Hate bares its fangs in Uttarakhand

We haven’t even begun to fathom the chilling effect of the campaign to drive Muslims out of Purola

A demonstration by Hindutva groups in Barkot in Uttarakhand's Uttarkashi district demanding eviction of Muslims from the town. (Photo: Yogender Singh Bisht)
A demonstration by Hindutva groups in Barkot in Uttarakhand's Uttarkashi district demanding eviction of Muslims from the town. (Photo: Yogender Singh Bisht)

Trilochan Bhatt

They were the usual suspects. They chanted the usual slogans. Amidst chants of Jai Shri Ram (victory to Lord Ram), Bharat mata ki Jai (victory to Mother India)” and slogans like Devbhoomi mein Musalmaano ka kya kaam hai? (what business do Muslims have in Devbhoomi, the home of the gods?), the procession, a few-hundreds strong, stopped in front of the house of Muhammad Ikhlaq, a shopkeeper in Purola Bazaar.

The chanting became more frenzied, slurs and abuses rose in volume. It lasted for an unnerving 10–15 minutes. “Abbu, why are they abusing us?” asked his children. Ikhlaq had no answer.

Mohammad Wasim made his living washing cars in a small garage. His landlord asked him to pack up and leave. “Mahaul garam hai (the situation is tense),” the landlord said. Salim Ahmed too left for Dehradun, after his landlord served him an eviction notice.

Being a BJP-member and office-bearer did not help Zahid Malik, the district minority cell chief who left for Dehradun when the mob threatened to burn down his garment shop because he protested. He received no support from the party and was reportedly asked to stay quiet. “If I am not feeling safe in Uttarkashi after having lived here for over 20 years”, he reasoned, “why stay?”


On 26 May, a teenaged Hindu girl was allegedly found in the bazaar in the company of Jitendra Saini and Ubaid Khan, both from UP’s Bijnor. The ‘news’ of ‘another case of love jihad’ spread like wildfire.

The next three days saw a ‘Purola bandh (shutdown)’, with traders downing shutters, processions, inflammatory speeches and posters telling the ‘love jihadis’ to leave.

Houses and shops of Muslim citizens were marked with a black cross, slapped with posters bearing communal messages. “Jo jihadiyon ko dega sharan, unki behen betiyon ka hoga haran (those who give protection to jihadis, their daughters and sisters will be kidnapped),” read one. “Hinduon ko jagana hoga, jihadiyon ko bhagana hoga (Hindus need to be awakened, jihadis need to be chased away),” read another.

The more ominous posters carried an ultimatum—if the Muslims did not leave by 15 June, anything might happen. A report by The Reporters’ Collective quoted Prakash Kumar Dabral, district general secretary of the BJP’s scheduled caste (SC) morcha: “We will chase them (Muslims) out with love. We will cordially chuck them out of here. We will not let them do business here, will not let them open shops.”

Both the state government and the police claim there has been no exodus of Muslims from the district. They say “media hype” unnerved some residents who temporarily left. They would return in a week or two, president of the Purola Vyapar Mandal, Brijmohan Chouhan, told Al Jazeera. Videos circulating on social media, however, show Muslims loading their household goods and vacating their shops. They said on camera that they no longer felt safe in Purola.

The Purola police and the SP of Uttarkashi remain tight-lipped about the incident on May 26. The two young men, charged under the POCSO Act following a complaint by the girl’s family, are still in judicial custody. Led by an obscure organisation, the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan, other Sangh Parivar affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bhairav Sena and the Bajrang Dal launched a campaign against Muslims and issued the 15 June ultimatum.

They also announced a mahapanchayat on 15 June. The VHP wrote a letter to the district magistrate of Tehri Garhwal, demanding that Muslims be evicted from the entire state by 15 June. Failing which, a fresh agitation would be launched on 20 June, they warned.

A notice issued by Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan read, 'Love jihadists are hereby informed that they must vacate their shops before the mahapanchayat on 15 June, or else'
A notice issued by Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan read, 'Love jihadists are hereby informed that they must vacate their shops before the mahapanchayat on 15 June, or else'

In an open letter to the chief secretary of Uttarakhand, Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), a group of retired civil servants from the All India and Central services drew attention to a Supreme Court directive last year.

A similar mahapanchayat had been planned in Haridwar in April 2022, and the SC directed that the chief secretary would be held responsible for any hate speech at the gathering. The campaign to expel Muslims from the area or the state is a criminal, communal and intimidatory act, the former civil servants pointed out.

As many as 23 Supreme Court lawyers also wrote to the Uttarakhand governor and drew his attention to the fact that the state would be guilty of contempt of court if suo motu action was not taken. The police, meanwhile, remain ignorant of the whereabouts of Darshan Bharati of the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan and the miscreants who vandalised Muslim shops, took out processions, raised intimidatory slogans and put up offensive posters.

A case against ‘unknown persons’ has been lodged even as Darshan Bharati has been posting photographs of his meeting with senior police officers, including the director general of police. Remarkably, he claimed on Facebook to have asked the DGP to desist from persuading Muslims to stay on. 

Muslims in Uttarakhand are not a significant vote bank and are too dispersed to make any difference to the Hindu majority. The state assembly elections are not due until 2026. In the Lok Sabha, the state has just five seats, half of which the BJP is confident of winning. So, what explains the intensity of the ‘expel Muslims’ campaign?

In the 2011 census, Purola’s population was just 2,493. Muslims numbered less than 200. Anecdotal evidence pegs today’s population as 5,000, of which Muslims are 300–400. This matches the rest of the state, where Muslims constituted 14 per cent of the population in 2011 and Hindus 83 per cent.

The Muslim population in Uttarakhand is heavily concentrated in three districts— Haridwar, Dehradun and Udham Singh Nagar. In other districts, Muslims constitute between 1 and 3 per cent of the population. In Uttarkashi, it is 1.02 per cent.

While many Muslim families settled in Uttarakhand when it was still a part of Uttar Pradesh (before 2000), there was a larger influx of people after the new state was carved out. Both Hindu and Muslim businesspeople moved in to take advantage of new opportunities.

In Purola Bazaar, until last month around 45 establishments out of 300 were owned by Muslims—barbers, tailors, garment merchants, furniture dealers, mobile repair shops and motor garages. Even the traders in Purola, at the forefront of the current campaign against Muslims, concede that the communities have lived in harmony for decades. “We have nothing against older Muslim inhabitants,” says the secretary of the local vyapar mandal. But rents have skyrocketed since the influx of ‘outsiders’.

“While I am finding it difficult to pay a rent of Rs 2,000, how are these newcomers managing to pay a rent of Rs 50,000?” a trader asks angrily in a video being circulated by local news portal Uttarakhand Tak. Others in the small town also believe that the angst of the ‘Pahadi’ traders is because Muslims traders, many of whom are recent migrants, were possibly doing better.

“They bring their wares from wholesale markets and are able to sell at cheaper rates than the older, local traders” is the explanation offered by some. Muslim establishments are also more willing to offer credit.

This correspondent overheard a woman saying she was forced to buy a pyjama for Rs 250 from a Hindu trader, while she had bought a similar one for Rs 150 from a Muslim trader earlier. Now the Muslim-owned shop is closed.

One shopkeeper alleged that Muslim tailors in Purola deliver garments faster and also offer home delivery: “Our women leave their phone numbers with these tailors and their assistants get access to befriend the women.”

Is it possible that disgruntled traders are capitalising on ‘love jihad’ to drive out Muslim rivals?  

Others blame the BJP and the RSS for setting into motion the right-wing juggernaut. The state government is seen to be encouraging demands to include ‘love jihad’ in textbooks. The chief minister has spoken of ‘verification’ for ‘outsiders’ (read: Muslims) desirous of settling down or doing business in the state. While the BJP did win the last assembly election, there is rising anger against the state government.

The mismanagement during Kumbh, Covid and this year’s Char Dham Yatra, various corruption scandals and politicians’ connivance with land mafia, failure to book the culprits of the Ankita Bhandari rape and murder case, and police assault of unemployed youth demonstrating in Dehradun are still fresh in people’s minds. It suits the BJP to take public attention away from them.

Scores of ‘illegal’ mazaars or mausoleums of religious leaders continue to be demolished by the police. But structures illegally built or encroached upon by the majority community are left alone. Hari Mohan Negi, a Congress leader and chief of the Purola Nagar Panchayat, and Ravindra Rawat, a lawyer practising at the SDM court, are convinced that the anti-Muslim campaign and the bogey of ‘love jihad’ are being nurtured by the BJP.

There is nothing in the public domain to suggest that the number of conversions or ‘love jihad’ cases has been so high as to justify the hysteria. Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami meanwhile has repeatedly stated his government’s allergy to ‘love jihad’ and passed an anti-conversion law.

Dhami, observers say, is trying to emulate UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a ‘tough’ champion of Hindutva. Dhami has also constituted a special panel to examine the feasibility of an uniform civil code (UCC). The panel is yet to submit its report. The state government has also allowed a free hand to sundry troublemakers like ‘Swami’ Darshan Bharati and other rabid elements to hold dharma sansads and mahapanchayats.

The indifference or failure of the police and the government in scotching wild rumours has also contributed to the volatile situation. A popular belief apparently is that Muslim barbers and beauticians are using dubious cosmetics to render men impotent! Odd that they still remain a minority.

The few Muslim families that have stayed back in Purola, because they have nowhere else to go, feel let down by the police. Rather than extend a security cover, the police have advised them to shut shop and leave to avoid trouble. Even promised security was reneged on because ‘people were getting upset’.

Not all is lost though. Even ‘Swami’ Darshan Bharati admits that when he went door to door, exhorting Hindus to refuse Muslim tenants and avoid patronising Muslim business establishments, only about 50 per cent of people complied.

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