To be poor is a grave crime in India, and bulldozers are always at hand to remind them of it

In Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, the crime apparently was not only poverty. Adding to the agony of poverty, these “encroachers”, unlike the other “encroachers” of the city, were also Muslim

A still from Jahangirpuri demolition drive (IANS Photo- File)
A still from Jahangirpuri demolition drive (IANS Photo- File)
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Nabeela Jamil

The case of demolitions, first and foremost, is a case of State and societal apathy. One central question that is missing from most discussions is, why these people ‘occupying’ the ‘illegal encroachments’ to be demolished had to live as they did, to begin with? Why do people leave the comfort of their villages, the familiarity of it all, for a city and a world that only sees them as ‘encroachers’? A word that is ironically similar to roaches.

Can some lives, inherently, be illegal? Perhaps to be born poor, to resist a world that has been nothing but unfair to you, to try to survive a life that gets worse every passing day, to put a shade and make a kiosk from a tent, to occupy a patch of land — are all a crime in the city. The sheer existence of them makes our city ugly. The land, after all, has more value than the lives of those who are mere numbers on a voting list. Encroachment, as the law calls it.

In the posh localities of this city, every morning, travel men, women, and children from these unauthorised colonies, from these illegal homes, with their dispensable lives, and undignified existences. They sweep the roads of the city, make it ‘clean and green’, only to go back to their bastis where open sewers stare at them with horror.

These people, from these illegal homes, are the vendors who sell ice cream at India Gate, which Delhiites flaunt in their social media posts. Are these people ‘Delhiites’ too? I doubt it. We want their services, but we certainly do not want them. Encroachers, as we also call them.

In Jahangirpuri, an eight-year-old teary-eyed child was seen hurriedly collecting coins from his father’s demolished shop. The soft drink shop that was the only source of income his family had. The shop was bulldozed along with three refrigerators his father had bought on loan and other goods in it, something that even the statute which was manoeuvred to justify these arbitrary actions does not allow.

Be that as it may, the shop was illegal, the authorities say, just like the lives that depended upon it.

Poverty is a graver crime than any of the crimes that our statutes can manifest. However, there is a crime in our country far more severe today – to be Muslim. One may survive destitution, but how long can one survive humiliation?

In Jahangirpuri, the crime apparently was not only poverty. Adding to the agony of poverty, these “encroachers”, unlike the other “encroachers” of the city, were also Muslim. And their audacity, I tell you: three days before the demolition of their livelihood, they tried to protect their local mosque from the forceful entry of those who only wanted to desecrate it!

The crime was grave. First, to be poor, and then to demand respect –the crime required urgent reprimand. By all means, the bulldozers arrived. Police came. The “roaches” were shown their place.


The law, tomorrow, may see the issue differently. Arguments shall be blasted from all sides. The debate will go on. Who was right and who was wrong shall be examined. Statutes will be read and interpreted. Judgments cited. At best, directions and principles will get enunciated.

Meanwhile, in another corner of this city, a man will wake up in his illegal home and will travel from his unauthorised colony to serve the city which sees him as an ‘encroacher’, smiling at the lofty propositions and observations that may or may not come forward from the court.

This invisible man may never stand up again for what he believes in: to protect his place of worship that may be the only place of peace in his otherwise chaotic life. The bulldozer, indeed, has done its job.

The eight-year-old child will forever be left alienated in a world that bulldozed his shop. A shop that, ironically, had ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’ written on it. He understands the hateful gazes, the smirks, and is conscious that for the cameras, he is mere content, with the harsh realities of life left for only him to bear.

Tomorrow, when this child grows into yet another invisible man in this city, law will measure the proportionality of his ‘encroachment’. You and I will also sit in judgment.

Meanwhile, our children, who are being taught the nuances between ‘procedure established by law’ and ‘due process of law’, will become lawyers and judges. They will examine the illegalities of the life of this eight-year-old. The spectacle of law will go on. The bulldozers will keep doing their jobs.

(IPA Service)

Views are personal

Courtesy: The Leaflet

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