India court asks if Nuh demolitions were ‘an exercise of ethnic cleansing’

More than 300 homes, businesses and roadside shanties – mainly belonging to Muslims – were bulldozed after communal violence.

An Indian court has asked whether days of demolitions of homes and businesses of mainly Muslim residents in the northern state of Haryana were “an exercise of ethnic cleansing”.

Ordering a halt to four days of bulldozing of properties in the state’s Nuh district, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Monday said: “The issue also arises whether the buildings belonging to a particular community are being brought down under the guise of law and order problem and an exercise of ethnic cleansing is being conducted by the state.”The bench of Justice GS Sandhawalia and Justice Harpreet Kaur Jeewan also observed that the state authorities had conducted the demolition drive “without following the procedure established by law” or issuing any prior notices to the people owning the properties, legal news website LiveLaw reported.

Al Jazeera on Monday reported that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana demolished hundreds of homes, shops and shanties in Nuh, the state’s only Muslim-majority district.

In recent years, several rights groups have condemned the BJP for making the bulldozing of properties owned by mainly Muslim suspects in cases of violence – and even political dissenters – a common practice in the states governed by the right-wing party.

The observation by the Punjab and Haryana High Court is a rare example of India’s judiciary asking a question that is already being asked by rights groups and experts around the world.

In January last year, Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch, a non-governmental organisation he launched in 1999, told a United States congressional briefing that genocide of Muslims could take place in India.

“We are warning that genocide could very well happen in India,” Stanton said, adding that there were early “signs and processes” of it in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and Indian-administered Kashmir.

Nearly a month before Stanton’s statement, a group of Hindu religious leaders had congregated along the banks of the Ganges River in the northern Indian town of Haridwar and called for a genocide of Muslims.

Videos from the Dharm Sansad (religious parliament) showed multiple Hindu monks, some of them having close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, saying Hindus should kill Muslims.

Several BJP leaders, including government ministers, have been accused of making public remarks threatening the entire Muslim community since the Hindu nationalist party came into power in 2014.

Stanton said genocide was “not an event but a process” as he drew parallels between the policies pursued by the BJP government in India and the attacks on Rohingya in 2017, when Myanmar’s military attacked its mainly Muslim minority, killing thousands, raping women and burning their villages.

The United Nations said the Myanmar military’s campaign was conducted with a “genocidal intent”.

The UN defines ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area”, while genocide is “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Tension continues in Haryana

Last week’s violence in Haryana began after far-right Hindu groups took out a procession in Nuh.

Besides the bulldozing of homes, police also arrested more than 150 people – “almost all of them Muslim”, as a local lawyer told Al Jazeera – accusing them of participating in the violence.

Nuh residents said the people who participated in the procession, organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, were armed with sticks, swords, tridents and even guns, and raised provocative anti-Muslim slogans as they marched through Muslim neighbourhoods.Both the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, along with hundreds of small and large Hindu groups across India, form what is known as the “Sangh Parivar” (United Family), headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.

Police said the people who attacked the Hindu procession came from the settlement of “illegal” structures.

“The demolition campaign has been stopped,” the Nuh administration said in a statement on Monday.

A Facebook video that went viral before the march featured Mohit Yadav, popularly known as Monu Manesar, a notorious Hindu vigilante accused of lynching two Muslim men in February this year over allegations of cow slaughter. He is also named in several other cases of anti-Muslim violence.

In the video, Manesar was purportedly seen inviting Hindus to join the procession “in large numbers” in Nuh, where 77 percent of the residents are Muslim.

Several media reports said the video became the trigger for the violence, which, according to officials, began after Muslims allegedly pelted stones at the procession and burned some vehicles along the highway.

At least seven people have been killed in the violence, including the imam of a mosque set on fire last week in Gurugram, a business hub outside capital New Delhi.

Two Bajrang Dal members and two police guards – one of them being Muslim – were also killed as religious tensions continue to spread to other parts of Haryana.

On Monday, police said there were more clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Panipat district, 200km (134 miles) away from Nuh, where the trouble began last week.

A tomb and several vehicles were torched and shops ransacked, police said.

“There have been three incidents of shops being vandalised in the district. Six people have been arrested,” said Mayank Mishra, an assistant superintendent of police.

Tensions between members of India’s majority Hindu community and minority Muslims, who form 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people, have periodically flared into deadly violence for generations.

Muslims accuse the BJP of unfair treatment and a targeted hate campaign against them. The government rejects the accusations.

Despite the latest trouble, the district magistrate of Gurugram lifted prohibitory orders in place since last week, saying “normalcy has returned”.

But for many Muslims, the clashes have only brought more fear. Some have left towns to return to their villages or have gone to live with friends and relatives in other areas, media reports said.

Some Muslims in Gurugram say men have been coming to their communities and threatening them with violence unless they leave.

“They told us to get out of our house or they will burn it down. We are leaving because we are afraid,” resident Amuta Sarkar said.