Purola, Uttarkashi: “We will chase them out with love,” said Prakash Kumar Dabral, the district general secretary of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Schedule Caste wing in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district. He was referring to the Muslims living in the district’s western hill town of Purola.
“We will cordially chuck them out of here. We will not let them do business here, will not let them open shops. Then they will leave on their own,” Dabral told The Collective, sitting in a shop in the middle of the town market, surrounded by nodders.
The missive from the office bearer of the ruling party is the clearest call for the persecution of Muslims in Purola, where a communal fire has been raging since May 26 over the alleged bid to abduct a minor Hindu girl by two youths – a Muslim and a Hindu.
The traders’ union of the town supported closing of the shops -- majority of which are owned by Hindus -- in support of the call to force Muslims out of the town. In a protest rally, some shops of Muslims were vandalised, forcing the Muslim community to keep their shops shut in fear. Later, posters were pasted on these shut shops warning: “Love Jihadis are informed to vacate their shops before the mahapanchayat on June 15. Time will decide the repercussions of not doing so.”
The threats of persecution and the announcement of a massive gathering (mahapanchayat) by a mysterious group, further incited by leaders of BJP, have already done the damage. Several Muslim families had fled the town by the time The Collective reached Purola on June 6.
But the police and the administration, always quick to arrest stand-up comedians, opposition leaders, students and activists on the slightest provocations against the government, have dismissed the communal tension in the hill town as “media hype”.
The police say they haven’t yet identified the troublemakers. “We have filed a case against unknown persons for pasting the posters,” Surender Singh Bhandari, the Circle Officer of Barkot town told The Collective on June 7. When asked if cases have been filed for hate speeches, he said no.
Purola isn’t an isolated fray in the communal fabric. Rallies were held in parts of Uttarkashi – in towns of Barkot and Chinyalisaur and villages of Naugaon, Damta, Barnigad, Netwar and Bhatwari - against Muslims. All of them were laced with messaging on (sidenote)love jihad[A conspiracy theory peddled by ‘Hindutva’ groups claiming that Muslims have organised to lure Hindu women and convert them forcibly to Islam. The Union government has debunked such claims. The self-proclaimed goals of Hindutva groups associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are to organise the Hindu society and protect Hindu religious identity.](/sidenote) and other typical Hindutva tropes against Muslims.
Even the top leadership of the state, chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, has supported such claims against Muslims. Multiple times, before and after the Purola flare-up, he has called for strict action against ‘love jihad’ and (sidenote)land jihad[Another conspiracy theory that Muslims have organised to capture land across India, through illegal encroachment or land deals.](/sidenote). However, the Centre has maintained there is no legal definition of “love jihad”.
The Chief Minister isn’t alone in the BJP to fuel the fire.
After the episode at Purola, the constituency’s BJP MLA Durgeshwar Lal told the media that Purola flare-up was against ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jihad’ by a “particular community”. He said that “somewhere this is happening under a conspiracy by them (Muslims). I think there are some agencies behind this that fund them.” He didn’t provide any evidence for this claim nor did the journalist ask for it.
On June 5, RSS affiliates Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal reportedly sent a letter to the district magistrate of another district, Tehri Garhwal. They claimed that people of ‘a particular community’ were roaming around as waste-pickers, fruits and ice-cream sellers raising a threat to the women, religion, resources and heritage of Uttarakhand. They claimed ‘local people’ had given this ‘particular community’ till June 15 to leave from several belts of Uttarakhand.
They, along with Hindu Yuva Vahini and Traders’ Union of Tehri Garhwal, have threatened to block the highway on June 20 if their demands are not met.
Senior Superintendent of Police of the district Navneet Singh told The Collective, “I am aware of this call by VHP. Their representatives came to meet us”.
The June 15 date holds significance. A mysterious entity called Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan had pasted ultimatum-bearing posters on Muslim shops in Purola and announced a mass gathering on June 15.
After the Purola incident, the campaign against the Muslim community spread quickly to other parts of Uttarkashi. Similar rallies against the Muslim community were organised in other locations- Barkot and Chinyalisaur town and Naugaon, Damta, Barnigad, Netwar and Bhatwari villages in the district.
Although authorities in Purola claimed that the entity lacks identifiable individuals or addresses, an article in the Hindi daily Amar Ujala says a person called Rakesh Tomar of Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan led people to the police station in Arakot village in Uttarkashi's Mori block over a case similar to Purola’s.
A private Facebook group called ‘Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan Founder (Swami Darshan Bharti) S,S,Rana’ exists online. Bharti has previously participated in events of hate speech against Muslims. He is also reported to have convinced locals in Purola to evict Muslim tenants.
Even Dabral told The Collective that he is promoting the event, claiming support from Hindutva organisations as well as the traders' union. Dabral said the mass gathering could take place anywhere in Uttarkashi.
Purola isn’t the first communal sore. The state has been beset with dog-whistle politics and communal flare-ups. Incidents being blown up into communal problems, unverified claims published in the media, mass gatherings targeting Muslim community, policies and assertions of the state government, statements of officials from BJP and its affiliates have all piled up over time to create an atmosphere of hate. We logged some of such incidents from news clippings to map how the communal playbook is being deployed.
We sent questionnaires to the Chief Minister’s office, the director general of police and the BJP’s Uttarakhand president asking about communal troubles in Purola and elsewhere. While the police chief’s office directed us to the Uttarkashi Superintendent of Police, others didn’t reply.
What Happened In Purola?
On May 26, two youths were caught by the public allegedly for trying to abduct a minor girl in Purola. One of them was a Muslim running a mattress shop in Purola market. The two were arrested and are in police custody.
It sparked unrest in the town. The traders’ union supported the closing of shops and held a rally asking for a ‘strict verification of outsiders’ – a dog-whistle targeting the Muslim community. Soon after, a strike was announced for May 29.
“We were told that the situation would get worse for Muslims on the day of the strike and that we should leave for safety. So, we left Purola the day before the strike and came to our house in Dehradun,” said a Muslim trader who runs his business out of a rented shop in Purola.
As tension rose, he fell unwell and his family and their relatives left the place for Dehradun. He informed us that he is associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s district unit, as is his brother-in-law whose family also left the place. This family has now vacated their shop in Purola.
“Our shops are shut and we fear going back. We are also scared of disclosing our identities because all our property is still there and can be destroyed by those who want us out,” said another Muslim trader whose family left Purola.
We spoke to two Muslim families in Purola. They are scared of opening their shops but said they will not leave the place despite threats. One of them said they were specifically targeted because, the police told them, the family held prayers in the house during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan.
Local and national media reported Muslim families fleeing Purola but authorities dismissed these accounts.
“These people have left of their own will. They keep shuttling between Dehradun and Purola and have just gone away for the weekend,” said Devanand Sharma, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Purola.
“There’s no threat to the Muslim community. The situation has been hyped up by the media.”
Authorities Dismiss Looming Threat
On May 29, a rally attended by hundreds of people in Purola market turned violent. Protesters demanding thorough verification of “outsiders” tore down banners of shops run by Muslims.
Videos of the incident, widely circulated on social media, have been accessed by the reporters. We asked the sub-divisional magistrate if any action was taken against the vandals. “The rally was completely peaceful. I am not aware of any videos showing vandalism,” he replied.
But the police told us there was violence. Circle Officer Surender Singh Bhandari said some “mischievous elements” who infiltrated an otherwise peaceful rally caused violence.
A few days after the rally, posters were pasted on shops run by Muslims asking them to leave, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Tehri Garhwal wrote to the district administration calling for the ouster of a “particular community” that was threatening local harmony.
Prakash Singh Dabral told The Collective that Hindu organisations such as VHP, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Yuva Vahini and the Hindu community at large had come together to chuck out Muslims from Purola. Someone from one of these groups must have pasted the posters on shops, he said.
In the past, the State as well the Union governments have remained silent amid calls for violence and genocide against Muslims. Vitriolic Hindu dharam sansad (religious assembly) in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar and Roorkee called for Muslim genocide. Apart from cases against unknown perpetrators in connection with the controversial posters, the SDM and the Circle Officer maintained that there was no offences of hate speech in Purola.
The inaction of the police and administration rebels against the Supreme Court’s order in October 2022 directing the states of Uttarakhand, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh to immediately take action in cases of hate speech. Not doing so would be contempt of court, said the order which was made binding for all states and union territories in April 2023.
Political leaders, some of whom stoked the us-versus-them feeling, say they are helpless and point the finger at the mob. It’s akin to lighting a forest fire and blaming the wind for fanning it.
Amit Chand Shah, the ex-president of BJP’s Uttarkashi district unit and businessman, said his request to Muslim shopkeepers is to reopen their shops with police protection. Neither the local traders’ union nor any political party will obstruct them, but if the public takes charge, then nobody can control the situation, he said.
Brijmohan Chauhan, the president of the traders’ association, said the association has nothing to do with forcing the Muslims to shut shops. He said that until the people’s anger wanes, chances are slim that Muslim shopkeepers can resume business.
The traders’ union has demanded that Muslims working in Purola be strictly verified and be allowed to work there only after providing an affidavit by a local guarantor taking responsibility for their actions. When we asked the SDM if this would be discriminatory, he told us that the police verification of outsiders is standard practice. “The traders’ union is just using a different language. If it is not against a particular community, it is okay,” he said.
Chauhan has removed Muslim shopkeepers from the WhatsApp group of traders’ association. He said it was to shield Muslims from the provocative messages posted by other members.
Both the SDM and the Circle Officer said Muslims were safe and authorities would ensure the security of Muslims in Purola.
From Delayed Action to Inaction
The Collective interviewed Purola SDM Devanand Sharma on June 6 on the threat to Muslims and their shops, which have been shut for over a week. On being asked if security is being provided to Muslim traders whose shops were attacked, he said, “No one has asked us for security. If anyone asks for protection, we will definitely provide it”.
A Muslim resident of Purola, whom we met on the same day, told us that he had asked for security the previous day, on June 5, but had not received it even after 24 hours. According to him, when he went to the SDM to submit a memorandum, the officer rebuffed him. Indeed, there was hardly any police deployment in Purola market or the adjoining areas on June 6.
“Forces were deployed round the clock immediately after the rally that happened on May 28. Some people came to us asking for security and it was provided immediately,” Circle Officer Surender Singh Bhandari informed us on June 7.
Policemen were stationed across Purola market for the first time only on June 7. Two policemen were in front of the residence of the person who had asked for security.
As the police sit over inquiries into the hate offences in Purola, which is considered a tacit endorsement of the extremist elements, several Muslim families vacated their shops in the town’s market on June 8.
“The vandalism of shops and the threatening posters have appeared in the same town. The police should have taken swift action and found out who pasted these posters, where they were printed, and traced their origin. If there are videos of the vandalism, the police should have interrogated the people involved. The fact that action is not taken against those involved in such hate crimes amounts to laxity and administrative negligence,” said Vikash Narain Rai, the former Haryana Director General of Police.
“Under the SC directions, suo motu action has to be taken on hate speech. Action against hate crimes, as in these cases, is not limited to only registering a First Information Report and sitting over it. The police have to take action against those circulating such petitions (against Muslim community), those in positions of power making speeches targeting a particular community. They also have to immediately provide security to prevent any harm to the targeted community,” Rai added.
Uttarkashi Superintendent of Police Arpan Yaduvanshi told The Collective over the phone that the police are looking into the video footage of the rally to identify who damaged Muslim-owned shops. He said preliminary inquiry suggests they were outsiders and efforts are on to identify and nab them.
He added that right now, the priority of the police is to restore peace and normalcy in Purola. Peace meetings are being held every day. In a few days, even the ones who have had to flee the town will feel safe to come back, he said.
Responding to Dabral's statement to The Collective that Muslims shall be ousted from Purola, Yaduvanshi said, "If someone has said something to this effect, we will take the strictest action possible. We will not allow any such anti-social elements".
He said he cannot comment on how the administration views 'love jihad' and 'land jihad' since these are not defined by law.
On June 9, the Chief Minister again called for stern action in cases of love jihad. He told the media: “People of different faiths coexist peacefully in Uttarakhand but things like love jihad will not be tolerated. Crimes like these were being committed as part of a conspiracy. But people are coming out openly against them now.”
We sent questionnaires to the Chief Minister, the Director General of Police and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Uttarakhand asking them the legal definition of love jihad and land jihad, official figures of such cases and the law under which they were acted upon. We have not received a reply yet, even after multiple reminders and attempts to contact them.