Remembering the ‘Routes of Wrath: Weaponising Religious Processions’ 

Unrest in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh over mosques and madrasas is proof of a state of perpetual violence, suggests Aakar Patel

One of many bulldozer justice drives that have become commonplace (photo: National Herald archives)
One of many bulldozer justice drives that have become commonplace (photo: National Herald archives)

Aakar Patel

Demolitions in Uttarakhand this month, after which five were killed in violence, follow a pattern we can see in the BJP states. The pattern is, of course, that the government is being used to go after citizens, especially Muslims.

These demolitions have been carried out as a form of extrajudicial punishment by the municipal authorities and the police, either following episodes of communal violence or leading to protests against discrimination.

This pattern has been documented in reports like ‘Routes of Wrath: Weaponising Religious Processions’ (April 2022), put together by the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative. In his foreword, former Supreme Court justice Rohinton Nariman wrote that the report corroborates a decline in Indian democratic values: “it finds that in nine states of this country, during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations in April 2022, there were widespread acts of hooliganism and violence.”

After this, the JCBs came out.

A report by Amnesty International, of which I am the India chair, has found similar patterns of people being rendered homeless and deprived of their livelihoods. These individuals were subjected to forced evictions, intimidation and unlawful force by the police and to collective and arbitrary punishment, which undermined their rights to non-discrimination, adequate housing and a fair trial.

Muslim-concentrated localities were either chosen or Muslim-owned properties were selectively targeted in diverse areas for demolitions. Adjacent or nearby Hindu-owned properties that also allegedly encroached on public lands, were left untouched, particularly in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The Indian state’s rationalisation of carrying out arbitrary demolitions to remove illegal encroachment sits in contrast to the reality of the country, where the implementation of building laws is fraught with a lack of enforcement, which has resulted in a lot of construction taking place without the requisite permissions.

In 2017, a report submitted by a panel formed by the Delhi High Court to document “illegal constructions” in the capital region found that ‘90% [of the buildings] carry one kind of violation of the extant building bylaws or another’.

The emblematic case here is that of Sainik Farm in Delhi, a tony enclave that is totally illegal and that has not seen JCBs come and demolish the bungalows of our wealthy. The headline of a news report from May 2023 illustrates this perfectly: 'Expedite call on Delhi’s Sainik Farms’ bid for regularisation: High Court’.

Of course, the poor—and especially the Muslim poor—are given no such leeway. They are subjected to forced eviction, which is the permanent or temporary removal of people against their will from the homes or land they occupy, without legal protections and other safeguards. Forced evictions are a violation of human rights, including but not limited to the right to adequate housing.

Under international human rights law, states must ensure that evictions only occur in exceptional circumstances and are accompanied by a full justification and the provision of adequate legal safeguards. None of that here in New India, of course.

In fact, India's bulldozer demolitions are often instigated at the highest levels of government, with many state officials directly or indirectly calling for the use of bulldozers against Muslims. There is credible evidence to believe that these demolitions are discriminatory and a part of a hate campaign targeting Muslims in India. Rather than prevent discrimination against Muslims, senior political leaders and government officials have actively encouraged it.

During the April 2022 demolitions in Delhi, the BJP spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha defined the JCB as the “Jihadi Control Board” in a now-deleted tweet.

The discrimination shows elsewhere also. A year and a half after the demolitions that Amnesty documented, in addition to the financial hardships created by the loss of their homes and businesses, victims continue to wait for justice with legal cases pending in the courts. To date, the courts have failed to address the punitive demolitions with the scale and urgency required by the prevailing situation, enabling Indian authorities to continue tearing down people’s homes and businesses in other areas with widespread impunity.

This must also be viewed in conjunction with the creation of quasi-judicial tribunals in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which have provided prompt relief to Hindus who suffered losses due to preceding violence, while Muslim victims of the same sort of prior violence continue to struggle for justice. The same struggle follows the demolitions.

The ‘Routes of Wrath’ report concludes that while there have been earlier phases of communal violence in India—which entrenched cycles of violence and segregation and generated lasting barriers to socio-economic mobility for Indian Muslims, in particular—they did not undermine the State’s control over society or its authority over institutions in the manner that is being seen today.

Coordination between Hindutva outfits and the police and district administrations means combining an extreme ideological entity with the civil service. Observably, the relationship between the three has become institutionalised in many parts of the country, sustaining a violently undemocratic model of governance in which the rule of law is anathema.

In a letter to the prime minister in April 2022, more than 100 retired senior civil servants stated that the administration of law has become the means by which the minorities, particularly the Muslim community, can be kept in a state of perpetual fear.

They said facilitation of and support for a communal frenzy were being provided through all levels of the administration — from the local police and administrative officials to the highest political levels in state and central governments. ‘While the actual commission of violence may be outsourced to fringe groups, there is little doubt as to how the ground for their operations is made fertile, how each of them follows a master script and shares a common ‘tool kit’ and how the propaganda machinery of a party as well as the state is made available to them to defend their actions,’ the retired bureaucrats wrote.

Finally, the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative report concludes that ‘the available evidence corroborates statements by civil society groups, lawyers, academics and activists that India has reached a stage of perpetual violence’.

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