Visibly shaken but undeterred, Amjad Khan, 40, a community leader from Khargone town in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, narrated his painful tale. Khan lost his life savings when the Indian authorities demolished his small factory with backhoes twice last year.
He was “paying the price” for his alleged role in the violence that erupted during the Hindu festival of Ramnavmi in April 2022, which led to communal tensions across India. Khan has never been proven to be a “rioter” nor is the demolition of properties a legal criminal punishment under Indian law, even if he had been convicted. He says that like many others in his community, he was punished merely because of their religious identity.
“We are being punished simply for being Muslims,” Khan told Inkstick.
Violence against Muslims has been on the rise in India under the far-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party has long been accused of targeting the marginalized Muslims in the country, with its leaders often resorting to hate speeches against the community of more than 200 million. Many investigations by the country’s independent committees have found that the BJP was complicit in riots that attacked the Muslim community. Last year, Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch warned that there are early “signs and processes” of genocide happening against Muslims in India. Genocide Watch earlier correctly predicted the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda several years before it occurred in the mid-1990s.
The demolitions by the BJP government are framed as “retribution” and “punishment” for Muslims for participating in anti-government protests — a gross violation of human rights, and a clear example of extrajudicial punishment even if the accusations are true. Most observers, however, see the violence as purely ethnically motivated. Now the BJP party has turned to targeted demolitions, in a move some activists say comes from Israel’s history of targeting Palestinian communities with state-sponsored evictions using bulldozers and other dramatic means.
A SLEW OF EVICTIONS
“The first factory was demolished because they mistook another Amjad for me but in September  they demolished my second factory as a revenge for filing cases against them,” Khan said, determined to find a legal remedy. Khan’s factory is far from the only Muslim property targeted; the issue is occurring across the country.
In Gujarat, Modi’s home state, a similar demolition drive was carried out by authorities in the town of Khambat after the Ramnavami communal tensions. Amnesty International India investigated the demolitions, which included verifying the government claims and hearing the testimonies of those impacted. It found that Muslims were subjected to “collective punishment.”
“Our investigations found that 19 factories were demolished in Khambat, all of which belonged to members of the Muslim community. The factory owners told Amnesty International India that residential properties next to their factories that were owned by members of the Hindu community were left untouched. Such punitive demolition of Muslim properties could amount to collective punishment, in violation of international human rights law,” Aakar Patel, Chair of Amnesty International India, told Inkstick.
Critics of the BJP, including former Supreme Court judges, say Muslims are overwhelmingly the target of India’s newfound trend of bulldozing homes and properties as a form of “retributive punishment.”
In Dindori district, Madhya Pradesh, police and the local municipal government demolished the house and three shops of Abdul Haleem Khan after his son, Asif Khan, married a Hindu. Recollecting the ordeal, Haleem Khan said, “They kept me in jail for days and bulldozed my house for my son’s love affair.” Tweeting about the demolition, the collector of Dindori accused Asif Khan of kidnapping the girl, a claim refuted by the girl herself. Later the charges were dropped and the court provided the interfaith couple protection. “They were working for the Hindu goons. After the charges were dropped they said the house was demolished because it was unauthorized. I have all the papers to prove it is legal,” Haleem Khan told Inkstick.
Bulldozing of Muslim properties — a troubling new trend — is seen by many observers as a “retributive policy” to target Muslims who have confronted and protested against the growing systemic state-sanctioned oppression. Sixteen houses and 29 shops of Muslim households were demolished in Khargone alone last year, including a house built under the government’s welfare fund. Dozens of properties belonging to Muslims have been demolished in several other states ruled by the BJP.
Experts see a worrying pattern in bulldozing of Muslim properties, even though the government terms them as “anti-encroachment” drives. “Until Muslims started to brave intimidation and file cases against these demolitions, there were explicit calls by ministers and other stakeholders to raze down homes of protestors and accused. Only later they [government] started to term it anti-encroachment drives to defend the action to the global community and judiciary,” Sharjeel Usmani, a prominent Muslim activist and independent researcher from India, explained. Usmani referenced how Madhya Pradesh’s Home Minister said publicly, “The very houses used for stone pelting will be reduced to piles of stone,” right before the demolition of Muslim houses in Khargone.
SYSTEMATIC STATE VIOLENCE
The threat of homes being demolished looms large over the most underprivileged Muslims in the country. Critics of the government say that even the state institutions — which have historically maintained independence from the political meddling of those in power — are turning complicit in a bid to toe the government’s anti-Muslim line.
The High Court of north India’s Uttarakhand state in December 2022 directed the country’s Railway department “to use the forces to any extent determining upon need” to evict the “unauthorized occupants” of 4,365 properties in a Muslim-dominated suburb in the town after giving them a week’s time to vacate the premises.
Thousands of Muslim residents protested for several days in the cold Himalayan winter against the “unjust” legal order. The demolition bid was stopped only after India’s Supreme Court stayed the immediate demolition. Although the Supreme Court intervention hours before the ultimatum gave temporary relief to residents, the demolition plan is not overturned yet. “It is no justice but an extension to calm the protesting residents,” said Jahan Ara, a forefront figure in the protest staged by thousands of residents, including women and children, against the “politically motivated” eviction plan.
“We have documents of our properties that date back to 1937. There are schools, medical centers, and hospitals in the area. How can they suddenly become illegal?” she asked.
Several government institutions are built on land that is deemed illegal by the High Court order. Petitioners against the move say the eviction intends to scatter electoral votes of Muslim-majority region that is never in favor of the BJP. “The new eviction order comes right after the elections and they know we voted for the opposition party in large numbers. People say it must have provoked the government,” Araa told Index.
According to Land Conflict Watch, a data research agency, families facing the threat of eviction contend that the land belongs to the Haldwani Municipal Corporation and not the Indian Railways, as suggested by the Uttrakhand High Court.
DEMOLITION AS “PUNISHMENT”
Critics of the BJP, including former Supreme Court judges, say Muslims are overwhelmingly the target of India’s newfound trend of bulldozing homes and properties as a form of “retributive punishment.” While the houses of Muslims are being razed down in the pretext of alleged irregularities, the ruling party leaders publicly say it is a “punishment.” Supporters of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism publicly celebrate “bulldozer justice” in their rallies and even Indian police have been seen using it during flag marches as a warning.
Muslim activists critical of the government have also faced the wrath. On Jun. 12, 2022, the house of Muslim student leader Afreen Fatima was demolished a day after her father Javed Mohammed — a prominent community leader of the area — was arrested by Indian police for alleged involvement in the violence that broke out in the Prayagraj town of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Global human rights groups and activists labeled the demolition “politically motivated” flagging flaws in the proceedings of the civic body in terming the 20-year-old house “illegal.” The demolition was live telecasted on India’s national media, while news tickers said the action was a “punishment.”
“BJP government in states and center are definitely, deliberately targeting Muslims through their Bulldozer politics,” Fatima told Inkstick. The 23-year-old is a vocal critic of Modi’s anti-Muslim policies and advocates for the dignified life of marginalized groups. She says her ordeal is a testimony of what Muslims are facing in India — “a constant sense of insecurity.”
“With bulldozer comes the media, who like vultures broadcast everything that crumbles down,” Fatima points out the pattern of making the dispossession of Muslims a spectacle for the “Hindu majority.”
A report by Housing and Land Rights Network maintains that “all the evictions and demolitions have been carried out by government agencies professedly to “clear encroachments” and remove “illegal structures” from public land. However, the state authorities have used this reasoning to arbitrarily select and demolish settlements.”
“This is the demolition of lives, dreams and being of Muslims in India. It is very well targeted against the Muslim community in India. This dispossession is rooted in the wider extermination process of the Hindutva project,” Fatima added.
A TACTIC FROM THE “ISRAELI PLAYBOOK”
In June 2022, three UN Special Rapporteurs for Housing, Minority Issues and Freedom of Religion wrote a joint letter to the Indian government strongly criticizing and protesting arbitrary housing and property demolitions ordered by local governments to punish Muslim minorities. The letter claims the Indian government has carried out “collective punishment” against the minority Muslim community.
Aasif Mujtaba, the founder of Miles2Smile, a group working for the rehabilitation of people affected by violence in north India, claims there is no remedy as the state becomes the “perpetrator” of targeting the people.
Laws introduced by BJP-governed states — the Madhya Pradesh Damage to Public and Private Property Recovery Bill, 2021 and the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Act, 2020 — allow local administrations to carry out the alleged “arbitrary” eviction.
“Many petitions are filed against the constitutional validity of these laws but that is not stopping the local bodies,” Mujtaba said. Working with victims, the research scholar turned activist believes the Indian government is inspired by the “Israel playbook” of razing down Palestinian homes.
“It will take years for the court to settle a matter and even before someone is found guilty they are punished disproportionately,” he added.
Hanan Zaffar is an independent journalist based out of South Asia. His work from the region has appeared inthe Time Magazine, Al Jazeera, VICE, Business Insider, Newsweek, Channel 4, DW News, TRT World, and other notable international organizations.
Shaheen Abdulla is a freelance journalist covering human rights and minorities in India.