What gave charge to the Hindutva campaign to oust Muslims from the hill town of Purola in Uttarakhand was the allegation of ‘love jihad’.

‘Love jihad’ is a conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of trapping Hindu women into romantic relationships in order to convert them to Islam. It has been repeatedly used by several Hindu supremacist organisations to discredit inter-faith relationships and to stoke animosity between Hindus and Muslims.

On May 26, two men – Ubaid Khan and Jitender Saini – were arrested for trying to abduct a 14-year-old girl in Purola town in Uttarkashi district. Although one of the accused was Hindu, Hindu groups claimed this was a case of ‘love jihad’.

In the days to follow, anti-Muslim marches were taken out in the town, demanding that Muslim traders leave the town and “eviction” notices pasted on their shops. “The love jihadis are informed that they should leave the town …otherwise they will face consequences,” read a notice signed by an organisation called the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan.

But several accounts have emerged to suggest one important fact – that there was no inter-faith relationship between the teenager and any of the men to begin with.

What the accused’s families say

Both Khan and Saini are lodged in the district jail in Tehri Garhwal. Their families claim that they are innocent – and that neither knew the 14-year-old.

Saini was a mechanic at a bike repair shop in Kumola Road, Purola. Across the road from this shop was a furniture store owned by Ubaid Khan’s family – where Khan, 21, worked. Saini and Khan, both of whose families are from Bijnore in western Uttar Pradesh, were friends.

Saini’s father, Attar Saini, said when he met his 23-year-old son in jail on May 29, he narrated the events of that day to him.

“That day, the girl had come to my son’s shop. She asked for an address to some place,” Attar said. “My son and his friend accompanied her to the bus stand. After that, they returned to their shops. They did not try to abduct her.”

Attar said his son did not know the girl. “My son has been caught up in Hindu- Muslim tensions,” he said.

The elder brother of Ubaid Khan, too, told Scroll that he did not know the girl, nor was he involved in any relationship with her. “Ubaid had no relation with her,” said Amir Khan.

According to Amir Khan’s version of the events, two hours after Ubaid returned to his shop, having dropped the girl to the bus stand, a crowd of 50 men led by local Hindutva activists arrived and started asking him questions. Then, the crowd took him to the nearby police post where a bigger crowd had already gathered.

A little later, Saini was brought to the police post by some men. “The police gave in to pressure from the crowd to file the case and arrest my brother,” said Amir Khan.

‘Only to create communal tension’

Among those who have spoken up to contest the narrative of “love jihad’ is the 14-year-old’s uncle.

In an interview to Hindustan Times, the 40-year-old schoolteacher said, “There were attempts from the first hour to make this a communal issue. [Hindu] right-wing activists even prepared a police complaint for us on their own, but the police didn’t accept it,” he told the newspaper.

He added: “It was never a love jihad case, but a regular crime. Those that committed it, are behind bars. The judiciary will now decide.”

According to the complaint filed by the girl’s uncle, and seen by Scroll, both Khan and Saini “lured her from his shop and took her to a petrol pump”. Khan introduced himself as “Ankit” to the girl, the complaint said. While they were trying to put her in a tempo, they were spotted by local residents, who raised an alarm.

Khan and Saini then fled the spot, according to the complaint. Both the men were arrested on charges of kidnapping a minor girl under sections of the Indian Penal Code, and under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

According to the 14-year-old’s uncle, he was approached by several Hindutva groups to join their campaign but he turned them down. “I understand all they want to do is to create communal tension,” he told Hindustan Times.

A police officer investigating the case corroborated the girl’s uncle’s claim. “Khan and Saini are not involved in any ‘love jihad’. People can say anything but our investigation did not find anything like that,” he told Scroll, on condition of anonymity,

He pointed out that police investigation has revealed that neither Saini nor Khan knew the teenager. “She asked them for an address in the market and then they took her to the bus stand, where they tried to put her in a tempo. They wanted to take advantage of her,” he said.

Both Khan and Saini have denied the charges, the police officer added.

Heavy police deployment in Purola town of Uttarakhand on June 15, the day Hindu groups had called for a 'mahapanchayat'. Credit: PTI

The journalist’s role

One of the first mentions of “love jihad” in the case, according to a report in The Morning Context, was in a story carried by a “little-known website called ‘bbckhabar.in’”.

The website is run by Purola-based journalist Anil Aswal, a correspondent for the Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala. The story, which reported that “a matter of love jihad has come to light in Purola Nagar Panchayat”, was shared on several WhatsApp groups, leading to angry reactions from Hindu traders.

Aswal told The Morning Context that the incident was a matter of “love jihad” because “the boy had been chatting with the girl for a year as Ankit”. He also said he doubted that Saini was a Hindu, and was using a false name to hide his identity. He did not offer any evidence for these claims.

According to another report in Newslaundry, Aswal tried to convince the girl’s uncle to file a “fake police complaint”, alleging that his niece had been a victim of “love jihad”. The report quoted Khajan Singh Chauhan, the station house officer of Purola, saying that he had seen Aswal trying to pressure the girl’s uncle.

‘A chance to target us’

Khan’s family owns three businesses in Purola – a mattress shop, a furniture showroom and an ice cream factory.

Amir Khan said that the case against his brother was a result of a plot hatched by “some Hindutva men”. “Muslims work hard and our businesses are doing well. Some people do not like it. Now they have got a chance to target us,” Amir Khan said.

Khan’s family fled the town a day after he was arrested. According to Amir Khan, the traders’ union, Byapar Mandal Purola, asked the family to shut their business and leave. “They gave us 24 hours. We packed our bags in two hours and left for our hometown in Najibabad, Bijnor, on May 27 afternoon.”

Ankit Pawar, a member of the traders’ union, denied serving any such ultimatum, saying they had only asked Amir Khan to down the shutters as they were afraid the mob might attack them. “It was for their safety. We did not ask them vacate the shop,” Pawar said on Sunday. “The market is now open and Muslims have also resumed their businesses.”

Other residents of the town, too, expressed their discomfort with how communal tensions were whipped up over the incident.

“The media and some people have made this whole issue a Hindu- Muslim thing,” said Vinay Himani, who had rented out his house to the Khan family. “The reality is that there is also a Hindu accused in the case. Once the two men were handed over to the police, the people should have let the police do their job. Instead, we are seeing a communal conflict.”