Purola (Uttarakhand): For an Uttarkashi journalist, the surprise is in the fact that the region which has never been known for communal animosity has now made national headlines for it.
“I am still wondering how the May 26 incident in Purola became so big,” is how a Barkot-based reporter put it. On May 26, an underage Hindu girl was allegedly abducted by two youth, one of them a Muslim.
Barkot and Purola are neighbouring towns in Uttarakhand. The last few weeks have seen hate speeches and a ‘Mahapanchayat’ called by a pack of Hindutva leaders to oust Muslims from the area get cancelled, leaving the belt in a state of heightened communal tension and under a curfew.
But the Barkot journalist added, “Some incidents involving Hindu women and Muslim men have happened in the area, so local people are genuinely concerned.”
On the ground, this last comment by the journalist found resonance. Person after person that The Wire spoke to in Purola harped on “such incidents” involving Hindu women and Muslim men across the tehsils of Uttarkashi in the last couple of years.
In some situations, the Muslim men had given Hindu names to woo the women involved, including in Purola. This fit perfectly with the communal ruse that Hindutva groups, and even state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, have been raising as ‘love jihad’ – forcing most locals to accept it as a real phenomenon.
Hindutva leaders of the state – like Vikash Verma, convenor of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad at Dehradun, and Darshan Bharti of the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan – parachuted themselves onto the scene in no time. They have received air time and considerable media attention in the state and nationally since then. It is thus clear to see how the Purola abduction became an opportunity for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar to create a media-driven uproar.
“Why would the godi media [a term used to refer to media outlets friendly to the Narendra Modi government] come in large numbers to a small place like ours to cover it? They were instructed to help balloon the incident to such a proportion,” remarked a local elder.
A ground visit to Purola thus reveals that while most Hindu residents in that belt have subscribed to the idea of ‘love jihad’ – apparently unleashed on ‘innocent’ Hindu women by ‘wily’ Muslim men as a conspiracy to convert them to Islam – there also exists a firm perception that BJP and its cohorts are looking at milking this public fear.
With the state headed to a series of polls between 2023 and 2024 – from urban body elections to the parliamentary polls – the Purola incident, therefore, needs to be brought under the scanner to pin down what exactly the political benefit is, that the BJP may be hoping to reap by whipping up communal sentiments.
First, it is vital to recognise the pressure the BJP national leadership has been putting lately on all state units to deliver better results for the party in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Narendra Modi would be seeking a third term in New Delhi at a time when his Midas touch is appearing to be losing its magic. The recent Karnataka state elections where Modi failed to turn the tide in favour of his party in spite of extensive canvassing is an example of it. The fact that the Karnataka loss has led to a south India with no BJP state governments has been a bitter pill for the party to swallow in the run-up to 2024 since the state has 28 Lok Sabha seats. Together, the southern states have 125 parliamentary constituencies.
No wonder then that soon after that debacle, an enthusiastic effort of public outreach in south India – including Modi receiving the Sengol from Tamil Nadu seers to inaugurate the new parliament building – began. Union home minister Amit Shah lost no time in expressing his electoral expectations from such an act of religious outreach by the prime minister while flagging off the BJP’s campaign in Tamil Nadu for 2024. Citing installation of the Sengol in parliament by Modi, Shah asked the public to send 25 BJP MPs from that state to the parliament, as if to say that the party must fulfil a state-wise target to grab power the third time.
In a multi-pronged approach typical of Modi-era BJP, the usual official tools at its disposal like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), are also being put to use in the southern state to present to the voting public the spectre that only opposition parties are corrupt. Still, that the ED is selectively pushing cases while ignoring those (including the multi-crore Louis Berger case involving Goa and Assam) where the ministers concerned have shifted base to the BJP under Modi, is not entirely lost on the public.
This recognition, even if by a section of voters, in the buildup to a crucial election must be making the national leadership of the BJP increasingly jumpy. Going by most BJP leaders’ public statements on the 2024 polls, it is obvious that exacting electoral targets have been given to each state unit. The state leaderships have to devise a plan that will get them the maximum votes.
Responding to such pressures, the party’s Uttarakhand in-charge Dushyant Gautam has recently said, “The campaign for the Lok Sabha elections will be run on an aggressive level from the booth level to the Lok Sabha constituencies.” CM Dhami has meanwhile promised the party leadership all five Lok Sabha seats in the states, in a rehash of 2019.
However, this is not exactly a straightforward goal as the state is heading to the urban body polls towards the end of 2023, months before the parliamentary polls.
Conversations with residents of Uttarkashi who have voted for the BJP in the previous elections bring to the fore growing rural distress triggered by job loss, and shrinking of traditional employment opportunities in the district. Two standard sources of livelihood in the hills of Uttarakhand have been the Army and tourism.
In the case of Uttarkashi residents, income is generated more from the Char Dham pilgrimage than any other kind of travel. However, the BJP government in the state has intervened lately to not only decide the number of pilgrims visiting the Char Dham shrines per day but also the rates of ponies and palanquins, used to carry pilgrims uphill and downhill.
Recently, following protests from priests and other stakeholders, the Dhami government withdrew the daily limit of visitors to each shrine but the government still sets the pony and palanquin rates which locals feel are too low for the long and arduous route, particularly to Kedarnath.
Registration of pilgrims has been made mandatory too by the state government to streamline the process.
However, this too has not gone down well with many locals in Uttarkashi.
Many see these moves as the reason why they are unable to make a tidy sum from the Yatra season as they could before. Additionally, many residents of Joshimath, which is on the Yatra route, have also lost their homes and hotels after cracks developed in them. While several are awaiting compensation from the state government, some who have got it have termed the sum too little for their loss. This season this is a big local gripe.
The Modi government’s Agniveer scheme has not gone down well in the Uttarakhand hills. Overnight, communities particularly from the Tehri and Garhwal belts have lost what they have been banking on for decades – a permanent central government job that gives them not just benefits but also an old age pension.
Since civic elections, rather than the Lok Sabha polls, are usually fought more on issues that affect the local population, the Uttarakhand BJP leadership is certainly confronted with a significant challenge.
It is a no brainer that what has – and can – work in favour of the BJP in a Hindu-majority nation is whipping up in voters the fear of the other or the ‘outsider’. Kindling a latent anti-Muslim hatred by delivering communally charged speeches is a sure way of getting closer to the goal. Over some time, we have noted that such a tool kit constitutes quite a few munitions – say, reading down of Article 370 in Kashmir by Modi to ‘teaching’ Pakistan a lesson; from constructing a Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid to constantly speak of fighting ‘jihad’ of all varieties.
What the poll figures say
At this point, one may ask, why does BJP need to instil fresh communal tensions in a state it has won twice in a row, a first in Uttarakhand’s political history? Isn’t the Hindu voter already in awe of Modi and his party in the state?
The finer details of the BJP’s win in the 2022 assembly polls, particularly in Uttarkashi district, will help answer that question better and reveal its 2024 plans.
Uttarkashi district comprises three assembly segments – Purola, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Purola is among the six tehsils of the district including Barkot, Dunda, Bhatwadi, Chinyalisaur and Mori. The adjacent Tehri Garhwal district comprises of Ghanshali, Devprayag, Narendranagar, Pratapnagar, Tehri and Dhanolti assembly constituencies. The entire area comes under the Tehri Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency, enveloping, in total, 18 assembly segments which also includes the constituencies of the Dehradun district.
In the 2012 by-polls, when Vijay Bahuguna vacated the Lok Sabha seat to become the state chief minister for the Congress, the seat was grabbed by BJP’s Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah, the titular queen of the erstwhile Garhwal kingdom. Between 2012 and 2019 elections, BJP, through her, has only succeeded in accumulating its vote share in the Tehri Garhwal LS seat.
A formidable victory in 56 of 70 seats in 2017 helped BJP put up a good show in the urban body polls held next year. Then it cornered all five LS seats in 2019.
In the last assembly polls held in February, 2022, BJP won Uttarakhand but its chief ministerial candidate, Dhami, lost. The party’s victory was thus not a comfortable one. This fact and the fact that the urban body election is set to unroll by the end of 2023 can help understand why the party may need to aggressively harness Hindutva there prior to 2024.
To establish the connect, let’s look closely at the votes polled by the winning candidates in Uttarkashi and Tehri Garhwal assembly segments in 2022.
In Gangotri, an independent candidate won the seat due to a multi-cornered contest. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which fought all the 70 seats in the state, also helped in the division of votes. The BJP not only lost the Gangotri seat but stood fourth in terms of pocketing votes.
In Purola, BJP’s Durgeswar Lal won the seat by bagging 27,856 votes. Mal Chand from the Congress polled 21,560 votes. Though the AAP’s presence made it a three-corner contest for the first time in Purola, it couldn’t make much difference, leading BJP to wrest the seat from the Congress.
In Yamunotri, the Congress defeated the BJP by over 5,000 votes. Here too, AAP couldn’t make much difference.
Overall, a close inspection of votes polled by parties in the Uttarkashi district shows that BJP could win only one of the three seats. In the light of the Purola incident, what also needs highlighting here is that going by the 2022 assembly results, the constituency is the only BJP stronghold in the district. It also needs noting that the Hindutva rallies held in almost all tehsils of the district to throw out Muslims for ‘love jihad’ had spread from Purola.
In the Tehri Garhwal district, BJP has been winning the Ghanshali seat since 2012. In 2022, its candidate Shaktilal Shah could repeat the win perhaps also because it became a four-cornered fight. Two independent candidates ensured that the contest in 2022 was not just between Congress and the BJP.
Devprayag, Narendranagar and Tehri also returned a BJP candidate to power in 2022. However, a finer study of these results show those wins came with lesser margins, which underscore how closely fought the electoral battle was. For instance, in Devprayag, Vinod Kandari of BJP retained the seat only by a margin of 2,588 votes. It was a close three-way contest between BJP, Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) and Congress. In Narendranagar, it was an even closer margin for the BJP candidate. In Pratapnagar, swing votes helped Congress wrest the seat from the BJP.
In Tehri, the opposite happened though. BJP could hold the constituency because the Congress candidate carried off substantial votes from the UKD candidate.
In Dhanolti, an independent played the spoilsport for the Congress, helping BJP to corner a win there. In 2017, BJP had lost that seat to an independent.
Scanning the winning margins of these assembly results from Tehri Garhwal and Uttarkashi districts throw light on a key aspect – nowhere across the entire belt, could the BJP pull off a formidable win in 2022. Notably, all these nine assembly segments are within the Tehri Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency.
Shaky wins and rural distress lead a picture to emerge that is not really capable of putting BJP at ease ahead of crucial elections. Is the communal frenzy around the May 26 incident capable of politically aiding the party? Some locals certainly feel so.