‘I was told I’d be killed if I didn’t leave’: Himalayan state is a testing ground for Modi’s nationalism

<span>India’s prime minister Narendra Modi at a pilgrimage site in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas.</span><span>Photograph: India Press Information Bureau/EPA</span>
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi at a pilgrimage site in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas.Photograph: India Press Information Bureau/EPA

For centuries it has been known as the “land of the gods”. Stretching high up into the Himalayas, the Indian state of Uttarakhand is home to tens of thousands of Hindu temples and some of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites.

Yet as Hindu nationalism has become the dominant political force in India under prime minister Narendra Modi over the past decade, the government is accused of weaponising Uttarakhand’s sacred status for politics, making the state a “laboratory” for some of the most extreme rightwing policies and rhetoric targeting the Muslim minority.

As India’s mammoth election starts on 19 April, stretching across a six-week period, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are expected to return to power. Over the past decade, as India has grown to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, Modi’s government stands accused by rights groups of growing authoritarianism and pursuing Hindutva [Hindu-first] policies that have eroded the rights and freedoms of minorities, in particular India’s 200 million Muslims.

The BJP is expected to march on with its Hindutva agenda if re-elected. While Modi has denied allegations that it will rewrite the secular constitution to enshrine India as a Hindu-first country, political observers have pointed to Uttarakhand as a stark window on what a Modi third term could mean for India’s fragile secular democracy.

It was in 2021 in Haridwar, Uttarakhand’s holiest city, that a gathering known as a dharma sansad, or religious parliament, was organised by hardline Hindu groups and attended by BJP figures. Here, Hindu priests made explicit threats against Muslims in the state, calling to “kill 2 million” of them, and stating Hindus should be “prepared to die or be prepared to kill”.

The call made in one of the speeches for every Hindu to “participate in this cleansing” prompted warnings from an internationally renowned genocide expert that “a possible Muslim genocide” could be impending in India. It was not the first time many of these rightwing Hindu priests and leaders had made calls to violence against Muslims, and the outrage that followed led to several of them being arrested. They were all soon released on bail.

It was at the Haridwar gathering that the idea of Uttarakhand being a Hindu Dev Bhoomi, [God’s land], began to gain public prominence: that of a holy state just for Hindus, where Muslims had no right to exercise their religion or, in the eyes of some, exist at all. The same priests who took part in the dharma sansad warned that “Dev Bhoomi has come under the control of jihadis”, a thinly veiled slur for Muslims, and called for the state to be protected by any means necessary.

“Just like only Muslims are allowed in Mecca and Medina due to Islamic tradition, we also demand this land be exclusively for Hindus,” Swami Darshan Bharti, president of Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan, the organisation behind the Haridwar event, told the Observer.

“Muslims can stay here and work freely, but they should respect our religion. They can’t chant Allahu Akbar; we can’t tolerate that. Halal meat also should not be allowed in Uttarakhand.”


Uttarakhand is known as a place of rugged natural beauty, stretching from Haridwar and Rishikesh, which thrum with pilgrims and travellers, to remote villages far up in the Himalayas, peaks which Hindus believe are the abodes of their gods.

India’s sacred river, the Ganges, takes shape in Uttarakhand, and flows through the state in many tributaries. It is visited every year by tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims who climb up to four of their holiest temples – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – to seek salvation. On government signs in the state, visitors are often welcomed to “God’s land”.

The BJP has ruled the Uttarakhand state government since 2017, during which time the idea of a Hindu-first state gained political traction. Bharti said “the BJP government has worked to a great extent for Dev Bhoomi” and claimed the state had acted on several of their demands.

In 2022, laws were passed against religious conversion to counteract so-called “love jihad” – an unfounded conspiracy suggesting that Muslim men were tricking Hindu women into marrying them and forcibly converting them to Islam – which resulted in Muslim men being targeted by police.

In a bid to crack down on “land jihad”, another unproven conspiracy that Muslims were stealing state land to build mosques and property, the state began a demolition drive against Muslims’ places of worship.

Even after the policy was officially halted, over the past two years hundreds of mosques, Muslim shrines and tombs have been flattened. Rightwing Hindu vigilante groups and social media influencers have also been demolishing shrines and smashing Hindu graves across the state.

Recently, Uttarakhand became the first state in India to impose a uniform civil code – overriding decades of religions being allowed to follow their own cultural laws on issues such as marriage and inheritance – which scholars fear will be used to target Muslim cultural and religious freedoms. The BJP has pledged to introduce it nationally if re-elected.

The establishment and protection of Uttarakhand as a Hindu-only state has also played a role in the election campaign, where it was directly mentioned by the BJP chief minister in a rally speech. The BJP is expected to win most, if not all, the parliamentary seats in Uttarakhand, which is almost 85% Hindu.

Akhilesh Kumar, 52, a wheat and sugarcane farmer from the small village of Puranpur, who was attending a local BJP rally, said he used to vote for the opposition Congress party until the BJP had “awoken” him to his religion and the “importance of protecting our Dev Bhoomi from Muslim evils, like love jihad”.

“For too long Muslims have been allowed to be devils, they are uncultured and disrespectful and malicious towards Hindus in this holy state,” said Kumar. “But we’ve been brought together against Muslims under Modi. It is only right that India becomes a Hindu country for Hindus – in fact, it is our demand.”

Among swathes of the Muslim community in the state, the prospect of a Modi third term was spoken about with trepidation. The fear was palpable in Haldwani, a small ramshackle city in Uttarakhand which has an unusually high proportion of Muslim residents and in February experienced some of the worst violence the state had seen in years. The clashes began after the state authorities demolished a local mosque and madrasa as part of their drive against “land jihad”, allegedly without court permission. Local Muslims gathered in the aftermath to protest, and were charged at by police with wooden batons. Stones and petrol bombs were reportedly thrown at officers in retaliation.

The Uttarakhand chief minister issued the police with “shoot to kill” orders against alleged rioters. Five Muslims and one Hindu were killed, both by police but also allegedly by local Hindu rioters, though no one has been charged.

Police called the five Muslims shot dead “rioters”, though this claim was rejected by relatives of four of the men who spoke to the Observer. Several locals alleged that the police stood by as local Hindus set fire to Muslim houses and cars and smashed windows following the demolition, and claimed some officers took part in the vandalism.

Among the dead was Mohammad Zahid, who had gone out to buy milk for his baby grandson when he was shot in the chest by police, and his 18-year-old son, Mohammed Anas.

Mohammad Aman, 21, described finding his father lying in the gutter after being shot, barely alive. Aman alleged he tried to take his father to a hospital on the back of a fruit cart, but more than 20 police descended on them.

“We tried to throw ourselves on top of my father to stop them hitting him. He didn’t survive for long after that,” said Aman. He was among many who claimed that local Muslim families were harassed, tortured and rounded up by police.

Aman said no proper investigation was being carried out into the police killings. “Across the state Muslims are being stripped of their rights. Our future is stark,” he said. “Look how easily they could kill my father and brother with no consequences. We are all afraid it will only get worse if Modi comes back. We have no way to defend ourselves.”

Pervez Qureshi, 38, claimed his younger brother, Faheem, was not killed by police but shot by a local Hindu man, allegedly abetted by police, who that night set fire to their house. Qureshi said he had five eyewitnesses to the shooting, but it was being covered up by police.

“The police want to brand Muslims as rioters and are shielding my brother’s killers,” he said. “We’re trying to move out of the area, we don’t feel safe any more. All this is done for politics, to serve the BJP.”

Uttarakhand police have denied all the allegations, stating that they were “committed to carrying out an unbiased investigation”.

Muslims living in Purola, a lively market town in the foothills, said they too had been driven out after rightwing groups led a coordinated economic boycott of Muslim businesses. After rumours of a “love jihad” case began to spread in May, Muslims shopkeepers living there woke to find their shops branded with large red Xs and received notices and threats from rightwing Hindu vigilante group Bajrang Dal and other local radical Hindu outfits.

“A leader of Bajrang Dal warned that my shop would be set on fire and I’d be killed if I didn’t leave,” said Salim Ahmad, 36, who had owned a textile shop in Purola since 2002. “I had to leave within three days. I have lost everything. It has become impossible for Muslims to live in Purola now.”

While a few of the shopkeepers returned – agreeing, among other things, to no longer offer prayers in the town – Vikas Verma, a local leader of Bajrang Dal, said he was continuing his fight to drive out any remaining Muslim businesses.

“Love jihad and violent thinking among Muslims have taken on a new pace,” said Verma. “Why should Hindus contribute to the Muslim economy, which is spent on jihadi activities and building mosques?”

Yet on the campaign trail with Ajay Batt, the incumbent Uttarakhand BJP MP whose constituency includes Haldwani, both Hindus and Muslims attended his rallies. In Raipur, a dusty, undeveloped village, many Muslim households said they would vote for BJP.

“They’ve brought us better development than Congress and it makes less trouble for us to vote BJP,” said tailor Irfan Ahmed, 43. “We don’t like what is happening to Muslims but Modi is a good, strong leader. I just hope the Muslims are protected.”