The Bulldozer Is Reshaping Our Cities and Our Imaginations

Recent punitive demolition drives by administrations following orders without official procedure reflect a willingness to dispossess anyone the state labels as ‘anti-social elements’, supporting the regime’s agenda of dehumanisation.

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This article first appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.

As the ongoing municipal demolition drives in Delhi receive scrutiny in the context of April’s pan-India punitive demolitions in neighbourhoods affected by communal violence, they also foreground long-standing issues of how urban precarity is affected by religious identity.

Rather than ‘encroachments’, most urban dwellers live in planned illegality, comprising conditions and categories resulting from the state’s failure to provide affordable housing to all. Working-class neighbourhoods are often subjected to evictions and demolitions that sidestep due process. However, lives affected by the recent anti-Muslim drives are not only precariously built around the law due to informality of work and housing, but they are also being tagged as ‘rioters’ to be punished, and excluded from justice.

The processions that instigated communal violence and the demolitions that followed are strategies of staking control over land and public spaces – a critical site for the Hindutva project. The involvement of state functionaries reflects the synchronicity with which the regime’s official and unofficial machinery implements these strategies.

Local police allowed incendiary processions to instigate violence in Muslim neighbourhoods, and subsequently arresting mostly Muslim men, effectively lending state protection to armed mobs and legitimising (Hindu) bloodlust on the streets – drawing from a history of violence-instigating processions traceable to the 1960s. The Sangh takes its project of national ‘restoration’ literally, most viciously executed through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and L.K. Advani’s bloody 1990 Rath Yatra. On May 19, a petition for removing the Shahi Idgah mosque received approval to sue from a Mathura court.

Recent punitive demolition drives by administrations following orders without official procedure reflect a willingness to dispossess anyone the state labels as ‘anti-social elements’, supporting the regime’s agenda of dehumanisation. Although dispossession by the state is usually rooted in the rent-driven nature of urban expansion, the 2022 events have destroyed Muslim homes and livelihoods – directly deepening conditions of precarity – seemingly as retribution for challenging majoritarianism.

Aggressively asserting Hindu identity and rendering ‘Muslim localities’ unstable, these events represent Hindutva’s escalating spatial strategies, which typically involve manufacture of inter-group conflicts over control of local spaces. Examples include militarising Muslim neighbourhoods, mobilising Hindu neighbourhoods to celebrate festivals with armed rallies, violent agitations against namaaz on public land, building new heritage artefacts and ‘discovering’ ancient ones (like Gyanvapi). Targeting of mosques by Hindu processions across states during Ram Navami reflects local vigilante groups identifying a ‘Babri Masjid’ as a site of reclamation, linking the practice of Hinduism to physically threatening non-Hindu places of worship. BJP officials in the capital are justifying demolitions as measures needed to fight “Muslim infiltration” – removing present-day “illegal Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants”, and remnants of past “invaders” by renaming locations. Anti-Rohingya sentiments of upper and middle-class elites seeking to safeguard their neighbourhoods against migrants clearly indicates Hindutva entrenching in local milieus.

Through physical capture of public space in order to capture avenues of imagination, cities and neighbourhoods are being reshaped by religious revivalism.

As localised ethnic violence grows frequent, internal displacement due to conflict will escalate. The displacement and dispossession of minorities in India historically tends to be rewritten as ‘resettlement’ and ‘migration’ – for example, the proliferation of (forced) ‘resettlement colonies’ housing Muslims on the peripheries of towns and villages after the 2002 Gujarat riots was termed migration by the state. Muslim businesses were also strategically targeted to induce demographic change — the VHP undertook a “census and land record survey to take stock of the real estate ownership pattern among Hindus and Muslims in over 18,000 villages, towns and cities”. In April 2022, over a hundred Muslim families were displaced in Khargone and Roorkee. Beyond those who had lost property during the communal violence or the demolitions, they fled from further state harassment. The disturbing absence of mandatory rehabilitation plans contributes to the extra-judicial nature of these demolitions.

Presently, barriers to rehabilitation don’t just include the loss of documentation, cash and social support systems accompanied by threats to safety ― in situations of communal violence, the Indian state has a history of disrupting Muslim families’ ability to rebuild and recover, deepening a specific precarity disproportionately borne by Muslim women.

Urban development under the BJP is extractive, exclusionary and reinforces Hindutva’s ‘new normal’: creating predominantly residential, consumption-driven cities that foster segregation and otherise Muslims, using state relief and rehabilitation measures to magnify Hindu-Muslim divides. In many ways a product of post-2014 India, AAP has proven to be equally venomous in its ethno-nationalist politics, supporting the demolition of the homes of “infiltrators” and “illegal immigrants”. It is equally invested in producing Hindu-coded, monotonous cities.

Shambhavi Madan is a researcher interested in urbanisation, technology and citizenship, and also works with Galileo Ideas.