India’s bulldozer regime is evicting Muslims, killing justice

Among the worst victims are Assam’s Miya Muslims, who have long been wrongly accused of illegal migration.

An elephant is used to demolish a house during an eviction drive inside Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary on the outskirts of Gauhati, Assam, India, Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. Indian police on Monday took the unusual step of using elephants in an attempt to evict hundreds of people living illegally in the protected forest area in the country's remote northeast. Police used bulldozers and the elephants in a show of force, and the forest dwellers responded by hurling rocks. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
An elephant is seen demolishing a house during an eviction drive in the state of Assam, India, on November 27, 2017 [File: Anupam Nath/AP Photo]

In the northern Indian city of Haldwani, about 4,000 families faced homelessness in December after the High Court of the state, Uttarakhand, ordered their eviction from land claimed by the Indian Railways.

Most of the families are Muslim, and everything — homes, schools and mosques — was to be demolished. The story rightly made international headlines, and eventually, the country’s Supreme Court put a hold on the eviction for now, arguing that authorities needed to come up with a resettlement and rehabilitation plan first.

Yet the incident in Haldwani, 296km (184 miles) from national capital New Delhi, captures a broader pattern of injustice masquerading as law and order that’s playing out across India under the majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules federally and in most states.

The bulldozer is central to this strategy. Muslims are the target. And unlike in Haldwani, affected people and communities only rarely get even a temporary reprieve.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the northeastern state of Assam, some 2,000km (1,242 miles) away from New Delhi, where the BJP has ruled since 2016. Thousands of Muslim families have been forcibly evicted since 2021 from land they had been residing on for decades. Since 2016, police have shot at and killed protesters in at least two instances.

The campaign to render families homeless has picked up steam in recent weeks. On December 19, about 250 families were evicted in the Nagaon district of Assam. A week later, 47 families’ homes were destroyed in Barpeta district. In the Lakhimpur district, hundreds of families were evicted in early January.

These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a method to the madness. The Miya Muslim community — whose ancestors, many generations ago, settled in Assam from East Bengal, then an integral part of British India (and now Bangladesh) — is facing the brunt of the evictions and demolitions.

The community is often targeted, especially by the Hindu right, as “illegal immigrants” and the word “Miya” is frequently used as a pejorative. Last year, authorities arrested Miya Muslims who had set up a museum dedicated to the community’s cultural artefacts. Assam’s BJP Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma effectively accused museum organisers of cultural appropriation, arguing that the items on display weren’t unique to the Miya Muslim community.

The idea behind the inhuman and violent evictions is to keep Muslims landless and impoverished: Muslims have a higher poverty rate and lower literacy rate than the national average. Research has shown that Indian Muslims have lower upward mobility than people from even those Hindu castes and tribes that have traditionally been discriminated against.

In Assam, landlessness is a chronic problem among marginalised groups, accentuated by annual floods and the perennial problem of riverbank erosions. Many vulnerable communities settle on government-owned land as they look to earn a living by working among local communities and on farmland.

Instead of addressing this problem of landlessness, the Assam government is singling out Miya Muslims from among those occupying state-owned land, only because of their faith, and is evicting them.

Elsewhere, this epidemic of evictions is being used to either collectively punish Muslims or attack activists from the community who have dared to raise their voices against government injustices.

In New Delhi, homes of Muslims were demolished — including for a while after a Supreme Court order to halt the forced eviction — last April, days after inter-religious tension in the neighbourhood. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, authorities demolished the homes of Muslims who had protested against controversial remarks by a BJP spokesperson against Prophet Muhammad last July. The state of Madhya Pradesh — also ruled by the BJP — has used the same tactic, too.

These are attacks on the rights of citizens. The government machinery, with gigantic police forces in riot gear, excavators and in some cases even elephants, carry out the evictions. In most cases, the demolitions have been carried out without any warning or legal notices.

At one of Assam’s eviction sites, people who had their homes demolished set up tarpaulin tents by the roadside. Government officials came and removed even that temporary shelter. Where are they supposed to go now? I had no answer. When I asked those rendered homeless, they didn’t, either.

This is barbaric. This is cruel. It isn’t just homes that these people are losing. Often, their standing crops are destroyed, their trees felled. Even toilets are turned into rubble. In many cases, the victims are poor, and are forced to sleep in the open in harsh weather — often hungry, and without access to food or clean water. Women don’t have the privacy of a toilet.

Their plight and losses are mostly invisible in mainstream news. The civil society representing minorities has no space in the media, and the civil society representing the majority is silent. Perhaps that’s why Abdul Khaleque, among those evicted in Lalung Gaon of Nagaon district said to me: “Let the government shoot us; we do not have any place to go.”

Of course, Miya Muslims, and marginalised communities in India more broadly, aren’t unfamiliar with the violence unleashed on them by the state and by non-state actors. In Assam, Miya Muslims have long had their citizenship questioned — they’re frequently othered as encroachers who are somehow, not Assamese.

Evictions are the latest weapon to target Muslims in Assam and across India. While the Supreme Court intervened in the Haldwani case, it’s unclear whether others who have suffered will ever receive justice.

And that, ultimately, is the biggest casualty of what the BJP and its governments are doing. Their bulldozers are demolishing the very concept of justice for Indian Muslims.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.