A religious procession of about 500 people and 40-50 two-wheelers was making its way through Jahangirpuri in northwest Delhi. The devotees, some of them armed, were taking out a planned yatra on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti on April 16, 2022. The policemen were tense. Jahangirpuri has a sizeable population of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been here for 50 years. The yatra came just six days after incidents of communal clashes during Ram Navami in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and West Bengal.

As the procession made its way in front of a mosque around 6 pm, an argument broke out between two groups. Before the policemen could realise, stones were being pelted on both sides. A wireless message was relayed to the police control room flagging a law and order situation. Rioters torched vehicles on the road. The heavily outnumbered policemen were caught in stone pelting from both sides. As reinforcements came, 40 to 50 teargas shells were fired and gradually the crowds dissipated. The injured, including policemen, were taken to the hospital.

Four days later, nine bulldozers rolled into Jahangirpuri at 9 am with 14 civic teams. About 1,500 police officers, most in riot gear, surrounded the area. A day earlier, then Delhi BJP President Adesh Gupta had shot off a letter to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Raja Iqbal Singh demanding identification and demolition of “illegal encroachment” and construction by those arrested in the Jahangirpuri violence. The corporation had sought police personnel to conduct the drive the same day.

The requisite police force could not be provided in Jahangirpuri so the action was planned for April 16 and 17. It was curious that the civic body had taken note of encroachments only in this decrepit colony in a city which has for decades turned a blind eye towards the posh and illegal Sainik Farms. It was reminiscent of the “bulldozer justice” meted out by the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath against suspected riot-accused. The model was implemented by another BJP Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh’s riot-hit Khargone where 50 homes of allegedly riot-accused men were demolished in the same week.

On April 16 at 9.30 am, former Rajya Sabha MP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat was sitting in her second floor office at AK Gopalan Bhawan near Gole Market in Central Delhi. She had come to know about the demolition a night before and had called the senior advocate and All India Lawyers Union General Secretary PV Surendranath. Both had decided to take the matter to the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India. While Surendranath was in the Supreme Court, Karat’s lawyer Tara Narula went to the Delhi High Court. Then Chief Justice of India NV Ramana was due to hear a plea filed by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind against the demolition in Khargone.

Senior advocates Dushyant Dave, Kapil Sibal, PV Surendranath, and Prashant Bhushan mentioned the Jahangirpuri drive and said no demolition notices had been given to residents. “Maintain status quo and let the matter be heard tomorrow,” said Justice Ramana. Surendranath called Karat and conveyed the order around 10.50 am. She rushed to Jahangirpuri. The demolition drive, which was earlier planned for 2 pm, had already started.

Bulldozers were destroying shops owned by Muslims – their only source of income. It took Karat over an hour from Central Delhi to reach Jahangirpuri, which is towards the other end of northwest Delhi. Bulldozers were still rolling despite the Supreme Court order. Dushyant Dave informed the Chief Justice that the demolition drive had not stopped. Justice Ramana asked the Supreme Court registry to communicate the stay order to the commissioner of the Delhi Police North Delhi municipal commissioner, and mayor. As Karat reached Jahangirpuri, crowds had swelled up. At 11.45 am, jostling for space with people and armed policemen, Karat stood in front of the bulldozer – “Roko, Supreme Court ka order hai (Stop, it is the Supreme Court’s order).” Within half an hour, the Special Commissioner of Police (law and order) Dependra Pathak reached the spot and Karat briefed him.

Finally, the drive stopped. Clad in an off-white sari, a photo of the 74-year-old Karat standing in front of the bulldozer with her arms raised is one of the lasting images of the Jahangirpuri demolitions. While the rest of the Opposition was on Twitter berating the government for “bulldozer justice”, Karat was doing what she has known best – fighting on the streets for the rights of the poorest of the poor.

Not many know that the bylanes of Jahangirpuri are not new to Karat. She has worked extensively with worker unions during the Emergency years and has seen them being uprooted in the name of beautification of Delhi and moved to the resettlement colonies of Jahangirpuri, Mangolpuri, Nand Nagri, and Dakshinpuri. Karat and other women leaders fought for functional schools, toilets for women, and hygienic living conditions in these colonies in the 1970s. She terms her years as a trade unionist from 1975 to 1985 as the best learning years of her life which laid the foundation for all her party work.

Excerpted with permission from She, the Leader: Women in Indian Politics, Nidhi Sharma, Aleph Book Company.