The bulldozer is at the door, due process is underfoot, and the Supreme Court cannot unsee the danger. The sequence of events speaks for itself: At Jahangirpuri in northwest Delhi Wednesday morning, seven bulldozers rolled in, accompanied by over 1,000 policemen, to demolish “illegal encroachments” in an area still tense because of the flaring of communal violence on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti on Saturday — and they continued on their mission to raze for well over an hour after the Supreme Court ordered them to pause. Evidently, the BJP-led North Delhi Municipal Corporation follows the BJP’s agenda ardently, even when the Court directs it to hold its hand, even when it goes against the law. At Jahangirpuri, the fig leaf — of illegal constructions — is so thin it does not even require a puff of Delhi’s acrid air to be blown away. After all, in dense urban sprawls across India, encroachment of public spaces is so widespread that it is not remarkable anymore — what is striking is the selective action taken in its name by the state. In Jahangirpuri, as in Khargone in Madhya Pradesh only days earlier, the timing was a dead giveaway. “Illegal encroachment” has become the pretext for a BJP administration to target “rioters” after the eruption of communal violence, who belong overwhelmingly to one community.
No notices were sent to the residents of Jahangirpuri before bulldozers were sent to demolish structures, many in the vicinity of the mosque that was at the centre of the communal clashes Saturday. Bylaws call for a notice except in the case of public land encroached by temporary structures — what is temporary and what is not needs to be settled as per due process. Therein lies the rub. A bulldozer’s damage can’t be reversed and that’s why this flagrant flouting of due process, and the bid to brazen it out even after the court stepped in to caution and restrain, makes victims of those who were at the receiving end in Jahangirpuri.
But it is not only they who are in danger of being left without recourse in the face of this brutish bulldozer politics. Any attack on due process, much less one that is as high-profile and therefore as unabashed as this one, affects all citizens. It goes to the fundamental promise that lies at the heart of a constitutional democracy — to protect lives and safeguard rights. Due process is not just what is written into the rule-book. It is inscribed in the everyday relations between institutions and citizens and government. It is what keeps them honest, and respectful of each other’s freedoms and spaces.
The spectacle in the national capital Wednesday, the intimidatory deployment of bulldozers and police force, the attempt to cock a snook at the judiciary, should set many alarm bells ringing, especially in the court. Illegal encroachments in public spaces need to be addressed — but as per the law. It’s for the Supreme Court to underline this principle, it is the only bulwark for the citizen against a transgressing state. It must act. It cannot kick this can down the road. For the citizen’s sake — and for its own.