What the bulldozing of a food cart in Jahangirpuri says

Its fate could be a portent for anyone who doesn’t submit to the demands of a single identity

In the media coverage of the so-called anti-encroachment drive in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, one shot stands out. There is an earth excavator smashing into a hand-driven cart. Perhaps the owner of the blue colored cart, now emptied of any stock, sold food from it, or maybe cheap mobile phone covers. The vehicle’s flimsy tin roof and spindly wheels crumple against the first blow but the excavator smashes again and again, as if fearful that the cart’s apparent fragility might be a ploy for a conspiracy of resistance. The thela and the livelihood it provided lie in a mangled heap and we cut away to an interview with the mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. The mayor talks about the Corporation and its mandate of making Delhi “clean and encroachment free”.

The fate of the hapless cart captures that of the most marginalized residents of our cities and the excavator is an apt symbol of a state machinery that has been forged into an instrument of violence against manufactured enemies of public order and national interest. The forceful conversion of state bureaucracies to the nationalism of religious ideology is the first and most fundamental problem of our times. This, of course, is quite different from the types of “forced conversions” we frequently hear about.

Instances of religious conversion among individuals are vastly exaggerated. The rate and depth of conversion of the apparently a-religious arms of governance, on the other hand, can hardly be overestimated.

Urban encroachments are secular activities spread across class and religious lines. The urban poor resort to it as a means of survival, whereas the better-off use it for further enrichment. However, we should fear the fate of cities when the drive to make them “clean and encroachment free” might actually be underwritten by motivations to cleanse them of certain groups. The Israeli state — whose bulldozer justice we seemed to have copied — has still to learn that demolishing the homes of Palestinians does not do away with the source of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The problem rises from the rubble, again and again, and each time with greater consequences, more loss of life and deepening of misery.

Most, if not all, communal riots are engineered for specific purposes. The reasons relate to a mix of political, commercial and real estate gains. As these objectives are achieved, a semblance of — let’s say, diminished — normality returns to the localities affected by the violence. However, once we are encouraged to associate the possibility of a “gain” with the obliteration of groups, then we should fear for the fate of our cities.

In the case of Jahangirpuri, and indeed, other parts of India, this association has become almost irreversible. It is more potent for the fact we are mostly a state-driven democracy and the version of democracy that the party in power propagates comes to pass. The association between Muslims and illegality and illegitimacy is so complete that even a party hostile to the BJP invokes it to explain the riots at Jahangirpuri. Consider the public statements by key members of the Aam Aadmi Party who blamed the BJP for the violence but introduced the figure of “illegal” Bangladeshi and Rohingya settler as both a tool and an active participant in it. These groups — and by extension, other Muslims — stand forever marked as pliable tools of disruption and violence. Not only are they now the objects of hatred and violence of majoritarianism, but also the groups that do not profess majoritarianism and frequently speak for religious tolerance and diversity.
The pervasive identification of the “guilty” has found a broader echo and we speak of social and economic issues in the language of religious identity. The issue of “encroachments” in informal localities is actually part of a longer historical problem of land policies produced by bodies such as the Delhi Development Authority and has little connection with the apparent proclivities of any particular religious or ethnic group. However, when all sections of society — the ruling party, its opponents, bureaucracies, most privileged sections of the citizenry — produce an unified view of a “monstrous” community that stands against public and national welfare, the stage is set for a dystopian future .

Metropolises can be bulwarks against the prejudices of the small town and village. Cities are frequently places where harassed lovers, stigmatised individuals and others constrained by the mores of outdated social structures seek another future. And, while there is no instant utopia of freedom and material fulfillment, there is research evidence that the possibilities that cities offer to convince the majority of migrants to stay on and try their luck rather than go back to their villages and smaller towns. Cities are also places that absorb refugees fleeing difficult conditions in their own countries, contributing to the economic life of the former. However, as the process of identification of the “problem population” has found widespread adherents, our cities have actually turned into topographies of everyday terror.

But we should remember that the terror that is experienced by the most vulnerable — who might be provoked to react to it — will not be confined to it. The consequences are much broader. The terror is produced through making the state an informal and ad hoc instrument of governance, willfully associating social and economic problems with religious identity, and promoting historically inaccurate images of “genuine” Indianness.

The food cart in one of Jahangirpuri’s lanes that was violently broken into pieces by an earth excavator could well be a portent for the terror that awaits anyone who may not submit to the demands of a single identity. Food carts are easy to build, but their customers come with multiple identities — religious, caste, ethnic, sexual, linguistic — and the violent straitjacketing of these is something that will not be restricted just to the “problem” populations of Jahangirpuri. Perhaps “1984” is now just another date and we have learned no lessons from it.

The writer is a sociologist


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