The practice of bulldozing Muslim homes and businesses for purely punitive reasons is proof that India is ‘transitioning pretty brazenly into a criminal Hindu fascist enterprise’, says author Arundhati Roy.
Over the last few months, authorities in Indian states governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have started bulldozing the homes, shops, and places of business that belong to Muslims merely suspected of participating in anti-government protests. The Chief Ministers of these states have proudly flaunted this policy in their election campaigns.
To my mind, this marks the moment when a deeply flawed, fragile democracy has transitioned – openly and brazenly – into a criminal, Hindu-fascist enterprise with tremendous popular support. We now appear to be ruled by gangsters fitted out as Hindu godmen. In their book, Muslims are public enemy number one.
In the past, Muslims have been punished with pogroms, lynchings, targeted murders, custodial killings, fake police “encounters” and imprisonment under false pretexts. Bulldozing their homes and businesses is only a new – and highly effective – weapon added to this list.
In the ways in which this phenomenon is being reported and written about, the bulldozer has been invested with a sort of divine, avenging power. This menacing machine with its huge metal claw that is used to “crush the enemy”, is being portrayed as a mechanical, comic-strip version of a mythical God slaying demons. It has become the talisman of the new, avenging, Hindu nation. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson posed next to one during his recent visit to India – it is hard to believe that he did not know exactly what he was doing and who he was endorsing. Why else would a head of state do something as bizarre as posing with a bulldozer during a state visit?
For their part, government authorities insist they are not targeting Muslims and are merely demolishing illegally constructed properties. A sort of municipal clean-up mission. That reasoning, of course, is not even meant to be convincing. It is meant as mockery, and to instil terror. The authorities and most Indians know that most of the construction in every Indian town and city is either illegal or quasi-legal.
Bulldozing Muslim homes and businesses for purely punitive reasons without notice, without a chance of an appeal or a hearing achieves several things all at once.
Before the bulldozer era, punishment for Muslims was meted out by vigilante mobs and the police – which either participated in the punishment or chose to look away. The bulldozing of properties, however, involves not just the police, but the municipal authorities, the media – who must be present to amplify and broadcast the spectacle of demon-slaying – and the courts who must look away and not intervene. It is meant to tell Muslims, “You are on your own. No help will come. You have no court of appeal. Every institution that used to be part of the checks and balances of this old democracy is now a weapon that can be used against you.”
The properties of anti-government protesters from other communities are almost never targeted in this way.
On June 16, for example, tens of thousands of young men furious with the BJP government’s new army recruitment policy went on a violent rampage across North India. They burned trains and vehicles, blocked roads, and in one town they even burned the BJP office. But most of them are not Muslim. So their homes and families will remain safe.
In the two general elections of 2014 and 2019, the BJP has shown convincingly that it does not need the vote of India’s 200 million-strong Muslim population to win a majority in Parliament in the national elections. So, in effect, we are looking at a sort of disenfranchisement. That will have dangerous corollaries. Because once you are disenfranchised, you don’t matter. You become inconsequential. You can be used and abused. This is what we are witnessing now.
Even after high-ranking BJP officials publicly insulted everything Muslims hold most sacred, the party did not lose the backing of, or receive meaningful criticism from, its core support base.
There have been significant protests by Muslims in response to these insults. The protests were understandable, because the incident came on the back of so much violence and brutalisation. Except that as inevitably happens, some among the protestors called for a blasphemy law, which the BJP would probably be more than happy to pass, because then almost all commentary about Hindu Nationalism could also be criminalised under that law. It would effectively silence all criticism and stunt all intelligent commentary about the political and ideological pit into which India is falling. Other individual protestors, one from an important political party, All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) called for hanging and others called for beheading – all of which serve to confirm every stereotype about Muslims that the Hindu right works so hard to perpetuate. Across the high walls of insults and death threats from either side, no conversation appears possible.
The polarisation that followed the protests has only increased support for the BJP. The BJP spokeswoman who delivered the insult has been suspended from the party, but has been openly embraced by its cadres. Her political future appears bright.
Today in India, we are living through the political equivalent of a scorched-earth policy. Everything – every institution that has taken years to build – is being destroyed. It is stupefying. A new generation of young people will grow up entirely brainwashed, with no connection to the history or the cultural complexity of their country. The regime – with the help of a media made up of about 400 TV channels, countless websites and newspapers – keeps up a continuous drumbeat of bigotry and hatred, fuelled by hate-spewing stock characters on either side of the Hindu-Muslim divide.
Within the cadre of the Hindu right there is a new, aggressive far-right displaying a palpable restlessness the Modi government is increasingly hard-pressed to control, because they are the BJP’s core support base. On social media, it is now routine to encounter open calls for the genocide of Muslims. We have reached the point of no return. What those of us who stand against this, and especially the Muslim community in India, needs to think about is, how can we survive this? How can we resist it? These are hard questions to answer, because today in India even resistance itself, however peaceful, is considered a heinous crime almost akin to an act of terrorism.
Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than forty languages, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017
This article was originally published on Al Jazeera. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.