In Uttarakhand's Purola, Controversial Mahapanchayat Cancelled But Tensions Still High

A day in the life of a small town caught in communal tensions.

Purola (Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand): Typically, when the summer temperatures soar in the plains of north India, many plan trips to the hills in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh for respite.

On June 14 afternoon, when I left Delhi for Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun, the stifling heat was overwhelming at 42 degrees. Several co-passengers waiting to board the flight were expectedly talking about their impending holidays. Disembarking from the aircraft in Dehradun, some heaved a sigh of relief as a cool evening breeze swept through.

Our taxi driver from the airport switched on the air conditioner though, complaining of the day time heat and how the city is no more the same in the summers. “The hills are still better; it’s been raining in some parts too,” he said helpfully.

On finding out that we are leaving town early the next morning for Uttarkashi district, he seemed glad. Conversations swerved from a glitzy airport being built at Jolly Grant to his struggle to keep going post COVID-19. “Thankfully, tourists are coming now; there is work but not too many are heading for Char Dham,” taking us to be Char Dham pilgrims. Because who goes to Uttarkashi if not for pilgrimage or trekking?

Early the next morning, another affable taxi driver became a co-traveller. Our destination was Purola, a sleepy town in the state’s Uttarkashi district.

Though Purola has been in national headlines since end May due to rising communal tensions, the taxi driver, a native of Chamoli district, seemed not too aware of the goings on. We talked politics and he came across stressed about job losses. “I’ve retired from the army; typically, we choose army for employment in the hills but that option was taken away by Narendra Modi. What will our boys get by joining the Agniveer programme? Most are at a loss now,” he rued.

Another means of livelihood for people in the Garhwal belt, he said, “was from the pilgrims going to Badrinath, Kedarnath. That too has been taken over by the government. BJP ne Uttarakhand ko khokhla kar diya (BJP has robbed Uttarakhand of its assets),” he remarked.

On reaching Yamunapaar, which marked the end of Dehradun district, we stopped at a roadside eatery. The gushing Yamuna river flowing by it has been dammed some kilometres away, as part of Lakhwar-Beasi project. The work has begun after a long gap; the Modi government had allocated funds for it recently. The construction is underway by setting aside apprehensions of environmentalists about flood risks to Delhi in case of an accident at the dam site, besides it being a threat to the ecologically sensitive Himalayas. The National Green Tribunal nod came in spite of that belt witnessing havoc in 2013 due to flash floods.

The eatery owner, Mukesh Chauhan, said it was only a matter of time before the entire area would be submerged under water as part of the dam project. He seemed resigned to his fate, saying, “The government says it will give us compensation; we will move a little ahead and set up a similar eatery there.” We thanked Mukesh’s wife for serving us extra large aloo parathas with a green chilli chutney so early in the morning. The curd accompanying it was made of milk from a nearby village, she said. Not many customers were asking for breakfast at that hour. But ours was a journey fraught with uncertainty about how the day would pan out. Since June 14, the Uttarkashi district administration has clamped Section 144 at Purola. It was to ensure the delicate peace in the hill town is maintained, particularly on June 15.

The Purola marketplace on June 15. Photo: Atul Ashok Howale

The trigger

On June 15, a clasp of Hindutva outfits — the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and Dev Bhoomi Raksha Abhiyan started by a self proclaimed ‘swami’ Darshan Bharti — had called for a mahapanchayat in Purola to throw out Muslims from the town and all other places nearby. The Muslim residents of that area were being accused of inflicting on the majority Hindu population ‘love jihad’, an imaginary concept propagated by Hindutva groups as per which a conspiracy is hatched by Muslim men to wed Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

The idea of Muslims propagating ‘love jihad’ in Purola gained ground among the Hindu residents after an underaged Hindu girl residing in the town was allegedly abducted by two youth, one of them a Muslim, on May 26.

Later on June 15, when I caught up in Purola with a local resident, Deepak Naudiyal, also an office bearer of the town’s traders’ association, he at once pronounced the Hindu youth accused, Jitendra Saini, innocent. “He is friendly with the Muslim boy, Owais, because they are from the same place, Bijnor, in Uttar Pradesh. Both used to work at a cycle repair shop here, opposite which the girl resided with her maternal uncle who is a local teacher. She is originally from Mori town but moved here after losing her parents. The Muslim boy used to borrow Jitendra’s phone and call her, posing as a Hindu boy named Ankit. She got interested in him. On May 26, he was trying to put her in a tempo to take her to Bijnor; he called Jitendra from his phone asking if he also wanted to go home with them. The girl then discovered he was a Muslim and refused to go with him; local people got involved and police was called; both the boys got arrested,” he said.

Also read: ‘Hindu Rashtra Will Begin Here’: Uttarakhand Sants Continue to Spread Communal Message

What seemed like a small town love story gone wrong took Purola and its neighbouring areas by storm in the course of days. Locals began seeing a communal pattern in it. Several Purola residents that The Wire spoke to on June 15 referred to similar incidents involving Muslim youth in Naugaon, Chinyalisaur, etc. “In Mori, about two years ago, one Hindu girl was abducted and kept inside a shop for a few days. Only when someone heard her cry did the truth come out. Love jihad is true,” a resident, Chander Negi, said. He first heard about love jihad in a WhatsApp video. “News keep coming in our phones; whoever wants to keep himself informed does it through the phone,” he said.

Another resident, Harimohan Negi, added, “That the Muslim boy changed his name to pose like a Hindu to the girl must mean this was a case of love jihad.”

The spot where the May 26 incident took place was near the town’s only petrol pump, just where the town limits begin. A group of policemen stood near it when we arrived there on June 15 morning. In fact, the strong police bandobast could be seen at multiple places along National Highway 507 leading up to Purola. A desk was put up by the Uttarakhand Police about 37 km from Purola town to register the names of all passing by the highway along with their vehicle numbers. We were asked why we were headed to Purola.

The state administration mobilised police personnel not just from the district but from other parts of the state too to ensure that the mahapanchayat couldn’t take place on the designated day. Two days ago, the local administration had denied permission for it. However, the Hindutva groups said they might go ahead with it, leading police to clamp prohibitory orders on the town. The heavy police bandobast along the highway was also to ensure that the organisers fail to mobilise crowd from neighbouring towns and villages.

Some policemen told The Wire that they were brought from Haridwar especially for the day. “There is nothing here; only national media hype for TRP created this situation,” one policeman brought from Haridwar claimed. The sizeable electronic media presence in the town has resulted in several locals also blaming TV channels for blowing up the incident.

A quiet but tense situation

When we entered the town on June 15 morning, nearly 200 policemen were lined up on both sides of the road through the marketplace, while a number of reporters were going live from the ground. Top district officials including some coming down from Dehradun could be seen crisscrossing the town in government vehicles. The SDM, Devanand Sharma is married to a woman from Purola. Naudiyal said soon after the incident they approached him as members of the Vyapar Mandal to verify outsiders coming to the town for work. “He assured us about it; he is a good man, married to my relative,” he said.

On June 15 morning, a few locals could be spotted trickling out of their homes to witness the unusual scenes unfolding in their town. On saying to one such resident that Purola was going through its Peepli Live moment, he smiled, saying, “I was born and brought up here. The town has never seen so many policemen, national media and curfew.” He refused to give his name though, saying, “I don’t want to get involved in this. Whoever has committed a crime must be punished as per law but going after everyone from a community for one man’s crime is not right.”

What came across was that he has a shop in the market. “It’s shut today because of an order by the Vyapar Mandal. We were told we have to support the mahapanchayat. We were told to shut our shops in protest against the curfew and the denial of permission for the mahapanchayat. I have to follow such orders of the Vyapar Mandal, otherwise it will not stand by me if I need them,” he added. The local Vyapar Mandal was behind a series of protests in Purola which also escalated to similar protests in neighbouring towns like Barkot, Naugaon, Damta against ‘love jihad’.

Another resident that The Wire spoke to gave his name as Ajay Negi. He felt the Muslim residents should not have left town. “When during a rally, some drunk boys tore the board of a shop owned by a Muslim, they got scared and left. But I am sure nobody would have attacked them at their houses. There is no such history here.” On being reminded that there was a poster pasted on a Muslim man’s shop accusing him of love jihad and some shops were marked with crosses, as well as about Hindutva groups asking Muslims to vacate the town before the mahapanchayat or else they would be attacked, Negi blamed the situation on “unknown miscreants” placed to foment trouble for political and personal gains.

“Some days ago, prior to the May 26 incident, we had Bhagwad paath in a temple here. During the event, a VHP member grabbed the mic and spoke of love jihad and said that we should not allow Muslims amidst us. I felt bad because some Muslims had also come there to listen to Bhagwad paath,” he said. Negi is now worried because his son lives at the residence of a Muslim man in Dehradun and “what if they get to know he is from Purola and ask him to leave”.

The shop where a poster on ‘love jihad’ had been pasted. Photo: Atul Ashok Howale

Meanwhile, at the mahapanchayat venue, an open area which also doubles up as a stadium and a field for helicopters of VVIPs to land, at least two dozen cars could be seen, mostly belonging to media personnel. The stadium is surrounded by pine-covered hills. A sizeable stretch amidst the pines stood out for being used to dump the plastic and paper waste of the town.

VHP leader claims administration’s support

At the stadium, the man attracting the assembled media persons’ attention was one of the mahapanchayat organisers, Vikas Verma, the convenor of VHP, Dehradun. Clad in saffron from head to toe, he was holding forth on love jihad and how “Hamari Hindu matao aur behno pe Mohmaddan log buri najar dal rahe hai (Muslims are casting an evil eye on our Hindu mothers and sisters)”.

Verma said the administration was with them, “on our side” as “we are also working for the country”. On being asked by a reporter why such cases are not seen as crimes and left to be dealt with as per law by police and the courts, Verma said they “couldn’t sit silently at home when our innocent sisters and mothers are in trouble”.

Vikas Verma. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

By forenoon, news spread about the Uttarakhand high court directing the state administration to maintain law and order. The local SHO took to the mic, asking everyone to disperse. Before leaving the venue, Verma was also heard referring to ‘land jihad’ by Muslims in Uttarakhand, which later found resonance in conversations we had with the office bearers of the Vyapar Mandal.

A fractured society

“We are upset that the mahapanchayat didn’t happen today. Had it happened, we could have discussed the need for a law in Uttarakhand to restrict buying land like that of Himachal Pradesh,” said Ankit Pawar. On being reminded that it was the BJP government that had tinkered with the state’s land laws to allow non-natives to own larger plots of land, and also that government land granted to business houses for a particular purpose need not be returned if used for some other purpose, he replied, “We are aware of it; a new law to restrict outsiders from buying our land will turn into a public demand before next year’s assembly elections.”

Talking specifically about Muslim shopkeepers, several traders’ association office bearers spoke of them expanding “exponentially” in a short span of time. “They came with nothing some years ago and today can rent shop after shop in the market. I have worked in Dubai for several years and got home money, and yet can’t think of taking a shop on rent in the market. Unless they are doing some wrong business, they can’t grow so fast here,” said Naudiyal. He, however, was quick to add that he is not opposed to Muslims as such. “They can come, stay here but should not get involved in things that harm the local people.”

Also read: In Photos: Police Enforce Denial of Permission To Controversial Mahapanchayat in Uttarakhand

When we met Naudiyal, he was standing with a Muslim man on the street. “He is from Bihar, came here as a contractor; I also hired him; today he has built his house here and settled. His children study here. We have no problem with him because he is not trying to harm local sentiments,” said Naudiyal. The Muslim man refused to talk to the media, saying, “I want to stay peacefully here; I have nothing to do with those people who were involved in that case.”

Naudiyal was among the Vyapar Mandal team that went to Obaid’s house to tell the family to leave town, as well as to the house of another family which has a shop in the market. “They were staying on rent here. We felt if they remain here, we as fellow shopkeepers would have to support them, which we didn’t want to do after the May 26 incident which has angered local people,” he said.

The Purola marketplace on June 15. Photo: Atul Ashok Howale

Purola has about 14 Muslim families. While some settled here about 30 years ago, others came about five years ago. While most of this lot have permanent residence in the town, those who run shops in the market are rented out by Hindu neighbours. Following the May 26 incident, some Hindu landlords asked them to vacate the shops allegedly on pressure from local Hindutva leaders.

Purola, like the adjacent towns, also has a floating crowd of Muslim labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. On June 15, we came across several Muslim labourers working at construction sites. On asking one of them whether he goes to any local mosque to pray, he said there is none in the vicinity. “We pray wherever we get space, sometimes inside the house,” he said. Last Ramzan, he said, he couldn’t go home, so he had gone to pray on the terrace of a Muslim resident in Purola along with some others. “Some came from other towns too, which didn’t go down well with some residents here; he [the host] was told not to invite outsiders to his home anymore,” the man said, adding “he too has fled the town for Dehradun”.

Naudiyal and Ankit were among several local residents who came across as particularly angry with the BJP’s local minority cell leader Mohammad Zahid, who too has left town for Dehradun. He had been a resident of the town for over 25 years. “We saw him on a TV channel saying he will never return to Purola, accusing the Hindu community of chasing him away. But listen to his wife sitting next to him saying she never felt discriminated against,” said Naudiyal.

I asked Ankit what would happen if the Muslim families decide to return to Purola. “We can’t ask them to leave but what they must keep in mind is that they can’t go against local people’s sentiments,” he answered.

By and by the day wore off; the streets of the town were deserted by the afternoon and several media teams began leaving Purola. So did senior government officials. Several police personnel who had complained about not getting “even a cup of tea” due to the market shutdown in the morning were happy to have found arrangements for lunch at the local police station. Some media personnel helped themselves to food too at the thana. A Vyapar Mandal official invited us home, adding, “Our hospitality today is strictly for media, not for police personnel; why did they have to come today and disrupt our plan?”

After sun down, what one could hear were only intermittent police sirens patrolling the town.

Shops opened in Purola on June 16. Photo: Atul Ashok Howale

Early in the morning on June 16, Purola woke up to police-free streets; there were barely any media teams in town. By 7 am, shops began to up their shutters. In a matter of hours, the town became a complete contrast to what it was just a day before. Life began picking pace. On pointing it out to a local restaurant owner, he said, “Good to see this but post June 15, it will never be the same again. Some Muslim families have already offered to sell their property and move elsewhere.”