The manner in which bulldozers as tools of retaliatory State violence and punishment are being normalised now is akin to illegal 'encounter' (extra-judicial) killings which have now been normalised by police forces across the country.
The stinging remarks by Justice Sandeep Kumar of the Patna High Court in a case of the bulldozing of the house of a petitioner on a land dispute serve to highlight the near-total collapse of the Indian law and order machinery, and how it works to serve the powerful and the mighty. That the weak and those at the bottom of the pyramid do not have a voice is generally known and accepted.
That the system is corrupt is also well known. But cases like the one highlighted by Justice Kumar tell us that we are in a freefall into a bottomless pit from which it will be difficult to come out soon. It brings to light the increasing brazenness with which powerful interests operate and routinely undermine the due process they are sworn to uphold.
Justice Kumar’s comments in a video clip are now viral. In it, the judge remarks: “You have become agents of the land mafia. This has to be stopped … Who is so powerful that you took a bulldozer and demolished the house? Who do you represent – the State or some private person?” In his written order of November 24, Justice Kumar noted: "From reading the counter affidavit of the Station House Officer, it seems that all the officials are hand in glove with some land mafia and they have illegally demolished the house of the petitioner without following the due process of law.”
These are strong words from a High Court judge and indicate how upset the Honourable Justice was on a bare reading of the case and the material before him.
Warning of court ignored
Just about a week after those judicial remarks, in a separate State and in an unconnected statement, speaking as the campaign ended for the Gujarat Assembly elections, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath told the audience, “We do not hesitate to use bulldozers” against what he called “professional rioters”. It is under Adityanath’s administration that bulldozers first became a weapon of State choice against select targets, bringing a new level of force and violence to what should otherwise be everyday affairs of police and the local administration. This directed top-down approach to “teach a lesson” to those described nebulously as “professional rioters” comes loaded with assumptions, prejudices and the politics of hate that have together brought governance to a new low.
However pernicious the Uttar Pradesh cases have been, the case in Bihar is not of the same kind. The Bihar instance does show though that poor political leadership in one place leads to not just the regularisation of skewed agendas in that State locally but gets adopted and adapted to deliver a new level of force against citizens all across India. Once sanctioned by political leadership, the weapon becomes the weapon that all police forces begin to wield with impunity with or without the political master in control. The result is an arms race of a kind, where new and novel methods are used to terrorise in the name of law and order, often the targets being the weak and downtrodden while the well-off usually get away. This is India in decline, not a resurgent India 75 years after Independence.
Warnings by the highest court of the land have done little to arrest the rot. In the UP cases, the Supreme Court had warned against the short-circuiting due process by demolishing residential dwellings of those the State wanted to act against. Yet, the message to the system remains that the State will use bulldozers to dis-house and take away the right to private property also livelihood against all those who protest its policies, and can easily be described by the State as “rioters”.
Tools of retaliatory State violence
It is a steep fall for a nation to reach 37 years after the Supreme Court in the Olga Tellis v/s Bombay Municipal Corporation and others set out the principles in the case of demolitions of slum colonies in Mumbai. As that judgment of 10 July 1985 noted: “To lose the pavement or the slum is to lose the job. The conclusion, therefore, in terms of the constitutional phraseology is that the eviction of the petitioners will lead to deprivation of their livelihood and consequently to the deprivation of life.”
The Court in that case clearly linked the right to have a house to the right to a livelihood and to the right to life. While that case concerned demolitions of alleged encroachments and illegal occupation of public land by migrant workers working odd jobs in the Mumbai economy, the current cases concern houses owned and occupied by rightful owners for long, coming up for and actually being demolished under the pretext of alleged violations or disputes as is the case in Bihar.
The manner in which bulldozers as tools of retaliatory State violence and punishment are being normalised now is akin to illegal 'encounter' (extra-judicial) killings which have now been normalised by police forces across the country. What began as a limited approach to control extreme violence by gangsters quickly degenerated into a pretty standard operating procedure with local law and order readily signing on to the project and getting away scot-free. Every once in a while, some policemen will face the music from the courts, but in general, killings in cold blood have become a way of life and a routine tool to manage law and order.
A system stands damaged
This has not controlled crime or limited the rise of gangsters who continue to grow and even thrive. It did mean, however, a further dirtying of the people in uniform. As the case of encounters in Mumbai against entrenched gangsters showed, the gangs were mirrored in the police force. Two gangs in the wild built two gangs within the police. Instead of gangsters bumping off rivals, the police now did it for them.
There is more damage to the system that is unseen and unheard. There are many honorable senior police officers who do not agree with the methods in use. There are those who still take pride in professional investigations strictly by the rule book. However, they remain silent and will willy-nilly be forced to sign on to corrupt practices and extreme violence that bulldozes the very idea of India as a democratic nation that is Constitution bound to protect the rights of ordinary citizens.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)