The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How bulldozers in India became a symbol of Hindu nationalism

As religious tensions rise, the ruling BJP party orders demolitions in largely Muslim neighborhoods

A bulldozer slams an auto rickshaw during the demolition of Muslim-owned shops in the area that saw communal violence during a Hindu religious procession in New Delhi's northwest Jahangirpuri neighborhood on April 20. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
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NEW DELHI — They rumbled into a central Indian village and tore down shops owned by a Muslim man falsely accused of kidnapping a Hindu woman. They rolled through a Delhi slum, knocking down the outer gate of a mosque that was the site of a Hindu-Muslim clash days earlier.

Justice in India is increasingly meted out not by courts but by the long arm of heavy machinery.

As religious tensions have mounted in recent weeks, local officials in four districts governed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have used bulldozers to summarily demolish property owned by Muslims accused of crimes, turning the hulking machines into a polarizing symbol of state power under Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister and a staunch Hindu nationalist.

Bulldozers were deployed most recently in the Jahangirpuri neighborhood of the Indian capital after street fighting broke out April 16 between Hindus who had gathered in front of a mosque, waving swords and chanting abuse, and Muslim residents who hurled rocks. Four days later, city leaders called in excavators that crushed street stalls, storefronts and an extension of the mosque in this heavily Muslim neighborhood.

Standing beside a heap of crumpled metal, Rokiya, the owner of what used to be the Bismillah Kebab cart, said about 20 neighborhood vendors, including two Hindus, saw their mobile stalls or storefronts smashed. She was being punished, she said, for a riot that she didn’t participate in — how could she when she was busy trying to support her family?

“Will we work at our shops to feed our children, or will we engage in rioting and fighting people?” Rokiya, 30, asked bitterly. “Our neighborhood is having to bear responsibility for what happened.”

Officials defended the demolitions as an effort to clear buildings encroaching on the road. But in a megacity where unauthorized construction is the norm, BJP supporters and critics agreed on the underlying motive for the operation: payback.

“If you want to throw stones, then don’t live in an illegal building,” said Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader in Delhi.

As India’s Hindus celebrated the birthdays of the gods Ram and Hanuman in April, while Muslims observed the holy month of Ramadan, gatherings across the country were marred by violence. Although local news and police reports suggested that most of the clashes were sparked by processions of armed Hindu men marching into Muslim districts, Mishra claimed that the chaos was orchestrated by undocumented Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh seeking to destabilize the country — a long-circulating conspiracy theory that has regained popularity among the Hindu right in recent weeks.

Moving forward, bulldozers may be seen in more and more states, he predicted.

“There was huge demand and public expectations that bulldozers should come to Delhi — it was on social media and on the ground,” Mishra said. “The bulldozer has become a symbol of law and order.”

Other prominent BJP figures openly hinted that Muslims were the target of the demolitions. Lawmakers including a party spokesman, G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, tweeted a meme that JCB — the British heavy-machinery brand that makes most of the bulldozers in India — stood for “Jihad Control Board.” Rao later deleted his post.

In Delhi, the Supreme Court put a stop to the demolitions hours after they began, questioning the legality of razing buildings without giving property owners ample notice. When a judge suggested that local authorities were using excessive force, a government lawyer admitted that heavy machinery was not necessary for a routine street cleanup.

“It is manifest that this was retributive, and it was punitive,” said Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International India. “It was collective punishment reserved for a part of our society.”

Patel said the demolitions were just the latest escalation by a ruling party that has sought to restrict where Muslims can do business, where they can worship and whom they can marry. In Karnataka state, women have been banned from wearing headscarves in schools. Roadside meat stalls have been banned in Gujarat, where many Hindus are vegetarians. In a business district outside Delhi, Friday prayers in public spaces have been outlawed.

“Every day in the past six months, there has been something new,” Patel said.

The bulldozer became a divisive symbol this year during elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state. The state’s chief minister, the Hindu nationalist priest Yogi Adityanath, known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, had threatened early in his tenure to raze the homes of suspected gangsters. As he campaigned for a second term early this year on a law-and-order platform, BJP supporters nicknamed him “Bulldozer Guru” and drove bulldozers at his rallies. When Adityanath scored a resounding victory in February, jubilant supporters climbed atop earthmovers and danced on the raised shovels.

This month, in neighboring Madhya Pradesh, officials sent bulldozers to destroy the homes of Muslims accused of throwing stones at Hindus, though the men had not been convicted of a crime. In the aftermath, local party members erected billboards praising Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as “Bulldozer Uncle,” a nod to Adityanath’s moniker.

Elsewhere in Madhya Pradesh, local officials targeted a Muslim man named Asif Khan, who was accused of kidnapping by the family of a local Hindu woman he sought to marry. “I love him and he loves me a lot too, but my family is not understanding that. They are punishing us and Asif’s family very harshly,” said the woman, Sakshi Sahu, in a video she recorded April 8, begging the police to intervene. Khan’s home and three shops were demolished that day, and the couple remains in hiding.

Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the BJP was effectively tapping into both of its perennial campaign planks: Hindu nationalism and economic development.

The demolition campaigns could win over moderate Indian voters who see a genuine need for slums to be cleared and streets beautified, he said. But they are also an effective “dog whistle” for many in the BJP’s base who would like to see India, first and foremost, as a homeland for Hindus.

“Ultimately everyone understands who the target is,” Vaishnav said, referring to Muslims. “Whether it’s bulldozing, whether it’s amendments to citizenship laws, whether it’s dietary habits, we’re seeing religion being used as a filter to determine who belongs in India today.”

As the demolition drive in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri unfolded, police locked local residents behind metal gates but allowed the media to roam freely. For hours, television crews, especially pro-government channels, provided breathless coverage.

“The bulldozer has become a symbol of strict legal action against illegal constructions in Indian politics,” the top editor of the Aaj Tak channel, Anjana Om Kashyap, told viewers after she climbed aboard an excavator and interviewed the operator.

Afterward, in the back alleys, the predominantly Muslim, ethnic Bengali residents took stock of the damage.

Sonu Sheikh, an electric-rickshaw driver, said it wasn’t just storefronts and stalls that were being cleared out, but a class of people. “The message is if you engage in rioting, we will destroy your home, your shop, and you’ll run away from here,” he said. “But where will we run to? We’re from here.”