In March this year, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s bulldozers arrived in Chhatarpur. As elsewhere in Madhya Pradesh since the BJP chief minister after taking power for his fourth term in 2020, the machines were escorted by government functionaries who declared that they were out to punish alleged “criminals” by destroying their homes. As elsewhere, they did not explain what legal authority they had to do so. As elsewhere, they simply declared that the properties were illegally constructed on state land or in violation of norms. As elsewhere, they didn’t give prior notices to the victims or allow them to reply. As elsewhere, most of the victims were poor and Muslim. But unlike elsewhere, Chhatarpur’s government functionaries went about this exercise of instantly rendering entire families homeless with great fanfare. Like it was a festival.
There were drummers and DJs and riotous music as the bulldozers knocked three Muslim properties down to the ground and partially demolished one Hindu home.
It was as clear an indication as Bulldozer Mama’s government could have provided as to the actual purpose of the “bulldozer campaign”: that it’s a political strategy, as , to burnish the chief minister’s hardline Hindutva credentials by targeting Muslims.
In Chhatarpur, the targets included Shahzad Khan alias Sonu Stope. As the bulldozers wrecked his farmhouse on Satai Road, about 6 km outside the city, to drum beats, the police warned the onlookers that the same punishment awaited whoever committed a crime, as Khan allegedly had.
“We had all the paperwork, but they still demolished it without a warning or a notice,” said Khan’s sister. “My brother is a property dealer and a moneylender.”
Khan is currently in jail awaiting trial for murder. He is also named in about a dozen other police cases, but hasn’t been convicted in any of them. His brother is a Samajwadi Party politician who unsuccessfully contested the last assembly election.
Chouhan’s bulldozers also destroyed Khan’s house near Panna Naka which he rented out.
“The police went to Panna Naka house in the middle of the night and told the tenants to vacate it,” Khan’s sister said. “By dawn it was just a heap of rubble.”
Khan’s family have been advised to take legal action but, his sister said, they fear doing so would anger the local government officials and they could also demolish the house they are now living in. If that happens, she added, they would be “forced to live on the roadside”.
“The demolitions have nothing to do with crime. Even if that person has committed a crime, why is his entire family being punished? Our people are being selectively targeted,” said a Muslim neighbour of Khan’s who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. “They also partially demolished a Hindu family’s house, so they could say that there was no discrimination. But we understand what’s happening.”
Though Muslims have borne the brunt of Chouhan’s “bulldozer drive” so far, Hindus haven’t been spared either. Yogesh Arjaria’s was one of two Hindu homes in Chhatarpur city’s Hanuman Toriya Mohalla that were partially demolished. “The house is in my mother's name. They came in the evening and told my family to leave as they were coming back with bulldozers in the morning. They did. And they brought DJs and drummers along,” Arjaria said.
Arjaria is named in several police cases but has not been convicted. He’s currently out on bail.
It took hours of pleading and crying by Arjaria’s mother and sister, and eventually a protest by their neighbours, for the bulldozers to stop. By then, however, the house was half rubble.
We contacted Chhatarpur’s municipal commissioner Ompal Singh, legislator Alok Chaturvedi of the Congress, police superintendent Sachin Sharma, and district magistrate Sandeep GR to ask what justification they had for the demolitions and why Muslims were selectively targeted.
Singh claimed they had sent notices to the people whose homes were destroyed within the city’s limits, but they didn’t take them seriously. “And they were criminals,” he added.
Chaturvedi declared, without offering evidence, that “the demolished homes must have been of criminals. If someone has done something wrong, they will have to pay for it. I don’t know anything else.”
Sharma retorted, “These are not details that should be given to you.”
The district magistrate was similarly evasive. “The houses that were demolished must have been illegal. You want more information, file an RTI,” he said.
What legal authority did they have to destroy the houses even if their owners stood accused of criminality? “I don’t know about it. Perhaps there is a revenue law that allows it,” Singh replied. “But the houses that were demolished belonged to people who did not maintain law and order.”
As for DJs and drummers, Singh said they were brought in “so that the public will know that the houses of those who have committed crimes are being demolished”.
Geeta Devi is a reporter at Khabar Lahariya, a collective of rural women journalists which Newslaundry collaborated with for this report.
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