As “bulldozer politics” dominated discussions in India this fortnight, images of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday clambering on to an excavator led to outrage and incredulity in India and the United Kingdom.
Johnson, who is on a two-day trip to India, was visiting a new factory near Vadodra run by heavy-construction equipment manufacturer JCB. He hopped onto one of the excavators manufactured in the plant, a day bulldozers razed Muslim-owned shops and homes in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri neighbourhood.
In recent weeks, several states run by the Bharatiya Janata Party have pressed bulldozers into service to summarily demolish properties of people alleged to have committed offences, even though they have not been convicted by a court or without giving them a chance to appeal.
In this form of collective punishment, entire families have been penalised for actions that a single member is alleged to have committed. There is no legal basis for such arbitrary action, experts say.
Wednesday’s demolition drive in Jahangirpuri came four days after religious riots in the area. On April 16, violence had erupted in the working-class neighbourhood, after a procession organised by the Bajrang Dal on Hanuman Jayanti had clashed with Muslims as it went past the mosque.
After the violence, the BJP wrote to the mayor of North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which is run by the saffron party, asking it to take action against the “illegal properties of rioters”.
Though the Supreme Court ordered a stay on the demolition campaign just before 11 am on Wednesday, the bulldozers continued to destroy properties for at least an hour after that. Municipal officials claimed they had not received an official copy of the court order.
Delhi was not the first place where the BJP has pressed bulldozers into service to destroy Muslim property. In the first two weeks of April, when the Hindu New Year, or Navratri, was observed, several Hindtuva outfits organised rallies in which armed participants shouted abusive, provocative slogans, as they passed by mosques or through Muslim-dominated areas in some states. Violence was reported from five states.
On April 11, the homes and properties of alleged rioters in Khargone in Madhya Pradesh were razed. In Gujarat, too, the Anand district administration on April 15 took to bulldozing the homes of those it alleged were to blame for violence on Ram Navami.
Government supporters such as Times Now anchor Navika Kumar have celebrated the deployment of bulldozers.
In light of these events, Johnson’s JCB plant visit was decidedly odd.
In the United Kingdom, too, the media and some Twitter users noted that Johnson is close to one of the directors of the company JC Bamford Excavators. According to the company website, JCB India Limited is a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-based JC Bamford Excavators.
Anthony Paul Bamford, who is among the directors of the company, is a Conservative Party member of the Upper House of the British Parliament. Prime Minister Johnson belongs to the same party. British newspaper The Telegraph reported that Bamford has donated 10 million pounds (roughly Rs 99.35 crore) to the Conservative Party since 2001.
Johnson also visited the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and visuals showed him spinning a charkha, in a pose reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi, prompting some mockery.
Earlier in the day, the British prime minister also praised India upon his arrival. “It’s fantastic to be in India, the world’s largest democracy,” he wrote on Twitter. Johnson’s comments come at a time when India has faced heightened global pressure and scrutiny for increased and rampant human rights violations and targeting of Muslims.
On April 12, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken had voiced concern over the increase in “human rights abuses” in India. In March, India was called a “partially free” country for the second year in a row in the 2022 report by the United States non-governmental organisation, Freedom House.