are under threat. Under threat are also the neighborhoods, communities and nation, which all Indians are part of, that is being irrevocably altered and destroyed through these demolitions.

We leave you on a hopeful note with this video of students at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, an institution that is itself under attack from the state, as they march in solidarity with Afreen Fatima.