New Delhi, India – A young Muslim activist whose house was bulldozed by the authorities in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh says it was an “act of vendetta” by the government for the protests over comments made against Prophet Muhammad by officials of the country’s right-wing governing party.
Surrounded by a large posse of police in riot gear, authorities in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj city on Sunday brought in earthmovers to demolish Afreen Fatima’s house as dozens of media people recorded the demolition.
Within hours, the two-storey building was reduced to rubble and its belongings – furniture, books and photographs – thrown on an empty plot next to the house. Among them was a poster that said: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
The demolition came after days of protests by India’s Muslims against the anti-Islam remarks by two members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earlier this month, triggering a diplomatic backlash against New Delhi.
As several Muslim nations demanded an apology from the Indian government, the Muslims in India saw the remarks by the BJP’s Nupur Sharma and former Delhi media cell head Naveen Kumar Jindal as yet another instance of the right wing’s hate speech against the minority community which has spiked since Modi came to power in 2014.
As global outrage grew, the BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal, saying their comments do not reflect the party’s views and asking its spokespeople to be “extremely cautious” on religious matters while speaking on news channels. Meanwhile, police in the Indian capital filed cases against the two and others for “inciting hatred” and other charges.
The protests in Prayagraj – earlier known as Allahabad – on Friday following the Muslim congregational prayers turned violent at some places, with police firing tear gas and baton-charging as demonstrators marched and allegedly tried to burn a police vehicle.
A BJP spokesperson said Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed hardline Hindu monk, ordered officials to demolish any “illegal” establishments and homes of people accused of involvement in the protests.
At least two other houses belonging to Muslims were also demolished in Uttar Pradesh over the weekend.
Fatima’s family was not even home when their 20-year-old house in Prayagraj was torn down.
Hours after Friday protests in the city, police raided the house and took away her 57-year-old father Mohammad Javed, mother Parveen Fatima, 52, and teenager sister Somaiya.
“At around 8:50pm on Friday, police came, saying they want to talk to my father. They asked him to accompany him to the police station. That is it. They did not tell us if it was a detention or if it was an arrest. There was no warrant that was shown,” Fatima, 24, told Al Jazeera TV during an interview on Sunday.
Javed, who is a politician belonging to a Muslim party, was charged with rioting and the police soon declared him the “mastermind” of the protests in Prayagraj – a tag flashed immediately on TV screens across the country.
Parveen and Somaiya were detained by the police and released on Sunday morning. “My mother and my sister were illegally detained for more than 30 hours,” Fatima told Al Jazeera TV.
Fatima rejected the allegations against her father and called the bulldozing of their house an illegal act committed by the authorities.
“The demolition is absolutely illegal because it is not even my father’s property. The house belongs to my mother,” she told Al Jazeera over the telephone.
“We had been paying our house taxes for around 20 years and not once did we receive any intimation by any development authorities of Allahabad that our house is illegal. Why were they even taking our taxes if it was an illegal house?” she told Al Jazeera.
The family shared water bills and house taxation documents to back their claim.
Fatima said the house was demolished without a court of law proving the charges against her father. “Without proving the allegations that my father was a mastermind of protests, which he was not, they punished us,” she told Al Jazeera.
We saw our house crumble down… It was our home for 21 years. We had some amazing and defining moments in that home that shaped who I am.
“We were not demonstrating on Friday. None of us were part of the protests that happened in Allahabad. We were at our house, it was a Friday, so we offered our prayers and were in the house all the time,” she said.
Javed’s family has termed his arrest “unjust”, calling him an activist who had been working on civic matters with the Prayagraj administration.
“He would assist the administration on so many civic and law and order matters. So this has come as a shock to us,” Javed’s son Mohammad Umam, 30, told Al Jazeera. “He was not a part of the protest nor did he know who the protesters were or who organised them. The police are making up a fictitious story to implicate my father.”
On Saturday night, city officials pasted a notice on the entrance of their house, calling it an “illegal structure that would be demolished on Sunday”. The notice asked the family to vacate the property before the demolition.
“We saw our house crumble down. We had lived all our lives there. It was our home for 21 years. We had some amazing and defining moments in that home that shaped who I am,” said Fatima. “It is all so painful.”
The family’s lawyers have moved the Allahabad High Court challenging the demolition and demanding a penalty from the state government for the loss of property. Since the court was closed on Sunday, they could challenge the demolition order before it was conducted.
The family’s petition to the high court says Javed was not the legal owner of the house.
“Parveen Fatima was gifted the house by her father before her marriage,” family counsel KK Roy told Al Jazeera. “Under the Muslim Personal Law Property Act, the husband cannot have a share in the property of his wife. Since Javed has no right over the property as per law, the notice in his name is illegal. We have challenged the notice and sought a penalty of at least 10 crore rupees [$1.3m].”
Police justified the demolition, saying they followed the prescribed process. “The allegations are wrong. We applied all the due processes and after that took action,” a police spokesperson told Al Jazeera. A civic official was quoted in the local media as saying the house was an “illegal structure” that was “built without getting its map passed by the Prayagraj Development Authority”.
Fatima called the bulldozing of her house “an act of vendetta against her family”, adding the demolition was part of the policies of the Hindu nationalist government against Muslims exercising their democratic right to protest.
The authorities in Uttar Pradesh bulldozed two other Muslim houses in Saharanpur district over the weekend, while the house of another Muslim in Kanpur city was demolished over the religious riots over remarks against the Prophet.
“Remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday,” Mrityunjay Kumar, media adviser to Chief Minister Adityanath, tweeted on Saturday with a photo of a bulldozer.
Adityanath is often dubbed “bulldozer baba” (bulldozer monk) by the local media for his policy of demolishing homes of those who protest against the government. Other states have followed suit even as lawyers and activists have questioned the policy’s legality.
The demolition of properties gathered pace in April this year when authorities in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state – also ruled by the BJP – bulldozed houses and shops belonging to Muslims following religious violence during a Hindu festival.
“Bulldozer has become a signifier of targeted violence against Muslims in India, with demolitions being deployed not as punishment of an individual for violation of law, but as a form of collective punishment that seeks to demoralise and deter anyone who questions the government or their majoritarian politics,” Fawaz Shaheen, a legal activist associated with Students Islamic Organisation of India, told Al Jazeera.
On Sunday, as police and administration began to close in on Fatima’s house, Indian social media was filled with outrage as people expressed their solidarity with Fatima and her family through hashtag #StandwithAfreenFatima.
Social media users questioned the silence of the opposition parties, asking why their leaders and supporters did not protest in Prayagraj to stop the demolition or tweeted about it. Many also asked why the Muslim legislators in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly were not speaking out.
Fatima rose to prominence during nationwide protests led by Muslim groups to demand the repeal of a controversial citizenship law passed by the Modi government in late 2019, which critics said violated India’s secular constitution. The law fast-tracked Indian citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from India’s neighbouring countries who came to India before 2015.
Fatima, associated with a student group called the Fraternity Movement, was elected president of the women’s college students’ union at the Aligarh Muslim University, India’s largest minority institution based in Uttar Pradesh. She finished her masters in linguistics last year from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she was elected a councillor in the students’ union.