Why Did the Indian Government Demolish This Prominent Activist’s Home?

The state-backed demolition of Afreen Fatima’s home has come to symbolise the widespread disenfranchisement Muslims are feeling in India right now.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
India, muslim, islamophobia, bulldozer, demolition, narendra modi, bharatiya janata party
A bulldozer demolishing the residence of local Indian activist Javed Mohammad in Uttar Pradesh, India, on June 12. Photo: Sanjay Kanojia / AFP

Somaiya Fatima had just arrived at a relative’s home after spending two nights in detention when the news on TV gave her the shock of her life. There, on live video for the whole country to see, three gigantic bulldozers were smashing her family’s home into smithereens.

“Everything happened so fast,” Fatima told VICE World News, who recalled feeling paralysed with shock on Sunday. “We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but we wanted to be strong.”

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The 19-year-old college student said, “It was done to show that this is what happens if you speak up.” 

The video of Fatima’s home demolition, which has since gone viral and inspired massive support for the family, captures what protesters call “bulldozer politics.” Critics accuse Indian state and city authorities of punishing vocal Muslim community members by razing their homes on the pretext of them being unauthorised constructions. An Amnesty International report states that the most recent demolitions targeted Muslims homes. 

India, muslim, islamophobia, bulldozer, demolition, narendra modi, bharatiya janata party

Protests in solidarity with Indian activist Javed Mohammad and his family erupted in India’s capital Delhi on June 13. Photo: Money Sharma / AFP

Indian law doesn’t provide for the demolition of the home of anyone accused of a crime, but these demolition drives are commonly seen in states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its Hindu nationalist ideology and fixation with the idea of a purely Hindu nation. 

“Religion does have a role to play [in the demolition of my home],” said Fatima. “It’s not just our home that’s on the map of the city. So why was only our home targeted?”

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Fatima’s family has come to symbolise the kind of disenfranchisement that Indian Muslims are facing amid rising Islamophobic hate, often backed by the government. Fatima is the younger sister of Afreen, a prominent student leader and a vocal critic of the BJP government. Her father, Javed Mohammad, is also a prominent face of the city’s civil society movement. Uttar Pradesh, where Fatima lives, is one of India’s most polarised states, with a history of hate crimes against its Muslim population of 40 million. Muslims make up 11 percent of India’s total population of 1.4 billion, while Hindus comprise nearly 80 percent. 

The UP police earlier accused Fatima’s father Javed of organising protests in their city of Prayagraj and arrested him on Saturday, a day before the demolition. He was among over 300 people arrested over the weekend in several UP cities for allegedly participating in protests against Islamophobic comments made by now-suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma. 

Protesters demanding stricter action against Sharma have faced police cases, arrests, and even violence. Two Muslim men died of gunshot wounds during protests in the city of Ranchi. 

Fatima and her mother were picked up by police and detained for 30 hours, even if she said her family had no part in the protests. “Abbu (father) is one of the most respected people in the city, and even before the arrest, he was posting messages about being peaceful on his Facebook,” she said. 

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In a media briefing after the demolition, police senior superintendent Ajay Kumar claimed the demolition unearthed “inappropriate material including weapons and posters” from Javed’s home. State-backed media labelled Javed as a “mastermind” of the protests, a claim that the outpouring of support for the family belies. 

The family maintains the accusations are false, and the demolition unlawful. State laws require at least 15 days' notice for demolitions. Javed’s family said the notice was posted on their door just hours before the demolition, and while members of the family were under police custody.

Fatima’s sister Afreen, an influential Muslim voice on social media, was trending on Twitter on Monday. In an interview with Al Jazeera on the same day, she called the demolition an “act of vendetta” by the government against protesters who demand more action against BJP’s Sharma. 

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Fatima said she and her family didn’t know about the impending demolition of their home until they were told during their 30-hour “unlawful” detention. She said the cops verbally harassed them and told them to empty the house. “They said, ‘You will not learn a lesson unless you’re treated with violence,’ while another one used bad language against my mom that I can’t repeat.” 

The demolitions follow a similar pattern of events in April and May, when government officials demolished Muslim homes, accusing the owners of “inciting” violent protests that were triggered by Hindu right-wing mobs. 

Before the Sunday demolition, Mrityanjay Kumar, media advisor to UP’s chief minister Yogi Adtyanath, tweeted a photo of a bulldozer wrecking a home with a caption, “Remember, after every Friday comes a Saturday.” Friday refers to the Friday prayers observed by Muslims. 

“From what I understand, no matter how much good you do in life, [the authorities] will make sure our houses are razed to the ground,” said Fatima. “It’s not just a home they broke on Sunday. Our whole family is broken right now.”

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