As Tensions Run High in Purola, Muslims Flee Uttarkashi; BJP Minority Wing Leaders Feel ‘Betrayed’

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The Uttarakhand town has been on tenterhooks from May 26, following the hate campaign by the Hindutva outfits to “cleanse” town of Muslims. Even the BJP leaders from the Muslim community, who served the party for decades, have fled the town to save their lives.

New Delhi: “For 30 years, we have lived in peace here, but now we are being made to leave our own houses,” said Mohammed Saif, a trader from Purola – a town that faced an exodus of Muslims following open calls for violence against the community.

Saif and his family of seven have vacated their two-storeyed house and their hardware shop in the town. Many others like Saif have met the same fate, they too have had to vacate their ancestral homes after their own neighbourhood turned violent against them.

Locals told The Wire, large-scale vandalism and harassment of Muslims began on May 26 after one of the accused men in the kidnapping bid was found to be a 24-year-old Muslim. This escalated tensions as local Hindu groups alleged that the kidnapping was an attempted case of “love jihad”. Intensifying the hate campaign, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal called for a Mahapanchayat in Purola with the objective to “cleanse” the town of Muslims.

Fleeing the violence and vandalism are Muslims from all walks of life and even those who batted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Himalayan state. Purola’s Muslims, even those who served as BJP leaders and members, have not been spared.

Betrayed by the BJP

Sonu Meer was an ardent supporter of the BJP until the hatred hit home. Meer, who always thought of himself as an equal Indian citizen under the law, today sits exiled 200 km away from his home in Purola – for being Muslim.

“When we saw what was happening, we had no option but to flee,” says Meer, alleging that his mobile phone shop was vandalised by the Bajrang Dal workers.

Meer, who served as the president of BJP’s minority wing in Uttarkashi district four times, said that if the state government was more aware and willing to help Muslims, this could have been avoided.

For 21 years, during his association with the BJP, he served in various positions as part of the leadership in the BJP unit of Uttarakhand. He had genuinely believed that the ascendancy of Modi would really bring in “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”, as promised. Now, he believes that this sudden rise in communal activities by Hindutva groups in the region is aimed at tilting results in municipal elections in the state, scheduled for late 2023.

Another ardent BJP supporter, who is also Muslim and the president of BJP’s minority wing in Uttarkashi district, also fled overnight to save himself. Mohammed Zahid Malik, 46, has seen the circumstances change rapidly, for the worse. The Himalayan town, Malik told The Wire, has never witnessed anything like this in the 30 years that he has lived there.

“Musalmaan ka naam ab Musalmaan nahi Jihadi rakh dia gaya hai. Humara naam hi badal dia gaya hai, humara naam hi jihadi kardia gaya hai innlogon ne (They have changed our names from being Muslims to Jihadis),” said Malik.

He also pointed out that Muslim lives have been reduced to mere numbers and do not matter to anyone. Malik, who also fled after seeing a poster threatening local Muslims to flee, feels that the state’s BJP leadership has been completely silent on their exodus. He is disappointed by their silence.

‘Nothing to eat’

The posters, which Malik recalls shook Barkot, another town near Uttarkashi, two days before the posters surfaced. Members of Hindutva outfits, which locals refer to as Bajrang Dal, held massive protests in the town and attacked shops and houses belonging to Muslims. At least 30-40 Muslim shops and properties have been vandalised.

A view of Purola on June 15, 2023. Photo: Atul Ashok Howale

Taher Hassan, a local from Barkot, remembers the horrifying details the town saw. “It was like a red sea of angry men and Bhagwa flags rushing towards us, to uproot us, drown us,” Hassan said.

While Hassan says, he has been fortunate enough to find accommodation out of Barkot, many Muslims who also fled the town do not come from economically sound backgrounds.Mohsin Khan and his family fled with whatever clothes they were wearing and food that they had on their plates on the afternoon of June 13. While Khan does not wish to disclose his location at the moment fearing his safety, he contacted Malik and other local leaders once he started running out of cash to feed his family.

“It’s not like we are new Muslims in Barkot, but some people use words like Love Jihad just to empty out Muslim homes. Today I have no money, nothing to eat, because I am Muslim,” Khan said.

The Wire also contacted Intezar Hussain, BJP’s minority wing’s state chief, who was of the opinion that local Muslims shouldn’t have left Purola. Malik and Meer counter this, saying that they couldn’t have waited for their families to be killed by the Hindutva mobs.

‘Never wanted Muslims to leave’

Monali Rana, a local from Purola’s main market area, is perplexed at the rallies in her town. Rana who would often get her mobile recharges done from a shop owned by a Muslim sees the idea of enmity between the communities as an alien concept that did not exist before.

While Uttarakhand has been in the news for communal chaos since December 2021 – when Haridwar hosted a provocative, radical Hindu event calling for the genocide of Indian Muslims – Rana says the two communities have never even had so much as an argument on matters of religion. “Nobody wants Hindus or Muslims to leave, we did not paste any posters, it was all outside elements,” she explained.

But locals say outside elements are not the only catalyst for communal chaos. The state government recently flagged off an anti-encroachment drive to raze “illegal” religious structures and other encroachments on forest land.

This drive commenced in April 2023 right after news reports claimed that Islamic shrines were rapidly increasing in a state famous for the Char Dham yatra.

Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami told Panchjanya, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s weekly publication, that more than 1,000 unauthorised Islamic shrines or mazaars had been constructed by encroaching on forest land in the State. He described it as “mazar jihad”.

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Disclaimer: As Tensions Run High in Purola, Muslims Flee Uttarkashi; BJP Minority Wing Leaders Feel 'Betrayed' - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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