Bulldozers as political tools: how they transformed into crushing claws
The monster machine is now being used to create the image of a harsh boss, urban mythology that is heightened by nicknames like Bulldozer Baba and Bulldozer Mama.
The machine also inscribes the commandment that the offender disobeyed on their body as part of the penalty. The story’s condemned character must have the words “Honour Thy Superiors” tattooed on his body. If disobedience to superiors was enough to warrant public death a century ago, one’s supposed criminal record is today enough to warrant public punishment and voyeuristic delight.
Ramesh Sachan, a government officer in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district, shared a photo of a bulldozer on social media last month with the caption: “Yah hum hain, aur yah hamari car hai, yah hamari party ho rahi hai. (Here we are, this is our car and here we are holding our party).” The authorities had just razed the property of a suspected criminal in the district the day before. The revealing comments, coming from an officer, encapsulated the monster machine’s recent presence in the Indian government.
The bulldozer does not operate in silence or stealth. It’s a public performance. Its bold images were both its attraction and its fear. It turns helpless sobs into a show, inviting cheerleaders to take pleasure in the victim’s anguish. A kangaroo court, or modern counterpart of the guillotine, is a bulldozer. It violates legal norms and jurisprudence philosophy.
It does not negotiate or converse with people it considers to be its enemies; instead, it razes them to the ground. Its power comes not from what it accomplishes, but from who it is. The phrase bulldozer invokes numerous sensations of seduction, hypnotism, and dread long before the gigantic blade descends upon its adversary. Depending on whatever side of the fence you are on, the shape, size, and look of this aesthetically ugly yet seemingly unstoppable machine may be both fascinating and scary. It’s a tank used to destroy civilians.
It was a key allied asset in WWII, commencing with the assault on the Normandy shore, because of its capacity to crush structures and clear debris. Colonel K. S. Andersson, a US Army officer, authored The Bulldozer—An Appreciation in 1944 when the war was still raging. “Of all the weapons of war, the bulldozer ranks top,” he wrote. Although planes and tanks are more romantic and appeal to the popular imagination, the Army’s progress is dependent on the unromantic, unsung hero who drives the ‘cat.'” In precise and piercing remarks, the officer prophesied the machine’s destiny.
Retributive or “an eye for an eye” punishment is the most primitive of all punishments. The bulldozer is already a step ahead.
Its retaliation is immensely excessive since when an accused person’s home is demolished, their innocent family is inevitably targeted. The machine basically breaches Article 14’s Right to Equality since even a prisoner deserves only the punishment specified by law, not the demolition of one’s home. Its dagger slashes right into the heart of constitutionalism.
In the case of Olga Tellis versus Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), the Supreme Court found that the right to residence is protected by Article 21, which also guarantees the right to be given notice and a hearing before eviction, as well as rehabilitation through government programs.
In the case of Sudama Singh & Others vs Government of Delhi (2010), the Delhi High Court expanded on the guidelines, declaring it “the State’s constitutional and statutory obligation to ensure” that rehabilitation “must be a meaningful exercise consistent with the affected people’s rights to life, livelihood, and dignity.”
The monster machine, on the other hand, is now being used to create the image of a harsh boss, an urban legend, which is amplified by nicknames like Bulldozer Baba and Bulldozer Mama.
In March, BJP MLA Rameshwar Sharma in Madhya Pradesh parked numerous bulldozers outside his government residence in Bhopal with a banner that said, “Beti ki Suraksha main jo Banega rora, mama ka bulldozer Banega hathoda.” Sharma greeted CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan with “Bulldozer Mama Zindabad” shouts a few days later.
A clearly unlawful behaviour now reaps political benefits. Following the BJP’s victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections, it was reported that CM Yogi Adityanath used the phrase “bulldozer” during rallies in 58 locations, all of which the party won. The bulldozer and Bulldozer Baba were tattooed on the bodies of numerous young men in Agra following the victory.
India isn’t the only country that has built a political image around the bulldozer. When Richard C. Lee, the former mayor of New Haven, died in 2003 at the age of 86, his “urban renewal programs in the 1950s and 1960s garnered national prominence and provided a pattern for decades of future municipal revitalisation schemes,” according to a New York Times obituary.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars from the state and federal governments were used to raze dilapidated city neighbourhoods, accomplishments that were recorded in national magazines and newspapers,” he said. The procedures he used were not mentioned in his obituary. Francesca Russello Ammon recounted how Lee’s actions with the bulldozer gained him a national celebrity in her book Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape.
During a demolition drive in 1958, he even sat in the driver’s seat and “swung the crane’s skull breaker against the brick walls of an ancient tenement structure” with “a sympathetic mob formed behind him.”
Journalists were present to cover the destruction in the United States, just as they were in India. The high-profile mayor frequently staged building demolitions in front of media and visiting dignitaries. “Some mayors distribute city keys. “We demolish structures for our visitors,” Lee famously quipped. By that metric, Indian officials were kind enough not to provide a live spectacle for visiting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had to suffer from a pose on a bulldozer.
Contemporary mythology is formed when the leader and the lever join. The design and operation of its blade suggest a phallic triumph, making it a symbol of unfettered masculinity. It’s a political weapon with unlimited power for a society preoccupied with the image of a harsh ruler. As a result, the bulldozer would be incomplete without the hysterical cheerleaders. It’s not a gloomy jail with a hidden torture room. It invites spectators to take part in the event.
It permits a photographer to trample on a dying guy who was shot by cops while protesting an eviction. It gives a TV anchor a ride to conduct a live program of the demolition, which the host makes appear exciting and thrilling. The sight outside its windshield may resemble a video game on a large screen, with its lever serving as the joystick and unlucky humans serving as the adversaries to be crushed. In the absence of a hysterical audience attempting to establish a moral and legal framework for the act, the bulldozer will lose much of its glitter and impact.
Without the hysterical cheerleaders, the bulldozer is incomplete. It Isn’t A Torture Chamber Hidden Inside A Dark Prison. It invites spectators to take part in the event.
For a community beset by several internal and external problems, mob justice serves a variety of objectives. It sends a patriotic message to the people, giving them a sense of power and authority, and restoring their faith in both the rulers and themselves. More importantly, the show of strength assuages fears about China. The bulldozer takes on the appearance of a contemporary chariot, and the driver takes on the persona of a fabled charioteer capable of ramming the vehicle into unimaginable locations and conquering hostile territory.
A demolition effectively erases a section of your life that you are unable to confront or accept. When foreign invaders desecrate sacred sites, when the Taliban blasts the Buddhas of Bamiyan, when a crowd desecrates a mosque, or when hutments along the Yamuna are dismantled to allow the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the implicit goal is to debunk an argument.
Nietzsche writes on the psychology underlying putting harm on stones in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Because “he cannot move” some stones, “he moves stones out of fury and discontent, and he exacts retribution.” But, because he can’t call it to revenge in public, he calls it “punishment” and says it “feigns a decent conscience for itself with a falsehood.” When a bulldozer uses religion to identify its targets in order to instil terror in its targeted targets, it becomes a kind of retribution disguised as punishment.
Not all demolitions are religiously motivated. Some bulldozers arrive with the lofty goal of completely transforming a terrain.
This secular project’s betrayal is difficult to discern. However, once the region has been remodelled, new and wealthy settlers might be found, leaving the original and evicted residents destitute and fighting protracted legal fights. Over a decade ago, hundreds of peasants were evicted to make way for Naya Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s new capital. The new environment is now a fascinating zone with beautiful roads and structures, yet many villages are still protesting the land purchase.
The victims of the secular bulldozer, like the victims of religion-based demolitions, are largely from the poorer parts of society. In both circumstances, they are given a new identity, a pejorative citizenship category: evicted, homeless.
In the Sudama Singh case, the Delhi High Court used harsh language to describe the State’s indifference to such persons. “It is very unusual for State agencies to end up establishing additional slums in the name of evicting slums and beautifying the city; the only difference is that this time it is hidden from view of city people.”
In the earliest democracy, the situation was not dissimilar. The urban regeneration effort was dubbed “Negro eradication” by James Baldwin. In an essay, Brent Cebul, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences, stated that “although Black Americans made up just 13% of the overall population in 1960, they made up at least 55% of those who were killed.”
But where do the downtrodden and displaced go? I met a Maoist leader named Jaylal in Bastar in February 2014. He was a 22-year-old small man with an INSAS rifle and a pen-gun. When the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU with the Tatas for a steel facility in Bastar in 2005, he was in Class V at a government school. Adivasis rose up in protest of the land grab, and some of them, like the little kid, joined the Naxals. After a decade of demonstrations, the Tatas were forced to abandon the project, but Jaylal had developed into a skilled guerilla.
The narrative of the punishment machine is portrayed through the eyes of the victims.
But what about from the opposite side? According to psychological studies, an unfair machine progressively eats away at its operator’s, leaving them spiritually dry and spent. In Kafka’s short story, the officer ultimately throws himself on the machine, which inscribes the words “Be Just” on his body with its blade. He chose the exact penalty he had been inflicting on others on himself: his sole goal was to be just, something he may never be in this life.
All demolitions are not religious in nature. Some bulldozers arrive with the lofty goal of completely transforming a terrain. This secular project’s betrayal is difficult to discern.
In his brilliant essay Shooting An Elephant, George Orwell eloquently captures the psychology of an unfair public spectacle. He recounts an event in which he was compelled to fire shots at a defenceless animal because people demanded it as an imperial police officer stationed in Myanmar. “They didn’t like me, but I was worth watching for a while with the miraculous gun in my hands.” He discovered that he was an “absurd puppet driven around by the people around him,” a “hollow, posturing mannequin,” and a “tyrant” ruining his “own independence.” Orwell knew he was wrong, but he couldn’t help himself in the face of the frantic mob.
The persons who are now operating the bulldozer may lack such introspective consciousness and hence may lack the ability to confess and redeem themselves. The buried fears of those for whom the bulldozer is a live game show are difficult to predict. However, we know that the crowd that toppled a mosque three decades ago has taken on frightening new shapes. It now stands unrestrained both online and on the roadways, unable to confront its neatly kept concerns. One might bemoan the loss of one’s spirituality while yet fearing the consequences of the bulldozer retribution.
Livelihoods and Dreams Crushed
Delhi and Madhya Pradesh have recently carried out demolition campaigns that are characterized as ‘acts of malice’ by an insensitive government.
In Jahangirpuri, scenes of scared and humiliated families, a smashed street vendor’s cart, a tiny boy picking up pennies and tetra packs from the ruins of a demolished juice box, and scenes of petrified and humiliated families reveal the fracture lines in state-citizenship interactions. The Jahangirpuri episode brings back memories for those who work with urban space and politics of the tragic Turkman gate demolition during the Emergency 46 years ago when violent opposition to the demolition resulted in police shootings and deaths of local citizens.
While retaliatory and ‘punitive’ demolitions have overt political meaning and manifestation, it is also important to note that the spatial and political dimensions of large-scale demolition in Delhi have distinct phases: before and during the Emergency in the 1970s, before the Asian Games in the 1980s, and before the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Under the guise of beauty, aesthetics, urban infrastructure, development, and so on, similar patterns and stages may be seen in numerous other major and small cities. This begs the question: how can we grasp the suffering of those who have been evicted or demolished? What is one’s reaction to the concept of a right to the city for those on the outskirts?
The legality of the merciless demolitions, as well as how demolition politics arose and influenced cities and their citizens, have been debated and questioned. While the bulldozer has been used to symbolize the male state’s brutal power as a feared and terrible tool of municipal and police agencies, the question of life, livelihood, and dignity continue to be compromised in urban environments. While the middle-class consumer-citizen views urban informal settlements as a nuisance, unclean, and illegal, the state and market require the space they occupy for the neoliberal growth goal.
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1985 that pavement dwellers live on “filthy pathways out of absolute helplessness” rather than to offend, insult, intimidate, or disturb anybody, the demolitions proceeded unabated. These demolitions frequently occur under adverse weather conditions—sweltering heat, freezing cold, or a heavy monsoon—and the images of displaced people are distressing.
Recent demolition operations by city authorities in Jahangirpuri and the Madhya Pradesh government in Khargone, among other locations, are qualitatively and politically different from previous ones. They raise a number of concerns, not because demolition drives are novel to India, but because of the manner in which they were carried out and the politics that guided them. Some of these features are as follows:
To begin with, it is a failure of the developing state that a major proportion of the Indian people confront livelihood marginalization, both in urban and rural regions, with rural areas being more so. They travel from rural to urban regions in quest of new livelihood opportunities. They mostly squat and reside on public and private lands, resulting in informal communities such as slums or jhuggi and jhopdi. Because these communities are uncontrolled and have little chance of expansion, the growing population spills out onto surrounding streets and roads, not just for dwelling space but also for tiny commerce and income.
This is exacerbated by marginalized people’s continuous rural-urban movement. Depriving people of their right to work is comparable to denying them their right to life. In the Olga Tellis case, the Supreme Court referred to this entangled relationship as “right to livelihood as an element of the right to life.” Furthermore, in a 1989 ruling in Saudan Singh vs NDMC, the Supreme Court stated that while all pucca roads and streets belong to the state, they are held as trustees of the people, and as such, the public has the right to utilize them.
As a result, slum-dwellers livelihoods, rights to life, and rights to space are intimately linked to their citizenship rights. The inability of the developmental state to safeguard people’s livelihoods has resulted in the current disaster in our cities.
Second, can marginalized groups occupy all public areas indefinitely? No. This will cause confusion and may result in the city’s efficiency and public transit system failing. Sections 320 and 321 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, like those of other local governments, ban any “building and fixture on streets” and the disposal of “items on streets,” respectively. Section 322 also gives the commissioner the authority to remove temporary structures and ‘items’ from sidewalks and roadways. Permanent constructions, on the other hand, cannot be demolished without prior notice.
According to Section 343 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, “no order of demolition must be made unless the person has been given a fair chance to show cause why such order may not be made by means of a notice delivered in such way as the Commissioner may see proper.” The property owner must be given a least of five days and a maximum of 15 days to dismantle such construction after receiving notice of destruction.
This clause also allows for a demolition appeal and a “demolition without rehabilitation strategy in place.” Furthermore, under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board Act of 2010, which was enacted in 2010 and through which the Delhi Slum and JJ Rehabilitation and Relocation Policy were enacted in 2017, even structures encroaching on government land cannot be demolished unless a rehabilitation policy is in place. However, as we have seen, many permanent structures in Jahangirpuri and Khargone have been dismantled, denying locals access to justice.
Third, if the regulations are so clear and obvious, why did state authorities carry out the sweep without informing residents, therefore depriving them of their right to access justice? Was this the state’s regular strategy, or was this an outlier?
We argue that this was not a standard state approach, but rather an exceptional one for two reasons:
(a) it targeted a specific religious community that had been subjected to hate politics by the ruling dispensation in order to consolidate its vote bank, and
(b) apparently, the encroachments per se were not the issue, but the backgrounds of Ram Navami violence, both in Jahangirpuri and Khargone, were used for demolitions targeting a specific religious community.
Fourth, there has been a significant shift in citizen subjects’ confidence in their ability to confront cruel actions through community mobilization and collective assertion.
Though many community-based groups, Sangathan, and micro-movements have provided some prospect of politics from below in the past, the manufacturing and building of the problem through the state-media nexus has recently limited the possibilities of such politics. The afflicted group feels isolated and alienated due to the partisanship of bureaucracy, the media, and the political elite.
In conclusion, the recent bulldozer acts in Delhi and Khargone demonstrate government malice. It denies residents their right to livelihood, life, and access to justice. This begins a new age of eviction and demolition politics.
edited and proofread by nikita