At around 4 pm every day, 73-year-old Ashraf Ali puts on his woollen sleeveless jacket, tucks some incense sticks into his pocket and sets out with his young grandson to offer prayers at the Sher Ali Baba Mazar.

He persists with his ritual even though the forest department demolished the mazar on May 15, 2023. According to the 73-year-old caretaker, the shrine, situated in Uttarakhand’s Ramnagar tehsil, inside Corbett Tiger Reserve, was built around 150 years ago, and had been looked after by three generations of his family.

Ali and his grandson reach the site as the sun sets behind the hill on which the mazar once stood. They bow down as Ali lights the incense sticks and prays from the road, gazing up at the vacant space before him.

The site is now surrounded by a barbed wire fence, outside which lies a board that proclaims that entry into the area is an “illegal and punishable offence”. Just beyond the wires lies a collection of incense sticks, sweets, clay lamps and sacred cloths – offerings to the mazar that people slip in through the fence, testament to the fact that locals continue to visit and worship at the site.

One evening in November last year, Ali, who had served his entire life as the caretaker of the mazar, commonly called Thapli Baba mazar, recounted the sequence of events that led up to its demolition.

On May 10, 2023, he said, an official of Corbett Tiger Reserve’s Bijrani range, in which the mazar was situated, sent Ali a message summoning him to his office. There, he explained that the administration was seeking to verify whether the mazar was encroaching on forest land; if it was, the official said, it might have to be demolished.

“He asked me to submit the documents of the mazar, which I promptly did,” Ali said. “Subsequently, the officer informed me that he had presented the papers to the DFO” – the divisional forest officer – “and other senior officials who, in turn, confirmed that the mazar, given its age, would not be demolished.”

However, on May 13, Ali said, the official sent the mazar’s papers back, along with a letter stating that the documents “failed to confirm their lien on the mazar”. Ali recounted that the individual who delivered the message told him, “Mazar ab nahi bachegi” – the shrine will no longer survive. Ali argued that although the mazar had been located within the Corbett Tiger Reserve, the state’s minister for the environment and forests had made assurances to the media that structures that had been built before 1980 would not be demolished.

Ali rued the lack of due process in the events that followed, noting that the mazar’s caretakers were not heard, or given a chance to address any of the administration’s concerns. “Without any prior notice, at around 5 in the morning on May 15, over 500 security personnel arrived and razed the mazar to the ground,” he said. He recounted that during the demolition, a sizable crowd of both Hindus and Muslims from neighbouring areas gathered and vehemently protested the action.

Ali was particularly distressed because a copy of the Quran lay within the mazar. “The authorities didn’t allow us to retrieve it before the demolition,” Ali said. “We begged them to at least let two individuals enter and salvage the Quran’s remains, but our request was repeatedly denied. They said that they would themselves put the Quran aside before demolition.”

But, he recounted, officials did not keep this promise. “After they left, we picked up the records and books they had kept aside,” he said. “Then, we sifted through the debris with our bare hands and managed to find a few pages. We’ve safeguarded them, but some pages must have got lost beneath the rubble.”

The Sher Ali Baba Mazar in Uttarakhand’s Ramngar tehsil was demolished in May 2023. Like many other locals, its caretaker, Ashraf Ali, continues to visit the site everyday and pray. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

Speaking to the media later, Binderpal, the ranger of Bijrani range at the time of the demolition, did not address the objection that the mazar had been built before 1980, and that therefore, in accordance with the minister’s statements, it should not have been demolished. He said merely that the administration had served a notice “to the concerned mazar to present their papers”. He added that these “documents of the religious structure could not be confirmed” and that therefore, it was treated as illegal and “removed by the police and the administration”.

Scroll phoned Dr Dheeraj Pandey, the director of Corbett Tiger Reserve, to ask why the structure was demolished, despite the minister’s assurances.

Pandey replied, “Such assurances don’t mean anything.” He added, “Whatever action has been initiated throughout Uttarakhand in the reserved forest area – be it a protected area or any other area – was done as per the provisions of Indian Forest Act.”

At an aerial distance of less than 200 metres from Thapli Baba mazar stand a temple and dharamshala, adjacent to each other, run by the Parvatiya Sabha, a Hindu religious organisation based in Uttarakhand. According to Hem Pandey, executive member of Parvatiya Sabha, both were constructed in 1989.

Hem Pandey told Scroll that the dharamshala received a notice on May 17, stating that it had encroached onto forest land. “But it wasn’t demolished,” he said. He added, “The mandir did not receive any notice since it is not built on encroached land.”

Scroll asked the director of Corbett Tiger Reserve why the temple was not sent a notice of encroachment. He replied, “Every action was taken within the provisions of the law.” To a question about why the dharamshala had not been demolished, despite having been sent a notice of encroachment, he said, “Encroachment is an encroachment. I will have to check why the demolition was not done even after giving the notice. I do not remember every single detail.”

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

The demolition of the Thapli Bazar mazar is one of several that the state administration has carried out since the beginning of 2023, in which Muslim places of worship have been disproportionately targeted.

In the most recent such instance, on February 8, the administration demolished a mosque and madrasa in Banbhoolpura, in the city of Haldwani in Nainital district. Six people were killed in a flare-up of violence that followed, and police cracked down on Muslim residents, detaining several men and barricading the areas in which they lived.

Six people were killed in violence after the administration demolished a mosque and madrasa in Haldwani. Police cracked down on Muslims, detaining several men and barricading Muslim-majority areas. Photo: AFP

The state’s demolition drive has the explicit support of the chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, who, while addressing a gathering in Nainital district, on April 7, 2023, declared, “It has been found that at more than 1,000 locations, either a mazar or other such illegal structures have been constructed. When these locations are dug up, no remains are found. Such acts of encroachment will not be allowed.” Dhami added, “We won’t harm anyone but we will also not let someone be appeased. We are working fiercely towards putting a stop to the appeasement.”

At this, the audience broke into cheers of “Dhami ji ko Jai Shri Ram!”

By this time, the government had already begun demolition drives against mazars in forested areas. According to news reports, a total of 26 mazars allegedly constructed illegally on government land were demolished in the state in a drive in March 2023. In early May, an official stated that, “Forest land that had 28 temples, 200 mazars and several shops in almost 60 hectares had been set free.”

The administration continued to act after this. In an order dated May 24, accessed from the office of Tarai Western Forest Division, Ramnagar, Sachin Kurve, a secretary with the Uttarakhand government, directed a slew of officials, including principle secretaries, district magistrates and commissioners, to demolish every encroachment on government land.

Courts, too, weighed in against encroachments. On July 26, the Uttarakhand High Court took suo moto cognisance of a letter written by a Delhi resident, Prabhat Gandhi, who noted that businesses and fencing for a proposed temple were encroaching onto forest land between Khutani Mod and Padampuri, in Nainital district. The court ordered the removal of all encroachments from the state’s roads and highways and instructed all district magistrates and divisional forest officers to submit compliance reports in this regard within four weeks.

But though the court order specified that all encroachments had to be removed, the skew against Muslim sites continued. By August, according to The Print, around 465 mazars had been demolished, along with 45 temples and two encroachments by gurdwaras. Locals and other media reports also noted that demolitions overwhelmingly targeted Muslim establishments and places of worship.

In April 2023, Uttarakhand's chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said, “It has been found that at more than 1,000 locations, either a mazar or other such illegal structures have been constructed.” Photo: BJP via Twitter

Scroll visited three prominent mazars that had been demolished – Thapli Baba Mazar, Nathan Peer Baba Mazar and Ringora Mazar – and spoke to around 30 locals, as well as officials, to gain a sense of what sites and establishments had been targeted.

Like with Thapli Baba mazar, in the other two instances also, we found that temples and other Hindu structures in the vicinity of the Muslim sites, which had also received notices of encroachment, remained untouched.

The accounts of those we spoke to indicated that this pattern had been replicated across the state. Thus, Scroll’s reporting suggests that the reason that a relatively high number of mazars were demolished is not that more of these shrines were found encroaching on government land – rather, the state appears to have selectively targeted Muslim places of worship.

About temples in Ramanagar, Saraswati Joshi, a resident of the town said, “Barring a few small and secluded ones, virtually no encroached temple was touched by the administration. On the other hand, other than Kalu Sayyed mazar, almost all the mazars in Ramnagar, Kashipur and Haridwar have been demolished. The administration has selectively demolished only the mazars in the whole state of Uttarakhand.”

Mazars in Uttarakhand transcend religious boundaries – both Hindus and Muslims converge in large numbers to pray at several of them.

At the Thapli Baba mazar, for instance, for three days every year, from May 24 onwards, Hindus and Muslims of the region would jointly organise the Urs Mela. During this time, people of all faiths gathered to share meals, revel in qawwali performances and spend days and nights in collective celebration.

Ashraf Ali and his son Nawab estimated that between eighty and ninety thousand people would converge on the mazar during these days. The shrine, the stairs, and the surrounding area would be adorned with vibrant decorations and lights.

That Hindus also revered the mazar was apparent during Scroll’s conversations with locals residing in the neighbourhood – these locals, who are primarily Hindus, expressed anger with the government’s decision to demolish the mazar.

One Hindu family, the Rawats, who live adjacent to the mazar area, recounted that they would share their power supply with the mazar to sustain its fans and lights. Bhawan Singh Rawat, the eldest son of the family, who operates a sweet shop in a nearby market, said, “My father is so deeply connected to the mazar that he wouldn’t stop crying when it was demolished.”

A group of locals that Scroll spoke to at the market echoed this sentiment. “Mazar ne kya bigada tha unka?” – what harm did the mazar do to the government, one woman said.

Stories abound of Hindus who harbour profound faith in the mazar. Nawab and his father spoke of one, Ram Avatar, a former employee of the Ramnagar municipality, who would visit the mazar every evening to sweep the area near the foot of the stairs that led to the mazar – Munish Kumar, a political activist from Samajwadi Lok Manch, Ramnagar, also confirmed that he knew of Avatar and his practice of sweeping the stairs. Nawab Ali added that Avatar continued this practice even after the mazar was demolished.

Nawab noted that the demolitions of mazars had occurred against a backdrop of deepening marginalisation of the region’s Muslims. “Today, if I, a Muslim, want to go to a temple, they won’t allow me in,” he said. Earlier, he added, Muslims frequented the Garjiya temple – a popular attraction among locals and visitors, situated in Garjiya village in Nainital district. “However, for the last four-five years, they have had problems even with that and Muslims aren’t allowed to even enter anywhere near the temple premises,” he said.

The temple has made news for this increased intolerance. In 2018, a video went viral of a Sikh policeman saving a Muslim boy from an attack of a mob of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – the incident occurred in the Garjiya temple premises. “Such incidents of harassment and mob attacks against Muslims are now common in the Garjiya temple area,” said Munish Kumar.

As Ashraf Ali walked back after offering dua before the barbed wires, he broke down and said, through tears, “When I was a kid, I used to come here with my father. Now, I am an old man and my grandson comes with me. I have spent all my life here. Nothing is left now. It kills me.”

Pointing to the hilltop he wailed, “When one stood there on the hilltop outside the mazar, the whole of Ramnagar was visible from there. It was as if Baba was keeping an eye on all of us. Now that he is gone, there is no one to watch over us. We are orphans now. All of Ramnagar is an orphan.”

In some locations, the demolition of mazars has left the local Muslim community particularly scarred because the mazars were not just sites of worship, but also marked burial grounds for members of the community.

The land around the Nathan Peer Baba mazar, in Tarai Western forest division, for instance, was used by generations of locals of Ramnagar, Kashipur and nearby areas to bury their dead. On May 18, 2023, the local administration demolished the mazars as well as the graves that lay around it.

Ghulam Mustafa belongs to the Van Gujjar community, a nomadic pastoral tribe that practices Islam and that dwells in the forests of the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, as well as Jammu and Kashmir. Mustafa explained that the community would face discrimination at city graveyards.

“Also, we cannot afford the amount they demand for burying the dead,” he said. “Whenever someone died in our community, all the family members and villagers used to come near Nathan Peer Baba mazar to bury the body. They would seek blessings from the mazar and console each other in the presence of our forests.”

Among the graves that were demolished were those of Mustafa’s parents and his young son. “I wanted to be buried near my parents and my son after my death,” he said, pointing to their shattered tombstones. “The administration took that right away from me. Now, nothing is left. Even after death, I will not be able to meet my family.”

In some locations, the administration also demolished graves around mazars. Near the Nathan Peer Baba Mazar, the graves of Ghulam Mustafa’s parents and young son were demolished. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

Liyaqat Hussain, caretaker of Nathan Peer Baba mazar, recounted that members of the administration arrived at 5 am to demolish the mazar. “I was not here,” he said. “I was told by two people who used to collect honey from the forest area.”

He recounted that these locals phoned him to inform him that three excavators, seven lorries and two buses filled with security personnel had arrived at the site. “Not just the mazar, but more than a hundred Van Gujjar graves that surrounded the mazar were demolished that day,” he said. The process continued through the day, up to around 3 pm, Hussain added – by the time he reached later in the evening, the mazar was gone and the area was strewn with rubble.

Hussain explained that his family had been taking care of the mazar for more than 60 years. His father used to be the caretaker until he died, and before that, “the caretaker of the mazar was a Hindu – a Thakur by caste,” he said. “For centuries, Hindus and Muslims have been together taking care of this mazar. Every year, Urs was celebrated here from June 10 to June 12, which was attended by more than 50,000 people – a vast majority of whom were Hindus.”

Since the demolition, he said, his family had struggled financially. “Our family survived on whatever small donations we received from the visitors in the mazars,” he said. “But now, there is no source of income. We are a family of 10 and all of us were dependent on the mazar.” He added that he had attempted to open a small store to sell groceries, but had lacked the economic resources to sustain it.

But the loss wasn’t merely his family’s. “Almost all the locals in the area mourned the demolition,” he said.

Hussain added that even government records state that the mazar was built in 1822 – indeed, a letter dated April 28, from the district magistrate of Nainital to the state’s additional director general of police with the subject “Remarks on Encroached Areas in District Nainital” noted this as the year it was built. “Even before India gained independence, a famous peer from some place in today’s Pakistan came to visit this mazar,” Hussain said. “He was so attached to the place that he wanted to be buried there after his death. His grave was also among all the graves that were demolished here.”

Pointing at tall mango trees surrounding the rubble, he said, “Many decades ago, some elderly people from Naurangabad, a village in Haryana, had come here and planted mango trees as a service. Like a huge umbrella, these trees, used to protect the resting place of our loved ones from harsh sunlight and heavy rains.”

Like Ashraf Ali at the Sher Ali Baba mazar, every day, Hussain too visits the remains of the Nathan Peer Baba mazar, and lights incense sticks at the place where it once stood. Then, standing amidst shattered tombstones, broken beams and other rubble, he silently offers his prayers.

“Those who frequented the mazar would stay there for hours; it was such an incredibly tranquil place,” he said. “Now, it’s all gone. However, even today, whenever I close my eyes, the image remains vivid. It will be etched in my memory forever.”

Hussain noted that even after the demolition, visitors continued to make their way to the mazar’s site – this despite the fact that the administration had attempted to deter them by digging ditches around the area. A few days before Scroll visited the site, he said, several members of the transgender community visited the site and made an offering of a chadar.

Liyaqat Hussain, caretaker of Nathan Peer Baba mazar, recounted that the site would see large numbers of both Hindu and Muslim visitors, particularly during an annual festival held in June. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

Around 3 km from the mazar, along the highway encircling the forest area where it once stood, is a temple known as Sati Mandir, and adjacent to it, the residence of its priest.

In conversations with Scroll, officials of the Terai West Forest division, which administers the area, claimed that the Nathan Peer Baba Mazar was demolished because it was situated on forest land. On the other hand, they argued, though the Sati Mandir encroached onto government land, because it was adjacent to the highway, it was the responsibility of the roadways department to remove it.

That the temple was on encroached land was further underlined in conversations with the owners of makeshift shops near the Sati Mandir, all of whom said they had received notices from the government. When Scroll contacted the priest of Sati Mandir, he denied having received a notice from any government department and said that the matter would be “settled on a higher level with the ministers in the state”.

In the case of the Bhure Shah Baba mazar, situated in the Ringora area of Ramnagar Forest Division, its caretaker struggled for two months after receiving a notice on May 17 stating that the mazar would be demolished. With the help of a lawyer, he made repeated appeals to the Conservator of Forests (Western Circle), the appellate authority in the case, asking that the notice be revoked. But on August 3, at around 3 am, the forest department razed the mazar to the ground.

The Garjiya temple – where the 2018 video of the policeman saving a Muslim boy was shot – is situated a few kilometres from the mazar’s location. The temple complex includes various shops selling flowers, prasad and food items. This part of the complex is connected to the temple by a bridge over the Kosi River. Additionally, a small temple, which is an extension of the main Garjiya temple, has been constructed near the main road on the highway.

Local Muslims spoke of increased intolerance in the Garjiya temple area. In 2018, a video from the premises went viral. In it, a Sikh policeman saves a Muslim boy from an attack of a Hindu mob. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

In a conversation with Scroll, Pandit Mauliki, the head priest of the temple extension on the highway, said that the forest department had issued notices, “to both the main Garjiya temple complex and this extension. But nothing has happened so far”.

He explained that the administration only instructed temple authorities to remove stone slabs placed outside the temple that served as steps and boundary markers “which were encroaching on the road”. During Scroll’s visit, even these slabs were still in place.

Despite acknowledging that the temple had received notices of encroachment, the priest suggested that Muslims sites were particularly at fault in this regard. “I believe that no religious structure should be demolished,” he said. “However, the Muslims are doing wrong by encroaching on the land.”

Scroll spoke to Diganth Nayak, the DFO overseeing the Ramnagar Forest Division, and asked why Muslim shrines were being selectively demolished. He responded that the administration “gave ample time” to the Bhure Shah Baba mazar and that “they were not able to present relevant documents which is why it was demolished”. In contrast, he said, “the Garjiya temple has been granted ownership of the land by the Archaeological Survey of India”. Scroll emailed the superintendent archeologist of the ASI’s Uttarakhand circle to verify this claim. As of publication, he had not responded.

The priest of the temple, meanwhile, remained confident that there was no risk to the structure. “We believe that the government will safeguard all our temples,” he said.