Amidst a surging wave of hate crimes targeting Muslims in Uttarakhand, two prominent public intellectuals, Apoorvanand and Ashok Vajpeyi, have written to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of Uttarakhand, calling for immediate action to address the deteriorating security situation. The letter comes in the backdrop of the recent instructions given by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami to the State Police, regarding reported cases of “love jehad” in Uttarkashi, Chamoli, and Haridwar districts over the past month. Subsequently, posters warning Muslims to leave before June 15, coinciding with a scheduled mahapanchayat organised by Hindu organisations in Uttarkashi district, were placed in front of Muslim properties in several towns.
These threats have already instigated panic-driven migration. Mohammad Zahid, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)‘s minority cell in Uttarkashi district, has reportedly fled the district, along with other Muslim traders who have closed their shops. In response to the June 15 event, Muslim religious leaders in Dehradun have also called for a mahapanchayat on June 18 to protest the ongoing persecution of their community.
The communal tensions in Uttarkashi’s Purola town escalated when two men, Ubed Khan, a local shopkeeper, and Jitender Saini, a motorcycle mechanic, both in their early twenties, allegedly attempted to abduct a Hindu girl on May 26. The accused individuals, one of whom is Muslim, were apprehended on May 27. However, two days later, a protest rally in Purola turned violent when protesters hurled stones at Muslim properties. Demonstrations against the attempted abduction were also held in other towns.
“Prevent the mahapanchayat”
In their joint letter, Apoorvanand, a professor and political commentator, and Vajpeyi, eminent poet and literary critic, emphasise the urgent need for judicial intervention to safeguard the lives, well-being, and assets of those under attack, particularly in light of the scheduled mahapanchayat. The letter states, “If the mahapanchayat is allowed to happen, it could further escalate communal tensions in the State.” They call for immediate measures to protect the affected individuals and to prevent the mahapanchayat.
Given the threats and escalating communal tensions, the letter highlights that “Muslim residents have already shut their shops, and many families have migrated from the district.” Expressing concern over a social media post suggesting that the State administration would not enforce the opening of shops, the letter warns that this could potentially lead to widespread violence.
Notably, Uttarakhand has become the epicentre of activities fuelling Islamophobia in the country. In recent years, there have been several incidents of attacks against Kashmiri Muslims. Hindutva congregations have even called for genocide against Muslims. In fact, the so-called dharam sansads prompted the Supreme Court to remind the State government last year of its constitutional obligation to ensure peace in the region. Justice A.M. Khanwilkar had stated in May 2022, “We are putting on record now. You know what preventive measures need to be taken. You will have to take them, and if hate speeches or violence occur, we will summon the chief secretary to appear before the court... We are directing you to take all necessary steps.”
Apoorvanand compares the increasing targeting of the Muslim community in the State to the situation faced by Jews in Nazi Germany, stating, “The way cross marks are being placed on Muslim shops and houses in several towns, it has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. The courts must take suo-moto cognisance.”
Protect the minorities
The letter emphasises that the events unfolding in Uttarkashi exemplify the State government’s failure to adhere to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in Tehseen Poonawalla vs. Union of India on April 19, 2018. These guidelines instruct the State government to take preventive measures. According to the letter, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has written to the Tehri Garhwal district administration, threatening “a particular community (Muslims)“ with expulsion from the State within 10 days. Failure to comply would result in the VHP, in collaboration with the Hindu Yuva Vahini and the Traders’ Union of Tehri Garhwal, blocking the highway on June 20.
Vajpeyi holds the BJP responsible for the current communal flare-up in Uttarakhand. He asserts, “It has been triggered with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Otherwise, the ruling party (the BJP) has nothing to show in terms of economic development.” Vajpeyi describes the recent coordinated hate crimes against the Muslim community as a violation of the rule of law in a parliamentary democracy.
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Meanwhile, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has also written to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of Uttarakhand High Court, highlighting the issue. In their petitions, the PUCL has requested the Chief Justices to direct the Uttarakhand government and relevant authorities to promptly address the violent hate campaign, incitement to violence, and heightened insecurity faced by the minority community, leading to forced displacement from their properties.
The PUCL asserts that if the scheduled mahapanchayat takes place and the subsequent highway blockade occurs, the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police should be held accountable for neglecting their constitutional duty. It has demanded the registration of FIRs under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code against the accused individuals, as well as a thorough investigation into the involvement of organisations such as Rudra Sena, Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Bajrang Dal, among others, regarding recent incidents of hate speech and vigilantism targeting the minority community in Uttarakhand.
UPDATE: On June 14, in the aftermath of simmering communal tensions and concerns over a possible breakdown in law and order, the Uttarkashi district administration imposed Section 144 in Purola. Devanand Sharma, the Sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Purola, informed Frontline that the organisers have withdrawn their application seeking permission to hold a Mahapanchayat on June 15.
However, opinions within the Hindu organisations appeared to be divided. Swami Darshan Bharti, the founder of the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan, stated, “The police are preventing people from reaching the conclave venue. Nevertheless, we firmly maintain that holding the conclave peacefully is our democratic right. We will proceed with our scheduled programme and fulfil our responsibilities, while allowing the police and administration to fulfill theirs.”
On June 14, a Supreme Court bench expressed disapproval regarding the urgent hearing of a petition against the conclave of Hindu organisations scheduled for June 15, raising questions about the lack of trust in the Uttrakhand High Court and the State administration.