India’s top court on Thursday put the brakes on state bulldozers tearing down walls and shops in Delhi after petitioners alleged they were targeted for Hindu-Muslim religious riots.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court put on hold the demolition ordered by the capital’s elected municipality, run by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party.
The court ordered a two-week halt following a petition by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind organisation of Islamic scholars.
“A new bulldozer procession has been taken out. Muslims are undergoing collective punishment,” said federal Muslim lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi, a vocal critic of the BJP.
On Wednesday, police-backed bulldozers tore down walls and shops of both Hindus and Muslims in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri district, where rioting erupted during a Hindu religious procession on 16 April.
Residents of Jahangirpuri, home to hundreds of low-income Muslim families, say they had no role in the clashes which left nine people hurt.
Lawyer Sanjay Hegde, representing a demolition victim, suggested Jahangirpuri residents belonging to both faiths were mere collateral damage.
“Collective punishment does not necessarily mean collective punishment only to one community or the other,” Hedge said, adding the properties of Hindus were razed because they were close to a Jahangirpuri mosque.
Ganesh Kumar Gupta, a Hindu whose street-side fruit shop was also razed has angrily demanded damages for his loss.
Lawyer Dushyant Dave told the top court the demolition drive was similar to measures enforced by Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat following religious clashes this month in the two BJP-ruled states.
"It's in every riot-affected area. A particular section of the society is being targeted. This is the warning that our constitutional framers gave us." the distinguished lawyer told the court.
BJP spokesman Sambit Patra said the actions had nothing to do with religion.
Raja Iqbal Singh, a municipal mayor who supervised the razing, also insisted the Delhi exercise, backed by 400 police officers, was part of a routine cleanup drive and not linked to the 16 April violence in the city.
“We will not discriminate against anyone,” Gupta told Republic TV, adding he would also abide by the court’s orders and keep the bulldozers away from the affected district.
But “naturally, the mischievous kids in the class will have to pay a penalty,” he was quoted as saying after the BJP’s city chief Sudesh Gupta called for the demolition of homes of those involved in the clashes.
The police have so far detained 25 people in connection with the religious riots, the second since 2020 when deadly violence erupted in Delhi during a state visit by then US president Donald Trump.
On 10 April, clashes in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, left one person killed. Five days later, bulldozers were deployed to remove “illegal structures” from the site of the violence in Khambat, a coastal town.
Bulldozers were again put in action in Madhya Pradesh following clashes on 10 April. Officials said the drive against “illegal encroachments” was also intended to “send a message to the rioters and people who were affected.”
“Bulldozer is the new buzzword in India’s political lexicon,” commented News18 TV station, tracking the growing fascination for the wrecking machine in India’s political circles.
And on Thursday, visiting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson couldn’t resist as he hopped on to a bulldozer while inspecting a factory in Gujarat.