On May 26, Purola town in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district came into the news. Communal tension had flared up there following an alleged abduction attempt of a minor girl by two men, one from a minority community. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have been brewing in the hill State for some time, with Hindutva organisations like the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan (DRA), the Rudra Sena, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bhairav Sena, and the Bajrang Dal campaigning against so-called “jehadis”. The abduction was projected as another instance of love jehad even though one of the accused was Hindu. The two men were jailed the next day.
Purola, with a population of 10,000, of whom barely 500 are Muslim, was shut down for the next three days. There were angry demonstrations and hate speeches; shops of Muslims were marked with crosses; and posters sprung up commanding “jehadis” to vacate their properties. Muslims were given a deadline of June 15 to leave the town.
“When a demonstration was held on May 28, the administration and the police did not take any action against those chanting communal slogans. Signboards of shops were damaged in the presence of policemen,” said Trilochan Bhat, a Dehradun-based independent journalist who broke the story, adding, “The local administration and the police changed their attitude only after the issue was highlighted by the media and the matter was taken up with the Supreme Court and the High Court.”
Several human rights groups, lawyers, and activists approached the apex court, accusing the State administration of allowing the situation to escalate. “The continuous barrage of hate-filled campaigning has already led to the exodus of numerous Muslim families,” wrote the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in a letter to the Supreme Court and the Uttarakhand High Court, demanding that the Director General of Police and the Chief Secretary be held accountable for dereliction of duty.
Purola, where Yamunotri- and Gangotri-bound pilgrims break their journey, is not the only town where Muslims are being persecuted: similar ultimatums have been issued in Jaunpur block, especially in the towns of Nainbagh, Jakhar, Nagtibba, Thatyur, Saklana, Damta, Barkot, and Uttarkashi.
Purola is largely inhabited by tribal communities who continue to worship their deities alongside Hindu gods. But in the past 10 years, the RSS has become deeply invested in the area. The Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, a front organisation for the RSS, works among children through its Bal Sanskar Kendra, alongside running coaching and counselling centres.
When Frontline visited Purola on June 17, it found that Hindu shopkeepers and house-owners, responding to the calls of radical groups, were evicting Muslim tenants. Prithviraj Kapoor, a BJP supporter who runs a garment shop, echoed the sentiments of the DRA, which allegedly pasted the posters asking Muslims to leave town.
The DRA threatened to hold a mahapanchayat against Muslim traders on June 15: in anticipation, the district administration imposed Section 144 on the town on June 14, subsequently lifting it on June 17. DRA leader Darshan Bharti told The Hindu: “I am meeting people from across town and urging them not to give houses and shops on rent to people from the Muslim community.”
About 40 Muslim businessmen and residents left town after shops owned or rented by them were attacked. The expectation was that they would return soon and reopen their shops. But until June 17, when this reporter was in Purola, only two Muslim families had returned despite the heavy police presence in the town.
- Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have been brewing in Uttarakhand for some time, with Hindutva organisations campaigning against so-called “jehadis”.
- On May 26, communal tension flare up Purola town, leading to attacks on Muslim-owned shops.
- Over the years, lack of economic development has led to largescale migration from Uttarakhand. Health facilities are poor; unemployment rates are high; and civic infrastructure is under-developed in Uttarakhand.
- The State government is eager to draw attention away from these failures, for which scapegoating Muslims comes handy.
Meanwhile, the complainant in the original abduction case, who is the minor girl’s uncle, said attempts were on from the first to make it a communal issue. “Right-wing activists even prepared a police complaint for us. It was never a love jehad case, but a regular crime. Those that committed it are behind bars. The judiciary will now decide,” he was quoted as saying. He reportedly refused to join the protests in Purola.
It all ties in with the right-wing strategy to drum up interfaith tension in the State. In December 2023, the Governor of Uttarakhand, Lt Gen. (retd) Gurmit Singh, cleared the State’s Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, which made “forced or fraudulent conversions done through force or allurement” a non-bailable offence. The State police has been tasked with scrutinising all interfaith marriages from the past five years for possible violation of the Act. Incidentally, a BJP leader from Pauri Garhwal, Yashpal Benam, had to cancel his daughter’s marriage to a Muslim man, scheduled for May 28, after Hindutva activists said it amounted to love jehad.
“According to political watchers, if the BJP managed to win 47 seats in the last State Assembly election despite providing an unstable government, it was because they used the politics of polarisation to the hilt.”S.M.A. KazmiDehradun-based senior journalist and political commentator
On June 19, a group of civil society and opposition members met at the Uttarakhand Press Club and took Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami to task for encouraging Hindutva activists. They were responding to Dhami’s instructions to the police on June 9 to take stern action against so-called incidents of love jehad. The State has since seen several instances of demonstrations and open threats against Muslims.
This also happened at the Haridwar Dharam Sansad held in December 2021. Key speakers at the religious assembly had called for genocide and use of weapons against Muslims. It took the Supreme Court to remind the Dhami government that steps must be taken to prevent such “unwarranted utterances”.
Uttarakhand has 14 per cent Muslim population, but in 23 of the State’s 70 Assembly constituencies, Muslims constitute between 15 and 50 per cent of the electorate. They are spread across Haridwar, Udham Singh Nagar, Dehradun, and Nainital districts, which also have a sizeable (18 per cent) Scheduled Caste population. According to political watchers, if the BJP managed to win 47 seats in the last State Assembly election despite providing an unstable government, it was because the party used the politics of polarisation to the hilt.
Since its creation in 2000, Uttarakhand has seen 11 Chief Ministers, with only the late Congress leader Narayan Dutt Tiwari completing a full term. Dhami was appointed Chief Minister even before the 2022 Assembly election after three Chief Ministers had to be replaced in quick succession in response to massive public resentment against the BJP government. In February 2023, there were widespread protests over recruitment scams, which the State crushed.
“According to political watchers, if the BJP managed to win 47 seats in the last State Assembly election despite providing an unstable government, it was because they used the politics of polarisation to the hilt.”
Multiple issues have emerged from Uttarakhand in recent years. The police crackdown on unemployed youth protesting in Dehradun; the Ankita Bhandari murder case for which a BJP leader’s son was arrested; the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic; and Dhami’s decision to lift the daily cap on the number of devotees for the Char Dham Yatra, despite the Joshimath disaster—have all impacted the government’s image. In response, Dhami appears to be entrenching himself as a leading proponent of conspiracy theories like love jehad and now land jehad, where Muslims are accused of grabbing public land to build mosques.
“We will demolish illegal mazars in Uttarakhand. This is a new Uttarakhand. No one should even think about encroaching on land here, let alone doing it,” Dhami tweeted on April 7, tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. In the past three months, the government has demolished over 330 mazars, some older than 150 years.
In January 2023, the Supreme Court had to stay the forcible eviction of over 4,000 mostly Muslim families from Haldwani for purportedly occupying Railway land. This case too was presented as land jehad. The State is accused of targeting the Van Gujjars, a forest-dwelling pastoral Muslim community who live in the Terai East and West Forest Divisions. They were recently served eviction notices by the Uttarakhand Forest Department.
Over 3.3 lakh people have migrated from Uttarakhand between 2018 and 2022, according to a report by the Rural Development and Migration Prevention Commission, headed by S.S. Negi, a retired IFS officer. “The Commission does not cite coercion or migration due to alleged demographic changes or so-called land jehad,” said S.M.A. Kazmi, a Dehradun-based senior journalist and political commentator. “The bogey of land jehad has been created to target Muslims. Just like the anti-encroachment drive. It is done for political reasons since the Dhami government does not have many achievements on the economic development front.”
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It is this gap that impacts remote hilly areas like Purola. Its residents lament the lack of job opportunities, of health and educational facilities. Pointing at the lack of facilities in Purola’s Community Health Centre, which was upgraded to a sub-district hospital some months ago, Chandrabhushan Bijwan said: “Last year, at least six expecting mothers died while being taken to Dehradun for delivery.” Bijwan told Frontline that it is the lack of economic development that has left people with “no option but to migrate”.
The State government is eager to draw attention away from these gaps, for which scapegoating Muslims comes handy. Yet, its efforts have not been entirely successful. The DRA’s Darshan Bharati was heard telling an audience that only 50 per cent of Hindus had responded to his door-to-door campaign in Purola asking them to throw out Muslim tenants and businesses. A viral video from Kamalwaganja road in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani appears to substantiate his claims. The clip shows a Hindu landlord bravely confronting a Hindutva mob asking him to evict a Muslim tenant from his shop.