Between ‘bulldozer justice’ and ‘Cong apathy’: Muslim voters face a tough choice in MP

Year before Chouhan was branded as ‘bulldozer mama’, Kamal Nath had invoked the bogey of ‘mafia’ to raze buildings in 2018.

WrittenBy:Prajwal Bhat
Nadeem Sheikh, standing in front of his demolished bakery at Khargone in Madhya Pradesh.

Amjad Khan stands despairingly before a wreckage that had been his livelihood for a decade. His modest bakery in Khargone, a town 120-km south of Indore city in Madhya Pradesh, was one of the 45 buildings reduced to rubble in a widespread demolition drive in April 2022. Many of these took place with little notice, even for those who had occupied the land. 

The purpose, Amjad says, was ‘collective punishment’ targeting Muslim neighbourhoods after stone-pelting during a Ram Navami procession the previous day. But Amjad knew immediately that something was amiss. “I filed RTIs with the city municipality and the district collector to find out who ordered the demolition. Both responded saying they had not initiated any action against me,” says Amjad, holding up the RTI responses.

Over the next few months, more serious misgivings emerged. Among the homes demolished on the day was that of Waseem Sheikh, a man with disability, with no hands. Another home demolished citing violations belonged to Haseena Sheikh, and was built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. 

Now, more than 18 months after the homes were demolished, many of them continue to remain in a state of rubble – a dark reminder of the tenure of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. In the last three years, his image as a sober, moderate leader has morphed into ‘Bulldozer Mama’, borrowing from his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath’s ‘campaign against crime’.

However, the idea of turning to demolitions to target ‘criminals’ goes as far back as 2017 in Madhya Pradesh, even before the first demolitions in Uttar Pradesh. It was in Indore that the then deputy inspector general Harinarayan Chari Mishra started the Gunda Dhar-pakad Abhiyaan (campaign to nab criminals) in July 2017 to ‘control’ alleged rowdies in the city by going after their families. 

One of the first houses demolished was that of Sultanabi, 60, a cancer survivor, in the Khajrana area of Indore city. Though the city municipality pointed to “dangerous construction work”, Sultanabi says she was left with no doubt that she was targeted because of her eldest son Bawar Sheikh. At the time, Bawar was in jail on charges of selling country liquor without a licence.

“The law had already taken its course with Bawar Sheikh and their home was registered under Sultanabi’s name. It was an illegal drive to target a family member who had nothing to do with the crime in question,” says Imran Khan, a resident of the Khajrana area of Indore. 

“It was one of the first cases where we felt that the city municipality was targeting the houses of Muslims,” says Imran Khan, a resident of Khajrana. “There were at least seven houses that were demolished and some of them continue to remain in a state of rubble because people could not afford to rebuild,” he says. 

Anand Lakhan, an activist working with vulnerable groups in the city for more than two decades, feels that connecting encroachment or structural irregularities with crime exacerbates problems.

“Demolishing a person’s home does not just take away their shelter, but also makes them more vulnerable in the community. When someone is booked in a criminal case or arrested, their entire family gets ostracised. What does it say of the city that families were forced to live on the streets?” asks Anand. 

Even when the Congress rose to power in 2018, the then Chief Minister Kamal Nath invoked the bogey of “mafia” to dole out “bulldozer justice” to alleged criminals, land encroachers, and extortionists. “These actions were in fact lauded in the media. Alongside fighting crime, the demolitions were described as necessary steps to beautify the city,” says Anand Lakhan. 

The activist says that in this period, neighbourhoods, where the poor lived, were demolished and ‘smart parks’ were built in their place. “The decisions were aimed at improving Indore’s clean city image,” says Anand. Indore has been declared the cleanest city in India for six consecutive years as per a Union government survey. 

But it was in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s latest term as chief minister that Muslim homes were selectively demolished. “Before there was at least the pretense of holding up the rulebook but in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s second term, Muslim homes were selectively targeted for bulldozing,” says Ashhar Warsi, a lawyer in Indore who is handling the cases of 17 people whose homes were demolished.

“It was a kind of hostility that we never expected,” says Ashhar Warsi.

The biggest example of this hostility was the demolitions ordered after Ram Navami processions organised by Hindutva groups led to rioting in Khargone in April 2022. Bulldozers took down at least 92 properties within 24 hours. “None of the people whose homes were demolished are accused in rioting cases,” says Ashhar. 

By August 2022, 332 properties were razed by the Madhya Pradesh government, of which 223 belonged to Muslims. Many of the properties did not belong to ‘organised criminals’ but to ordinary people like Amjad. In Khargone, some of the demolished buildings have remained in a state of disrepair. 

Despite this, victims of targeted demolitions say that they are not likely to vote for the Congress in the upcoming Madhya Pradesh elections. “We had no hope that the BJP would help us but the Congress leader (Ravi Joshi) has not taken the time to meet the victims yet,” says Amjad. “I worked for the Congress party in 2018 but I realised no one was keen to help when it mattered.”

His sentiments are echoed by Zaid Pathan, an activist in Indore working with families whose homes were demolished. “There will be a consolidation of the Muslim vote in favour of the Congress but there are also people, the ones who were directly affected by the demolitions, who no longer trust the state,” says Zaid. 

This report has been published as part of the joint NL-TNM Election Fund and is supported by hundreds of readers. Click here to power our ground reports.

Also see
article imageThe bulldozer as a symbol of state power – and how Gandhi warned against it
article imageWhat’s fuelling Shivraj Chouhan’s journey from ‘Mamaji’ to ‘Bulldozer Mama’?

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