It’s a warm April day in Khargone town of central India. The early morning bustle of residents is suddenly interrupted by the steady hum of advancing bulldozers as they trundle into the crowded and busy Chandni Chowk area of this town in Madhya Pradesh. Nervous residents come pouring out of their small shops and homes.
Wasim Ahmed, 35, watches in horror as, in a matter of minutes, the bulldozer’s heavy steel blades crush and destroy his shop and the valuable material inside. “I had put whatever money I had raised into my shop,” he says.
The bulldozers, ordered by the state government, flatten not just his small shop on April 11, 2022, but around 50 other shops and homes in this largely Muslim-dominated locality in Khargone. This destruction of private property was meant to be retributive justice meted out by the state government of Madhya Pradesh to the “rioters” that had engaged in stone pelting during the Ram Navami festival.
But, the likelihood of Wasim pelting stores is difficult to establish – a double arm amputee, he can’t even have tea without assistance, forget lifting and stoning.
“I had nothing to do with the incident that day,” says Wasim.
He used to be a painter before he lost both arms in an accident in 2005. “One day, I was electrocuted while on the job and the doctors had to amputate both my arms. Even through extreme adversity, I had found a way out [with the shop],” he adds, proud that he didn’t waste time feeling sorry for himself.
In Wasim’s shop, customers would tell him whatever they needed – groceries, stationery, etc – and help themselves. “They would place the money in my pocket or the drawer in the shop and leave,” he says. “It was my livelihood for 15 years.”
Mohammad Rafique, 73, lost three of his four shops that morning in Khargone’s Chandni Chowk area – a crippling loss of Rs. 25 lakhs. “I pleaded, I fell at their feet,” Rafique recalls. “They [municipal authorities] didn’t even let us show the papers. Everything about my shops is legal. But it didn’t matter.”
The razing of Wasim and Rafique’s shops among others selling stationary, chips, cigarettes, candy, cold drinks and such, was a punitive measure ordered by the state government to recover the damages caused during the riots. Later, the district administration would say that the structures razed were “illegal”, but the home minister of Madhya Pradesh, Narottam Mishra, had told reporters, “ Jis gharon se patthar aaye hai, unn gharonko hi pattharonka dher banayenge [We will turn the houses from where the stones were pelted to a heap of rubble].”
Before the bulldozers, it was during the riots that some like Mukhtiyar Khan lost their homes. His house was in a predominantly Hindu area of Sanjay Nagar. A safai karmachari with the municipal corporation, he was on duty when the violence erupted. “I got a call from a friend and he asked me to rush back and take the family to safety,” he recalls.
It turned out to be life-saving advice as Mukhtiyar’s house is located in a predominantly Hindu area of Sanjay Nagar. Fortunately, he managed to get back in time and the family escaped to his sister’s house in a Muslim locality.
When he returned, it was to a charred home. “Everything was gone,” he recalls.
Mukhtiyar had lived in the locality for all his 44 years. “We [his parents] had a small hut. I saved money for 15 years and built a house for us in 2016. I lived there all my life and always had amiable relations with everyone,” he rues.
With his home gone, Mukhtiyar now lives on rent in Khargone, paying Rs. 5,000 per month, a third of his salary. He had to buy new vessels, new clothes and even furniture because his house was burnt down along with the material inside.
“They didn’t think twice before destroying my life. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have risen particularly in the past 4-5 years. It was never this bad. These days, we’re always on the edge.”
Mukhtiyar is due for compensation of Rs. 1.76 lakh – a fraction of what he lost. But he hasn’t received that till this story was published; he doesn’t expect the money to come through any time soon.
“I want compensation and justice because my house was demolished,” he says and adds, “Two days later, the administration did the same thing the rioters did.”
Several BJP-ruled states in the past two or three years have become synonymous with “Bulldozer justice.” Apart from Madhya Pradesh, states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra have seen instances of homes and shops owned by people accused of a crime being flattened by a bulldozer. The accused may or may not be guilty. But in more cases than not, the structures belong to Muslims.
In Khargone, the state bulldozed only Muslim structures, points out a report shared with this reporter by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) who examined the state’s demolition drive. They found that nearly 50 structures that were razed ALL belonged to Muslims.
“Even though both communities were affected by the violence, all the properties destroyed by the administration belonged to Muslims,” the report states. “No notices were given, no time was given to retrieve belongings. The demolition teams led by district officials simply descended on the homes and businesses and destroyed them.”
It all started with a rumour, as it often does. On April 10, 2022 during the ongoing Ram Navami celebrations, word spread that the police had stopped a Hindu procession near Talab Chowk in Khargone. Social media amplified it and in no time a militant mob gathered, shouting incendiary slogans in support as they moved towards the location.
Around the same time, Muslims coming out of the nearby mosque after prayers were met by this angry mob. Things turned violent with stones being pelted and the violence soon spread to the rest of the town where far-right Hindu groups targeted Muslim homes and shops.
To make matters worse, CNN News18’s prime time anchor, Aman Chopra, hosted a debate show on Khargone around the same time, which was titled, “Hindu Ram Navami Manaye, ‘Rafique’ Patthar Barsaye.” Roughly translates to, “Hindus celebrate Ram Navami but ‘Rafique’ showers them with stones.”
It is unclear whether Chopra intended to specifically target Mohammad Rafique or he wanted to use a generic Muslim name. But the show had a terrible impact on Rafique and his family. “I couldn’t sleep for days after that,” he says. “At this age, I can’t afford this stress.”
It’s been a year and a half after Rafique’s shops were demolished. But he still has a printout of the screen from Chopra’s show. It hurts as much as it did the first time.
The Hindu community for a while, he says, avoided buying cold drinks and dairy products from him after Chopra’s show. The far-right Hindu groups had already called for an economic boycott of Muslims. The show made it even worse. “You are a journalist, son,” Rafique says to me. “Is this what a journalist is supposed to do?”
I have no answer, except the feeling of embarrassment at my own profession. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. You seem like a nice boy,” he quickly says with a smile and offers a cold drink from his store. “I still have one store left and my sons are settled. But most others don’t have that luxury. Many live hand to mouth.”
Wasim has no savings to rebuild the shop again. For the last year and a half since the demolition, with no shop to run, he has not been able to earn any money. The Khargone Municipal Corporation said they would help him: “ Mujhe bola tha madad karenge lekin bass naam ke liye tha woh [They said they would help me with compensation but it turned out to be just lip service].”
“There isn’t much a man with no hands can do,” he adds.
After Wasim’s store was demolished by the state, his elder brother, who runs an equally small store in Khargone has been taking care of him. “I have enrolled my two kids in government school,” he says. “The third one is two years old. He too will have to go to a government school. My children’s future has been jeopardised. I have been forced to compromise with my destiny.”