Why Muslims are fleeing a small town in India’s Uttarakhand state

Nearly a dozen families have been forced to leave Purola after far-right Hindu groups threaten Muslims’ homes and businesses.

Police stand guard in Purola market
Police stand guard at a market in Purola in Uttarakhand [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]

Purola, India – Muslims in a north Indian town have been asked by Hindu groups to abandon their livelihoods and the homes they have lived in for generations.

About a dozen families have fled Purola, a small town in northern India’s Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand state, after notices were pasted on homes and businesses asking them to vacate the town.

The threats, issued mainly by two far-right Hindu groups – the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal – follow an alleged attempt by two men to kidnap a 14-year-old Hindu girl on May 26.

Uttarakhand Purola [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]
A view of a market in Purola town in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]

Both the VHP and Bajrang Dal are in turn affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the far-right ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which aims to create an ethnic Hindu state out of a constitutionally secular India. Together, these groups constitute what is commonly referred to as the “Sangh Parivar” (parivar means family in Hindi).

The two accused in the kidnapping case were immediately nabbed by residents and handed over to the police. They have been charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and other laws.

‘Love jihad’ allegation

One of the accused in the kidnapping bid was a 24-year-old Muslim man, leading to allegations by Hindu groups that the kidnapping attempt was a case of “love jihad” – an unproven conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of luring Hindu women into romantic relationships in order to convert them to Islam by marriage.

The BJP government itself has denied that such a conspiracy exists in its reports presented in parliament.

But residents of Purola say the May 26 incident was used by the Hindu groups to intensify their years-old movement that seeks to free the Himalayan state, known for its many Hindu pilgrimage sites and temple towns, of the Muslim community.

There are about 400-500 Muslims in Purola, a town 140km (87 miles) from state capital Dehradun with about 10,000 residents.

On May 27, government officials allegedly asked Muslim traders to shut their shops as some Hindu groups had planned a rally to protest against the attempted kidnapping of the girl.

“We had to shut our shops because we had no option,” Mohammad Ashraf, 41, who has a garment shop in Purola, told Al Jazeera.

Uttarakhand [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]
A closed shop of a Muslim businessman in Purola market [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]

On May 29, the Hindu groups and hundreds of supporters organised another rally, calling for the expulsion of Muslims from the area.

According to the residents, provocative slogans were raised against the minority community at the rally. The mob also vandalised some shops and removed signboards bearing Muslim names. Since then, most Muslim-owned businesses have been shuttered in Purola while the rest of the market is buzzing with activity.

Muslim traders approached the local administration for help and urged them to act against people threatening their livelihoods, but they say their requests fell on deaf ears.

“The [Muslim] boy has been arrested. The police are investigating the matter. What more do they want? Do they want us to leave our homes and shops? Where will we go? We have been living here for years,” a Muslim trader told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the authorities.

Uttarakhand Purola
A man walks past closed shops at a market in Uttarakhand’s Purola town [Meer Faisal/Al Jazeera]

Brij Mohan Chauhan, president of the traders’ union in Purola, told Al Jazeera he appealed to the Muslim traders to reopen their businesses.

“We did not force them to shut their shops. We are in touch with the administration. I am sure if not now they will open their shops within a week,” he said.

Meanwhile, posters appeared last week on Muslims’ Purola shops, warning them to leave town before June 15, the day the VHP and Bajrang Dal have called for a “mahapanchayat” (or grand meeting) in the town.

Muslims in turn have called their own “mahapanchayat” of community leaders in Dehradun on June 18 to protest their targeting in Purola.

As the atmosphere in Purola remains strained, religious tensions have reportedly spread to adjacent towns and villages.

In Barkot, another small town about 30km (19 miles) from Purola, an “X” sign was seen on the doors of some Muslim-owned shops, an act reminiscent of the Nazi-era targeting of Jews in pre-World War II Germany.

For decades, right-wing groups in Uttarakhand have mobilised Hindus to create a “Devbhoomi” (or land of the gods) and exclude Muslims.

‘There were clear threats’

Dehradun-based journalist Trilochan Bhatt told Al Jazeera the continuing tensions in Purola and adjoining areas were a consequence of the anti-Muslim hate politics that has engulfed the state over the last few months.

Bhatt blamed leaders of the ruling BJP for giving a free hand to Hindu groups in holding rallies where open calls for violence against Muslims were made. It was in Uttarakhand’s temple town of Haridwar that a controversial Hindu event calling for the genocide of Indian Muslims was held in December 2021.

“Uttarakhand was a peaceful state and Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony. But since the BJP government assumed power, things have become difficult for the Muslim minority,” he said. “Every now and then, there are anti-Muslim rallies held somewhere in the state.”

The BJP’s national spokesman and senior Uttarakhand leader, Dushyant Kumar Gautam, rejected reports of an exodus of Muslims from Purola, calling them “baseless”.

“There was a case of ‘love jihad’. The police are investigating … People are leaving the town on their own because of the possibility of their involvement in the case,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The government is monitoring the situation and anybody found involved in vitiating the atmosphere will be dealt with,” he added.

But the threats issued by the Hindu groups did not even spare a Muslim member of the BJP.

“I had no option but to leave because there were clear threats that we will be harmed if we don’t leave before June 15,” Zahid Malik, the president of the right-wing party’s minority wing in Uttarkashi district, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday over the telephone.

Mailk, who fled to Dehradun with his family, said he had been living in Purola for the last 30 years.

“Even though I am associated with the ruling party, sadly I did not get any help from the administration,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera