Profile: Yogi Adityanath

Rabble-rousing yogi

Print edition : November 06, 2020

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at the “Magh Mela” Sangam, Prayagraj, in January. Photo: PTI

Mahant Avaidyanath, the Chief Minister’s uncle and spiritual mentor, in a 2014 photograph. Photo: R. V. Moorthy

The GorakhnatH temple in Gorakhpur. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Yogi Adityanath has built up a career in Hindutva politics independently of the RSS and has succeeded in winning the Sangh Parivar’s support because of the clout enjoyed by the Gorakhpur Math in Uttar Pradesh and its ability to perpetuate and promote its own brand of ruthless Hindutva.

A political career founded in criminal gangsterism in its early stages, which paved the way for acquisition of power as Chief Minister, and a governance record peppered with extrajudicial killings and excesses: the public life of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath spanning nearly three decades could well be summed up thus. Indeed, pursuit of the illegal and the extralegal has been a consistent and dominant streak in the 48-year-old Hindutva leader’s social and political engagements. This proclivity for criminal transgressions and violence has been supplemented by rabid communal rabble-rousing. During his time as Chief Minister, he has also consistently appropriated credit for the achievements of earlier governments and used them for self-promoting publicity blitzkriegs. The cumulative effect of all this is that Yogi Adityanath is already being reckoned as the natural heir to Prime Minister Narendra Modi within the echelons of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar.

Yogi Adityanath is a self-professed ascetic. The contradiction between Yogi Adityanath’s so-called spiritual life and his public persona as a politician had been evident right from the time he joined the Gorakhnath Math under the tutelage of Mahant Avaidyanath, the head of the Math and an aggressive Hindu Mahasabha leader. Mahant Avaidyanath, Adityanath’s uncle and spiritual father, was Lok Sabha member from Gorakhpur between 1989 and 1998. Adityanath, born as Ajay Singh Bisht in 1972 in a Rajput family in Uttarakhand, joined the Math immediately after his studies and was designated Mahant Avaidyanath’s political heir in a short span of time.

First recorded crime

In 1998, at the age of 26, he won from Gorakhpur and became the youngest Member of Parliament; he retained the constituency for five consecutive terms. Writing in the journal Contemporary South Asia, Shashank Chaturvedi, David N Gellner and Sanjay Kumar Pandey said that Gorakhpur was always a safe “Hindu” constituency. A year after becoming an MP, Adityanath committed his first known crime in Panchrukhiya village of Maharajganj district. A first information report (FIR) registered at the Kotwali police station charged him and others with attempt to murder, rioting, carrying weapons, defiling a place of worship, trespassing and promoting enmity between religious groups. Adityanath and a band of armed men had allegedly desecrated a Muslim graveyard. While fleeing from the cops, they fired at a group of Samajwadi Party (S.P.) workers, injuring four people and killing a head constable, Satya Prakash Yadav, who was the personal security officer of Talat Aziz, an S.P. leader then. That was the beginning of a series of communal crimes in connection with which his name would come up.

In 2002, right after the post-Godhra pogrom in Gujarat, he founded the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militant youth outfit that solidified his image as a hardliner monk. The organisation has a history of arson and communal violence. In the very first year of its formation, there was a spurt in communal riots in and around Gorakhpur. At least six major riots were reported from Kushinagar, Nathua, Maharajganj, Bhedahi and Sant Kabirnagar. Most of the incidents started with minor crimes that escalated into communal violence after the Hindu Yuva Vahini’s interference. In the next five years, the region witnessed at least 22 major riots with the alleged involvement of Adityanath or his henchmen, according to Dhirendra K. Jha in Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva.

Jailed for rioting

In 2007, a blast at the Ajmer dargah killed three people and injured 15. Adityanath’s name cropped up during the investigations. In the same year, in the run-up to the Assembly elections, curfew was imposed in Gorakhpur for many days after two people were killed and property was damaged in riots. Adityanath gave an inflammatory speech threatening to burn the tazia (a replica of the tomb of Husain, the martyred grandson of Muhammad) that was carried in a Muharram procession. He was arrested along with a dozen Hindu Yuva Vahini leaders and spent 11 days behind bars. Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav withdrew the security guards provided to Adityanath. The experience shook him so much that he cried bitterly in the Lok Sabha when Speaker Somnath Chatterjee gave him a chance to raise the issue. He said that there was a political conspiracy to kill him. Dhirendra K. Jha wrote in his book: “The sight of Adityanath shedding tears shocked his Thakur supporters. It was seen as a sign of weakness unbecoming of a male belonging to a martial caste [to which he belongs]. Soon, however, his subordinates in the HYV started rebuilding his image, arguing that he was a sensitive man full of emotions even as many locals called him a coward capable only of spreading mob violence.”

Poster boy for hate speech

The image of a sobbing Adityanath is a thing of the past. He no longer minces his words, and his actions are not restrained. So numerous are his hate speeches that he could easily be declared a poster boy for hate speech. In the 2014 election campaign, Adityanath whipped up anti-Muslim sentiments and left no stone unturned to spread the myths of ‘love jehad’ and ‘gau raksha’. He supported the so-called anti-Romeo squads who were out “to protect the honour of Hindu girls”. His rabid statements asking Hindus to take a hundred Muslim women for every Hindu woman taken by a Muslim shocked everyone except perhaps the Election Commission, which confined itself to issuing mild reprimands against him. He asked Hindus to dig the graves of Muslim women and rape the corpses. In 2015, he said that people opposed to yoga should leave India and drown.

Encounter specialists’ day out

Adityanath’s ascendance as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh heralded an era of utter helplessness for Muslims of the State. Law and order went for a toss and the police enjoyed brute power when they were deployed against the Yogi’s opponents. Police encounters became routine. As many as 6,145 operations took place under Adityanath’s tenure, killing 119 people who were apparently booked for crimes. The majority of those killed belonged to the Muslim community. Despite the Supreme Court expressing concern regarding the spate of encounter killings last year, the Adityanath government projects these killings as achievements. The latest to be gunned down was small-time gangster Vikas Dubey; he was killed when he allegedly tried to escape from the police after his arrest.

A law for quashing cases

In a blatant display of autocratic power, the administration has steadily quashed criminal cases filed against Adityanath. A special court dismissed the Maharajganj case against him in the murder of Satya Prakash Yadav. He introduced a new law, the Uttar Pradesh Criminal Law (Composition of Offences and Abatement of Trials) (Amendment) Act, 2017, enabling the withdrawal of 20,000 cases against politicians. It automatically exonerated Adityanath in a 1995 case in which he was charged with flouting prohibitory orders to hold a public meeting in Gorakhpur. On the other hand, Parvez Parvaz, a co-petitioner in a 2007 hate speech case against Adityanath, was recently convicted for gang rape and given a life sentence. The activist’s colleagues allege that he was falsely implicated in the case.

The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 killed 62 people and displaced more than 50,000. The Adityanath government withdrew 75 of the 93 cases filed against Hindus in connection with the violence. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Umesh Malik reportedly told the press that “a person himself set his bed or chair afire and accused Hindus of burning down his house, or a pile of garbage lying outside a mosque was intentionally set alight and Hindus were accused of trying to burn down a mosque”.

The protests against the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act were brutally suppressed in Uttar Pradesh. Scores of activists from all sections of society were picked up, beaten and their property seized.

Uttar Pradesh became a successful Hindutva laboratory on the lines of Gujarat. While Narendra Modi took pains to whitewash his image and present himself as a global statesman, Adityanath had no such pretentions. He openly attacked Muslims, even to the point of alienating the BJP’s Muslim supporters. The Gorakhpur Math is surrounded by as many as 100,000 Muslims of the weaver community. Until Avaidyanath’s time, they were loyal voter of whoever contested from the Math. But Adityanath attacked Islam and declared that he did not want their votes. The Babri Masjid demolition and the Ram temple movement further strained the relations. The local community became a target for the first time in the 2007 riots. Although the Math had earlier given up its claims to the land on which the community lived, Adityanath, according to Shashank, David and Sanjay, started raising the issue of its rightful ownership.

Adityanath resented the Christians equally. In 2005, he led a purification drive for the ghar wapsi (literally, homecoming) of Christians to Hinduism. He even alleged that Mother Teresa intended to convert all of India to Christianity. Attempts to spread Christianity, he claimed, were behind separatist movements in parts of north-eastern India.

Gorakhpur Math

The story of Ajay Singh Bisht ‘evolving’ into Yogi Adityanath is intimately linked with the story of the Math and local politics. The Math belongs to the Nath tradition, which stood against caste hierarchies and orthodox rituals. But Yogi went against both these tenets, points out the historian K.M. Shrimali. The mahant or yogi of the Nath tradition is celibate and renounces the material world. Shashank, David and Sanjay explained that the “Nath tradition was part of a shared Hindu-Muslim aniconic and guru-focused devotionalism of the north Indian Middle Ages, aspects of which are still very much alive today, despite generations of purification attempts. By stark contrast, what the Goraksanath [Gorakhnath] Math has become – rejecting this discourse of common ground between Hinduism and Islam and through a gradual and deliberate transformative process since the 1930s – is a symbol and centre of strong anti-Muslim Hindu assertion. Where once a simple set of yogic footprints were the main object of worship, now there are statues of all the Hindu gods, including Hanuman, the favourite divinity of many of those who espouse a ‘muscular Hinduism’.”

Caste tensions

The origin of the Math’s rise to power lay in the competition between Brahmins and Thakurs. The “syncretic” tradition of the Nath Sampraday was transformed into the anti-Muslim message of 20th century Hindutva largely through the activities of Mahant Avaidyanath and later Yogi Adityanath. Adityanath aimed at, and largely succeeded in, overcoming caste competition within the Hindu community by the tried-and-tested means of targeting the Muslim “other”, point out Shashank, David and Sanjay. Ascetics supposedly renounce the material world along with caste ties. The castes that find Adityanath appealing believe this to be true of him.

Yogi, however, never relinquished his caste ties; rather, he worked towards the emboldening of the Kshatriyas of Uttar Pradesh. Under his protection, Thakurs grew more abrasive and arrogant than ever before. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Hathras case, where all the four accused are Thakurs. Immense political and social mobilisation is taking place to shield them, with even the media refusing to name them. Adityanath was blamed for protecting Kuldeep Singh Sengar and Chinmayanand, both Thakurs accused in rape cases. Sengar dug himself into a grave by killing the girl’s father and making an attempt on her life and was finally sentenced to life imprisonment following public outrage. Chinmayanand, however, walked free last year.

Lucia Michelutti, in a chapter in the book The Wild East wrote that since Adityanath’s appointment, caste riots rather than communal riots became rampant in Western Uttar Pradesh. “The Thakurs are out to get revenge against the Dalits and backward castes and their criminal Muslim ‘companies’. It should also be noted that despite 15 years of government by lower castes, Thakurs still hold a disproportionate share of political representation across the State. Crucially, they also remain the second most affluent caste,” she said.

Political observers are terming the regime of Adityanath as the “return of Thakurvaad” in Uttar Pradesh, which threatens to spread to the rest of India, undermining the dominance of Brahmins in politics. Thakurs take great pride in being Hindu warriors and as India becomes more and more Hinduised, their domination will be something to watch out for.

Gangsterism

“Goonda raj” in Uttar Pradesh has deep economic and caste roots. Local narratives in Gorakhpur point to the interplay between the rise of the BJP and the growth of the political importance of the Math. After his elevation as Chief Minister in 2017, Adityanath took credit for wiping out gangsterism. While the BJP defeated the S.P. raising the “anti-mafia raj” slogan, Adityanath transformed Gorakhpur into a monopolistic mafia raj, Lucia Michelutti observes. She writes: “Monopolistic mafia raj are regimes that present a centralised and authoritarian form of racketeering. In the case of Gorakhpur, majoritarianism has been combined with Adityanath’s youth force organisation, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, its vigilante practices and ‘encounter killings’. While it is certainly too early to assess if and how the ‘Gorakhpur model’ will be replicated across Uttar Pradesh, there is certainly evidence from daily news that ‘the mafia raj’ is still alive and is now camouflaging itself under ‘saffron scarfs’. This masquerade allows key players to keep breaking the law and maintain impunity – much in the same manner as the S.P. supporters did for the previous five years. In the locality under study, the key Thakur and Jat bosses have now conveniently joined the BJP. The result is that in Jaganpura the local criminal/political leadership has remained intact despite the change of power.”

Adityanath carved a distinct identity and organisation for himself through the HYV, which was separate from the RSS. According to Shashank, David and Sanjay, for many years Adityanath kept his distance from the RSS, although the RSS headquarters for eastern Uttar Pradesh were located just 200 metres north of the Math. He visited the RSS office for the very first time after he was named Chief Minister. Despite differences, the BJP-RSS combine accepts Adityanath’s leadership because of the Math’s strong influence in the region and its ability to perpetuate and promote its own brand of Hindutva gangsterism. Modi and Amit Shah also share a reputation for functioning more as a duo and less as errand boys of the RSS; and hence they have no problem with Adityanath. Already he is being touted as a worthy replacement to Modi in national politics when the time comes.

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