On April 20, almost 46 years after the Turkman Gate massacres in Delhi, bulldozers arrived in the city’s Jahangirpuri neighbourhood to clear what the authorities claimed were illegal encroachments. The demolition drive was ostensibly a reaction to the violence that had taken place in the area a few days earlier.

Muslims allegedly threw stones at a Hindu procession passing through the area on Hanuman Jayanti on April 16. The procession was filmed carrying swords, pistols and chanting provocative slogans. No one knows who threw the first stone.

The demolition was meant to begin in the afternoon but it started in the morning. Though the Supreme Court ordered a stay late in the morning, a move that was widely reported by the media and social media, the bulldozers continued with the demolition for more than an hour.

The drive stopped only when Brinda Karat, a 74-year-old leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), physically took a copy of the court order to the demolition site and stood in front of a bulldozer. However, by then there was plenty of audio-visual material for the Bharatiya Janata Party to use to show its supporters that it reigns supreme.

Aside from small stalls, shops, huts and even vending carts, a tobacconist, a juice seller, a scrap dealer and the gate of a mosque were demolished. Most of the victims were Muslims, although some were also Hindus.

By evening, some Hindu residents lamented how there had never been any tension and that outsiders had come to provoke the Muslims. However, this was no match for the propaganda behemothunleashed by the BJP, whic blamed the entire matter on Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, criminals and the mafia. The latter two words are now virtually synonyms for Muslims.

The Aam Aadmi Party, which rules Delhi, also played into this narrative by blaming the BJP for failing to halt the Rohingya and Bangladeshi “infiltration”, showing how the saffron party has, in effect, pulled the centre of Indian politics further to the right. Opposition parties have had to accommodate for this shift and so it is not without irony that some of these parties are also normalising Hindutva.

One immediate cause of the demolition seems to be the city’s overdue municipal elections. Delhi’s municipal corporations are currently controlled by the BJP. Part of the reason for postponing them is that the Aam Aadmi Party is managing to woo BJP voters and looks set for a win.

However, the bulldozer is no longer just an election gimmick. Today, the bulldozer has perhaps become the preeminent symbol of the BJP. At a rally in Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh on February 26, Chief Minister Adityanath said “We have developed this machine that builds express highways and also tackles the mafias and criminals. When I was coming here, I saw four bulldozers. I think there are five assemblies, we will send one to each, then everything will be fine.”

Adityanath was referring to a set of bulldozers that had been brought to his rally and were draped with a banner that said “Baba ka Bulldozer”. Earlier in April, Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav had said that the bulldozer was crushing common citizens.

After the Uttar Pradesh elections, the bulldozer was used in victory rallies. Deployed to ostensibly demolish illegal encroachments, “bulldozer justice” is designed to send a message that transgressions will not be tolerated. Next door in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan quickly latched on to this potent symbol and earned the moniker “Bulldozer Mama”.

In the aftermath of the Khargone violence, Chouhan sent bulldozers to demolish the houses of those who were allegedly involved in stone throwing and arson. It is another matter that some of those whose properties were demolished were already in jail while fresh charges were levelled against them. The law requires that there be a thorough police enquiry before any demolition, but no such steps were taken in most of these cases.

As Yadav has said, the bulldozer is being used by the BJP to target Muslims and the most vulnerable sections of society to ride roughshod over the Constitution. Indeed, the bulldozer is now a symbol of swift, decisive action for all those who dare to question the writ of the BJP. Bulldozer justice, like mob justice, is meant to do nothing more than satiate the bloodlust and frenzy that has been whipped up and unleashed for the past eight years.

This is not dissimilar to the way in which the Uttar Pradesh government unilaterally announced that it would attach the properties of those who had participated in protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019.

The government had put up massive posters of the alleged protestors knowing that they could be targeted by mobs and vigilante groups. Eventually, two years later, the Supreme Court struck down this order observing that the Uttar Pradesh government had acted like “complainant, adjudicator and prosecutor”. However, the court also gave the state government liberty to file fresh notices under the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Act of 2020.

It is a badly conceived and hastily passed law in which the tribunal has the powers of a civil court and the freedom to adopt “summary procedures as it thinks fit”. In any case, the BJP’s liberal use of the draconian National Security Act, the Uttar Pradesh Gangsters and Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act – as well as similar laws in other states – and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has sent a clear signal that the law can and will be framed and used with impunity against those who oppose it.

Incentivising hate speech

The bulldozer then, has become a symbol of the demolition of any hope that Muslims might have in the institutions of India. This hope, indeed faith, was well illustrated by the manner in which Muslims articulated their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act in purely constitutional terms, and the architect of the Constitution BR Ambedkar, alongside Mohandas Gandhi, took a place of pride in the protests.

The bulldozer is then meant to demolish any remaining expectation in the judiciary and therefore in the rights enshrined in the Constitution. It is no surprise that the next demolition drive might well be in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and Okhla, which are Muslim localities.

As calls for the genocide and rape of Muslims go unpunished and anti-terror laws are used against those who voice dissent, there is one message that is loud and clear: oppose the BJP and be destroyed; submit and we may let you live on our terms.

Importantly, the silence of the BJP’s top leadership has incentivised hate speech and violence as a way of making political progress as well as keeping the communal pot boiling without ever openly endorsing it.

A comment by a Hindu woman in Jahangirpuri speaks volumes of what is to come. Claiming that she is the sole Hindu resident in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood, she said, “Why did they come to play the DJ outside the mosque at the time when people were breaking their fasts? Why were people shouting that they would slaughter Muslims?” Finally, she asked that if someone is provoked and attacked, would they not defend themselves.

Implicit within the last question is something that everyone is afraid to articulate: what if the conflict really escalates. Perhaps some people believe that a perpetual state of conflict can sustain right-wing ethno-religious politics, à la Israel.

However, as I have argued elsewhere, the last eight years have seen a lethal shift in the marginalisation of Muslims to their outright exclusion. Political untouchability, institutional neglect, legalised injustice and economic and social boycott all promise to sow the seeds for a conflict that will destabilise India in the years to come. We are hurtling towards a moral abyss from which there will be no turning back.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad teaches political science and history at Ashoka University. His Twitter handle is @mahmudabad.