By Zoya Mateen / BBC
The people who would destroy his home came early in the morning, remembers 72-year-old Shaikh Mohammad Rafiq.
A soft-drink seller in India’s Madhya Pradesh state, Mr Rafiq and his sons had had a long night. “It’s Ramadan, so our business usually picks up later in the evening,” he said.
So when the police first arrived at their doorstep on Monday morning, they were all asleep. “But when we heard a loud bang, we realised that someone was breaking the shutters of the gate,” he said.
Outside, hundreds of officers backed with bulldozers had surrounded his house – located in a small Muslim neighbourhood in Khargone city – fending off anyone who tried to stop them. By the time they were finished, all that was left was rubble, he said.
“We were so frightened that we did not utter a word – just watched in silence as they took apart everything.”
Several Muslim homes and shops are being torn down in Madhya Pradesh in the aftermath of communal violence which broke out on 10 April, the day of the Hindu festival of Ram Navami. Social media is flooded with distressing images of big yellow bulldozers ploughing into neighbourhoods, as weeping families stare helplessly.
This has sparked outrage, with critics calling it a thinly veiled attempt to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party, which is also in power in Madhya Pradesh. The state government has openly put the blame on them: “If Muslims carry out such attacks, then they should not expect justice,” Home Minister Narottam Mishra told NDTV news channel.
It has also raised grave concerns about the “flagrant manner” in which these demolitions have been carried out, with experts saying there is no legal justification for doing this. Some have called it an instance of collective punishment against Muslims.
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“You are disproportionately punishing people of one community without following any due process. This is not just illegal, but it also sets a dangerous precedent,” said Ashhar Warsi, a senior lawyer based in the state’s Indore city.
“The message is: If you question or challenge us in any way, we will come for you, we will take your homes, your livelihoods and take you down.”
The violence first began when large processions of Hindu devotees marched past Muslim neighbourhoods and mosques, playing incendiary music that called for violence against the minority community. At a few places, some Muslims and Hindu marchers are reported to have thrown stones at each other.
Many Muslims have accused the police of then allowing Hindu mobs to attack them. Videos showing frenzied men brandishing swords and desecrating mosques have shocked the country since Sunday.
Shahbaz Khan, 28, alleged that Hindu devotees broke minarets of a local mosque in Sendhwa city – about 85 miles (137km) from Khargone – and chased Muslims with stones.
But the “real horror” came the next day, when authorities “came out of nowhere” and bulldozed his house, he said.
“My wife and sister wept and begged the police to let us take our things – at least let them take the Koran out of the house – but they didn’t listen,” he said, speaking from the mosque where he’s now taking shelter.
“We are left with nothing, but no-one seems to care. Every time we go to the police station, they shoo us away.”
The state government says these demolitions are a form of punishment against those who allegedly participated in stone-throwing and arson. “The houses where the stones have come from will be turned into a pile of stones themselves,” Mr Mishra said recently.
Legally, however, the move has been justified on the grounds of unauthorised construction – the police claim they are targeting illegal encroachments of people squatting on public land.
Khargone District Collector Anugraha P said “it’s a mix of both”.
“Finding out culprits one by one is a time-taking process, so we looked at all the areas where rioting took place and demolished all the illegal constructions to teach rioters a lesson,” she explained.
But Mr Rafiq said there were no instances of violence in his neighbourhood. “I even have all my property papers to prove it’s not illegal,” he added. “But the police came out of nowhere, refused to listen to me and snatched my home.”
Experts also question this logic – they say that punishing someone for an alleged crime using laws meant for another makes no sense.
“Legality is being used as a cover – these homes were illegal even before the religious processions. You can’t choose to act in retaliation because that is defiance of all due processes,” political scientist Rahul Verma, says. “The state is showing a vengeful attitude.”
Mr Warsi says that the state does have the power to demolish illegal buildings, but there are various steps that need to be followed before that. This includes, serving the owner a notice, giving them a chance to reply or make a court application. The police maintain that they served notices to the alleged encroachers, but at least three families the BBC spoke to denied this.
Moreover, there are other provisions under the state law (the Madhya Pradesh Municipal Corporation Act, 1956), like asking the accused to pay a fine, which authorities could use first, Mr Warsi adds.
“Demolition of property is supposed to be the last resort.”
But this is not the first time the Madhya Pradesh government of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has used this method as a way of serving justice. The government has demolished homes of rape accused, gangsters and other criminals in the past.
“What we are witnessing is the kind of politics played in Uttar Pradesh – the so called UP model – is now seen in other states,” Mr Verma says. “The aim is to appease the BJP’s core Hindutva [hardline Hindu nationalism] vote base.”
A saffron-robed Hindu nationalist, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has styled himself as a hardline monk on a mission to eliminate crime in his state. His government routinely demolishes homes of alleged criminals – earning him the moniker of “bulldozer baba” or bulldozer monk.
Of late, supporters of Mr Chouhan too have started calling him “bulldozer mama” or bulldozer uncle.
Both states have also introduced a slew of policies that are dubbed anti-Muslim, including legislation against interfaith love and a controversial law that allows government to recover damaged property from protesters.
The legislation was controversially used in Uttar Pradesh against opponents of a contentious citizenship law. When it was passed in Madhya Pradesh last year, Mr Mishra said it would be used against anyone “who destroyed government or private property during a protest, strike or riot, and that if necessary, the property of the accused would be seized and auctioned to recover the money”.
But experts say that razing of houses to punish alleged crimes, without notice, has no legal basis under any law.
“You simply cannot do this,” Mr Warsi says.
By denying any recourse, authorities were “taking law in their own hands and neutralising the courts”, leaving Muslims vulnerable to the vagaries of the state government, he adds.
“It’s like the government was waiting for an opportunity to do this.”
This article first appeared on bbc.com
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