Aura: Tell us about your academic and professional journey.
Shivangi Mariam Raj: I write essays and poetry, and being a university drop-out, my academic journey has been quite scattered. My research has primarily been on the visual cultures of violence in India, language politics, liberation movement in Kashmir, and examining Hindi as a site of caste violence. My brief visual practice has included working on zines, posters, and pamphlets. I worked with Oxford University Press for almost half a decade, and I am now associated with The Funambulist, a magazine that brings together perspectives on architecture and social sciences.
A: Before we touch upon the spatial aspect of anti-Muslim violence, would you like to tell us how you view the majoritarian forces at play in India currently?
SMR: What we are witnessing right now is certainly not a singular episode of violence, nor is it arbitrary. It is a part of a longer history of destruction and dispossession of Muslim lifeworlds, which, decade after decade, has reinforced the majoritarian whim. We still come across some nostalgia about the idea of India being at stake, but we must question the foundational myth of this nation, which has survived by perpetually manufacturing some communities as enemies, while pushing others to the peripheries. As we wade through the debris of this moment, we see that in ruin lies the desire to establish monoculture, to decimate every sign of life, and to render any difference or plurality impossible. To turn a site of life and livelihood, of belonging and imagination into a territory, a barren wreck. Isn’t this what the project of Hindu Rashtra is all about? To defile, to destroy. Ruins are a way to lock us in time — there are two kinds of ruins being produced currently, one in the chase of imaginary pasts, and another in the annihilation of potential futures. They want this debris and this fire to be our identity. It is hard to miss that this is a spectacle, built upon trampling Muslim dignity. Don’t we see it in the laughter of mainstream journalists while reporting and sitting atop bulldozers? They are presenting the rubble as an aesthetic, a stepping stone towards implementing a totalitarian fascist regime. These are the same forces which pushed hundreds of Dalit families to leave Sah village in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur, the same forces that deface Dr Ambedkar’s statues, the same forces that vandalise our mosques.
A: Little has been spoken in mainstream media about the rampage of bulldozers beyond parroting the statist narratives. By calling this an “anti-encroachment drive”, we know that they are trying to conceal a more dangerous history. How do you contextualise what is happening in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, and other parts of the country?
SMR: I am reminded of toys and headgears modelled after bulldozers that were used to celebrate Yogi Adityanath’s victory in the UP elections earlier this year. Their plastic aesthetic helped in enforcing a softened, normalised image of a machine designed to destruct. While Yogi enjoys the epithet of “bulldozer baba”, his style of destruction is being hailed as a model for electoral success. If Modi perfected the decimation of Muslim bodies in what came to be lauded as the Gujarat model of governance, Adityanath has extended it further by destroying the very spaces in which these bodies dwell or seek refuge. Both these models attest to the majoritarian desire for absolute domination by extermination. In Jahangirpuri, the demolitions were carried out in the heavy wall-like presence of paramilitary forces, which, combined with the towering arm of the bulldozer and barricaded lanes, created an impenetrable architecture of control — one where Muslim homes, shops, pushcarts, and even shrines are allowed no option, except to fall, crumble, and submit. While the vocabulary of “illegal encroachments” is being used to justify the demolition of small structures belonging to working class, oppressed Muslims, it is also critical to note that in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, the administration has repeatedly emphasised on this being the way to ensure justice. In Gujarat, Anand district authorities have sought popular support for their actions by maintaining that they are targeting the structures owned by “rioters”. In fact, when the district collector stated that they are also clearing thick vegetation in the area, it became clear that for them there is little difference between bushes and Muslim dwellings because both are levelled as “hideouts” for “miscreants”. If we revisit the scenes with bulldozers, even visually it is a sight of extreme disproportions: its scale versus the scale of the structures under attack and the inhabitants who wish to stop it just do not match. The idea of this machine is to negate all human presence. When BJP leader Sakshi Maharaj compares the bulldozer to dhanush and sudarshan chakra of Hindu Gods, he is acknowledging an important truth of the machine: that it is a weapon. It is the perfect machine to carry out choreographed punitive demolitions, it is a tool for demographic engineering. Tool for colonial control and ethnic cleansing. Part of the necroeconomy which makes the sacrifice of some communities politically necessary. It is the condensation of a political programme, an idea armed with jaws. I am now thinking about how the U.S. armed forces used bulldozers and combat earthmovers to bury thousands of Iraqis alive. They preferred this method because it was cost-effective and caused minimum casualties on their side. Let me go back to September 2016, when the Israeli occupation forces demolished a home belonging to a Syrian family in Majdal Shams, a village in the Occupied Syrian Golan. The pretext was absence of a building permit. China has also demolished parts of the historic Uyghur city of Kashgar, including the Xanliq madrasa, using bulldozers. Additionally, the Israeli occupation forces’ home demolitions in Palestine are part of a calculated practice of displacing the indigenous population from their own agricultural and residential lands, dismantling the inter-generational relationships with their nation, and enforcing a collective punishment upon Palestinians for their resistance. In Kashmir, too, the local administration has carried out demolition drives targeting temporary dwelling places of nomadic Gujjar and Bakrwal communities in remote areas of Pahalgam, such as Lidroo, Mamal, Khelan, Movera, and Rangward. Aren’t there patterns here, similar and terrifying? In Assam, we find thousands of Muslims forcefully evicted out of their ancestral homes and even asked to demolish them, accused of being “infiltrators” from Bangladesh, a logic that was also used against Jahangirpuri’s Bengali-speaking Muslims. And then there is another image that runs over us, that of workers in the Lalbagh tea estate in Silchar where, once again, hundreds of bulldozers were stationed to clear the tea plantation to construct an airport. Agitated one of these days, I went through the JCB website. Amidst so much cruelty, I was struck by advertising one-liners such as “get ahead of your game”, “wherever your dreams take you”, “chalo aatmnirbhar bano” (come, become self-reliant), and “baat shuru karo kyunki bahut kuch karna hai” (begin, because a lot has to be done). Some of these were used to describe JCB 3DX, the model used to carry out some of these demolitions across Indian cities. This is the same company which also supplies its machines to aid the destruction of Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods, including Khan al-Ahmar and Silwan. JCB is further used for illegal resource extraction and dumping bodies of Kashmiri civilians and militants in pits hundreds of kilometres away from their homes. So, in a country where Muslims have always had shrunken social possibilities, where they are either forced into ghettos or forced out of public namaaz sites, these bulldozers are a lucid testimony to the community being viewed as a spatial burden. Muslims are the unwanted extra, the threatening surplus, which has to be regulated and domesticated.
A: Another interesting aspect of the transforming urban geography is how festival processions, rallies, and marches are being consciously planned in order to “provoke” the people living in and around minority spaces of worship or residence. Do you think the custodians of law and the police also have a role in this design?
SMR: It is important to recall the Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah’s remarks labelling Muslims as “termites” in 2018. When you view a population as such, you erase all past that belongs to them or deny all future that they aspire to build. You simply view them as an undesirable entity in your home, which you want to cleanse out. There is a casteist notion of purity and pollution at work here. Here is the phantom of CAA-NRC which discriminates among citizens and refugees on the basis of religion, and is exclusionary to Muslims. The “treatment” for “termites” includes profiling them, isolating and imprisoning them, throwing them in detention centres, and, finally, deporting them out of the country. This was echoed in Muslims being driven out of Dada Jalalpur village in Roorkee: the spectacle was hungry to complete itself, with one of the Hindu villagers stating that today Muslims have been forced to leave the village, they will leave the country tomorrow. Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra’s statement, “jis ghar se patthar aaye hain us ghar ko pattharon ka hi dher banayenge” (we will ensure that the houses involved in stone pelting are turned into a pile of stones themselves) is telling of how the statist imaginary produces Muslim homes as mere houses. Most of these homes belong to Muslim men who were already taken away by the police on false charges. Even if the charges of stone-pelting are proven right, does it allow their homes to be demolished? Every home comes with the memory of its inhabitants, it is a coordinate of local reference, of dignity, of refuge. People spend their lifetime of savings in building houses, which are dismantled within minutes. If we notice the pattern of the anti-Muslim attacks last month, we find that the police were either absent during these processions or were an active participant, something that we also witnessed during the Delhi pogrom in 2020. Hindu supremacists were given a free pass to threaten, abuse, and give genocidal calls against Muslims with their songs and slogans, capturing not only the spatial, but sonic atmosphere as well. But the same police became strangely proactive when they identified, along with the administration, the houses of Muslims to be crushed and when they arrested mostly Muslim men. Where were they when Muslims were being humiliated and attacked? Where were they when Muslim shops were looted and burnt down? That the demolition of houses, shops, and pushcarts in Jahangirpuri continued despite the Supreme Court of India ordering a status quo on the matter attests to the fact that there is a parallel system in place, the extrajudicial infrastructure of majoritarian dominance. They know that the law cannot touch them, that the law has been created specifically to aid their desire for power. It is clear in Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati violating the terms of his bail conditions, it is clear in the organisers of Hindu hate conclave in Haridwar laughing with the police officials, it is clear in Delhi Police retracting its statement which found members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad guilty of inciting violence in Jahangirpuri on April 16, it is clear in the photographs of many hatemongers with members of legislative assemblies and the ruling BJP government. And we must not forget the eyewitness accounts which reported that the Hindu mob attempted to plant saffron flags over a local mosque in Jahangirpuri, and days later part of the entrance of the same mosque was demolished by the state bulldozers. The Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 and the Delhi Development Authority Act, 1957 do not allow any government agency to demolish buildings without giving an advance notice to the affected parties. The demolition drive in Jahangirpuri, therefore, was in absolute disregard of established legal rules. That structures belonging to Muslims were razed without any evidence of their involvement in violent episodes, without any prior notice, and with no arrangement for dignified rehabilitation, is again a violation of Article 21 and Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. However, there is a slippery slope with regards to the “legality” of these demolitions. For example, in 2009, the Supreme Court of India stated that if there is any destruction of public property during a protest where a person was present, even without any direct participation, their property could come under scrutiny from the state officials, and the state could decide on appropriate punishment. And in 2021, Madhya Pradesh passed the Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property and Recovery of Damages Bill stating that the local government could recover up to twice the cost of damage to public property from the protesters. It is not important whether it is legal, this violence has been normalised now. A culture of impunity has protected the criminals, and continues to reward and celebrate them. It has been barely a few weeks since smoke and rubble consumed Khargone, and now Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh is burning after a Muslim shrine was vandalised and set on fire by a Hindu mob.
A: What are the consequences of this spatial destruction? Many have pointed out to strengthening of apartheid practices in a country where Muslims already find it difficult to find employment, education, or even a house on rent.
SMR: The community is spending all its resources in rebuilding! The money which could have been used for helping the needy during Ramadan was mostly spent in recovering lives from the soot and ash of hatred. All across the country, and particularly in the areas affected deeply by this violence, thousands of Muslims have been displaced, many are fleeing to save their lives, some are too scared to come back. They are anxious that their return could mean more bloodshed at the hands of Hindu mobs, more hostility from their neighbours, and more harassment at the hands of local authorities. I am thinking about Dada Jalalpur village again, where despite spatially marked neighbourhoods for each of the two communities, several Muslim families were forced to leave, after bulldozers were stationed outside the Muslim area, with the police demanding that residents surrender. Do you remember the video of Hindu religious leader Prabodhanand Giri threatening to organise another aggressive religious parliament in the region if their demands — of razing Muslim homes to dust — are not met? This is the idea of justice in the common imagination now. The focus on sanitising the public and private spaces of all Muslim presence is backed by an internal rationality to the logic of apartheid, which naturalises segregation and exclusion. And it continues to extend itself dangerously to the domain of life choices that Muslims are making. For example, the house and shop of Aasif Khan in Madhya Pradesh’s Dindori have been demolished simply because he decided to marry a Hindu woman. It is important to view ruins as being inscribed on our body and on our psyche, to think of the forms of corporeal and spatial injuries being inflicted en masse. Houses, shops, and garages are looted and burnt, shrines and mosques are defaced and vandalised, and ultimately, bulldozers are sent to ravage the landscape further. Think of the ruins as a palimpsest. They are constructing the Muslim ruin as a precursor for majoritarian development. Think of the ruins as a witness to the forces that only know how to destroy. In Urdu being wiped off signages and names of cities under the false belief that it is the “language of Muslims”, we find the desperation to rinse the geography clear of any Muslim presence, to expunge the community’s association with the shared public spaces, and to enforce wreckage as the only remaining collective identifier. To create a theatre of ruin for voyeuristic consumption. The ultimate fantasy of Hindu Rashtra is to create the infrastructure of purity, where Dalits are forced to remain in servitude and Muslims are emptied out, thrust into Pakistan or qabristan. In his 2016 book, La politique du bulldozer: La ruine palestinienne comme projet israélien, French architect Léopold Lambert asks us to consider the precise order behind the chaos of ruin, to understand the ruin as the final product of a careful design strategy. To ruin a Muslim home, therefore, is not an annihilation of all its components, rather a calculated assemblage of rubble, a spatial alternate of majoritarian wishes. Destruction of a house is primarily its destruction as a home, destruction of its memory, of its function, of its intimacy, nourishment, and security. And is simultaneously an inscription of its servitude, its aukaat. Every ruin is also evidence of what is being sought to be erased, every ruin is its own speech. A few weeks back, Pushkar Singh Dhami, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, launched a “verification drive” after Hindu religious leaders urged a ban on non-Hindus (implicit reference to Muslims) who were settling in the state. By further undermining spatial access to Muslims under the fig leaf of “land jihad”, only ghettos, prisons, and ruins are being constructed as the inhabitable architecture for the minority community. With temples being engineered over the rubble of mosques as a symbol of conquest, Hindu supremacists want ruin as the predominant form of association with the Muslim identity. Debris is being deliberately created to build optimal spatial conditions for apartheid as well as to dissuade and diminish any form of return to “normalcy” for the community. We have no way to measure how this destruction is impacting our people’s psychology and the affective injuries it is producing. What is this beast among us, moving, devouring our lives with its jaws open?
A: In the face of these relentless spatial attacks, what is the responsibility of civil society, organised movements, and activists across communities, regions, and faiths?
SMR: I think the primary task is to eliminate the word “clash” or “riots” from our vocabularies when referring to these coordinated attacks on Muslims and to acknowledge the perpetrators of this violence in an unapologetic manner. It is then that strong, beautiful, and committed solidarities can emerge. More architects and civil engineers should refuse to comply with the statist protocols when tasked with targeted demolitions. Writers associated with the JCB Prize for Literature must break their silence as well because they are complicit in whitewashing the company’s crimes against the dispossessed. Because it is majoritarian prejudices that have been weaponised to manufacture victimhood, conversations have to begin among families, colleagues, and neighbours belonging to the majoritarian community. It is intimate and difficult labour. These demolition drives will continue to expand, like we saw in Madanpur Khadar, Dhisen Marg, Rohini, and Karol Bagh in Delhi, if there is lack of willingness on part of the majoritarian community to address this issue. But Shaheen Bagh spoke out and compelled the bulldozers to leave, teaching us that there are ways for Muslims to fight back on their own terms, to remain autonomous, and not to rely on conditional solidarities of convenience.