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Documentary | Uttarakhand: The Making of a 'Hindu-Only' Devbhoomi

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

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Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

Muneefa Khatoon, 56, had spent the last many months getting her decades’ old home in Uttarakhand’s Haldwani renovated for her son’s imminent wedding. Her son was scheduled to get married in April, after Eid. Khatoon, a widow, had warned her children against elaborate expenditure on the renovation. “They said a home isn’t renovated every day. This is a once in a lifetime expense, so we should go all out,” Khatoon recalls. Now, in February, two months before the wedding, Khatoon finds herself sitting amid shards of broken glass. The new appliances and furnishing she had gotten done just recently, all crushed to dust.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

 Muneefa Khatoon at her vandalised home.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

On 14 February, about a week after the demolition of a madrasa and mosque which stood right opposite Khatoon’s home, she decided to step out to buy some vegetables and visit a neighbor. “Things were still tense but the curfew began to be lifted, and I needed vegetables now.” After buying vegetables, Khatoon went to her neighbor’s place. From her neighbor’s terrace, Khatoon alleges she saw police officers barge into her residence and vandalise it. By the time Khatoon rushed back, her home was in an unrecognisable state.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

File image of the demolition of the masjid and madrasa in Haldwani. 

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The madarasa and masjid that once stood right in front of Muneefa’s residence have been replaced by a police chowki, and the demolition has left not just destruction but also regret in its wake.

Years ago, Khatoon’s family had an option of selling this home— located in central Haldwani —at a good price. Her children had settled in Haryana, so they didn’t need to keep this home. All the children were in favor of this, but Khatoon, who was born and brought up in Haldwani, resisted.

“I have always liked Haldwani. I have always lived here. This is such a slap on my face. My children are saying that it is because of our mother’s wishes that we are on the streets now,” Khatoon says.

Khatoon’s sense of angst, frustration and hopelessness isn’t unique to her. In the last few years, Uttarakhand has seen a steep rise in incidents of violence against minorities, demolition of mosques and shrines (or mazars), economic boycotts of Muslims, and a forced mass exodus of members of the Muslim community from certain areas. While similar incidents can be seen in other states too, what sets Uttarakhand apart are attempts to legitimise these as part of the movement to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ (holy land).

The Quint traveled across Uttarakhand, to document how such repeated pleas in favor of the ‘Devbhoomi’ are effectively means to cement the conception of the state as an exclusive Hindu-only land.

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The Aftermath of Demolitions

A few feet away from Muneefa’s home, in Haldwani’s Banbhoolpura area, another woman alleges the police barged into their residence and created havoc.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

A woman alleged that police barged into her home.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“Many police officers barged in, they broke everything. My sister-in-law, who is a widow...they placed a gun on her head. The children started crying. The police also placed a gun on my 7-year-old son. They were being very disrespectful. We had our meat kept in the fridge. They said why do you eat this, you should eat pig,” says the woman.

The Uttarakhand police have denied the allegations of misbehaviour with women in the aftermath of the Haldwani riots.

“Some allegations have been levelled on the police that during our investigation we were disrespectful to women. We have received such complaints in this regard. The police is very fair and transparent and all our investigation has been done in-camera. No such evidence has come in front of the police. But we will also start a magisterial inquiry into this,” Nilesh Anand Bharne, Uttarakhand Police Spokesperson said in a press conference.

The madrasa and masjid were demolished late evening on 8 February, following which protests ensued. The authorities imposed a curfew and gave shoot-at-sight orders. Six people were killed that evening, among whom were 43-year-old Zahid and his 17-year-old son Anas.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Zahid and his son Anas were killed in the violence in Haldwani. 

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

Mumtaz Begum, Zahid’s mother-in-law heard about the situation worsening in the city, after the demolition of the masjid and madrasa. She called up Zahid and asked him to return home soon, as he did. After returning, though, he decided to fetch some milk for his 1-year-old granddaughter, before all the shops shut down. Minutes after Zahid stepped out to buy milk, gunshots began blazing relentlessly. His son, Anas, also returned home around the same time.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Mumtaz Begum, Zahid's mother-in-law recalls what transpired.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“Anas got upset that we sent Zahid to buy milk at such a time. He decided to go out looking for him. I don’t know what happened next and if Anas saw his father being shot or not...but soon we learn that both of them were killed in the firing. Both of them were shot dead,” says Begum.

The police and authorities subsequently labelled the 6 who had died as ‘rioters’. “They are not rioters. They are martyrs. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. If someone is stepping out of their home out of compulsion, does it make them rioters? And if you think they are rioters, arrest and punish them,” says Begum, who has lived in Haldwani all her life. She says she has never witnessed anything of this sort.

“I was born and brought up here. Our parents, grandparents, everyone was born here. Something like this didn’t happen during Indira Gandhi’s death (1984) or the Kamala Kand (1989). Firstly there generally weren’t any riots and even if there were, it never got as bad as this. This is a result of police firing, there was no Hindu-Muslim angle here,” she says.
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Weaponisation of 'Dharma'

In December 2021, an assortment of Hindu religious leaders and Hindutva activists came together in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar for a 3-day event called the ‘dharma sansad’ or ‘religious parliament’ where explicit calls to pick up arms against Muslims were made.

“Either be prepared to die or be prepared to kill, there is no other option. Uttarakhand’s police, politicians... every Hindu here has to pick up arms and participate in this cleansing. There is no other option,” said Swami Prabodhanand Giri, one of the Hindu leader at the event.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

File image from the Haridwar Dharma Sansad. 

This was followed up later by another statement of Giri’s,where he spoke specifically about the Devbhoomi of Uttarakhand.

“My dear Uttarakhand Devbhoomi residents, Devbhoomi has come under the control of jihadis. All of you know this. Every other day, jihadis are doing ‘land jihad’ and ‘love jihad’,” he said in the video statement.  
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Economic Boycott of Muslims

Such assertions of needing to ‘protect’ the Devbhoomi have frequently led to ordinary Muslims becoming the victims of subjugation and economic boycotts. For instance, in May 2023, when two men Jitendra and Ubaid allegedly attempted to abduct a minor Hindu girl in Purola,  a rumour of ‘love jihad’ was manufactured— even though one of the kidnappers was Hindu. Members of the Muslim community were targeted with explicit boycott posters and Nazi-like black markings painted on their shops. Many muslim residents, who had lived in Purola for generations, had to flee their homes. 

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Muslim shops were marked and targeted in the Purola violence.

A month later, in June 2023, in Haldwani’s Kamaluaganja a Muslim carpenter Nafees was beaten, paraded and had his head shaved by locals after a rumour spread that he had allegedly raped a cow. Right-wing portals circulated this news even as locals said that all this was a false rumour spread by his employer over an argument over his unpaid salary.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Nafees, a Muslim carpenter was beaten and paraded in Kamaluaganja.

Regardless, Muslim shopkeepers in the area, who had nothing to do with Nafees’ case were harassed and forced out. Some Hindu landlords stepped in to safeguard the Muslim tenants.

The Quint visited Kamaluaganja in February 2024, over 7 months after the incident, where Muslims still live in a state of uncertainty and terror.

A decades’ old salon run by Farzand Ali was made a target in the violence which ensued after the Nafees incident. Ali’s salon has still not fully recovered from the vandalism.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Farzand Ali's shop was targeted in Kamaluaganja.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“Only Muslim shops were targeted,” says Farzand, recalling the incident. Many other Muslim shopkeepers who were forced to temporarily shut shop during the incident are still too scared to speak on camera. One of them, a Muslim carpenter, says that it has “become the norm” for him and other Muslims in the area to face the ire “whenever something untoward happens.”

“They want to remove the shopkeepers who are here from outside. They want to remove the Muslims from Haldwani. This has happened too many times, this is the third time now,” he says.

Earlier in May 2023, a simple wedding card had caused a whirlwind across Uttarakhand and the country. It was the wedding card of the daughter of Yashpal Benam, BJP leader and Pauri municipal chairman.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

BJP leader Yashpal Benam's daughter's wedding card went viral.

His daughter was set to marry a Muslim man of her choice. After backlash and pressure from hindutva organisations, Benam had to cancel the wedding. “I think getting the marriage done now won’t be right. All our local organisations have also protested against this,” Benam said in a video statement he released at the time.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.
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Quest To Protect The 'Devbhoomi'

One of the people who was credited for enforcing pressure via protests against the BJP leader to cancel the wedding was Darshan Bharti, who was also part of the Haridwar Dharma Sansad. He runs an organisation called the ‘Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan’.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Darshan Bharti with CM Pushkar Dhami. 

As per the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan’s website, the mission of the organisation is to thwart any attempt to hurt the devbhoomi’s culture, religion, and values. The mission also speaks against Halal food certification, “land jihad” and religious conversion.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Screenshot of the  'Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan' website.

The Quint spoke to Prerna, the media in-charge of the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan.

“We mostly work on saving and reinstating the cultural, traditional, religious, and socio-economic status of Uttarakhand,” she says.

The term ‘Devbhoomi’ frequently comes up even in casual conversations with residents of Uttarakhand. But what is the Devbhoomi and why is it in need of reinstatement? And what does it need to be protected from?

The term ‘Devbhhoomi’ literally translates to ‘holy land’ and refers to the innumerable temples in Uttarakhand. But temples aren’t unique to the state.

“Temples are present all over the country, but Uttarakhand’s essence itself is temples. The people here are connected to religious sentiments, but so is the livelihood,” says Vikas Agarwal, Secretary, Bharat Vikas Parishad, an RSS-affiliate body.  

Besides ‘Devbhoomi’, the other term that is often heard in reference to Uttarakhand, is the ‘chaar dhaam’.

“Uttarakhand has all the chaar dhaam. And there has been a historical importance to these chaar dhaam where people from all over India come to,” says Ganesh Rawat, a BJP member in Ramnagar.

Uttarakhand is replete with many important temples with people’s sentiments particularly linked to Haridwar. In June 2023 this video of a man yelling at a Muslim family to go away from the Ganga ghat went viral. “Only Hindus can come here. No one else. Out. Get out. Out. You too, get out,” he can be heard saying aggressively in the video.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Screenshot of the video where a man threw out a Muslim family from the Ganga ghat.

Back in 2015, Yogi Adityanath, who is now the UP CM, had demanded that non-Hindus be banned from the Har Ki Pauri — a famous Ganga ghat—in Haridwar. Further back in 2006, then UP CM Mulayam Singh Yadav had courted controversy after organising an Iftar on the banks of Ganga in Haridwar.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Screenshot of news report from 2006, after Mulayam Singh Yadav organised an iftar on Ganga banks.

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State-Led Narrative Against 'Land Jihad'

Every few months, a video of Radha Semwal Dhoni, a right-wing nationalist based in Uttarakhand goes viral. If she is not harassing Muslim vendors, she is demolishing mazars.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Radha Dhoni frequently uploads videos of herself demolishing mazars in Uttarakhand.

But the campaign against encroachment of mazars or shrines has primarily been led by the Chief Minister himself, Pushkar Dhami.

“In Uttarakhand, more than 5000 acres of land which was encroached as part of the ‘land jihad’, we have freed it. We are doing everything to ensure that the essential character of the Devbhoomi is retained,” Dhami said in a public address in December 2023, a video of which he uploaded on his X. 

As of May 2023, the Uttarakhand government had demolished 440 shrines and 45 temples, as part of its anti-encroachment drive. The Nathan Peer Baba mazar, in Tarai Western forest division near Ramnagar, was one of them.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Liyaqat Hussain, caretaker of the demolished Nathan Peer Baba mazar.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

Liyaqat Hussain, caretaker of the mazar, still frequently visits the site where the mazar once stood.

The vibrant decades’ old site is nothing but barren land now.

“My father was murdered here 16 years ago. His grave was also here. He was the caretaker of the shrine before me. And before that, a Hindu Thakur was the caretaker. And before that, a Pakistani malang. This shrine has been here for centuries, this isn’t a new tale. And this entire area used to be worshipers here. People would come from far flung areas too,” Hussain remembers.  
The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

File image of the Nathan Peer Baba mazar.

Besides the mazar, which would see people of all faiths visit as worshipers, the authorites also demolished the many graves next to the shrine. It is primarily the Van Gujjars or those communities who live and survive in the jungles who had buried their dead next to the mazar. Like Khatoon Bibi, whose family has been living here for generations.

“My entire family has been buried here. My own child was buried here. My sister-in-law, my in laws, they have all been buried here,” says Bibi. She adds that now there are aren’t many sites in the village left which they can use as burial grounds. “The other day a girl passed away nearby, and her family wanted to get her buried there but they were denied permission.” 

Incidentally, not too far from the demolished mazar is a temple called the Sati mandir, next to which the priest of the temple Shiv Shankar Sharma resides with his family. He says around the time the mazar was demolished, the authorities came knocking on his door too. But while the mazar was demolished, the temple wasn’t. 

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Shiv Shankar Sharma, priest of the Sati temple.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“They came here as well. They said this is built on the jungle’s land. But (we told them) that the highway is now close to our temple but earlier wasn’t. Moreover, this land belonged to the Buksa tribespeople, it didn’t belong to the government,” says Sharma.

“If you want to remove structures from the jungle land...temples are public property, not private. If they want to free land, they should go to the villages, over half of the villages would get empty as they are built on jungle land,” Sharma adds.

On the highway running parallel to the Sati mandir and the demolished Nathan Peer Baba mazar are multiple such banners, featuring PM Modi and CM Dhami, informing the public of their temple development programmes. 

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Multiple such banners speaking of the government's temple development programmes can be seen in Uttarakhand.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

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Widespread Support for ‘Hindu-Only’ Devbhoomi 

In Ramnagar city, another centuries’ old mazar that was demolished in 2023 was the Thapli Baba Mazar. Most of its visitors too were Hindus who live nearby.

“Earlier the mazar could be seen from far away, on top of that hill, and now the land has been cleared completely,” says Nawab Ali, son of the mazar’s caretaker.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Nawab Ali holding up a picture of what the Thapli mazar used to look like before it was demolished.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“Everyone used to believe in the mazar. In fact 75 per cent of the worshipers were Hindu, and 25 per cent were Muslim. I am Hindu,” says Jamna Dutt, who lives just metres away from the demolished mazar.  

Despite the syncretic following of these mazars, the devbhoomi concept has found many takers among ordinary folk.

“Other people used to go, so I also went a few times (to the mazar). It has nothing to do with belief. I believe in Sanatana dharma. I am Hindu so I will worship Hindus,” says GD Pandey, another Ramnagar resident who also lives close to the demolished mazar.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

GD Pandey, a Ramnagar resident, lives close to the demolished mazar.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

Pandey insists that a separate state is needed for Hindus. “Why do we not need a separate state for Hindus? Of course we need a separate Hindu state.  Because Hindus have lived here always. There have been 84,000 gods here. So there should be Hindus here,” says Pandey.

On further probing, he accepts that “others who come here to work” are acceptable. These ‘others’ include people who come to work as mechanics or labourers. “If I want to get my house made, people of other communities will come, I don’t know how to do this. Similarly, the job of a mechanic. People from outside come and do these chores,” he says. 

Kamala Devi and Devki Devi are two friends, both in their 50s. While Kamala lives in a Muslim-majority neighborhood, Devki doesn’t.  
 
“In our entire colony, there are only Muslims. I am the only Hindu living among them. But to date I haven’t faced a single problem. So how can I say Muslims are bad,” says Kamala. However, Devki says that tomorrow if there is a movement to make Uttarakhand a Hindu-only land, she will support it. “Why won’t I support the Hindus? Hindus and Muslims are different, why won’t I go with the Hindus,” says Devki.  

Kamala, who was so far defending her Muslim neighbors, is quick to agree with Devki.

“If that is the case, then I will also walk shoulder to shoulder with such a campaign. Here there is a mixed population, until you remove them, only then can we do this. Here everyone is mixed. Who all will you remove? But if it comes to that, the government will remove them.  Then it’s not up to us to ask them to not remove someone... I can only go with someone who has the majority on their side, I can’t side with them if they are in the minority,” she says.
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The Resistance

Uttarakhand emerged as a separate state in the year 2000 after several activists fought for the Uttarakhand movement, which wasn’t a demand for a devbhoomi hindu state, but was primarily an anti-reservation movement. Prabhat Dhyani was one of the members of the movement.

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Prabhat Dhyani, member of the Uttarakhand statehood movement.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“In 1994, this movement caught steam. The primary reason behind it was to protest against the OBC reservation brought by then UP CM Mulayam Singh Yadav. 42 people lost their lives in the Uttarakhand movement. People of all faiths were martyred in the movement. It includes a Salim and it also includes Sikh members as well as women. So people of all community sacrificed themselves for this movement,” says Dhyani.

While the genesis of the demand for Uttarakhand statehood wasn’t communal, gradually the state is being used as a ‘laboratory’ or ‘model state’, says Dhyani.

“Ever since Modi government came to power in 2014...Uttarakhand is being used as a laboratory. We saw what happened in Haldwani. Everywhere this propaganda is being spread that Muslims have bought a lot of land here and are taking away your jobs. People are falling for this propaganda also, because people are unemployed. So they are being told that Muslims have taken your jobs,” he says. 

There are also devout Hindu believers who are strongly against the idea of a Hindu-only Devbhoomi. 

Deep Chand Pandey, a grocery store owner in Haldwani, says he is staunchly against the idea of a Hindu-only state. A practicing Hindu, Pandey says he is against “ostentatious display of faith.” 

The pleas to “protect” and “cleanse” the ‘Devbhoomi’ are in an endeavor to cement Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state.

Deep Chand Pandey, a grocery store owner in Haldwani.

(Shiv Kumar Maurya/ The Quint)

“The other day a journalist came here. A friend of mine passed by and said ‘Jai Shri Ram’. I also responded. In the meantime, that lady started fighting with me saying why aren’t you shouting Jai Shri Ram? This was around the time of the Ram Temple inauguration in Ayodhya. I asked her why should I shout? I have responded the person who greeted me, he heard me too. Should I yell so loudly that people on the opposite side of the road hear me? says Pandey. 

Pandey adds that "God should be in your heart. There is no point in doing this show-off."

In February 2024, months before the Lok Sabha elections, Uttarakhand became the first state to pass the Uniform Civil Code law.

“They though the society will praise them for bringing UCC. But most people have given a cold reaction. We have been seeing across the country how people are being divided in Lord Ram’s name and we are seeing the same in Uttarakhand,” says Munish Bhatnagar, a civil society activist in Uttarakhand. 

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