Dispatch

The view from the ground.

‘We Begged Them to Spare Our Shops’

In New Delhi, the BJP-controlled local government razes a market run by Muslim women.

By , an independent multimedia journalist based out of New Delhi, and , an independent journalist based out of New Delhi.
People sell vegetables under yellow tents.
People sell vegetables under yellow tents.
Shoppers buy vegetables at a wholesale market in New Delhi on Jan. 22. Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

NEW DELHI—On April 20, Rahima Bibi stood helpless under the blazing sun as a bulldozer tore through her small tea stall in Jahangirpuri, a neighborhood in New Delhi’s northwest. Rahima had been running the stall for over a decade to support her family. As the bulldozer moved from her shop to mow down another stall, Rahima tried to rush to the remnants of her shop. But the police guarding the giant yellow bulldozer did not let her.

Hours later, when the bulldozer engines and blades had come to a halt, Rahima ran to the rubble and rummaged through it to salvage whatever she could: juice bottles, tea packets, and glasses. Everything else had been ravaged. Around 20 shops were bulldozed that day, despite the Indian Supreme Court’s order the same day to stop the demolition drive.

New Delhi’s civic body, run by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said it was bulldozing shops and constructions that had been illegally constructed. But the owners of the stalls, kiosks, and carts that were torn down maintained that the anti-encroachment drive by the government was politically motivated and targeted their community: Muslims.

NEW DELHI—On April 20, Rahima Bibi stood helpless under the blazing sun as a bulldozer tore through her small tea stall in Jahangirpuri, a neighborhood in New Delhi’s northwest. Rahima had been running the stall for over a decade to support her family. As the bulldozer moved from her shop to mow down another stall, Rahima tried to rush to the remnants of her shop. But the police guarding the giant yellow bulldozer did not let her.

Hours later, when the bulldozer engines and blades had come to a halt, Rahima ran to the rubble and rummaged through it to salvage whatever she could: juice bottles, tea packets, and glasses. Everything else had been ravaged. Around 20 shops were bulldozed that day, despite the Indian Supreme Court’s order the same day to stop the demolition drive.

New Delhi’s civic body, run by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said it was bulldozing shops and constructions that had been illegally constructed. But the owners of the stalls, kiosks, and carts that were torn down maintained that the anti-encroachment drive by the government was politically motivated and targeted their community: Muslims.

Four days before the demolition, Jahangirpuri had been the site of communal tensions. A religious procession by Hindus passed through the area and came under attack from stone-throwers, allegedly Muslims. Muslim residents, meanwhile, claimed that the clash began after some men from the Hindu procession tried to enter the local mosque.

Around the same time, other parts of India were witnessing similar episodes of anti-Muslim violence. Post-violence, a pattern emerged in several states governed by the BJP, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh: Bulldozers were sent by civic authorities to the violence-hit areas to demolish properties owned by Muslims.

Because of this selective demolition, affected Muslims said they were being punished for the communal clashes.

In New Delhi’s Jahangirpuri neighborhood, it was Muslim women—running small shops, stalls, or kiosks or selling rags—who were most affected. Their bulldozed stalls had sold fruits, vegetables, and other essentials to the community.

“For the government of Modi to target this community, which is trying to revive its livelihood after the pandemic, is unconstitutional, illegal, and inhuman.”

Rahima said her stall was the only source of livelihood for her family and that they were not given any notice prior to the demolition. “We begged them to spare our shops, but we were locked inside the lanes,” she said, referring to the neighborhood’s many gated alleyways. “They came and did not even let us empty the shops before razing them.”

Rahima’s neighbor, Fahmida, who works as a rag picker, said several of her bags were taken away by the civic authority during the demolition drive. Fahmida collected rags, sorted them, and then sold them to scrap dealers to earn a living and support her family of five. She estimated the value of the contents of each bag at around 1,000 rupees, or about $13. “We rarely have any savings,” Fahmida said. “They took the bags that took us weeks to collect.”

Women account for more than 80 percent of India’s informal economy, according to a study by the International Labour Office in Geneva. The majority of these informal workers are from marginalized populations, such as Muslims and lower-caste Hindus and Dalits. Another report on the Indian informal economy published in 2021 revealed that “every nine out of ten Muslim workers earn their livelihoods in the informal economy,” compared with Hindu and other religions.

Brinda Karat, a former parliamentarian and member of the Communist Party of India, underscored that the demolitions in Jahangirpuri devastated the livelihoods of women, in particular. “Around 70 handcarts were smashed in Jahangirpuri. The majority were those used by women, many of them widows or heading their families,” she said.

As the Muslim properties in Delhi were being mowed down, Karat was attempting to block the bulldozers with a copy of the court order in hand that called for the demolition to stop. Despite her efforts to stop the demolition, the bulldozers tore down the shops for hours, stopping just a few yards from a Hindu temple.

“In Jahangirpuri, many Muslim families survive on the earnings of women. They play an important role in ensuring the survival of their families. In general, women’s employment is poor, particularly after the pandemic. In such a situation, for the government of Modi to target this community, which is trying to revive its livelihood after the pandemic, is unconstitutional, illegal, and inhuman,” Karat said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi often credits “Nari Shakti” (“Women Power”) for the success of his party, which accrued the highest number of female votes ever in 2019. The government has, in turn, introduced several schemes to uplift the status of women in India, at least on paper.

From “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao,” an initiative that aims to curb the declining sex ratio in the country and promote female literacy; to providing refuge to victims of violence and abuse with legal, medical, and counseling services; to the flagship scheme “Stand Up India,” which offers loans at the lowest possible rates so that women can set up their own businesses, the Modi-led government has engineered several schemes to retain female voters.

But Karat refutes the claims that the current Indian government has generated any jobs for women. “Data and statistics show that women’s employment is at an all-time low,” she said. On top of that, she added, “when the government bulldozes [women’s] small houses and shops, they demolish much more than a house—they demolish their lifetime savings and sacrifices.”

With the rise of the right-wing Hindu-nationalist BJP government in Delhi and in several Indian states, there has been an uptick in violence against Muslims. Between 2016 and 2020 alone, there were as many as 3,399 cases of religious rioting in India, according to the Indian government. In 2020, several people were killed during anti-Muslim violence in the national capital that took place against the backdrop of nationwide protests against the newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslims seeking citizenship.

And even though the current government has been claiming to work for the welfare of Muslim women, there have been a series of attacks on their religious identity, in particular. At the beginning of this year, in a perverse attack, the photographs of more than 100 Muslim women appeared on an app called Bulli Bai. These Muslim women, including prominent journalists and activists who have been outspoken critics of the government, were “auctioned” on the app. The incident was the second of its kind within six months.

Apoorvanand, a political commentator and professor of the Hindi language at Delhi University, told Foreign Policy that the demolition of Muslim properties is “definitely to disempower Muslims in different ways—first, to destroy their source of livelihood and then deprive them of their dwellings.”

He cited an example of a BJP politician who had said that those who don’t vote for the BJP would “face bulldozers.” “That was taken as a joke, but it wasn’t one,” Apoorvanand said. “Bulldozers are now a symbol of violence directed at Muslims.”

“The idea of breaking the economic spine of Muslims is seductive,” Apoorvanand said. “Along with the bulldozers, which are justified as an administrative exercise, open calls to boycott Muslim shops and businesses must be heard” and not ignored, he added.

Karat said the demolition of Muslim properties in BJP-controlled areas is a “new level of implementing the [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh]-Hindutva ideology, which is based on the premise that any other community in India who are non-Hindu do not have equal rights.”

The consequences of these anti-Muslim attacks are felt by women like Rashida Bibi, whose small chicken shop was demolished during the April 20 “anti-encroachment drive,” as the government called it. Rashida is a widow and has four kids to look after. “I don’t have any other source of income. How will I feed my children?” she told Foreign Policy. “It feels like they [the government] want us to beg in the streets. That is the only way we can survive if I don’t get my shop back.”

Apoorvanand said an anti-encroachment drive is the easiest excuse to demolish Muslim properties, as it finds favor with the predominantly Hindu middle class and judiciary.

Three days after the stalls around Jahangirpuri were razed, a group of women sat chatting in a narrow lane nearby. Malika Bibi’s fruit and vegetable shop had been destroyed. Outside, the roads leading to her locality were barricaded and manned by police. She said that when the bulldozers were operating, she and many others were locked inside a gated lane. Behind the gate, as she saw her 25-year-old shop being vandalized by a giant bulldozer and fruits and vegetables being strewn all over, she folded her hands and pleaded for it to be stopped. “But there was no one to listen to me.”

Haziq Qadri is an independent multimedia journalist based out of New Delhi. Twitter: @haziq_qadri

Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. Twitter: @Qadri_Inzamam

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