Why the Muslims of Uttarakhand are afraid, very afraid

Mander said that concerned citizens in Uttarakhand had been reaching out to him but they had put off meeting out of fear of calling attention to themselves and making things worse

Thousands of Muslim women pray during protests against eviction in Haldwani, Uttarakhand (photo: Maktoob Media)
Thousands of Muslim women pray during protests against eviction in Haldwani, Uttarakhand (photo: Maktoob Media)

Betwa Sharma

Over the summer, yet another false story of ‘love jihad’ led to Hindu extremists telling Muslims to shut down their businesses and leave Uttarakhand. Muslim-run shops were marked with black crosses, threatening posters appearing in the market and some Muslim families left their homes in the in the hill state governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2017.

One of the men involved was a Hindu, and the girl’s uncle said there was no religious angle to the ‘crime’; but Hindu extremists had prepared a complaint of their own, which the police did not accept.

But that didn’t stop them from whipping up a communal frenzy in May and June. Nor did it hamper chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami in calling for stern action against ‘love jihad’ (a conspiracy theory about Muslim men seducing Hindu women into marriage under false pretences).

While, on the one hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has told Parliament that no such crime as ‘love jihad’ exists, BJP leaders have moved the fringe theory to a mainstream ‘truth’ that more and more Hindus have come to believe in the nine years since Modi led the BJP to power at the Centre in 2014.

The dust had barely settled on the volatile events in Uttarkashi in the north of the state when another incident, 400 km away in the south, in the popular tourist destination of Nainital, made Muslims feel very afraid for their lives and livelihood.

In June, a few right-wing news outlets reported that in Kamaluaganja, a rural locality in Haldwani block, Hindus had accused a Muslim carpenter named Mohammad Nafees of pretending to be Hindu and trying to rape a cow. They thrashed him and tonsured his head.

What followed was reported by a few local media outlets but never made it to the national news. In a repeat of the violent threats and intimidation used against Muslim traders in Uttarkashi’s Purola, Hindu extremists terrorised the minority community in Kamaluaganja and hundreds of shops closed as the police seemed unable to rein in the vigilantes.

More than Purola, the Kamaluaganja incident was raised by Muslim activists who met with peace activist Harsh Mander four months later on 6 September in Haldwani, where they expressed grave fear and trepidation about living in the state.

Mander, who went to Uttarakhand on work for Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a people’s campaign he founded in 2017, shared recordings of his conversations in Haldwani with Article 14. The point, he told us, of the anti-Muslim messaging from the Hindu extremists appeared to be: “Women are our property, and you are committing love jihad. Cows are our mothers, and you are raping them.”

A Muslim interlocutor, who said the allegation against Nafees was concocted by a Hindu man who owed him money, asked why the police had arrested him without a preliminary investigation and why they did not arrest the Hindu men who brutally thrashed the carpenter, told Muslims to leave and closed down the market.

The Organiser, an English-language publication of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist parent organisation of the BJP, ran a story about the carpenter with the headline ‘Islamist tried raping Gau Mata, Hindus shaved his head in protest’ while listing other instances of Muslim men allegedly ‘raping’ cows.

A video shared by Panchjanya, the Hindi publication of the RSS, showed a Muslim man, badly beaten, sitting on the ground with his head shaved, encircled by Hindu men. One of the bystanders said: “We have all given our shops to these people (Muslims). This man has raised doubt. Because of this man, all you people need to be careful for the future… People like them who can do this with a cow, are your wife and children, brothers and sisters safe?”

The pieces run by the Organiser and Op India did not say whether the Hindu men who beat up the Muslim man were arrested. There was also no mention of it on the local Hindi-language channel that interviewed the Hindu men who said they wanted the ‘heretics’ to leave and asked the administration to carry out a verification of the Muslim shop owners and make them close their shops before six in the evening because Hindu women and children did not feel safe in this environment of fear.

After chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, the reporter asked why no verification had been done yet.

A month later, a tweet that said ‘Anger against rape jihad is not stopping in Uttarakhand’ attached a newspaper clipping about another Muslim man accused of raping a cow in Dwarahat, in neighbouring Almora, 125 km away from Kamaluaganja. A video with the tweet showed men yelling “Halla bol (a battle cry)” and “Hindustan hamara hai (India is ours)” and shouting abuses while shuttering Muslim shops.

A plea for help

In April this year, before the events of Purola and Haldwani, the Supreme Court directed all states to register suo motu FIRs against hate speech and take action against offenders.

In October 2022, the apex court had ordered Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi specifically to do so.

One of Mander’s interlocutors said, “Even if we have a strong law, only the administration can implement it; but that doesn’t happen because the government won’t let them, for their own benefit.”

“We cannot understand how to stop the poison. We cannot rely on the administration and the government to stop it because they are spreading it,” he said. “More than Muslims, non-Muslims need to take a stand and stop this in society.”

In the Kamaluaganja matter, for instance, interlocutors said that one K.K. Bora, a trade unionist linked with a community party, and some “secular officers who still remain” in the police force stepped up to manage the situation, and good sense prevailed.

Asking for a “public movement against hate”, an interlocutor said, “You and I have to think whether we are making a society where our children are becoming criminals. Are we making a society where there is no difference between good and bad?”

That same interlocutor ended by saying that Mander should institute a ground team to let him know if there were incidents where Muslims were in danger in the state. Mander said that concerned citizens in Uttarakhand had been reaching out to him for quite a while about the rising tide of anti-Muslim hate in the state, but they had put off meeting out of fear of calling attention to themselves and making things worse.

But with the BJP government seemingly leading the charge against Muslims in Uttarakhand—with the chief minister using the terms ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jihad’ over and again and speaking of ‘population imbalance’ and changes in demography—the Muslim citizens’ fears of expulsion, loss of livelihood and violence have intensified.

Dhami’s words

At a public meeting in April this year, Dhami said, “Uttarakhand will not allow land jihad.” The government, he ‘promised’, would be tough on people settling in the state with “the intention of changing the demographic pattern of the area”.

In April, the chief minister said that 1,000 ‘unauthorised’ mazars (mausoleums or tombs) have been built on forest land illegally in Uttarakhand, calling it ‘mazar jihad’, and a space from where ‘anti-social elements’ emerge.

The Times of India reported that the state was enlisting the help of intelligence units to ‘identify areas where encroachment has been done with the intention of changing the demography’.

The Print reported that the BJP government in Uttarakhand had removed 465 mazars, 45 temples and two encroachments by a gurdwara committee on forest land in the state. The government has said that eliminating illegal structures from the forest land was not targeting any religious community and was following Supreme Court directives.

In response to a right to information (RTI) application in 2021, where the online news portal the Wire asked whether the Uttarakhand government maintains data on land sales and purchases based on the religions of the sellers and purchasers, the government said, ‘No’.

In response to the question of how many cases of ‘land jihad’, however defined, have been reported in the past five years in Uttarakhand, the government said ‘information unavailable’.

A day before Mander met with Muslim activists in Uttarakhand on 6 September, the chief minister had said that all district magistrates had been directed to follow due process while removing illegal construction, with no vandalism or harassment, but “action will continue against illegal symbols created in the name of land jihad on forest land”.

For the Muslims at the gathering, the chief minister’s message meant that the state would go easy on Hindus whose homes were caught in the anti-encroachment drive, but the persecution would continue when it came to Muslims. They also saw it as a dog whistle from the most powerful person in the state for Hindu extremists to carry on bullying and targeting them.

“It is like the law should be applied to Muslims and not to others,” said Mander, equating it with the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, which gave a path to migrants of all religions to get Indian citizenship except Muslims. “It has grown into a campaign about cleansing the dev bhoomi’ (land of the Hindu gods). This is dev bhoomi and it needs to be cleansed of its Muslim population.”

The Adityanath model

After a political crisis that ended with the resignation of the then chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat in July 2021, Dhami, 47, took over.

Dhami lost in the assembly elections the following year but was selected by his party for a second term, with defence minister Rajnath Singh congratulating him on the ‘impression’ he made in the six months of his first term. When he won a by-poll two months later, Modi congratulated him.

In 2017, Modi had chosen Yogi Adityanath to be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath has used denigrating and violent language when speaking about Muslims since he was a five-term member of Parliament from Gorakhpur and is regarded as the most hardened Hindu nationalist leader. He was the one instrumental in spreading the conspiracy theory of ‘love jihad’.

Since then, the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand—states that have never been as communally divisive as Uttar Pradesh—have modelled themselves on Adityanath, making anti-conversion laws more stringent in a way that has a chilling effect on interfaith marriages, bulldozing predominantly Muslim homes as a way of

State-sanctioned retaliation against unproven crimes, and letting violence against Muslims go unpunished.

Six months after Dhami became chief minister, Hindu monks met in the holy city of Haridwar in the western part of the state for a ‘Dharam Sansad’ in December, where they gave hate speeches over two days, telling Hindus that economic boycott was not enough. They had to ‘get ready to kill’ and pick up weapons for a ‘safai abhiyan (cleansing drive)’.

None of the speakers have been convicted for threatening violence against a minority community, and some of the monks kept making hate speeches over the next two years.

Awash with fear

A speaker at the September gathering said that three terms had been planted in Uttarakhand: ‘Dev bhoomi ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jihad’. “What kind of term is ‘land jihad’?” the interlocutor asked. “The chief minister is saying this himself, openly, publicly. Can he even say what it means?”

“They are crying out sanskriti, sanskriti, sanskriti (culture), but what they are doing is hooliganism: ‘We are the natives, and what we say will prevail. If we don’t put shops next to the road, then who will? If we don’t earn, then who will? Who are these people who have come here?’ Instead of blaming their reduced economic conditions on the government policy, they have this made-up theory that Muslims came, started their businesses and got rich and (the Hindus) were left behind,” the interlocuter said.

“The supporters of the government have become blind. They are not thinking or understanding how they are being used. They are not looking at history,” the interlocutor continued. “What we read about Hitler and genocide, the circumstances then and now, there is no difference. I never thought I would meet such blind people in my life. They are being used so easily. The only thing left is for there to be bloodshed on the streets.”

On the destruction of the mazars, this interlocutor said these graves and mausoleums were proof of how long Muslims were in Uttarakhand: “If they destroy the graves, how will people say how long they have been in Uttarakhand?

“My father was born in Haldwani. Thousands of people like my father have lived here for three or four generations. But when the railway matter came up, a simple narrative went out: ‘Send them back to where they came from.’ It was so simple and easy for the media to put the idea into people’s heads that ‘these people’ are outsiders.”

Some who Mander spoke with said Muslims have been in Uttarakhand since the 13th century. Noting the anxiety about tracing their roots in Uttarakhand, Mander told Article 14, “Whether they are here from the 13th century or five years ago, they have the right to be here.”

A laboratory under the radar

Coastal Karnataka has often been described as a ‘Hindutva laboratory’. The interlocutors at Mander’s September gathering said that Uttarakhand had become one too, and has received far less media attention than the southern state or even Uttar Pradesh.

The local media was biased, and Uttarakhand was not politically significant enough to make national news.

That is why no one outside the state was talking about the treatment of Van Gujjars. Primarily Muslim pastoralists in Uttarakhand, they have started getting eviction notices this year as part of the government’s drive to remove ‘encroachments on forest land’, allegedly in violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The government has accused them of mechanised farming and of feeding their cattle on forest land. The pastoralists say they have applied for titles under the Act.

When the Covid-19 pandemic was coupled with months of Islamophobia in the country, those Gujjars who sell milk were accused of spreading the virus by spitting in the milk, and people stopped buying from them.

A plea for a sentinel

One interlocutor said, “I feel at a loss. I have many Hindu friends, and they are very good people when they sit with me. But when they are not with me, I don’t know what they find lacking in me, they don’t see me as a person any more.

What is missing in me? When we are together, we have good talks, but when they go away, then they become hardened Hindus again.”

Asking Hindus to be ‘sentinels’, that interlocutor said, “We are looking at you because we are waiting for a better morning.”

Another said, “People of different religions should put photos with each other on social media. This will send a good message.”

(Betwa Sharma is the managing editor of Article 14. Reprinted with permission)

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