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A Season of ‘Islamophobia’ in Uttarakhand

From ‘Mazar Jihad’ started by the state government against graves of Muslim saints, to ‘Love Jihad’ and demographic changes and even invasion by Rohingya Muslims are being invoked to target the minority community.
 Locals demonstrating against ‘outsiders’ at Purola town of Uttarkashi district.

 Locals demonstrating against ‘outsiders’ at Purola town of Uttarkashi district.

While the weather is pleasant in the hill state of Uttarakhand during the ongoing tourist season, it has also been a season of ‘Islamophobia’ with vigour as the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and its’ ‘Sangh Parivar’ affiliates have attempted to malign and vilify the minority Muslim community on trivial pretexts.

From ‘Mazar Jihad’ (land Jihad) started by the state government against graves of Muslim saints all over the state, ‘Love Jihad’ and demographic changes and even invasion by Rohingya Muslims are invoked to target the minority community. Every other day, some ruckus is created on these lines. The marriage of the daughter of a BJP leader from Pauri Garhwal to a Muslim boy with mutual consent also provided enough ammunition to Hindu right-wingers to cry foul about ‘Love Jihad’ and force the cancellation of the marriage scheduled to be held on May 28.

The latest case is that of Purola town of Uttarkashi district on May 28, where 42 Muslim shopkeepers were forced to flee after three days of demonstrations by locals giving threats and ultimatums to ‘outsiders’ to quit. This happened following two boys, namely Obaid, a Muslim and another Jitender Saini, were caught by locals with a ninth-class local girl.

The locals mobilised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates alleged that it was a case of ‘Love Jihad’ as the duo were taking the girl to Vikasnagar for marriage. The boys were handed over to the police, but such a frenzy was created by organising demonstrations with drum beats, and panchayats and edicts passed to oust the ‘outsiders’.

Posters appeared in the shops owned by minority community members to vacate and leave before June 15, 2023, in Purola. The posters put up on behalf of “Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan” warned ‘Love Jihadis’ to vacate their shops by June 15, when Hindu outfits call a ‘Mahapanchayat’ on the issue, and in case they fail to do so, it will then depend on the time.

A poster put up on one of the shops owned by a Muslim to leave by June 15, 2023

A poster put up on one of the shops owned by a Muslim to leave by June 15, 2023

The shops were also marked with crosses with black paint. The boards of the shops owned by Muslims were also broken. The signboards of some of the shops belonging to ‘outsiders’ were also removed. Following threats, it is reported by local media that, pressured by the threats, 42 Muslim shopkeepers doing small-time business left the town on May 30.

Nine shop owners had asked their Muslim tenants to vacate their premises on the reported persuasion of Swami Darshan Bharati, a Right-wing Hindu leader who had been vocal against the minority community. Seven of these shopkeepers have packed their goods and are awaiting transport. One shopkeeper doing a cloth business vacated his premises on June 7, 2023. The local police have registered cases against those who put up posters, and police have been deployed in the town.

A Muslim shopkeeper in Purola vacated his shops following threats on June 7, 2023.

A Muslim shopkeeper in Purola vacated his shops following threats on June 7, 2023.

A delegation of local Muslim shopkeepers had also met the local Sub-Divisional magistrate and sought protection to open their shops and businesses. But to no avail. Arpan Yaduvanshi, SP, Uttarkashi district, has said that the minority Muslims have been assured safety with the heavy deployment of police.

In a similar incident in Gauchar town of Rudraprayag district, another Muslim from Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh who tried to flee with a local girl was caught, leading to protests and demonstrations by Hindu right-wing bodies against “Love Jihad”. The Muslim boy has been booked and sent to jail.  

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has said that none would be allowed to vitiate the atmosphere of Uttarakhand and ‘Love Jihad’ and 'Mazar Jihad’ would not be tolerated in Uttarakhand.    

In Piran Kaliyar town of Haridwar district, members of Hindu organisations took offence to an alleged friendly relationship between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy on June 1 and created a ruckus.     

The ruling BJP and its affiliate ‘Sangh Parivar’ has already embarked on its time-tested strategy of spreading ‘islamophobia’ in the hill state of Uttarakhand ahead of the Lok Sabha elections to be held next year.

Interestingly, a video of a famous cardiologist of Dehradun, an RSS worker, is being circulated. In the purported video, the doctor is heard predicting that Uttarakhand will become another “Kashmir” in the next five years. He is even heard claiming that mosques have come up at Kedarnath and Badrinath, the famous Hindu pilgrimage places and that “thousands of Rohingya Muslims have settled in Dehradun”. No action by the state government has been initiated against such blatant hate-mongering.

The ruling BJP had already successfully tested the “Gujarat” formula of creating a scare of Muslims amongst the upper caste-dominated Hindu majority state of Uttarakhand by reversing the poll trends and winning the 2022 Assembly elections in March 2022.

The catchword this time is “Mazar jihad”, which was coined by the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Dhami, the primary beneficiary of the party’s poll strategy in the Assembly polls last year. The issues of ‘Love Jihad’ and changes in the state's demography due to the ‘invasion’ of Muslims are also invoked frequently.

A ‘mazar’ being demolished in Uttarakhand.

A ‘mazar’ being demolished in Uttarakhand.

Since the announcement by Chief Minister Dhami, the forest department and the administration has demolished more than 325 ‘Mazars’, some more than a century old, in the forest and public land in the past month. Some Hindu temples were also removed, but many famous Hindu shrines in the forest remain intact. The Nainital High Court has also denied any relief to the encroachers of public land.

“We are not against anyone, but encroachments in the name of ‘Mazars’ or anything else will not be allowed. We will not allow ‘land jehad’ to prosper. We believe in the law, we will not allow anyone’s appeasement,” the Chief had announced.

In the past three months, stories were circulated in the print media and social media about the sprouting of illegal ‘Mazars’ and colonies of Muslims in the plain areas of the state. Even some national television channels close to the ruling dispensation started running campaigns on “Land Jihad’ through illegal ‘Mazars’ in the state.

It was alleged that more than one thousand illegal ‘Mazars’ had come up, and, to malign the Congress party, it was charged that these came up during the Congress regime in 2004. Interestingly, the main opposition, Congress, has failed to comprehend and respond to the BJP strategy. Congress party leaders, including those from the state, are scared of taking any stand on anything to do with Muslims lest they be painted as pro-Muslims. Congress leaders are even scared to comment on the Purola incidents.

On the other hand, the BJP and ‘Sangh Parivar’ have successfully carried the ‘Islamophobic’ campaign on social media and the ground.

None in the main opposition Congress has asked questions about the allegations of illegal ‘Mazars’ and ‘Madarassas’ being flagged by Chief Minister Dhami. Nobody from Congress had asked that, since the BJP has been ruling the state since March 2017, why illegal ‘Mazars’ came up or, if they were already there before that, what action was taken in the past six years.

The BJP had its back to the wall on several issues concerning the state, including the heinous murder of Ankita Bhandari by the son of a senior RSS functionary, question paper leaks of different recruitment examinations and involvement of BJP leaders in those, rising unemployment and lathi charge on unemployed youth seeking action in the scams, deteriorating health infrastructure and subsidence of land at different places. However, the BJP wants to sidestep these issues by raising frivolous ‘Islamophobic’ issues. Interestingly, no one in the state, fearing losing majority community votes, is willing to call a spade a spade except for the Left parties and leaders.

The issue of the marriage of the daughter of Yashpal Benam, a BJP leader from Pauri Garhwal, with a Muslim boy, with the mutual consent of both families, also gave enough fuel to the Hindu Right wing to raise the bogey of “Love Jihad”. A virulent campaign on an endemic scale was launched on social media, and Hindu organisations organised panchayats and threatened to stop the marriage physically. Yashpal Benam, who had circulated the marriage invitation card that triggered the crisis, had to cancel the marriage, respecting the public sentiments. The boy and girl in question are graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee, working together in a private company.

Marriage card of the daughter of BJP leader Yashpal Benam with a Muslim boy, which created a furore in Uttarakhand.

Marriage card of the daughter of BJP leader Yashpal Benam with a Muslim boy, which created a furore in Uttarakhand.

The minuscule Van Gujjar Muslim community has also been targeted. A “dharm sabha” was held by the "Rudra Sena’ in Tiuni in April 2023. Hate speeches called for the economic boycott of minorities, a ban on settlement of “non-Sanatanis” in the state, and declaring that “peace cannot prevail in the world unless every ‘jihadi’ is eliminated. The ‘Rudra Sena’ had threatened the ‘Van Gujjar’ Muslim nomads living there for ages to leave the area. The administration took no action on the pretext of not receiving any complaints.

Supreme Court lawyers have written to the Governor to take action. Even earlier, after hate speeches in the Haridwar ‘Dharam Sansad’ in December 2021, police cases were lodged only after the intervention of the Apex Court.

A school in Dehradun was also targeted for organising a cultural programme during the Eid festival. The Hindu Right-wing members harassed the school management by charging the school for religious conversions. Muslims do not run the school.

Apart from raising the issues of ‘Mazar Jihad’ and ‘Love Jihad’, Chief Minister Dhami also announced that the state would soon be the first to introduce Uniform Civil Code in the country for which a committee is holding public hearings in Dehradun in the past week.

The ruling BJP had created a record by returning to power in the hill state of Uttarakhand in the Assembly polls of 2022 by breaking the myth of alternately sharing power after every five years with the Congress party since the formation of the state. The party had scored a decent victory by winning 47 seats even though it had its back to the wall due to massive anti-incumbency and non-performance, resulting in a change of its three Chief Ministers within a few months in the last year before the Assembly polls.

It was not the performance of the BJP government which did them in but the highly charged communal campaign and appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which worked for the saffron party.

Apart from the appeal of the BJP’s narrative of robust nationalism in an upper caste Hindu-dominant state of Uttarakhand, having a large number of service personnel and ex-servicemen, the highly virulent communal anti-Muslim campaign by the party did help them in the polls. The party bigwigs, including the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister, finely supported the campaign by the state party leaders, workers and RSS functionaries.

In a state where nearly every house has a youth serving in the armed forces, where bodies of jawans who lay down their lives in J&K, Siachen glacier and North-East are frequent, the issue of robust nationalism espoused by the BJP has a profound appeal.

During the Assembly polls, the BJP had peppered it with a dose of the threat of Muslims, including that of Rohingya, to create ‘fear’ amongst the majority community, as has been seen in Gujarat in the past two decades where the party has won elections on communal planks. The Congress party was blamed for appeasing Muslims during the poll campaign which had struck a chord. The same strategy is again in play.

Interestingly, it was a self-goal by Congress leader Harish Rawat, who, three months before the Assembly pollsm said that his political opponents wrongly targeted him for favouring a particular community and he did not permit Friday “Jumma” prayers as was alleged. He said that it did cause him to lose the 2017 Assembly elections and dared his opponents to show any such government notification of leave for Muslim employees for Friday ‘Jumma’ prayers during the holy month of ‘Ramzan’. The ruling BJP, which had been on the defensive due to its acts of omission and commissions in the past five years, latched on to the issue with the state and the national BJP leaders calling him and Congress party “pro-Muslim.”

  A morphed photo of former Uttarakhand Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Harish Rawat showing him as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, during the 2022 Assembly elections.

 A morphed photo of former Uttarakhand Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Harish Rawat showing him as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, during the 2022 Assembly elections.

A vicious campaign was launched by the ruling BJP and its’ crony media against Rawat, a former Chief Minister and chairman of the Congress Campaign Committee, for allegedly promising a ‘Muslim University’ to a small-time Muslim Congress leader.

The word ‘Muslim’ was enough for the BJP and Sangh Parivar to start their communal polarisation game and target Congress and Rawat, who was a Chief ministerial face.

A morphed superimposed photo of Rawat showing him as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), was circulated by the BJP IT cell, which was taken down following a notice by the Election Commission. As the polling date neared, senior BJP party leaders went a step further. They charged that it was a Congress conspiracy to encourage “Land jihad” in the Uttarakhand hills which are considered ‘Devbhoomi’ (Land of Gods).The BJP very well orchestrated the entire campaign on social media, penetrating the far-off villages on the hill.

During his election rallies, Union Home Minister Amit Shah charged that Congress has been trying to settle Rohingya Muslims in the hills, which created a scare amongst the majority community.

During the Assembly 2022 election campaign, Prime Minister Modi subtly sent a highly communal message apart from his developmental agenda. Without naming Muslims, he asked the audience whether they knew what the Congress party would do to damage their culture, heritage, religion and “Devbhoomi”. He also asked them whether they would stop the Congress from doing so.

Dhami provided the final straw and promised to implement UCC in the state on the lines of Goa.

Earlier, ahead of the Assembly polls in September 2021, the Uttarakhand government had come up with an order to target the minority community on the issue of alleged  “Land jihad”. Although the Uttarakhand state government did not term it as a measure against “land jihad”, the order targets the Muslim community to create communal polarisation.

The government order in question said there had been an “unprecedented” increase in population in some parts of Uttarakhand by a certain community which has led to the migration of the “members of a certain community”.

The state government has ordered the police and administrative officers from all the districts to set up peace committees, track “illegal land deals”, and prepare a list of outsiders with criminal antecedents. A government press release said: “Due to the unprecedented rise in population in certain areas of the state, the demography of those areas has been majorly affected. And due to this demographic change, members of a certain community are forced to migrate from those areas. Also, there are possibilities that the communal harmony in those areas may be disturbed.”

Interestingly, nothing came out of the report by the District Magistrates, and nobody brought it up to challenge the BJP narrative after the polls.  

It all started after a BJP leader with close ties to RSS, Ajendra Ajay, wrote to Dhami in July 2021, claiming that Muslims had started what he called “land jihad”. In his letter, he alleged that Muslims were not only purchasing land in bulk but were building places of worship and urged the CM to look into the matter.

Since the BJP came to power in the state after the Assembly elections in 2017, there have been nearly a dozen incidents where RSS, BJP and other Right-wing groups have targeted members of the minority community. In July 2021, following the ‘Id-ul-Zuha’ prayers by migrant Muslim labourers at an under-construction site in Badrinath, rRght-wing groups demanded action. Rumours were spread on social media that the prayers took place at the Badrinath temple to fan communal tension in the region. As several media outlets ran a campaign to put the onus of the COVID-19 spread on Tablighi Jamaat members, Mahendra Bhatt, a BJP legislator then and Uttarakhand BJP chief now had advised Hindus to avoid barber shops and beauty parlours owned by the minority community members.

In April 2018, six shops belonging to Muslim shopkeepers were burnt in Augustmuni town of Rudraprayag district of Garhwal. Members of Right-wing groups, including those allegedly belonging to Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), carried out a procession and targeted these shops following a rumour that claimed a Muslim youth had raped a minor girl. Rudraprayag District Magistrate, in a statement, clarified that it was a mere rumour spread on social media. In October 2017, Hindu groups attacked and ransacked Muslim shops and homes from Rishikesh to Haridwar following a murder at Raiwala. The accused in the murder case were Muslims.

On September 8, 2017, two Muslim boys from Kirtinagar town in Tehri Garhwal were caught roaming with two girls from the Hindu community in Dehradun police. The police promptly reported the matter to Kirtinagar, where members of the right-wing groups vandalised shops belonging to the Muslim boys. The boys were sent to jail.

In July 2017, Right-wing members attacked Muslim shops in Satpuli town of the Pauri Garhwal district after an “offensive” Facebook post purportedly made by a Muslim boy. After a man was arrested for allegedly having sex with a cow, there was tension in Satpuli town, with ABVP members forcing a shutdown in the town market. 

In July 2017, Kashmiri traders were targeted by a few Right-wing groups in the Hill station of Mussoorie and given an ultimatum to pack up and leave Mussoorie by March 2018. The provocation for this was the alleged raising of pro-Pakistan slogans after an India-Pakistan Champions Trophy match. The Kashmiri traders, however, had nothing to do with it.

Apart from the native Garhwali Muslims, who hail from Nandprayag and Tehri Garhwal districts, some Muslims from neighbouring districts of Uttar Pradesh run vegetable stalls, fruit shops, barber shops or other small businesses. The Garhwali native Muslims have been living in the hills for generations. The plain districts of Dehradun, Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar already have a sizeable Muslim population living in the areas since the formation of Uttarakhand in 2000. The Muslim population adds up to about 10% of the total population in the state and is mainly concentrated in the three districts.

The Uttarakhand government has failed to provide concrete data on the alleged demographic change cited in the order. It has also failed to specify the areas where such “worrisome” demographic changes have occurred, leading to migration of a “certain community”. No census has taken place after 2011.

On the other side, the region has witnessed out-migration for many years due to challenging geographical terrain, lack of civic and health facilities, fewer opportunities for education and employment, etc. Former BJP Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat had even set up a Migration Commission to investigate the issue and suggest corrective measures. The Commission, headed by S S Negi, a retired IFS officer, has submitted its report to the BJP government. However, it has not mentioned any reason for coercion or forcible migration due to the alleged demographic change cited in the order. Since the order was passed, district administrations have failed to find any cases of “land jihad” in the state. After Gujarat, Uttarakhand is the next laboratory of the ‘Hindutva’ agenda.

(The writer is a senior freelance journalist based in Dehradun. He has worked with ‘The Indian Express’ and ‘The Tribune’ for over three decades. Views are personal.)

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