Ideological commitment, political compulsions, and a laudatory media.
In March, Shivraj Singh Chouhan arrived at BJP legislator Rameshwar Sharma’s house in Bhopal for a function celebrating the completion of two years of his fourth term as Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister. He was greeted by a parade of over a dozen bulldozers decked out with posters championing the chief minister as “Bulldozer Mama”, Bulldozer Uncle.
Chouhan seemed to approve. Thanking Sharma for the “welcome”, he declared, “Mama’s bulldozer will not stop until it gets rid of all goons. We will not spare antisocial elements.”
For obvious reason: the sobriquet, half-gloat half-threat, was of a piece with Chouhan’s fourth-term attempt at an image makeover, from the BJP’s “development man” to its latest Hindutva pin-up. A central plank of the image redo is the “bulldozer campaign”, as the Chouhan government’s wanton destruction of property across the state has come to be known. As Newslaundry detailed in the first report in this NL Sena series, Chouhan has hawked the bulldozer campaign as overdue, if legally dubious, action against “organised criminals”. In reality, it has largely targeted common folk, most of them poor and Muslim.
The selectivity is the point. Chouhan can’t possibly burnish his Hindutva halo without seeming to go after Muslims. “It is,” as a journalist with Newsclick in Bhopal pointed out, “a tried and tested formula.”
Indeed, Chouhan’s ministers are candid about the logic of Bulldozer Mama. “If a Muslim does something bad to our Hindu girls, we can’t sit and have tea with him. He must be responded to,” said Sharma, the BJP legislator, alluding to the Hindutva bogey of “love jihad”. “A government that delivers quick justice is a good government and our Bulldozer Mama is punishing criminals by taking tough action against them. Shivraj’s government is tender for the poor, for mothers and sisters, and wicked for the evil. These actions are being taken with this goal in mind.”
Note the conflation of “Muslim”, “criminal” and “evil”.
This isn’t an original strategy. Chouhan is reading from the playbook of Adityanath, the Hindutva posterboy who, as the first report in this series explained, resorted to extralegal ways to selectively target Muslims in Uttar Pradesh in the wake of the protests against the new citizenship law, arresting and imprisoning them, publicly threatening them with retribution, making them pay for alleged damage to public property, and bulldozing their homes.
Chouhan has been pursuing a similar agenda to the “Bulldozer Baba”, as Adityanath came to be known by his admirers, only with seemingly less scrutiny, and for a similar reason: to establish himself as a top Hindutva leader. It’s as much an ideological project for Chouhan’s party as it’s a political compulsion for him.
When he first became the chief minister in 2005 he wasn’t the mass leader he is now. He was a “compromise choice”, picked by the BJP’s central leadership to steady the ship after the fractious reign of Uma Bharti and the late Babulal Gaur. He went about cultivating an image as a sober, moderate leader, the antithesis of Bharti. That’s what the times demanded.
It proved a canny bet. By projecting himself as the “development man” and backing the rhetoric with welfare schemes such as the Laadli Lakshmi Yojana for girls, Mukhyamantri Jankalyan Sambal Yojana for labourers and Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana for farmers, Chouhan won himself significant popular support, so much so that the BJP couldn’t imagine going into the following elections without him at the helm. He was “Mamaji”, the caring uncle who looked out for the welfare of his people. At one point, he was even talked about as the soft Hindutva alternative to the hardline Narendra Modi.
Then, he lost the 2018 election, albeit narrowly, to the Congress. The “development man” appeal no longer held, or so he reckoned, and he set about crafting an image as a leader at the vanguard of Hindutva, an image which, as Modi’s re-election just a few months later would show, remained a potent electoral currency. So, soon as he returned to power in 2020, he put the rhetoric into action.
Enter the bulldozer.
Initially, Chouhan’s “bulldozer campaign” was directed at what his government alleged was “land mafia” associated with the previous Congress administration of Kamal Nath, which in its time had also invoked the bogey of “mafia” to dole out “bulldozer justice” to alleged criminals, land encroachers and extortionists. Before long, however, Chouhan was selectively bulldozing Muslim homes. He scaled it up a notch after Adityanath won re-election early this year, riding on his popularity as the tough-on-crime, tough-on-Muslims administrator. After Ram Navami processions organised by Hindutva groups caused rioting in Sendhwa and Khargone in April, Chouhan’s bulldozers took down at least 92 properties.
In Khargone, much of the rioting took place around the Jama Masjid on Talav Chowk. Surveillance camera footage, seen by Newslaundry, clearly shows the Hindu crowd started the rioting, pelting stones and even attacking the police. But when the police came with bulldozers to punish the “rioters” the day after, they went after shops owned by Muslims who weren’t even accused by the police of involvement in the violence. In all, seven shops were decreed illegal and demolished that day, without any warning or notice. Two of the shops were being rented by Hindu shopkeepers who were afforded time to take out their stock. The Muslim shopkeepers weren’t.
“Hindutva is mainstream now. Which is why minorities, especially Muslims, are being targeted,” said a veteran journalist at the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar in Bhopal. “The demolition of properties is in line with the cause of Hindutva and it helps the chief minister project himself as a tough administrator dispensing quick justice. These are two things that most BJP chief ministers desire, in fact. These things keep them in public conversation and make them darlings of the top leadership.”
In all, Bulldozer Mama has razed 332 properties in the last two years, 223 of which belonged to Muslims. According to government records provided by Satyendra Khare, officer on special duty to the chief minister, Chouhan’s “bulldozer action” has cleared 25,191 acres of government and private land until June 30. Newslaundry couldn’t corroborate Khare’s claims independently.
“His image as a hardline Hindutva administrator helped Adityanath return to power in Uttar Pradesh and Shivraj Chouhan is creating a similar image so as to strengthen his position going into next year’s election,” said a journalist who has been covering the Madhya Pradesh BJP for a Dainik Jagran group newspaper for a decade.
That the “bulldozer campaign” has received largely favourable coverage from the local media has only intensified Chouhan’s rhetoric. Speaking at Sharma’s function in March, the chief minister declared, “Whoever casts an evil eye on our daughters, mothers and sisters, routine punishment is not enough for them. We will make them tremble. The law will punish but the bulldozer will also run.”
Feeling emboldened by the chief minister’s example and the media’s pat on the back, his party’s leaders have gotten in on the act. “If anybody commits a crime,” declared Vishwas Sarang, the medical education minister after several homes in his constituency were razed, “we will send Mama’s bulldozer after them.”
But there’s ample evidence that many of the houses demolished were owned by ordinary people and not “criminals”. “That doesn’t matter,” Sarang said. “If they have committed a crime they have to pay. And if we had demolished any house wrongly then they would have gone to court by now.”
They have. Indore lawyer Ashar Warsi alone has filed 17 petitions in the Madhya Pradesh High Court on behalf of people whose houses have been destroyed in Khargone and Sendhwa. The high court has told the state to respond to the pleas by the end of August. Warsi has also moved the Supreme Court as has another lawyer, Ehteshaam Hashmi. They have pointed out that the Chouhan government is bulldozing properties without cause, notice, or even a finding of criminality. They have asked for an independent judicial inquiry, compensation for the victims and action against the “perpetrators of destruction to the lives and properties”.
No law in India allows the destruction of a person’s property merely because they are accused of a crime. That’s why the BJP government has officially maintained that the demolished properties were raised on state land or in violation of regulations.
The Municipal Corporation Act and the Land Revenue Code in Madhya Pradesh allow for the demolition of structures erected on encroached land, but not before the alleged encroacher is served a notice and given adequate time to respond to it or challenge it in a court of law.
Similar protections are provided by Article 21 of India’s constitution which guarantees every citizen the right to life and personal liberty. The Supreme Court enhanced the scope of Article 21 in Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation ruling that forcibly removing pavement dwellers without giving them a chance to be heard violated their constitutional rights.
But leave alone serve prior notices to the people whose houses and shops were targeted for demolition and allow them time to reply or approach a court, Chouhan’s mandarins haven’t even sent an official notification to district magistrates greenlighting the “bulldozer drive”.
“Provision 307 of the Municipal Corporation Act empowers the building officer to serve a notice to any person responsible for unauthorised construction or occupation. The concerned person is required to respond to the notice, explaining why the construction should stand. In case the officer deems the response unsatisfactory, the concerned person can make a prayer to pay a penalty. This whole procedure has to be followed before the construction is demolished,” Amitabh Gupta, a senior lawyer at the Madhya Pradesh High Court, explained. “The reasonable notice period in such cases is a month. The 24-hour notices being served by the administration are totally illegal. They don’t even specify the violations allegedly committed.”
Indeed, in public statements, the chief minister and his subordinates haven’t even paid lip service to the dubious legal pretexts being used for the demolition drive, leaving little doubt as to the actual purpose. The message isn’t lost on officials down the administrative hierarchy who have plainly told many of the victims that they were being punished for the alleged crime of a relative or a member of the community.
“The chief minister making remarks like ‘I will bury criminals 10 feet under’, ‘I will dig up their houses and turn them into fields’ are meant to project the image of a tough administrator. They are also intended to convey to officials on the ground what they must do,” said Harish Divekar, former associate editor of Zee Madhya Pradesh Chhattisgarh who now runs the Sootr news website. “The message is clear.”
The third and final part of this series details how the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government turned the demolition of mostly poor people’s homes into a festival, complete with drums and DJs. Read the first part.
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