ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Demolish and Punish

Bulldozer-led demolitions are emerging as a new form of extralegal punishments in India.

Demolish and Punish

Bulldozer-led demolitions are emerging as a new form of extralegal punishments in India.

A fundamental feature of modern jurisprudence is theidea that punishments ought to be commensurate with the magnitude of the crime and that criminality is conditioned by societal circumstances. A justice system that does not honour the normative values represented by modern jurisprudence runs the risk of eroding its own public legitimacy and trust. Additionally, a political conception of the justice system would not limit itself merely to the institutions of the police and the judiciary but would also consider the influence of public opinion and mass media, not to mention the pressures of the ruling political parties and economic elites.

It is this amalgamated political structure that impinges on the functioning of the rule of law in contemporary India. One of its obvious ramifications is that it has left a large number of purportedly independent institutions—the police and the judiciary, the municipal corporation and the civil bureaucracy, the media, and the universities—with little to no operative independence. What such a political apparatus does to the machinery of the rule of law is that it makes its functioning increasingly arbitrary. The arbitrary nature of such a politicised functioning of the legal and civil machinery in India could be witnessed in the increasing use of bulldozer-led demolitions as a method of inflicting extralegal punishments.

This usage of bulldozers not merely for civil–constructive work but for political–destructive purposes is not unprecedented in Indian politics. During the days of the Emergency, such bulldozer-led demolitions were active as political and procedural means to bring down both public and private structures. In the recent time, however, the march of the bulldozer seems to have followed an extralegal and arbitrary route towards demolitions of the houses of select and targeted individuals whose activism has become a thorn in the flesh of the state. This was evident in the demolitions carried out in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj where extralegal punishment was seen to be inflicted on default assumptions of unproven criminality.

Such a state action has followed a certain script in its handling of the law in the earlier cases of Delhi’s Jahangirpuri and Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone as well. While the officials of local bureaucracy and the police claim that the demolition of illegally constructed houses is a “routine exercise,” elected ministers readily portray such actions as extraordinary and selective measures required “to set an example” for the general public at large. Moreover, a compliant media eagerly amplifies and justifies the spectacular nature of such a “routine exercise” where the sheer expediency of due process is shown its proper place by a political set-up that has mastered the use of the law for the purposes of attenuating its majoritarian dominance in Indian society. Needless to say, such a state action makes a mockery of all fundamental principles of modern jurisprudence and the rule of law. And yet, one faces this paradox in contemporary India where state agencies themselves announce the futility of legal procedures through their actions, if not their words.

Apart from undermining the legitimacy of state institutions and their constitutional commitment towards the rule of law, these bulldozer-led demolitions signify another feature of contemporary Indian politics, namely an intolerance towards democratic dissent. While the champions of bulldozer justice cite the issue of violence occurring in public marches and protests as the reason for deploying this harsh measure, it nevertheless begs the question about whether the ones who are actually guilty of causing violence are thereby getting punished through this method or not. The demolition of houses on municipal pretexts is nothing but a cunning chimera for scoring political vendetta against select individuals from minority communities. Here, criminality is adjudged on the basis of an accused individual’s group identity who is then considered fit to be punished for crimes that are yet to be proven in any court of law. Whether there exists any concurrence between the actual perpetrators of a crime and the ones who eventually bear the brunt of legal and extralegal punishment is a moot question in the recorded cases of “bulldozer justice.” While a key principle of modern jurisprudence states that “justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done,” the emergent punishment regime in India dictates that demolitions of houses must not only be done but must also be seen, recorded, and broadcasted to be done.

A jurisprudence that seems more interested in “setting an example” and “teaching a lesson”—rather than fulfilling the aims of restorative justice—is likely to take the logic of vendetta or revenge to its political breaking point. Such a logic inordinately puts state institutions under the undemocratic service of elected officials and unelected elites rather than serving the interests of the general public at large. What would be the place of justice and fairness in such a system of political jurisprudence is unworthy of further elaboration. What does need to be spelled out, however, is that merely offering homilies to the rule of law would be an insufficient response to an environment where jurisprudential discourse as well as action (and inaction) are heavily overdetermined by a political structure that brooks or tolerates no institutional dissent. To Franz Kafka’s question, “what comes before the law?” the contemporary legal–political apparatus in India seems to be offering a chilling but determinate answer—before the law comes punishment.


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Updated On : 9th Jul, 2022
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