Chauhan’s bulldozer can’t stand judicial scrutiny

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Demolition of homes and shops belonging to the Muslims purported to have been involved in stone pelting during the riots in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh has sparked a major controversy in the country with experts questioning the legality of such an action. Their contention is that the act amounts to retribution of the state and hence goes against the natural justice.

The videos of fangs of earthmovers and bulldozers tearing down the properties of the Muslims doing the rounds on social media triggered a backlash against the state government. However, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and his firebrand Home Minister Narotam Mishra justified the “cruel” move claiming that they are well within the law while carrying out the demolition of the properties.

A day after the violence, the state home minister was heard saying in the media in a somewhat theatrical style, “Jis ghar se patthar aaye hain us ghar ko pattharon ka hi dher banayenge (the house where the stones have come from will be turned into a pile of stones itself).” But when cornered about the legality of the act, he changed his tack, saying “the demotions are conducted under anti-encroachment law”. But when NDTV news anchor grilled him on the arbitrary move undertaken without following due process and without even court intervention, Mishra tried to hide behind evasive answers.

In another interview to the same channel, Mishra said: “If Muslims carry out such attacks, then they should not expect justice.”

On April 10, massive clashes broke out in the town which left a number of people injured and several houses and a mosque badly damaged and a number of people injured after gangs of Hindutva supporters under the cover of a religious procession (shobha yatra) on the occasion of Ram Navami stormed Muslim localities. Independent observers corroborated the claim of the victims, mostly Muslims, that the action is lopsided in view of the fact that firstly the violence was the result of Hindutva aggression. Secondly, there’s scant evidence of Muslims’ involvement in the violence. Nevertheless, it’s Muslims who bore the brunt of police action in the aftermath of the riots with almost all the arrested persons being Muslim and most of the FIRs registered against them.

A report in The Quint quoted a Muslim pharmacist complaining that when the bulldozers arrived, he was not even allowed to retrieve medicines from his shop. “All is gone to the dust now,” he grumbles.

Legal experts and Opposition politicians said the manner in which the demolition was carried out defeated the idea of natural justice. For any penal action against any person for any offence, his guilt should be established in a court of the law. Only then the nature of punishment can be decided, that too by the court, not the executive. As for the demolition of the properties of the accused, even if proven guilty, the mode of punishment has no legal sanction in any law.

The state home minister defended the action saying it was taken against the “stone pelters” after establishing their identity through the visuals available on the internet. However, neither their guilt nor the summary punishment meted out to them can stand legal scrutiny in a court of law.

Local administrative officials said they demolished illegal structures constructed on encroached land following alleged reports of stone pelting from the areas. But such an explanation raises more questions than it answers since in case of an anti-encroachment drive, notices have to be served on the illegal occupants weeks in advance, cannot be prompted by riots.

Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), termed the demolitions “violation of Geneva conventions”.

All India Lawyers’ Association (AILAJ) for Justice, a left-leaning lawyers group in Bangalore, while condemning the demolitions said it was “clear that the destruction occurred not because they were illegal structures or against the law but as a retaliation against an entire community.” The group called the drive a “frontal attack on the Muslim community”.

People are also baffled at the silence of the courts and higher judiciary on the government’s brazen acts. “As per procedure, the high court and the Supreme Court should have taken suo moto cognizance of the matter here. It is a serious matter. It is the duty of the top courts to protect the fundamental rights of citizens and hold the government accountable,” senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan said while speaking to The Wire.

Now, what recourse do the victims have for relief. Legal experts say they can go to the court and lodge petitions both under civil and criminal procedure against those who ordered the drive since trespassing and destruction of property is a crime.

The lawyers group AILAJ also sought action against the officials who ordered the demolition. Besides, it also demanded compensation for the victims after evaluating the cost of the damages.

With this brazen daylight demolition of Muslim properties, observers say the Shivraj Singh Government aims at appeasing the Hindutva voter base and portray a hardliner image similar to that created by the Yogi Government in Uttar Pradesh

Yogi Adityanath is called ‘Bulldozer Baba’ because of his policy of bulldozing homes and shops of alleged criminals. Shivraj Singh Chauhan has now gotten the name of ‘Bulldozer Mama’.

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