Addressing a public function in Hoshangabad in December 2020, Shivraj Singh Chouhan declared that he “will wipe out criminals from Madhya Pradesh and bury them 10 feet under”. It was the sort of stock speech that the chief minister would have been expected to deliver on “Good Governance Day”.
But it soon became clear that these were ominous words, the opening salvo in what has come to be known as the “bulldozer campaign”. In the year and a half since the Hoshangabad speech, Chouhan’s bulldozers have razed homes and shops in almost all the state’s 52 districts. The chief minister has portrayed the “bulldozer campaign” as overdue, if legally dubious action, against “the mafia” and “organised criminals”.
Newslaundry went on the ground to find out.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.
We spoke with several dozen victims, witnesses and government officials in Katni, Bhopal, Vidisha, Raisen, Khargone, Barwani, and Jabalpur districts, and examined land and property records, utility bills, and certifications from civic bodies. What we found does not tally with Chouhan’s claims about the stated purpose of his bulldozer campaign – to rid the state of “organised criminals” – and about the antecedents of the people targeted.
We found that most of the 332 properties demolished so far belong not to “organised criminals” but to ordinary people, most of them poor and Muslim. At least 223 of the razed properties were owned by Muslims, and 92 of them were targeted in April 2022 alone, after in Sendhwa and Khargone.
In none of the cases reviewed by Newslaundry was there so much as a pretence of the due process being followed. Quite the opposite really: we found in Bhopal, Vidisha, Raisen, Barwani, Khargone, Dindori, and Katni that state officials went to the extent of forging pretexts to raze the properties of innocent people.
Chouhan’s “bulldozer campaign” is a leaf out of Adityanath’s book. The saffron-robed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has burnished his image as the posterboy of Hindutva by devising extralegal ways to selectively target those who stand up to his government. In the wake of the widespread protests against the citizenship law, led mostly by Muslims, Adityanath’s government jailed protesters and , , and .
Over the border in Madhya Pradesh, Chouhan has been pursuing a similar agenda, but the BJP leader once heralded as a “” hasn’t received as much scrutiny. Even though there’s evidence aplenty, across the state, of broken people left with broken lives by a vindictive state.
‘We have only cut off half your finger’
It was a lazy afternoon on April 6, 2022. Nazrana Khan was walking home, relieved after taking the final paper of her class 9 exam, and looking forward to a hearty meal and a game of badminton with her friends. Soon as she turned into her street in Bhopal’s Bihari Mohalla, however, her reverie came crashing down. There, a few steps ahead along the street, she saw her two-room house reduced to a mound of rubble and her family sitting around it, bawling. In the blink of an eye, Nazrana’s family of 10 had been reduced to living, she said, like vagabonds and surviving on the goodwill of their neighbours.
“We spend the day wandering around other houses and sleep here in the ruins at night. We spent the entire summer without a roof on our heads and now the monsoon has started and it’s only gotten tougher,” she said. They have rented a small room but it’s not adequate for the entire family.
Nazrana didn’t witness her home being bulldozed but her aunt Rizwana Khan was there. “Half a dozen policemen came that morning and acted like they were doing a survey. They were taking down the names of the residents. They returned at noon, about two dozen of them, along with some municipal officials and the SDM. They blocked our street with bulldozers, barged into our home, ours alone, and threw us out. There were only our women and children at home,” she recalled. “They threw us out and demolished our home. They did not let us take a single thing. They destroyed everything.”
The sub divisional magistrate, Manoj Verma, didn’t reply to queries about the demolition of Nazrana’s house and the justification for it.
Rizwana said when the women and children began crying, pleading with the officials to tell them why they were razing their house and begging them to stop, a police officer threatened, “Abhi tum logon ki aadhi ungli kati hai, poori katna baaki hai.” We have only cut off half your finger, we are going to cut it all off.
What had Nazrana’s family done to invite such severe and due-process-free punishment?
Her father, Shahid Khan, had been booked for assault and harassment the month before, following a police complaint by a neighbour named Badriprasad Parashar. In an FIR filed at the Aishbagh police station on March 4, Badriprasad accused Shahid of assaulting and injuring him. He repeated the charges in a second FIR filed on March 24.
Shahid denied the accusations, claiming Badriprasad was getting back at him because he had publicly embarrassed his neighbour for refusing to return a Rs 200 loan. Moreover, eyewitnesses told Newslaundry that Badriprasad was injured in an accident near the Apsara Talkies theatre that night and not in an assault by Shahid as he would later allege. “Nobody hit Badriprasad. He was driving drunk and rammed his scooter into an electric pole. We helped him up and gave him water. We offered to call an ambulance but he insisted that it was not required,” said Pramod Meena, 32, a vegetable vendor. “So I dropped him off at his home.”
Manishraj Bhadoriya, the station house officer in Aishbagh, confirmed to Newslaundry that the first FIR against Shahid was false and that the police have submitted a closure report in a local court to cancel it. The court is yet to rule.
Before the first FIR was cancelled, however, Badriprasad filed a second complaint accusing Shahid of assault. He also named Shahid’s nephew Shahdu, his sisters Rizwana and Farzana, and a friend of theirs named Aarti Rathore.
Aarti, just a few hours earlier, had filed an FIR against Badriprasad’s wife Susheela and daughter Sonam at the Aishbagh police station over a quarrel. Badriprasad responded by going to the police against Aarti, Shahid and his family.
“Sonam and Susheela started the fight,” recalled Rachna Kushwaha, an eyewitness. “Sonam was secretly making a video of Aarti speaking with Rizwana and other women. When Aarti objected, Susheela and Sonam picked a fight.”
Shahid wasn’t even in Bihari Mohalla at the time, or anywhere near. He had gone with two other men from the neighbourhood, Krishna Baghel and Mustafa Shaikh, to attend a BJP function addressed by Chouhan at Ravindra Bhavan, about 7 km away. Shahid was at Ravindra Bhavan until at least 6 pm, photos and videos seen by Newslaundry indicate, while the FIR states that the quarrel involving Aarti and Badriprasad’s wife and daughter happened at around 5:30 pm.
Why was he named in the FIR then? Did the police not check the CCTV footage to verify Shahid’s claim that he was at Ravindra Bhavan? “That’s not our subject. We don’t care where he was or wasn’t,” said Bhadoriya, the Aishbagh SHO. “As far as we are concerned he was at the spot. End of story.”
On March 29, after members of the Hindutva groups Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad had visited Badriprasad’s home, the Aishbagh police summoned Shahid. “Bajrang Dal and VHP people were sitting in the SHO’s cabin when I got there,” Shahid said. “They asked me about the quarrel. I told them I had nothing to do with it and that Badriprasad had filed a false complaint against me previously. They assured me they would resolve the matter but three-four days later they added another charge to the FIR.” The charge was that Shahid had molested Sonam and Susheela.
On April 5, Vishwas Sarang, one of Chouhan’s most influential ministers, visited Badriprasad at his home. The very next day, bulldozers arrived at Shahid’s home – without any warning or a legal order. Bhadoriya said, matter-of-factly, that they demolished Shahid’s home because it was illegal and he was facing a criminal FIR. He wouldn’t present evidence that the house was illegal.
On May 5, Shahid’s mother Taharunnissa petitioned the Madhya Pradesh High Court alleging that Sarang, the state’s minister for medical education, had demolished her house with the help of the state machinery “without having any right or authority” to do so. She also wrote to state BJP chief VD Sharma demanding action against Sarang.
“Shahid’s family has been living in Bihari Mohalla since before the ” said Prabhat Yadav, the lawyer representing Taharunissa. “There are some 1,200 families living on state lands there. If the government was removing encroachments as they claim, why did they bulldoze Shahid’s house alone? Why didn’t they remove all 1,200 houses? Shahid’s parents are both over 70 and they have been made homeless at this age. Vishwas Sarang and the BJP government have done this.”
Asked about the allegations, Sarang said, “There was an FIR against him, that is why his house was bulldozed. Whoever commits crimes will have to bear the consequences.”
The minister would not answer which law allowed the government to destroy a person’s property merely because they faced an FIR or why such punishment had not been doled out to every person in the state facing a criminal case. Pressed on why Shahid was singled out for such punishment, Sarang said, referring to Badriprasad’s FIR, “No father will file a fake molestation complaint to get someone's house demolished.”
Nazrana Khan, in white and blue dress, with her aunt Rizwana Khan.
Shahid's family of 10 had been reduced to living like vagabonds.
‘There was no notice, no warning’
In Raisen, Chouhan’s bulldozers terrorised an entire village because a young man objected to his sister being harassed.
Naved Khan was returning home to Khamaria on a motorbike with his sister Nida Khan and two-year-old niece after visiting a doctor. It was the afternoon of March 18, the eve of the Holi festival. At the entrance to the village, Naved saw 3-4 young men from the neighbouring Chandpura village and honked at them to give way. Angered, they allegedly blocked Naved’s way and began taking a video of Naved’s sister, triggering an argument which escalated into a fight when Naved called some of his friends to the spot.
A few elders came as well, though, and broke up the fight. Everyone went their way.
“The elders resolved the fight and we thought that was that. But around 5.30 pm, dozens of men from Chandpura armed with lathis attacked Khamaria,” recalled Aakil Khan, 24. “They were looking for Naved, to beat him up. Our sarpanch tried to talk sense into them but they did not listen.”
Khamaria is populated by 350 people, about 160 of whom are Muslim. Chandpura has a predominantly Gond Adivasi population of 450-odd souls.
Not long after the mob landed in Khamaria, four policemen from the nearby Jathari police station arrived. They tried to pacify the mob but did not succeed. The mob was swelling by the minute as a stream of men from Chandpura and other Adivasi villages in the area joined in, incited by a WhatsApp message that had started circulating after the fight in the afternoon. “You all informed that a big battle has started between the Adivasi Chandpura and the Muslim Khamaria. All people are requested to arrive at Khamaria as soon as possible,” the message read. It was authored by Pappu Thakur, a resident of Patpiri, about 6 km from Khamaria, who claimed to work for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the panchayat elections held last month, Pappu was elected sarpanch.
By 9 pm, there were an estimated 3,000 people rampaging through Khamaria. A police contingent of over a dozen men had gathered as well, but they couldn’t control the mob who burnt down the electric transformer, plunging the village into darkness, set fire to three shops at the entrance of the village, pelted stones at the houses and damaged vehicles. They even assaulted the police including SHO Maya Singh of Silwani police station.
The villagers of Khamaria retaliated with stonepelting, the villagers said, and as the violence spiralled an as-yet unknown person opened fire that dispersed the mob, but not before killing a Chandpura villager named Raju Adivasi. “One man from our village died in the firing and 14 were injured,” said Chandpura’s sarpanch Shivraj Bariva. “But we cannot say who opened the fire. It was pitch dark there.”
In the aftermath, villagers from both Khamaria and Chandpura lodged FIRs against the other side. But the police arrested only the villagers of Khamaria, 21 of them.
“We arrested Khamaria’s villagers because the gun was fired by a Khamaria resident and 50 people gave their statement about the incident,” said Rajesh Tiwari, sub divisional police officer of Silwani.
The accused resident was Mohammad Naim.
Why did the police not arrest anyone from Chandpura? “We are still collecting evidence. Our investigation is ongoing,” the officer said.
The next morning, Khamaria woke up to a police crackdown. Over 100 police personnel, including top officers like Narmadapuram’s inspector general Deepika Suri and Raisen’s police superintendent Vikas Shahwal, had landed in the village, along with Raisen collector Arvind Dubey, local legislator Rampal Rajput of the BJP, and officials from the Silwani Nagar Parishad and the forest department. They had brought along a bulldozer.
At around 2.30 pm, without a warning, the bulldozer got to work, knocking down the furniture workshop and house of Naim, who the police had by then named as the previous night’s shooter. Naim, according to the police, fired a Bharmar, a muzzle loading gun, while running through the mob and injured 40-50 people.
It would take an average man about a minute to load a Bharmar. Naim is disabled, with only one functional hand and requires assistance even to dress.
The police didn’t seem to care.
“I showed them the licence of the workshop given by the government, but they didn’t care,” said Naim’s wife Gulfishan. “They took away all the furniture, handed it over to the forest department and bulldozed the workshop. Then they dragged out my mother-in-law and children from the house and bulldozed it. There was no notice, no warning. They just came and razed everything to the ground. When my father-in-law went to show them our property records, they threatened to beat him up.”
The officials did not show a notice or warrant, they merely told Naim’s family their home and shop were illegal. The furniture they confiscated claiming it was made from illegally procured timber, even though Naim had papers showing otherwise.
Khamaria’s sarpanch Bhagwat Singh said the officials told him that they had “orders to demolish several houses” but spared them after hours of begging and cajoling. “It was a small fight between children really which was magnified by people from Chandpura. They created a ruckus and then outsiders made it Hindu versus Muslim,” the sarpanch said. “The administration wanted to demolish several houses. They told me they had the orders from the government. We spoke with them for almost two hours and after much persuasion from us, the MLA and other contacts in Bhopal, they agreed not to bulldoze the other houses.”
Dubey, the collector, claimed that Naim’s home and shop were razed “because he did not have valid papers”. But Naim did have the papers? “They must have forged them later,” Dubey retorted. He cut the call and did not respond to our queries thereafter.
On March 22, Chouhan met Raju Adivasi’s family in Chandpura. “Goons and criminals of Madhya Pradesh, beware,” the chief minister declared in a speech afterwards. “If they raise a hand against the poor, I will dig up their houses and turn them into fields. I won’t let them live in peace.”
One of the shops burnt in Khamaria.
A demolished house in Khamaria.
Mohammad Naim's wife Gulfishan, right, and his sister at their destroyed home.
Naim is disabled, with only one functional hand.
‘They bulldozed several PM Awas Yojana houses’
Chouhan and his mandarins have justified the destruction of at least some properties claiming that they were illegally built. Newslaundry tested the claims and found that they did not hold up.
Take Islamnagar village in Vidisha district. For as long as his frail body allowed, Abdul Khan, 80, laboured as a farm hand and lived in a hut at the edge of the village. But in 2016-17, he got a pucca house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Nearly four years later, on March 20, 2021, Chouhan’s government decreed that the house was on forest land, thus illegal, and bulldozed it.
“Abdul Khan was named in the PMAY beneficiary list for 2016-17, his land was geotagged four times and he was given Rs 1,20,000 in three instalments to build the house. The government even installed a power line and a hand pump in the area,” said Mukesh Kumar, an assistant secretary at the Dharga panchayat, which encompasses Islamnagar. “Last year they declared his house illegal and razed it. He had been living in that place for over 40 years. They also demolished the houses of several other PMAY beneficiaries.”
Shafeek Khan’s was one of them. “Our house was ready. We were about to move in when it was demolished. I was away in Shajapur that day. My wife called and told me. The government had given us the house under PMAY. The panchayat had examined our papers and completed all the legal formalities. How would the panchayat have let us build the house if we were building it illegally?” Shafeek, 45, asked.
How indeed could a house sanctioned and built under a government scheme after due verification possibly be illegal?
Could it be the reason for destroying the Muslim homes wasn’t what the government claimed?
Two days before the bulldozers arrived, Santram Dhaulpuria, sarpanch of Murwas, 4 km from Islamnagar, had been murdered, and the police arrested a Murwas resident, Fakeer Muhammad Khan, and three of his family members.
The next day, cadres of the BJP and the VHP held a .
The government responded by bulldozing 42 houses in Murwas and neighbouring villages, including Islamnagar. At least 13 of those, like Abdul’s and Shafeek’s, had been paid for under the prime minister’s housing scheme.
The victims charged that it was the government collectively punishing the local Muslim community for the alleged crime of one of them. How the exercise was carried out appears to buttress their allegation: in at least one place, the officials singled out Muslim homes for demolition and spared a Hindu house right next to them.
“If all houses here were illegal, why did they not demolish all of them?” asked Muhammad Haseen, 32, whose home in Islamnagar was razed to the ground. “It is not possible that four houses built in the same place are illegal and one is legal.”
He was referring to the house of his neighbour Virendra Singh. It’s the only pucca house in the neighbourhood still standing. Virendra wasn’t home when Newslaundry visited. Asked over the phone why he thought his house alone had been spared, he said, “All houses were demolished, including mine. They ran bulldozers over it.”
Or, look at how Chouhan’s government has dealt with people associated with the ruling party who are suspected of committing offences against Muslims, real or imagined.
In May this year, BJP worker Dinesh Kushwaha was caught on video beating to death a mentally disbaled man who he “suspected” was a Muslim. The elderly man, later identified as Bhanwarlal Jain, 65, had gone missing from his home in Sarsi village of Ratlam during a family trip to Chittorgarh fort in Rajasthan a few days earlier. “I saw the video. The man tortured my brother to death. He kept asking him if his name was Mohammad,” Bhanwarlal’s brother, Rajesh Jain, said.
After the video went viral the police sent a bulldozer to the BJP worker’s house, threatening to demolish it if he didn’t surrender. He surrendered and the police recalled the bulldozer. “We didn’t bulldoze his house as it was also in the names of his family members,” said KL Dangi, head of the Manasa police station. “We can’t bulldoze houses that have multiple owners. If it had been in his name alone, we would have bulldozed it.”
But the administration has destroyed properties with multiple, or unrelated owners, hasn’t it? Dangi said he couldn’t respond to this particular point.
Rajesh doesn’t buy the explanation. “Had the accused been a Muslim, his house would have been demolished whether it was in his name or his parent’s.”
When Chouhan’s home minister was asked why Bhanwarlal’s suspected murderer had not faced “bulldozer justice”, that the elderly man had been beaten to death because he was mentally unstable and couldn’t identify himself.
Newslaundry has sent Mishra a series of detailed questions about his government’s selective targeting of Muslim properties and the legality of its “bulldozer justice”. This report will be updated if he responds.
Questions put to Chouhan’s office about why the government had demolished houses built under PMAY elicited a response from his officer on special duty, Satyendra Khare. “I think you have got the wrong information,” he replied. “If so many houses built under PMAY had been bulldozed, it would have come out in public. We received one complaint about the demolition of a PMAY house and we sanctioned its reconstruction. I’m not beholden to answer you, but I will forward your questions to the chief minister.”
Ehtesham Hashmi, though, is in no doubt that the “bulldozer campaign” is illegal. The lawyer has filed a petition in the Supreme Court, pointing out that Chouhan’s government has been bulldozing properties without cause or notice “or at the least a finding that they were responsible for the stonepelting and arson”, demanding an independent judicial inquiry, compensation for the victims and action against the “perpetrators of destruction to the lives and properties''.
“Our country is governed by the constitution. We are not a police state,” he said, explaining why he filed the petition. “According to Article 21 of the constitution, every citizen has the right to life and liberty. Which means that nobody can be punished without due legal process. The BJP government is bent on bringing police rule to the country. If you want to follow such practices, then tear up the constitution and lock up the courts.”
Abdul Khan's house built under the PMAY.
Virendra Singh's is only house in the neighbourhood that's still standing.
‘They shouted mulle kaate jaayenge’
Haseen has still not grasped why Chouhan’s government razed homes in Islamnagar, even if it was a perverse form of collective punishment for the Murwas sarpanch’s murder. “Our village is 3-4 km from Murwas and none of us was involved in the violence that happened over there. Even our panchayat is different,” he said.
That fateful day, Haseen recalled, a few policemen came to his village in the morning and told the residents to leave their homes because they had been marked for demolition. They did not produce any order or a reason as to why. “Twenty minutes later, there were some 200 police personnel in the village. They had guns and teargas shells. I saw 20-25 forest and local officials as well. They had brought along two tractors and three bulldozers,” he said. “Some of our elders tried to speak with them, but the police reacted with lathicharge. Some of the cops were mocking and laughing at us.”
Haseen alleged that some men in civvies accompanying the officials were shouting for Muslims to be robbed and slain. “Loot lo en katuon ko”, “mulle kaate jaayenge”, he recalled the slur-laced exhortations in Hindi.
Although the overwhelming majority of the targets of Chouhan’s bulldozer terror are Muslims, many Hindus have suffered as well. Nirasha Bai, 60, a widow in Savarkar Ward in Katni, makes a living doing dishes. A week after Ram Navami processions led to violence in the region on April 20 this year, as they did in several places across the country, Nirasha’s house was declared illegal, and almost instantly bulldozed.
She, however, alleged that the officials told her they were demolishing her house because they thought her grandson was involved in the illicit liquor trade. “I got a notice about a month before the demolition. It said my house was illegal. The notice was in my grandson’s name and that is strange because the house is in my name. He doesn’t even live with me,” she said. “Two dozen policemen and a dozen officials and the SDM came to my house. They said they were demolishing it because my grandson dealt in illicit liquor. I kept telling them that the house wasn’t his, that he didn’t live with me, but they didn’t listen. They dragged me out and destroyed my home. When they were done, they threw me into a jeep and dropped me off at an old age home.”
Nirasha now spends her days at her daughter’s place and her mostly sleepless nights by the ruins of her house, trying to pick up the pieces of her wrecked life.
Queries sent to the sub divisional magistrate, Priya Chandrawat, about the destruction of Nirasha’s house went unanswered.
Nirasha Bai outside what was once her home.
Nirasha's house was declared illegal, and almost instantly bulldozed.
In Dindori, Haleem Khan’s house and three shops in Shahpura area were bulldozed in April 2022 after his son, Asif Khan, ran away with and married his childhood sweetheart Sakshi Sahu. The bulldozer came after Sakshi’s parents, accompanied by local leaders of the BJP and the Bajrang Dal, filed an FIR accusing Asif of carrying out “love jihad” – the Hindutva conspiracy theory that Muslim men “trap in love” Hindu girls with the singular purpose of converting them – and cadres of Hindutva groups held protests and blocked roads in Dindori.
“It was a nightmare, everyone suddenly became my enemy. The police, BJP, Bajrang Dal, they all came after me. They filed an FIR of kidnapping against my son and the entire family, and summoned me to the police station. I explained to them that it was not a case of kidnapping. I even made them speak with Asif and Sakshi. They clearly told the police they had run away of their own will,” Haleem said. “The police kept me in the police station for three days and in that time they bulldozed my house and shops. Even after that, the local media wouldn’t stop demonising us. My family was dispersed. My younger son Akeel and I spent 12 days hiding in the forests, mountains and at bus stops. It was only after Sakshi released a video addressed to the chief minister on April 10, saying that she had married Asif of her own will that we could come back.”
On April 23, the high court provided protection to Asif and Sakshi. By then Haleem and his family’s lives had long been upended.
Pictures by Prateek Goyal and Ashwine Kumar Singh.
The second part of this series looks at the motivations and political calculations driving Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s “bulldozer campaign”.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.