Efforts to give a communal spin to administrative issues does not end with rhetoric, but plays out in politics in various ways. This is visible in the Banbhoolpura area of Haldwani that had witnessed a communal flare-up in February this year in which four people were killed, and scores injured including police personnel.

The area falls in the Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar parliamentary constituency. It is now reflective of a phenomenon that has come to dot several such venues of violence in India.

The main candidates in fray on this Lok Sabha seat are Ajay Bhatt of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prakash Joshi of the Congress. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has fielded Akhtar Ali Mahigir as its candidate here.

This reporter was shocked to see the continued fear amongst the people of this area during a visit to the locality where violence had erupted. A mosque and a madarsa had been demolished allegedly by the administration here.

To begin with, people were not even ready to talk. The rare person who agreed to talk was unwilling to be quoted. This was true not just for the public, but even those well known in civil society. They were all “scared of the Police”.

“If they come to know that we have talked to you we are sure that the Police will land at our homes. We already have cases including those under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act filed against 37 of our youngsters.

“Several more were picked up under the other sections of law. The most dangerous thing is the mention of ‘unknown accused’ in the First Information Report (FIR). This is a handle that can lead to anyone being picked up,” is a common refrain among people.

One can gauge the fear by the fact that the people are not even ready to accompany journalists to the site of the demolition, where some Police personnel are camping in a tent.

Those who talked to The Citizen broke down claiming that their arrested family members are innocent.

“Till today the children who had seen their mothers and other elders in the family being thrashed start trembling at the very sight of uniformed personnel. You have seen for yourself how people give one excuse after the other to avoid talking even to journalists,” a resident living close to the site of the violence said.

“There have been instances where journalists were forced to remove their reports from their websites. Even the foreign journalists who came to the locality to report faced problems,” a local said.

“It was never about Hindu Muslim tensions. The relations remain cordial like before as the people understand the dynamics of socio-economic interdependence.

“But some things have changed that are playing out politically. To begin with, a few thousand people who lived here as tenants have gone back to their villages or located elsewhere. They were voters here and now will not be casting their votes.

“There has been a whisper campaign for quite some time that it was Congress leader Indira Hridayesh who had got Muslims settle here and they have been voting en bloc for her and now her son Sumit Hridayesh.

“The campaign further goes on to spread canards like Muslims having migrated from Bihar, Bengal and even Rohingyas living here. All this is a lie. There are families who have been living here for generations,” a resident said.

The BJP campaign in the area is mainly confined to blaring songs and recorded slogans, played on mobile e-rickshaws or auto rickshaws. Some residents claim that the Congress workers did visit on a couple of occasions quietly in some of the alleys.

In the town itself, the Congress campaign is a bit muffled, but as one moves deeper into the constituency one gets to see the party workers actively campaigning in places like Khatima, Sitarganj, Nanakmatta and Chorgaliya. This signals that the fight is open.

To counter the question of the Congress candidate having little presence although he has unsuccessfully contested Assembly polls in the past, the supporters are now seeking votes invoking the name of senior party leader Rahul Gandhi.

In Haldwani which is the gateway to the hills of Kumaon region and is the biggest city in the region, social activist and senior political observer Islam Hussain told this reporter, “There was a time when Haldwani was known for its political discussions. One could see people debating anything and everything. This is no longer the case.

“There are many real issues that need to be addressed but what is visible is a campaign mainly at superficial level. There is the issue of employment.

“There is the issue pertaining to mining in the Gaula riverbed. The much talked about Jamrani dam has for long remained only on paper. Haldwani continues to face a severe drinking water crisis and then there are a host of civic issues like reckless construction and traffic snarls.”

Interestingly, this reporter heard a BJP electoral song on Jamrani dam being played at a village near Nanakmatta. There have been reports that the project has been included under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana-Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (PMKSY-AIBP) and it is to be completed at an estimated cost of Rs 2,584.10 crore by March 2028.

The BJP candidate is a Union Minister, and is being questioned about the work done for his constituency. His detractors are pointing towards the lapse of funds meant for the development of the constituency.

Mainly campaigning in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP got Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to address a rally for Bhatt in Haldwani on April 13. Adityanath held the Congress responsible for “corruption, terrorism, Naxalism and casteism”.

He played up the recent passing of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) by the BJP government in the state under Pushkar Singh Dhami.

The BJP leaders including Dhami have been raising the pitch on UCC, anti-cheating law in exams, action against ‘land jihad’ and anti-riots law brought about by the Uttarakhand government.

While UCC remains a non-issue on the ground, the people are talking about the shrinking employment avenues, lack of interest in the Agnipath scheme for defence forces, and the denial of justice to Ankita Bhandari.

Those who do not support BJP are even saying that the ‘bogey of land jihad’ does not stand in the face of large tracts of land handed over to a chosen few corporate entities and others.

Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar is one of the two Parliamentary constituencies of Kumaon along with Almora. It is diverse in various ways as it covers parts of the hills and also parts of the plains and terai right up to the Nepal border in Tanakpur.

This diversity is also reflected in local issues ranging from crime, to civic amenities to demand for extension of rail network from Tanakpur to Bageshwar.

This constituency once witnessed the Green Revolution taking off from GB Pant University of Agriculture in Pantnagar, to large-scale industrialization in the foothills and terai. Amid all this the Banbhoolpura violence stands out as a sore spot.

Cover Photograph Rajeev Khanna