When communists stood in the way of the right wing’s bulldozer in India

On April 20, communist activists in India physically prevented the demolition of shops in a Muslim-dominated area in New Delhi. The demolition drive had been continuing despite a court order staying it

April 25, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat and other left leaders and cadre block a bulldozer from continuing the demolition of shops in the locality of Jahangirpuri in New Delhi.

On Wednesday, April 20, leaders and cadre of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [(CPIM)] and other left parties physically blocked a bulldozer commandeered by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) to stop the illegal demolition drive targeting small shops, mostly owned by Muslims, in Jahangirpuri, a working class neighborhood of India’s capital.

Despite the Supreme Court’s order against the demolition earlier in the morning, the NDMC, controlled by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is also in power in the Center, continued the demolitions for around two hours. It was supported by the Delhi police, which is controlled by the Home Ministry of the central government.

The NMDC and the police were forced to stop only after 74-year-old CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, along with Rajeev Kunwar from the party’s Delhi State Secretariat and others, blocked the bulldozer by putting their bodies in its way, waving the court order at the cops.

This demolition drive in Jahangirpuri came after several BJP leaders called for it after the religious violence that rocked the area on April 16. It followed a pattern witnessed this month in several BJP-ruled States where bulldozers followed on the heels of such violent incidents, mostly provoked by far-right groups’ threatening processions into Muslim neighborhoods under the guise of Hindu religious celebrations.

The violence in the Muslim-majority Jahangirpuri area also broke out after the far-right wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth organization called the Bajrang Dal, which academicians have compared to the Nazi SA, organized an armed procession, ostensibly to celebrate a Hindu festival.

The police not only allowed the procession by 150-200 members of this violent group – who were brandishing baseball bats, swords, pistols and shotguns – but also escorted them through the minority area.

Raising aggressive and provocative slogans threatening the minority community and playing loud DJ music, “the procession had already made two rounds of that area in Block C Jahangirpuri in which the dominant residents are Bengali speaking Muslims,” noted a fact-finding team of left parties and mass-organizations.

It was in the third round of the procession that the clashes broke out after it halted outside a mosque during prayer time. “In other words an armed procession is given license to stop outside the mosque shouting slogans at the exact time when the roza is to end and when a crowd of Muslims had gathered,” the fact-finding team’s statement on April 18 explained.

Arguments escalated into violence as stones were pelted from both sides. Guns were also reportedly fired. “The team was told that there was a fear among the residents near that area that the processionists would enter the mosque and that the police were not taking any action. Big crowds collected. Some people who did not want to be named also said that arms were later brought by some elements in the minority community (also),” it added.

Outnumbered by the local residents, the processionists made an escape. Injuries, including to policemen, were reported. Some vehicles were burnt and shops ransacked.

“But cooler heads from both communities in the area calmed the aggravated people down to diffuse the tensions. They successfully thwarted the attempt to provoke a riot between Hindus and Muslims,” Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) North Delhi district committee’s secretary, Subash, who resides close to the violence-hit area, told Peoples Dispatch. He was one of the delegates of the fact-finding team.

Arrests mainly targeting Muslims

Starting from around 2 am that night, the police carried out raids on homes in the area, making several arrests till morning, he said, adding, “All the (14) arrested were Muslims. Video evidence of participation in the clashes exists only against a few of them. Many others were arrested simply because of their previous record of petty crimes. Several women who objected to the late night raids on their homes were beaten by male police.”

The main accused among them was a 16-year old minor, whom the police accuse of having fired a bullet that injured a sub-inspector. They also claim to have recovered a country-made pistol from his custody.

Wrongly reported to be 22 years of age, the minor, who allegedly was not even allowed to get dressed while being arrested, was illegally held in police custody where he was brutally beaten, according to his lawyers. It was only after their intervention in court that the police were ordered to produce him before the juvenile justice board, as required by the law when minors are apprehended.

Refuting the allegations that police are targeting only members from the Muslim community, Delhi Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana said, “During the investigation, if we get evidence against any person, we will take action and arrest them, irrespective of their class, creed, community and religion. We are not discriminating with anyone.”

Among the subsequent arrests made since April 17, bringing the total number to 25, are also five members from a Hindu family who were identified as organizers of the procession.

However, the names of the far-right Hindu organizations were retracted from the original police statement.

The Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) of Northwest Delhi, Usha Rangnani, issued a statement on Monday, April 18, informing media that a case had been filed against VHP and Bajrang Dal. They were blamed for “carrying out a procession without any permission”, leading to the violence. The statement further added that the local VHP leader Prem Sharma “has been arrested”.

“VHP will launch a battle if they try to lodge a false case or pick any of its activists,” national spokesperson Vinod Bansal threatened, asking why the police escorted the procession if there was no permission in the first place.

Within hours after his arrest, Sharma was let off, and the police statement was retracted. The new statement which followed mentioned that Sharma “has joined the investigation”, in place of “has been arrested”. Divulging only that a case has been registered against the organizers, without naming any organizations, the revised statement omits the mention of Bajrang Dal and VHP. It is unclear if the police case retains the names of the organizations.

The VHP and Bajrang Dal are among the plethora of violent organizations under the far-right umbrella called the Sangh Parivar, gathered around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, which was founded in 1925, espouses the principle of Hindutva which posits India as a fundamentally Hindu nation. The RSS is often described as the ideological parent of the BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi himself was a member of the RSS.

In the aftermath of the clashes, calls by local BJP leaders to bulldoze the houses of the Muslims who had been arrested from Jahangirpuri grew louder. They also spread rumors that the Bengali-speaking Muslims in this area were Rohingya refugees and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Among those was BJP leader Kapil Mishra who was infamous for his provocative speech in February 2020 during a months-long sit-in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). His threats and call to evict the protesters was followed by days of religious violence in Delhi, causing over 50 deaths in the northeastern part of the city.

Following the violence on April 16 this year, Mishra blamed “Bangladeshi infiltrators”, and demanded that “they should be identified and their homes should be bulldozed.”

On April 19, Adesh Gupta, president of BJP’s Delhi Unit, wrote a letter to the mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation NDMC, demanding that he bulldoze the temporary structures, mainly shops, of the “anti-social elements and rioters”, as a part of an anti-encroachment drive.

Will the bulldozer roll in Delhi too?” tweeted BJP’s Delhi handle, with a picture of a bulldozer and a copy of Gupta’s letter to the NDMC, whipping up an excited anticipation among its supporters about another upcoming demolition in a minority area.

The bulldozer has become a much glorified symbol in the Indian right-wing. Earlier this month, several BJP-ruled States had already rolled bulldozers against homes and small shops in minority areas where similar incidents of religious violence took place after processions by far-right organizations purporting to be celebrating another Hindu festival. These include the country’s most populous State, Uttar Pradesh, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Soon after receiving Gupta’s letter, the NDMC ordered a “Special Joint Encroachment removal program in Jahangirpuri”. The municipal body requested “at least 400 Police Personnel” to maintain “law and order” during the demolition drive that was scheduled to go on for three days.

Communists resist the bulldozer

“Soon after we learnt about this order, we approached our lawyers in the All India Lawyers Union (AILU),” Rajeev Kunwar, member of CPIM’s Delhi state secretariat, told Peoples Dispatch. “Along with other senior advocates, they took the matter to the Supreme Court. By 10:45 a.m, the court had ordered the maintenance of status-quo of the constructions.”

However, the demolitions, he said, picked up pace as the authorities pretended to not have learnt about the order yet. On rushing to the spot with Brinda Karat, “we could not access authorities of the police and the NDMC. So we had to physically block the buldozer’s way to stop it before the police officials finally came around to assure us that they would recall it and halt the demolition as per orders,” he added.

The NDMC maintains that the drive was not meant to target the minority community, but only to clear the illegal encroachments. Kunwar calls it a bluff. “Most of Delhi has what is regarded as illegal encroachments. Zeroing in on the livelihood of a minority community which only days ago saw communal violence is an open and blatant attempt of the BJP to polarize on religious lines,” he argued.

20 small shops and the front of a mosque, outside which the violence had broken out during the far-right’s armed procession, had been razed down before the bulldozer was stopped.

“The bulldozer today is not just a machine. It represents the ideology and the political strategy of Hindutva, which is anti-minority and anti-poor,” Karat told Peoples Dispatch.

“There are no shortcuts to stop it. It will take an ideology that is uncompromising as far as the fight against Hindutva is concerned. And it will take resistance at the ground level, resistance in every sphere where the bulldozers go,” she added.

“With the strength of the ideology, and the ability to mobilize people into resistance, the communists,” Karat maintains, “are well-equipped to take up this challenge.”