Shahdullah Baig stands among the rubble of what was once his modest two-bedroom home, his belongings buried under debris and broken bricks.
“In the blink of an eye, my home was demolished,” said the 45-year-old fruit seller, whose kitchen, fruit cart, and cattle shed have all been destroyed. “While I stood there watching… (the police) just walked away.”
Scraps of wood, rusty metal and garbage line the sandy pavement outside his home, where his four young children play.
His home was one of several properties in Khargone city’s Chhoti Mohan Talkies neighborhood, in India’s central Madhya Pradesh state, that he says were demolished by authorities following violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims that broke out on April 10 – the day of the Hindu festival Ram Navami.
Authorities have defended the demolitions by saying they had acted against both “rioters” and “encroachers,” claiming the houses and shops were built illegally on public land. But Baig and others spoken to by CNN say only Muslim homes have been targeted.
Experts say the demolitions are the tip of a far deeper problem and that this is only the latest in a string of attacks on the country’s Muslim population, fueled in part by the ascendance of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
They argue that Muslims in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh have been disproportionately punished following the violence, raising fears that members of the country’s largest minority religion – about 200 million of India’s 1.3 billion population are Muslim – are being persecuted under the BJP.
They point to similar problems in the capital New Delhi, where witnesses told CNN that authorities began demolishing shops and other structures in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Jahangirpuri on Wednesday, days after violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims broke out following Hanuman Jayanti, a celebration of the birthday of the Hindu god Hanuman.
For Baig, there is an extra sense of injustice.
Baig said he and his neighbors were nowhere near the scene of the clashes.
“I don’t know what is happening in my country,” said Baig, who says he has lived in the property for more than 30 years. “But all I can say is that I’m paying the price of being a Muslim.”
‘My shops were demolished because I am Muslim’
The communal violence in Khargone erupted after groups of Hindu men carrying saffron flags – a color associated with Hinduism that has in recent years become increasingly politicized – marched through Muslim-majority neighborhoods on Ram Navami, a festival that celebrates the birth of the revered Hindu god, Lord Ram.
The details of the clashes are disputed. Violent skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims erupted, with some men throwing stones and holding weapons in the air, according to video from local news outlets. Houses and cars were set on fire, and at least one person died – a Muslim man – in the clashes, state police told reporters. A curfew was imposed in the city to quell the violence on April 10, and some restrictions were lifted after 11 days, they said. The government said they have set aside a cumulative sum of $131,000 for families affected by the violence.
But it is the scenes of state officials bulldozing properties that gained the most attention, with activists and citizens decrying the move as unjust and unlawful.
Dr. Tameezuddin Shaikh was at home on April 11 when he received a phone call from a friend informing him that authorities were bulldozing his son’s medical shop in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Talab Chowk in Khargone.
“I was stunned,” said Shaikh, who says he often provides free services to impoverished and marginalized families. “There was a curfew imposed in the city and I had not been given any notice warning of any illegality. I live far away from my medical store, and with the curfew imposed, there was no way that we could go and stop the demolitions.”
About a dozen shops in Talab Chowk were demolished by Khargone authorities, according to Shaikh.
Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra described the state’s actions as a form of revenge, telling reporters on April 11: “From the homes where stones were pelted, we will turn those homes to a pile of stones.” He offered no proof the residents whose homes were destroyed had been linked to the violence.
Shaikh said neither he nor his son were involved in the violence. And he has served the local community from that shop for more than five decades without an issue, he added.
“I’m a respected name in Khargone, having served people all my life,” he said. “But all the medicines and everything in my clinic worth over 10 lakh rupees ($13,000) turned to rubble.”
Muslim group Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind has filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court, urging an intervention into the demolitions, and calling them a “violation” of India’s constitution.
According to lawyer and activist Kawalpreet Kaur, district officers “cannot take the law into their own hands and cannot be the adjudicating authority.”
“They cannot decide who is a criminal,” she said.
Rahul Verma, a fellow from the Centre for Policy Research, said the demolitions in Madhya Pradesh were “unprecedented.”
“It’s not a job of the municipal office to give punishment to people who might be involved in stone-pelting or violence,” he said.
Ayub Khan, a resident of the Aurangpura Square neighborhood, about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) from Talab Chowk, lost seven shops when authorities demolished them a day after the violence.
Khan says he lost more than $26,000 in the destruction, and now faces the daunting task of rebuilding without sufficient money. He plans to file a petition against state officials in the country’s Supreme Court.
“The demolished shops had stood there for over 70 years and we never received a single (government) notice,” he said. “Indeed my shops were demolished because I am a Muslim who refused to bend before BJP leaders. The way the district administration is targeting Muslims after the violence in Khargone, it’s evident that they hate a particular community.”
CNN contacted the secretary for Madhya Pradesh’s Home Minister, Secretary Home Minister, Khargone’s District Collector and the police, but did not receive a response.
Support for the Hindu right
Tensions between Indian Hindus and Muslims have been flashpoints for decades – even before India gained its independence from the British. But when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP swept to power in 2014, promising economic reform and development, experts feared his rise could signal an ideological shift away from the nation’s secular norms toward those of a Hindu-nationalist state.
The BJP has its roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu group that counts Modi among its members and adheres to Hindutva ideology – which seeks to make India the land of the Hindus.
Analysts and activists feared Modi’s election would leave India’s Muslims – about 14% of the country’s population – vulnerable to exploitation.
According to Debasish Roy Chowdhury, co-author of “To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism,” the “demonstrable subjugation and domination of Muslims through their constant humiliation and disempowerment” is “central” to the BJP’s Hindutva project.
“It charges the party’s Hindu-right voter base, as well as helps enlist more supporters by constantly polarizing voters on the basis of religious identity through a relentless campaign of hate,” he said.
And according to Chowdhury, Hindu vigilante groups are “increasingly allowed more leeway.”
Over the last eight years, several BJP-run states have imposed new laws that critics say are rooted in Hindutva ideology. At the same time, reports of violence and hate-speech against Muslims have increasingly made headlines across the country.
The most controversial new laws are in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Hindu monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath. The state has introduced laws to protect cows, an animal considered sacred to Hindus, from slaughter, and made it increasingly difficult to transport cattle. It has also introduced an anti-conversion bill, which makes it harder for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.
Most recently, the BJP-ruled southern state of Karnataka banned Muslim girls from wearing religious headscarves in classrooms, prompting several to challenge the decision in the state’s top court – a battle they ultimately lost.
According to Muslim author and journalist Rana Ayyub, Muslims are “made to feel like victims in their own country.”
“From what I see in India right now, I feel for my Muslims,” she said. “I feel for my brother each time he goes for Namaz (prayers) wearing a skullcap during the month of (Ramadan).”
And the demolition of Muslim-owned properties during Ramadan, according to Ayyub is “demonizing and demoralizing.”
“It’s like (state authorities) are doing it purposefully,” she said. “They’re trying to tell us that (during) a month that is sacrosanct for Muslims, ‘we are going to humiliate your beliefs and your system’.”
Baig continues to live in a small room in his home – the only one spared demolition – with his wife, children and ailing father.
They have no running water or electricity. Food is running out, he says, and with his livelihood destroyed Baig does not know how he can afford to feed his family.
“With temperatures touching 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit), we are struggling to soothe our crying children,” his wife Parveen said.
Meanwhile, Khargone district officials have posted numerous photos and videos to their official social media, showing police patrolling the streets and bulldozing more properties.
“Do not let harmony become divided,” read a tweet from Tuesday. “Create an atmosphere of peace and harmony.”
But Baig believes that the very institutions in place to protect him and his family betrayed him by destroying their home.
“I want to ask the government, how can a man who struggles to make ends meet, but feeds his family by working hard each day, have the means to indulge in (violent) activities?” Baig asked.