Bulldozer justice does no good to a democracy or rule of the law and Sunil Dutt knew it

Bulldozers have been used for decades to clear land for development schemes and expansion. Now they are in the news for dispensing instant justice, which is patently unjust. Beware of people's fury

Bulldozer justice does no good to a democracy or rule of the law and Sunil Dutt knew it

Sujata Anandan

My first encounter with a bulldozer was in the 1980s when the union railways ministry and the Maharashtra government were clearing some slums to make way for a railway terminus in Bandra and Kurla in the suburbs of Bombay.

Bollywood star Sunil Dutt was the Congress MP representing a portion of those slums in Bandra. But even people from Kurla threatened with displacement rushed to him to save their homes for they were being represented by someone from another party that they had no faith in. I was, by coincidence, in Sunil Dutt's office when he made them a promise that he would help. When the delegation left, I asked him, “How do you plan to petition the government in such a short time?”

It was the era before mobile phones or even 24x7 television. There was a Congress government both at the Centre and in the state and the only recourse to Dutt Saab would have been to rush to the chief minister at Mantralaya and petition the Prime Minister and Railway Minister in New Delhi. They were all on the same side, so there was hope there would be consensus. But the bulldozers were slated to arrive the next morning and I did not think there was enough time to even meet the chief minister in the same city. The courts had already given their sanction for the clearance, so every door seemed to have shut to the slum residents. Except, of course, as I discovered, Sunil Dutt's.

As I reminded him about the shortage of time, he said “I don't known how I will do it. But those homes will get razed over my dead body!”

The moment he uttered those words his face lit up. He seemed to have got a brain wave from somewhere and he called in his secretary to ask when the bulldozers were slated to arrive and from where they would begin.

When the information was brought to him, he said, “All right. Inform the reporters and photographers. There shall be no bulldozing tomorrow. Or else they will get a very good story. Over my dead body!"

But never mind how much we asked him how he didn’t speak his mind, saying only, “Wait until tomorrow morning.”

The next morning the penny dropped. When Dutt Saab said he would allow the bulldozers only over his dead body, he really meant it. He lay down in its path and soon there was high drama in progress. Naturally, the municipal authorities were frazzled by that action, word went up to the municipal commissioner, then the collector, eventually the chief minister and perhaps even the prime minister. Soon there was a crowd of officials, big and small, begging Sunil Dutt to vacate the bulldozer's path but he did hot relent. He continued to lie on the road through the beating sun, sitting up only to sip water, eating nothing until the authorities called off the bulldozing for the day.

“You try this again tomorrow, I will be here again," he warned them. ”I will not allow the poor to be bulldozed out of their homes.”

The action earned Dutt Saab much criticism – that he was standing in way of much needed development, that he was benefitting only a few to the detriment of the larger population of commuters, even that he was merely safeguarding his vote bank. But Dutt Saab was unfazed. He took all the criticism in his stride, insisted that people whose houses were being demolished had to be rehabilitated first and only then the railway terminus could come up.

It did - after the government had taken the measures demanded by Sunil Dutt. It may be noted that much of the houses in the slums were illegal constructions, if not the entire slums and the government was well within its rights to demolish them.

But Dutt Saab's argument was that it was government's failure to begin with – the failure to provide the poor with adequate housing - that had compelled them to encroach upon the railway land, so now the government could not wash its hands off and simply abdicate its responsibility to the poor.

Now Sunil Dutt was no politician. He was a film star, a friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family and member of parliament only because of that friendship with Rajiv Gandhi. But his instincts towards the poor were the right ones and he reacted against his own government, in the manner that opposition politicians of the 1960s and 1970s would - something those in the current century have failed to live up to.

Even when the Delhi municipal authorities were bulldozing the homes of poor Muslims and Hindus in Jahangirpuri some weeks ago, only one politician showed the courage to stand before those monstrous machines and stop the razing. I am greatly disappointed that in Uttar Pradesh, the newly elected legislators were conspicuous by their absence when the home of a Muslim activist was being razed on extra-Constitutional grounds.

If that home was illegal, there should have been resort to the courts but the silence of the judiciary in matters of human rights in this country these days has been greatly disappointing. Bulldozers cannot be allowed to crush our democracy in the arbitrary manner being resorted to by the BJP-ruled states and if politicians and judges will not speak up for the people, the people themselves must.

It is a frightening prospect but when the state pushes people to the wall, we could be soon faced with a revolution in the manner of the French and Russian revolutions which were, after all, reactions to the complete disregard by the respective rulers of the poor and the deprived.

After all, the Khodynka tragedy of Russia during the last Tsar's coronation wherein people were crushed in a stampede - after which he attended a ball - and the Paris street tragedy wherein children were crushed under the carriage wheels of a French aristocrat with no remorse expressed by the king, were the triggers for those revolutions.

Those tragedies were accidents that enraged the people in the face of indifferent rulers. We are faced with deliberate crushing by those ruling in the name of democracy in a manner worse than the French or Russian kings. They were self-absorbed but not deliberately cruel as here today. There is always a price to pay for people's anguish can never be bottled up for too long. Unless another Sunil Dutt can lie down on the ground and stop the bulldozers from razing people to the ground, the tragic outcome of such deliberate cruelty is inevitable.

The only question is when.

( The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai. Views are personal)

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines