Arshad Shaikh looks at the recent observations by the Patna High Court related to the alleged illegal demolition of a house belonging to an accused in an arson case at the behest of law enforcing agencies. The judge came down heavily on the police and pointed out how such felonious razing of houses becomes a challenge to the rule of law in the country. As unfortunate as this incident might be, the bigger tragedy is that the bulldozer has now become a political tool to target minorities. Elected public officials are undertaking this route of the selective bulldozing of houses to tout their “macho” image and garner votes in a cynical display of the misuse of constitutional authority. However, the biggest tragedy is that a large section of our populace is swayed by this melodrama and sees it as the dawn of their golden age. 

Patna High Court’s Justice Sandeep Kumar (SK) does not pull his punches. In a no holds barred conversation with the lawyers for a case in which a woman (Sajoga Devi) petitioned the court complaining that her house was illegally demolished by the police at the behest of the land mafia, the Hon’ble HC judge made some scathing observations and reprimanded the counsel representing the Bihar Police. He ordered the police officials to be physically present during the next hearing.

Hearing the arguments by Devi’s counsel, Justice SK asked, “Why was the house demolished? On hearing from the petitioner’s counsel that the house was demolished with a bulldozer without any notice, the judge thundered, “Is the bulldozer being used here too?”

Turning towards the counsel for the accused, his lordship asked, “Who was that powerful entity that ordered a bulldozer to demolish her house? Who do you represent, the state or some private person?” It is a sorry state of affairs that houses are being demolished arbitrarily. Asking the name of the respondent to the petition, the Hon’ble judge quipped, “Who is he, some land mafia or someone? From the reading of the FIR (and) a counter affidavit by the SHO, 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.”

Again, training his guns on the lawyer of the accused, Justice SK posed the question, “Has the police station been given all the powers to execute all action? If you have a problem, pay money, go to the police station and demolish the house of whomsoever you please. Then close the civil court.”

Checking on the antecedents of the accused, the judge asked, “Does he belong to the land mafia? Is there any criminal case against him?”

When the counsel for the petitioner informed the court that to pressurise him (from desisting to take up the case), an FIR was also filed against him, the judge went through the FIR and remarked sarcastically, “Thank God, you were not locked up in jail?”

Justice SK assured the petitioner’s counsel, “I am here to protect you, not to trouble you.”

In his interim order, the judge dictated, “It has been further submitted by the learned counsel for the petitioner that a false case has been registered by the police against the petitioner and his family members to pressurise them to vacate the land and the instance of the land mafia who are private respondents in this case. The police are restrained from arresting the petitioners and his family members who are accused in that (false) case.”

Addressing the counsel representing the alleged land mafia, Justice SK said, “Madam be prepared and come for the next hearing. I will extract Rs 5 lakh per (accused) person from their personal pocket as compensation for demolishing the house to the victim. The police and CO are conducting kangaroo courts and demolishing houses by taking bribes.”

Reprimanding the lawyers who represent the land mafia, the Hon’ble judge exclaimed, “This case will take an ugly turn. You are becoming agents for those who are encroaching on land in Patna. This has to be stopped. One police officer will go to jail, only then will you stop this business.”

A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE

Israel pioneered the act of demolishing the houses of one’s enemies and political opponents. The method of house demolition was used in the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine during the 6-day war in 1967. It is estimated that Israel has demolished 49,532 Palestinian structures until 2019.

Demolitions are classified as administrative (in the name of enforcing building codes and regulations) and punitive (in which the houses of suspects and even those of their relatives are razed if they are accused of violence against Israel). The latter has been termed as a form of collective punishment and war crimes by human rights organisations.

Unfortunately, India seems to have borrowed a leaf from this despicable Israeli policy and some of our elected officials seem to relish the prospect of leveraging their fake machismo through the criminal use of the bulldozer to target minorities.

In an interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, said, “I’ve issued two reports – one to the UN General Assembly, another to the UN Human Rights Council – on the question of discrimination and spatial segregation. I must point out that discrimination includes not only just overt or direct acts but also includes indirect and unintentional acts that result in or lead to disproportionately negative impacts on particular minorities.”

To which Thapar responded, “Absolutely, if the vast majority of people whose houses are being demolished are Muslim, that itself speaks volumes and it clearly suggests a prejudice and bias and also a deliberate intention.”

This disease is contagious and spreading quickly among the land mafia and anti-social elements. They are eyeing it as a wonderful opportunity to expand their illegal business in collaboration with some corrupt police officers and dishonest administration officials. The result is a hapless citizenry at the mercy of the law of the jungle rather than the rule of the law.

STANDING UP FOR JUSTICE

Justice Sandeep Kumar of the Patna High Court deserves plaudits for his bold comments on the police and land mafia and how he tried to deliver justice to a victim of the intoxication of “bulldozer-mania” that has gripped our politicians and state agencies.

The due process is being abused to create a fear psychosis among the minorities and underprivileged even as the law and procedural safeguards are being bulldozed in the name of “Naya Bharat”. The deployment of collective punishment through the guise of implementing municipal laws against illegal encroachments is institutional thuggery and a sinister ploy to camouflage police highhandedness.

A bigger tragedy, however, is the complete absence of any major pushback by the Opposition or civil society against this vile policy of selective demolitions to exact vengeance and reap political dividends.

The greatest calamity for our nation is the hypnosis of a large section of our population, who relish this brutality, viewing it as a lesson that must be taught to minorities. For some, this is a sign of their much-awaited golden era. Despite such odds, it is essential for those who truly love this country to stand up for justice and resist the slide of our polity into authoritarianism and tyranny.

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