Bulldozer Justice in India: Anti-Muslim Hate Demolished My Home

EHave you ever wondered what it is like to live as a Muslim citizen of India’s undeclared Hindu state? To endure constant humiliation, demeaning, and even brutalization? To see your soul be taken away by the state. Your home can be destroyed by the state.

Our faith, our history, our eating habits, and our clothes are all targets of the Hindu supremacists who rule India today. During the eight years of Narendra Modi’s government, they have taken a sledgehammer to our country’s secular foundations by routinely finding ever newer ways of targeting us. A bulldozer was brought to my residence last month.

In late May, a national spokeswoman of Modi’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad on live TV. Indian Muslims and others were shocked. Soon afterward, Muslims from India protested Friday prayers in certain parts. Prayagraj in my hometown (formerly Allahabad), witnessed one of these protests, which quickly spiralled into violence. Following a quick police crackdown, Muslims were quickly arrested and held in detention.

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My father was a rights activist and community leader, and my family ended up being the victim of state brutality. In violation of all detention rules, police took my sister and mother from home at night and placed them in a station for 35+ hours. After the police and city officials forced my family from their home, they placed a backdated notice at our gate on the evening of June 11. The notice stated that the building was illegally built and that it would be demolished within the day. The house was suddenly labelled “illegal” even after we have always paid all relevant taxes and have all our property documents in order. The trigger for this government action was ostensibly a complaint by three “respected people” of the neighborhood, who, incidentally, none of the neighbors can identify.

As residents look on from behind the iron gate bolted to their safety, an Indian paramilitary soldier watches over them as they watch the demolition of Muslim-owned shops in New Delhi’s northeast Jahangirpuri district. The demolition took place April 20, 2022.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Our home thus became part of the now-familiar pattern of what has come to be known as “bulldozer justice” in India. This is how it works: the government links Muslims to grievous “crimes” such as participating in protests, then blames them for violence, and destroy their homes. In the middle of Ramadan this year, a group of Hindu-wielding militants marching in Muslim areas in many major cities. They sometimes shouted obscenities through loudspeakers, and then attacked homes and businesses. Police arrested hundreds, including children, as well as Muslims responsible for the disturbance and demolished their homes using bulldozers. There’s, of course, no legal provision for such demolition of private property, even if individuals are indeed found to have been involved in violent acts. But it doesn’t matter; the whole idea is to demonstrate that Muslims have no legal protection in a Hindu state. Our citizens aren’t equal.

My father has been in jail—and on TV—ever since our own home was demolished. Our faces plastered on prime-time debates, anchors have been spinning stories about our life and activism, peddling conspiracy theories, calling us “anti-nationals” and jihadis. I’ve been getting rape and death threats. Now that everybody knows what I look like, I’m afraid of stepping out in public. I feel like a prisoner.

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There’s no arrest warrant against me; there’s no need for those things anymore. My fellow Muslim student activists in prison were not subject to any formal procedure. Sometimes when they go missing, their parents don’t even know whether they have been arrested or kidnapped by Hindu extremists—the line between the two is blurring quickly, anyway. I have imprisoned myself because as a young Muslim woman in India—where ultra-right Hindus auction us online—I have to ensure my own and my family’s safety, online and offline, mental and physical. This is what freedom for me looks like in the “world’s largest democracy”. For no other reason than my identity as a Muslim, I’m forced to live this way. Even worse, I am a outspoken Muslim.

India’s descent into lawlessness

What is the secret to India’s success? How could I get here? How did my family find itself in the vortex of India’s rapid descent into this lawless pit of majoritarianism?

My upbringing was a middle-class one. My Abbu was both a businessman as well as an activist. Abbu, along with my siblings, sent us to the most prestigious school in town, where we were raised as god-fearing and responsible citizens. They shouldn’t have. They are not those qualities Hindu supremacists would appreciate in a nation they consider unworthy of our equal citizenship. Our religious identity is not to be asserted. We are called “radical”, or “jihadi”, if we do. Because they consider our existence a crime, we aren’t meant to be heard or seen.

Ajay Sing Bisht was the chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. I was there studying at Aligarh Muslim University. It is India’s biggest and the most politically important state, with a population of nearly 245 million—more than Brazil’s—with Muslims accounting for a fifth of it. Bisht is a monastic head representing Hindu supremacism’s more extreme wing. He is most well known for his hate speech against Muslims and his monastic title of Yogi Adityanath.

Yogi Adityanath the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh performs yoga in Lucknow (India) on June 21, 2022.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

My life was set to be changed when Bisht became the leader. As the rise of extremist Hindu politics increased, the state’s social situation began to change. Muslims became marginalized politically and culturally. Names that resembled Muslims were changed. My name changed from Allahabad, a Mughal-era city to Prayagraj.

Because of this, I became aware of the dire situation facing my community and decided that it was time to do something about it. I contested the students’ union election and was elected president, using the platform to speak out against Bisht’s hate-mongering and the rising threat to Muslims all over India. The right-wing violence I experienced only motivated me to continue fighting back. As a student leader, I was called a “free-thinking”, “modern” Muslim woman taking on patriarchy. Everyone chose to overlook the Indian Muslim identity that I really wanted to claim. To assert my Muslim identity, I wore the hijab in places where I was not welcome or stereotyped.

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I was a leader in the national protests against discriminatory citizenship laws that targeted Muslims. As many Muslim student leaders I was subject to a media trial by the biased TV channels, which are among the most hateful in India. They misrepresented me and labeled me as a secessionist.

My friends and Muslims were both arrested in state-sponsored and orchestrated pogroms that were held in the capital city to end the protests. Responding with violence to nonviolent civil rights demonstrations by Muslims, state officials had one clear message: any exercise of constitutional right is beyond our limits; Muslims don’t have any rights.

Protests were stopped as soon as the pandemic occurred. Our now-demolished home was turned into a food distribution facility, which distributed monthly food rations to anyone who might have been affected by the Covid lockdown of 2020. The people in India were also involved in spreading hate. They are now trying to blame Muslims. To avoid being held accountable, the government turned to the community for scapegoating because hatred against us outweighs any rationality.

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So it is: Every week is another attack on Muslims. A new tactic of the Hindu supremacists, new outrage and new concerns. Ramadan in this year’s Ramadan was a welcome respite from the growing toxicity of the community. However, it would not last. There were violent Hindu processions that began, which led to increased violence, crackdowns, and the random demolitions of Muslim homes. Abbu sometimes had difficulty sleeping due to the growing tide of hatred. He continued to fight back in the way he knows best—filing petitions and complaints with the judiciary and police.

On June 15, 2022 in Kolkata, Muslim women chanted slogans at a support demonstration for Afreen Fatima.

Sankhadeep Banerjee/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After the sexist comments made by BJP spokespersons about the Prophet Muhammad, he called on Facebook for constructive communication and prayed for his community. After Friday’s prayers, protests erupted anyway. There were more crackdowns. More demolitions. Only, this time “bulldozer justice” literally came home to us. They demolished our house and broadcast it live. The media allies of the ruling BJP gloated about this latest display of collective punishment for Muslims.

Days have passed by in a blur since – not knowing what’s happening to Abbu in police custody, preparing for the legal battle facing us despite knowing how compromised the state institutions are, and not knowing if I’ll ever have a good night’s sleep again. It was punishing. This state of being—of having to prove innocence, of anxiety, of vulnerability, of pain—itself is the punishment. For being a Muslim in Modi’s India. Is the world aware of how we live? Do you care?

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