While several Muslim residents of Purola, who were forced to leave the town in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district last month following communal tensions, have returned, a few others have put up their houses for sale and vowed not to come back.
Trouble began on May 26 after an alleged attempt to abduct a 15-year-old Hindu girl by two youth, Ubaid and Jitendra Saini, who were caught by locals and booked by the police under the POCSO Act.
Though the accused were arrested the same day, the incident angered several right-wing groups, which staged protests and allegedly stuck posters asking members of the minority community to leave the town. The groups also called for a mahapanchayat on June 15, which was withdrawn at the last minute amid efforts by the administration to maintain peace.
Mohammad Saleem, who ran a garment store in the town and fled to Dehradun with his family, has put up his house in Purola for sale. He said he does not want to return as he fears for his family’s safety. “There is nothing left for us in that town,” he said.
Mohammed Zahid, the BJP minority morcha chief in Uttarkashi who also fled to Dehradun after the protests, said he has decided to shut down his businesses in Purola.
Munna Khan, a vegetable seller who is among several Muslim tenants reportedly evicted by their Hindu landlords, is desperate to get back his rent deposit of ₹3 lakh. “I had to leave in a hurry, leaving my stock of fruits and vegetables worth ₹2 lakh to rot. I am jobless now and don’t have any money to start afresh,” said Mr. Khan, who has moved to Vikas Nagar, 90 km from Purola.
However, Dharam Singh Negi, 82, the oldest practising lawyer in the town, has refused to succumb to pressure from right-wing groups to evict his Muslim tenants. “The tension was created by local traders who are scared of losing their business to Muslims who sell at cheaper rates,” he said.
Mr. Negi’s resolve has encouraged other landlords to support their Muslims tenants. “If Negi gets his shop vacated, the entire town will be free from Muslims,” said Dharshan Bharti, founder of the Devbhoomi Raksha Abhiyan.
Bale Miyan, a garment trader who belongs to one of first Muslim families to have settled in the town 45 years ago, said, ‘My grandchildren ask me why their Hindu friends have suddenly started abusing them. I have no answer for it.”
Pandit Vinod Prasad Badri, the owner of Rana restaurant, said Purola has never accepted outsiders. “We are from Tehri in Uttarakhand, but people of this town still treat us badly. We have been living here for the past 92 years. How can you expect them to allow Muslims to flourish?” he said.
However, Chand Miyan, who runs a tailoring shop, said “everything is back to normal in the town now”.
Unable to step out
Meanwhile, the victim, a Class 8 student, who lost her parents when she was three months old, is living with her maternal uncle and aunt. She is unable to leave her home and play with her friends as she draws unwanted stares. The uncle, a government teacher, said he had given all the details of the incident in the police complaint and has nothing more to add.
According to the FIR, a villager named Ashish alerted the uncle that the girl was “about to get picked up”. Mr. Ashish then rescued the girl before the accused could get hold of her. “My niece was trapped on the pretext of marriage,” the uncle had said in his complaint.
With Mr. Ubaid awaiting trial, his brother Amir Ali, who lives in Najeebabad, Uttar Pradesh, told The Hindu that his brother had never seen the girl before. “A police officer told me that even my brother’s call records showed that he had never spoken to the girl. How come he decided to abduct her one day?” Mr. Ali said.
Sub-Inspector Deepti Jagwan, the investigating officer in the case, refused to comment on the matter.
Mr. Ali added that he had to sell the furniture shop, Bharat Furnitures, that Mr. Ubaid ran in Purola a week after the incident as he was afraid protesters would damage the stock worth lakhs in it. A fresh coat of blue paint now obscures the shop’s name-board.
Veeny Electrical and Repairs, the shop of the co-accused Mr. Saini, is shuttered and his family did not respond to calls.
Sushil Vyas, who runs a medical store next to the shops of the accused, said he had never seen the duo do anything “objectionable”.