BJP's vehicle of destruction: Bulldozing the rule of law

With the bulldozer emerging as the State’s weapon of choice against protesters and citizens, the picture that emerges is that of an India in decline, not a resurgent India, 75 years after Independence

Getty Images
Getty Images

Jagdish Rattanani

Stinging remarks by Justice Sandeep Kumar of the Patna High Court in a land dispute case in which the petitioner’s house was demolished using a bulldozer, serve to highlight the near total collapse of the Indian law and order machinery, and how it works to serve the powerful and the mighty.

That the weak and those at the bottom of the pyramid do not have a voice is generally known and accepted; that the system is corrupt is also well-known. But cases like the one highlighted by Justice Kumar tell us that we are in a free fall into a bottomless pit from which it will be difficult to come out soon. It highlights the increasing brazenness with which powerful interests operate and routinely undermine the due process they are actually sworn to uphold.

Justice Kumar’s comments in a video clip are now viral. In it, the judge is heard reprimanding the prosecution counsel and saying, “You have become agents of the land mafia. This has to be stopped… Who is so powerful that you took a bulldozer and demolished the house? Who do you represent—the State or some private person?”

In his written order on November 24, Justice Kumar noted: ‘From reading the counter affidavit of the Station House Officer, it seems that all the officials are hand in glove with some land mafia and they have illegally demolished the house of the petitioner without following the due process of law.’ These are strong words from a high court judge, and indicate how upset the judge was on a bare reading of the case and the material placed before him.

Just about a week after those judicial remarks, in a separate state and in an unconnected statement, speaking as the campaign ended for the Gujarat Assembly elections, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath told the audience, “We do not hesitate to use bulldozers” against what he called “professional rioters”. It is under Adityanath’s administration that bulldozers first became a weapon of choice of the State against select targets, bringing a new level of force and violence to what should otherwise be everyday affairs of police and the local administration. This directed top-down approach to “teach a lesson” to those described nebulously as “professional rioters” comes loaded with assumptions, prejudices and the politics of hate that have together brought governance to a new low.

However pernicious the Uttar Pradesh cases have been, the case in Bihar is not of the same kind. The Bihar instance does show though that poor political leadership in one place leads to not just the regularisation of skewed agendas locally in that state alone but gets adopted and adapted to deliver a new level of force against citizens elsewhere across India.

Once sanctioned by a political leadership, the weapon becomes the weapon that all police forces in all other states begin to wield with impunity with or without the political master being in control. The result is an arms race of a kind, where new and novel methods are used to terrorise in the name of law and order, often the targets being the weak and the downtrodden while the well-off usually get away. This is India in decline, not a resurgent India 75 years after Independence.

Warnings by the highest court of the land have done little to arrest the rot. In the UP cases, the Supreme Court had warned against short-circuiting of due process by demolishing residential dwellings of those the government wanted to act against. Yet, the message to the system remains that the government will use bulldozers to dis-house and take away the right to private property and livelihood of all those who protest against its policies, and can easily be described by the government as “rioters”.

It is a steep fall for a nation to reach here 37 years after the Supreme Court in the Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation and others set out the principles in the case of demolitions of slum colonies in Mumbai. As that judgment of 10 July 1985 noted: ‘To lose the pavement or the slum is to lose the job. The conclusion, therefore, in terms of the constitutional phraseology is that the eviction of the petitioners will lead to deprivation of their livelihood and consequently to the deprivation of life.’

The manner in which bulldozers as tools of retaliatory State violence and punishment are being normalised now is akin to illegal encounter killings which have now been normalised by police forces across the country

The court in that case clearly linked the right to have a house to the right to a livelihood and that to the right to life. While that case concerned demolitions of alleged encroachments and illegal occupation of public land by migrant workers working odd jobs in the Mumbai metropolis, the current cases concern houses owned and occupied by rightful owners for long, being demolished under the pretext of alleged violations, presumably before the dispute is settled in a court of law as is the case in Bihar.

The manner in which bulldozers as tools of retaliatory State violence and punishment are being normalised now is akin to illegal encounter killings which have now been normalised by police forces across the country. What began as a limited approach to control extreme violence by gangsters quickly degenerated into a standard operating procedure with local law and order machinery readily signing on to the project and getting away scot free. Every once in a while, some policeman will face the music from the courts, but in general, killings in cold blood have become a way of life and a routine tool to manage law and order.

This has not succeeded in controlling crime or restricting the rise of gangsters who continue to grow and even thrive. It did mean, however, a further incentive to people in uniform to go rogue. As the case of encounters in Mumbai against entrenched gangsters showed, the gangs were mirrored in the police force. Two gangs in the wild built two gangs within the police. Instead of gangsters bumping off rivals, the police now did it for them.

There is far more damage to the system that remains unseen and unheard. There are many honourable senior police officers who do not agree with the methods in use. There are those who still take pride in professional investigations, strictly by the rule book. However, they remain silent and will willy-nilly be forced to sign on to corrupt practices and extreme violence that bulldozes the very idea of India as a democratic nation that stands tall to protect the rights of ordinary citizens.

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