The picturesque mountain state of Uttarakhand is today smoldering with hate and fear. Reversing its centuries-old tradition of religious harmony, the state is rapidly emerging instead as one of the frontier battlegrounds in the Hindutva struggle for transforming pluralist India into a land only for its Hindu residents.

On February 8, the city administrators of Haldwani, buoyed by a large police force and around a hundred municipal workers, marched with bulldozers to demolish a 20-year-old mosque and madrasa. This sparked public rage as people threw stones at the police and municipal workers, and a group even set fire to a police station. The police responded with “shoot at sight” orders, leaving in its trail at least six people dead and many more seriously injured.

Less than a week later, I joined a fact-finding team of members of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat and the Association for Protection of Civil Rights. From the Karwan-e-Mohabbat were Navsharan Singh, Ashok Sharma, Zahid Qadri, Kumar Nikhil and I. From the Association for Protection of Civil Rights were Nadim Khan and Mohd Mobashir.

We found the city still tense and its social fabric torn. Haldwani is the second-most populous city in Uttarakhand. The old city that abuts a military cantonment mostly has a majority of Muslim residents. The newer portions of the city grew later with Hindu residents migrating to it from the hills and other parts of India.

Before the February 8 clash, the city had never endured communal clashes. Even the violence of February 8 was not a clash between the Muslim and Hindu residents of the city. It was an ugly street battle that broke out between the state administration and a section of Muslim residents enraged by the peremptory and what they regarded as unjust demolition of a mosque and madrasa.

However, this was far from being a sudden detonation. Uttarakhand has been enveloped in recent years by a surging campaign of hate targeting the Muslim residents of the state. This is front-ended by Hindutva formations and encouraged sometimes tacitly, sometimes openly by the state government led by Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami.

At the core of this campaign is the idea that Hindus should have an exclusive and exclusionary Holy Land – like Mecca for Muslims. For this, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has chosen the Devbhumi – or land of the gods – of Uttarakhand. In their imagination, this land can become holy for Hindus only by expelling from it its Muslim residents, even though they constitute a significant 14% of the population of the state.

Police officers stand during a demolition drive in Haldwani in Uttarakhand on February 8. Credit: Reuters.

It was in the Dharm Sansad or Religious Parliament in Haridwar in December 2021 that open calls were made by saffron-clad religious leaders to sharpen swords for a war of cleansing in which the police and army would join hands with residents to drive out Muslim “intruders”.

Even more explicit calls were made for 100 Hindu volunteers to kill two million Muslims. The state administration led by Dhami took little action to punish or even restrain such open calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing. As a result, similar genocidal calls have become even more commonplace in the new normal of public life in Uttarakhand.

The Muslim is painted in this campaign as dangerously embroiled in a range of sinister jihadi activities that pose existential threats to the beleaguered Hindus of the state. The first of these is “population jihad”, an alleged campaign by Muslims to deliberately breed large families and migrate in significant numbers from outside the state with the objective of outnumbering the Hindu residents.

The second is “love jihad”, a trope that has been popularised in many parts of the state, claiming that Muslim men trap Hindu girls in relationships of sex and marriage so as to convert them to Islam and use their bodies to produce Muslim children.

The list of other jihads that the Muslims of Uttarakhand are said to be waging keeps growing. There is “land jihad”, a claim that Muslims are bidding to buy large tracts of land in the state in order to eject its Hindu residents, and “vyapar or livelihood jihad”, that Muslims are trying to snatch away jobs that rightfully belong to the Hindus in the state. Then perhaps most fanciful of all there is “mazaar jihad”, alleging that Muslims are building mazaars or sacred mausoleums across the state to overshadow and overpower its Hindu identity.

One consequence of the spread of these narratives of jihads on so many fronts has been calls for economic and social boycott of Muslims, the eviction of Muslim tenants from houses and shops, and demands and threats for them to permanently leave the state.

If these were just bursts of fake and hate propaganda spouted and spread by the 1,400 shakhas or branches of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and an uncounted number of branches of other right-wing formations in the state, this would have been destructive enough to religious harmony in the state.

But what swells exponentially the impact of this hate propaganda against Muslims in the state is that every strand of these “alternative facts” are forcefully echoed by Dhami, who seems far more committed to his ideological roots in the Sangh than to his constitutional pledges and responsibilities.

He frequently promises firm action against love jihad and land jihad. His government has doubled the punishment under the anti-conversion laws from five to ten years. He boasts – as a sterling accomplishment of his government – that they have demolished sometimes 1,000 mazaars, sometimes 3,000 mazaars.

Many of these are tombstones of graves of the nomadic pastoral Van Gujjars who for generations have lived and roamed the forests with their animals, and when they die their bodies are buried in the forest and marked by small stones.

Through these dog whistles, the message from the chief minister to his officers is unambiguous. He expects them to target Muslim residents in the state for alleged encroachments, for allegedly illegal livelihoods and homes located on government land, and for their religious structures.

A police officer throws a stone as others take shelter during a protest against a government demolition drive in Haldwani on February 8. Credit: Reuters.

It is in this backdrop of cranking up of communal tempers by Hindutva organisations and communally charged messaging by state authorities, especially the chief minister, that the denouement of February 8 can be understood.

Local residents estimate that nearly three quarters of constructions in the state are on government lands. However they allege that the actions of the state administration against these “encroachments” disproportionately target religious and caste minorities, including their places of worship.

In many weeks running up to the clash of February 8 in Haldwani, municipal authorities pasted notices against residential structures and small businesses in the old city of Haldwani, and demolished without resistance several structures.

In one instance, the local government announced that they would establish a gaushala in the cleared land. The Muslim residents panicked for their lives, because a cow shelter in the middle of a densely populated Muslim settlement could expose them to allegations of cow slaughter.

In this series of “encroachment removal” bids, on January 30, the municipal commissioner announced his resolve to demolish a 20 year-old mosque and an adjacent madrasa. Alarmed, people of the community gathered to plead with him to not demolish the mosque and madrasa, claiming that the land on which these stood had been lawfully leased to a woman named Sophiya Malik.

A delegation of imams also met the municipal authorities and pleaded for the mosque and madrasa to be spared as these were a religious shrine and school on legally leased land. The authorities still insisted that the mosque was on government land, and sealed the buildings of both the mosque and the madrassa. The person who claimed lawful possession approached the Uttarakhand High Court for relief.

All of this proceeded peacefully. The community was reassured that although the mosque and madrasa were now in the possession of the state, they were safe until their legality was decided by the courts. On the morning of February 8, the dispute came up before a single-bench judge, and he fixed the case for substantive hearing on February 14.

It was therefore a shock when late on the afternoon of February 8, barely hours after the matter had been heard in the Uttarakhand High Court, municipal officers with a massive posse of police persons and a large contingent of municipal workers, suddenly converged with bulldozers to demolish the sealed mosque and madrasa. Just two people were permitted a few minutes to retrieve the Quran and other sacred objects, and the demolitions commenced.

This spurred consternation and anguish among the local residents. A group of women grouped before the bulldozers in their spontaneous desperate bid to prevent the demolitions with their bodies. However both female and male police personnel forcefully removed them, beating and dragging them away. This further inflamed the emotions of the local people.

As the mosque and madrasa were being reduced to rubble, some of the people who gathered there began to throw stones at the police. Some municipal workers and press persons were also injured. There is video evidence that the police also resorted to throwing stones at the crowd.

The violence continued to escalate rapidly. The police station is about a kilometre and a half away from where the mosque and madrasa were razed. Enraged groups of men set alight vehicles parked near the police station and also set ablaze parts of the police station.

The police responded by heavy firing at the crowd. Standard crowd control protocols mandate prior to firing, less lethal modes of crowd dispersal, such as lathi charge, tear gas and water canons. But it is clear that these were not adequately deployed before the police began to shoot.

According to witnesses, the police fired several hundreds of rounds. Local people allege that the number of people injured and killed may have been significantly higher than official claims. They also dispute when the police actually began firing and when formal orders of “shoot at sight” were given. Many allege that the police started firing on the crowds even before the police station was attacked.

The police firing left at least six people dead and a much larger number injured. We were not allowed by the district authorities to enter the curfewed area and meet the families of those who were killed. But news reports suggest that most of these were men returning in the evening from work, and were not people who attacked the police station.

At nine that night, curfew was clamped and this continued in the affected area without any significant let up even six days later when our team visited Haldwani. The curfewed settlement is of around a lakh or more people, the majority of whom are low-income daily wage earners.

Credit: Pushkar Singh Dhami @pushkardhami/X.

A punishing lockdown for so many days caused immense hardship to the residents, but a significant part of this suffering was avoidable.

Relief could have been far better organised by the district administration and arrangements made for periodic relaxations, particularly for women and children. The internet was also suspended in the area, and the shutdown continued even six days later.

A large number of senior members of the Haldwani community, including activists, journalists, lawyers and businesspersons met us. We also spoke over the phone to some families of the people in the segment of the city under curfew.

They reported that the police had entered an estimated 300 Muslim homes ostensibly for searches, during which they brutally beat up people in the homes including women and children and they extensively damaged properties both within the homes and the vehicles parked outside.

This is a pattern that we saw also in Uttar Pradesh during the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. I saw then a number of homes in cities of west Uttar Pradesh where the police, in retribution, had acted like lawless rioters rather than people charged with upholding the law and restoring peace. This seems to be the template that the Uttarakhand police also followed after the violence in Haldwani. Large numbers of young men, some women and juveniles were also reported to have been beaten and detained in unreported locations for interrogation.

As a result, we encountered the entire old city of Haldwani engulfed in fear and dread. The internet shutdown made matters worse. This, with the unmitigated curfew, did not allow the local residents to reach out to communicate their fears, concerns and grievances and also report the alleged incidents of vandalising and beatings.

Chief Minister Dhami travelled to Haldwani just days after the violence. He pointedly met the police persons injured in the clash but not the families of those who lost their lives in the melee and the police firing that followed the demolition. He also announced that a police station would be built at the site of the demolished mosque.

The symbolism of his declaration was unmistakable. On the site of one mosque demolished by a mob in 1992 in a dusty town in Uttar Pradesh, a grand temple to Ram is built, a gesture to Hindutva triumphalism. And on the site of another mosque pulled down, this time by a belligerent state, in another dusty town in Uttarakhand in 2024, this is to be replaced by a police station, a gesture to the triumphalism of state power in a Hindutva government.

Reports are surfacing as I write this of a renewed rash of hate attacks on Muslim properties, eviction of Muslim tenants and calls for their economic and social boycott, not just in Haldwani but in many parts of the state.

The demolition of the mosque and madrasa in Haldwani and the violence that followed in its trail have only further deepened the frightening communal fractures in the state that have been systematically fostered by Hindutva organisations encouraged by the state administration.

However, the news is not all grim. The Haldwani violence has been followed by widely attended peace marches in many cities of Uttarakhand. These spark hope that even as the state and Hindutva formations thrust the state into the fires of communal hate and division, the people of Uttarkhand are pushing back. It is they who will reclaim a land of love and equality that is the rightful home of people of every faith and identity.

Harsh Mander is a human rights activist, peace worker, writer, and teacher. He works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, and homeless persons and street children.