Authorities in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) have demolished the houses of some Muslims who were allegedly linked to religious protests that turned violent.
The protests were sparked by derogatory remarks made by two former leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.
The demonstrations turned violent in some states as people damaged property.
More than 300 people were arrested in UP.
Local authorities demolished three Muslim-owned houses over the weekend, alleging that they had been illegally constructed – a claim denied by some of the owners.
The demolitions triggered condemnation from opposition leaders, who accused the state government – headed by chief minister Yogi Adityanath – of targeting the minority Muslim community.
Critics say religious polarisation has deepened in India since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power. Hate speech and attacks against Muslims have risen sharply over the past few years.
A tweet from Mrityunjay Kumar, Mr Adityanath’s media adviser, also sparked outrage. He had tweeted a photo of a bulldozer demolishing a building, adding: “Unruly elements remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday.”
Two of the destroyed houses belonged to people who were accused of throwing stones after Friday prayers.
The third was that of a politician named Javed Ahmed, who has been accused of planning the protests. His daughter, Afreen Fatima, is a prominent Muslim rights activist who had participated in the protests against a controversial citizenship law.
A former chief justice of the Allahabad high court told The Indian Express newspaper that the demolition of Mr Ahmed’s house was “totally illegal”.
“Even if you assume for a moment that the construction was illegal, which by the way is how crores of Indians live, it is impermissible that you demolish a house on a Sunday when the residents are in custody,” former Chief Justice Govind Mathur said.
An official from the Prayagraj Development Authority (PDA) – which demolished Mr Ahmed’s house – has said it had issued a notice to him in May, asking him to appear before them. But Ms Fatima has denied this, saying the family was only informed when a notice was stuck to their door on Saturday.
A group of lawyers also wrote to the high court, pointing out that the demolition was against the law.
“No earlier notices of illegal construction were received by the accused or his wife,” their letter said.
This is not the first time Uttar Pradesh and some other BJP-ruled states have been accused of using demolitions to target alleged protesters in the aftermath of communal violence. Experts have questioned the method’s legal sanction.
“You are disproportionately punishing people of one community without following any due process. This is not just illegal, but it also sets a dangerous precedent,” Ashhar Warsi, a senior lawyer, had told the BBC in April.
In the meantime, the controversy over the comments made by the former BJP leaders shows no signs of dying down.
It was triggered by a remark made by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma in a televised debate last month. Videos of her statement went viral, sparking sporadic protests.
Naveen Jindal, who was media head of the party’s Delhi unit, had also posted a provocative tweet on the issue.
The issue gained global attention after more than a dozen countries from the Islamic world condemned the remarks, sparking a diplomatic nightmare for India.
The BJP then suspended Ms Sharma and expelled Mr Jindal. Ms Sharma and her family have also been given protection by the Delhi Police after she said she received harassment and threats.
But Ms Sharma has received support from many BJP supporters online. Some of her party colleagues also tweeted in her support after the recent protests against her remark took a violent turn.
A YouTuber from Indian-administered Kashmir was arrested after he posted a video that showed him beheading an effigy of Ms Sharma. In Jharkhand state, two people died of bullet injuries during the protests.