Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman: Former US president Franklin D Roosevelt pioneered the 100-day standard for gauging the effectiveness of a new government. It was introduced in India when the Congress-led UPA-2 presented its 100-day report card. Riding on a wave of expectations, Narendra Modi continued the practice, and more so because both the public and the economy were quite shaken by what the UPA government had brought upon the country. In its first 100 days, the Modi regime has certainly added several feathers in its cap. The economy seems to be getting back on track and country’s foreign policy has undergone a sea change.
Who is Yogi Adityanath and how did he become the latest poster boy of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda?
However, some of the steps taken by the government have left a particular community worried. These decisions include providing Z+ security cover to Sangeet Som, the prime accused in last September’s communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, the debate on ‘love jihad’ in party forums, and above all, giving attention to controversial leader Yogi Adityanath, who constantly spews venom against the Muslim community.
Recently, a video surfaced in which he allegedly exhorted Hindu men to convert 100 Muslim girls to Hinduism for each Hindu converted to Islam. Yet, the BJP appointed him the star campaigner for the bypolls in 11 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh.
In the past few years, Adityanath’s political presence had remained almost dormant. But after the BJP’s sweeping victory in the recent General Election, he is back with a bang. His rising fortunes became clear when he represented the BJP in the Lok Sabha debate on the sensitive issue of communal riots. While delivering his speech, the idiom he resorted to was not expected from a person who has taken oath of the Constitution.
Adityanath, 42, has since continued delivering fiery speeches one after another. His latest target was Mulayam Singh Yadav, whom he advised to leave India and settle down in Pakistan. He also threatened the Muslims against carrying out the alleged ‘love jihad’. In one of his speeches, he presented distorted figures to claim that Hindus are in danger in many Muslim-dominated areas.
Despite such controversies, the party’s top leadership seems to make no attempt to distance itself from Adityanath’s views or to condemn them. “He has been elected five times as an MP and is a dedicated party worker,” says state BJP spokesman Manoj Mishra to justify his importance. “The party would definitely give him some responsibility to match his importance and reputation.”
It is true that Adityanath won the Lok Sabha election from Gorakhpur for a fifth consecutive time this year. But his political fortune does not depend on development issues. Rather, it is communal polarisation that fuels it.
Today, political circles are abuzz with debates on the ugly face of politics that Yogi Adityanath represents. For him, it is a tried and tested formula for political success. Ever since he stepped into active politics, the only slogan that his supporters raised was, “Gorakhpur mein rehna hai toh Yogi Yogi kehna hai (If you want to stay in Gorakhpur, keep chanting the Yogi’s name)”.
On his website, ‘love jihad’ is defined as “a system where a girl surrounded with fragrance is enticed into a stinking world; where the girl leaves her civilised parents for parents who might have been siblings in the past; where purity is replaced with ugliness; where relationships have no meaning; where a woman is supposed to give birth every nine months; where the girl is not free to practice her religion; and if the girl realises her mistakes and wants to be freed, she is sold off”.
The mid-point of Adityanath’s political curve was 2007. And there exists a sea of difference between the Yogi’s life before and after the above-mentioned year. In order to understand how things changed, there is a need for a careful analysis.
After being elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998, Adityanath started an organisation called the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), which was active in the villages of Gorakhpur, Basti, Devaria, Azamgarh, Kushinagar and Ghazipur.
“This outfit was basically a gang of unemployed and criminal-minded youth,” says Chaturanan Ojha, a social worker based in Gorakhpur. “Backed by Adityanath, they launched attacks on Muslims everywhere and turned minor incidents into major communal tensions.”
With the HYV’s help, Adityanath began spreading his influence over villages outside Gorakhpur. Whenever any incident, major or minor, took place, he used to reach the crime scene along with his supporters, leaving the police as well as the local authorities paralysed. Owing to his extremist politics, district officers and police heads were transferred from Gorakhpur many times between 1998 and 2007.
“The HYV had become a haven for small-time crooks,” says a police officer posted in the area. “There were others with political ambitions who drifted away. Yogi used to interfere in every matter and abuse officers, demanding them to take action according to his whims.”
Adityanath’s communal mindset is evident from the fact that he forced the local administration to rename several historic neighbourhoods in Gorakhpur. The city’s Urdu Bazar was renamed Hindi Bazar, Ali Nagar became Arya Nagar and Miya Bazar became Maya Bazar. Adityanath argues that India must be identified with Hindi and Hindu. Before Eid ul Azha or Baqra Eid, HYV members used to roam around villages, seizing animals meant for sacrifice. Between 1998 and 2007 around 40 communal incidents were reported in and around Gorakhpur.
Interestingly, the HYV was working alone and Yogi had separated his aggressive campaigns from the BJP.
“Yogi had an on-and-off relationship with the BJP,” says Manoj Kumar Singh, the organiser of Pratirodh ka Cinema, a travelling film festival. “Earlier, he treated the BJP frivolously. In the 2007 Assembly polls, he even fielded candidates on behalf of the HYV. The same was true for the BJP, which used the outfit when they wanted it and then pushed it aside.”
Initially, Adityanath had planned to follow the footsteps of the late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and sought to rise as an independent figure and a local messiah. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, his wishes gained ground and his supporters raised the slogan: “Uttar Pradesh is the next Gujarat, beginning with Gorakhpur.”
Adityanath’s long-running toxic campaign of communal politics reached its climax in 2007 when Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in and around Gorakhpur. Two people were killed and property worth crores was burnt. Curfew remained imposed in the region for several days. The then district magistrate Hari Om arrested Adityanath, but soon, orders for the transfer of both the district magistrate and the superintendent of police arrived.
According to Manoj Kumar Singh, Adityanath used to add fuel to an already explosive situation so much that it always culminated in the transfer of local officials. It bolstered Adityanath’s image among his followers by sending the message across that he was above the law. For his supporters, Adityanath was akin to Robin Hood. A ‘court’ was set up every day when poor people arrived at his durbar with their pleas and complaints. Some people received solutions; Yogi consoled the others.
Seeing Adityanath’s increasing hold over the local administration and alarmed at its consequences, the Uttar Pradesh government adopted a stringent attitude. After the Gorakhpur riots, the state government appointed a rigid and strict officer, Jagmohan Singh Yadav, as the DIG of Gorakhpur. He launched a mission to rein in Yogi. He first targeted the HYV. Teams were deployed across villages to pick up HYV members. Some were charged for their crimes while a lathi charge did the trick for others. Within a year, the organisation disintegrated.
In the scenario that emerged out of this administrative strictness, the episode of 12 March 2007 needs mention.
Holding Adityanath guilty of involvement in communal riots, the state government had withdrawn the security cover provided to him. Distressed over the disbanding of his outfit and scorned by the government, when Yogi tried to put forth his side of the story before Parliament, he broke down into tears.
Later, he appealed to the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee that he faced a threat to his life. He feared that he would be killed the way Naxalites had bumped off Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Sunil Mahato.
His emotional outburst in Parliament drew all kinds of remarks. While his supporters stressed that he was a sensitive man full of emotions, his critics alleged that he was a coward capable of only spreading mob violence. With this, however, his image of a firebrand leader had crumbled.
The dismantling of the HYV and the mounting pressure of the state government finally helped curb Adityanath’s extremist politics. “Adityanath’s extremism declined after 2007,” says an IAS officer, who served as the district magistrate of Gorakhpur prior to that year. “He even became wiser. Earlier, he used to abuse the officials, but not anymore. It hurt the reputation of the Gorakhnath math. He no longer raided a crime scene. If he organised a protest, he caved in to the administration when counselled. With time, the once-rude man learned how necessary it is to cooperate with the administration.”
Yogi Adityanath’s real name is Ajay Mohan Bisht. He is a native of Yamkeshwar tehsil of Pauri district in Uttarakhand. Ajay Mohan — the third among eight siblings — was noticed by the mahant (chief priest) of the Gorakhnath math, who hailed from the same region. The mahant, Avaidyanath, brought him to Gorakhpur. He christened him Adityanath and appointed him his successor.
This region in eastern Uttar Pradesh is known for its strong mafia lobby. For long, two rival camps have pivoted around the chief upper castes of Thakurs and Brahmins. A bloody caste-based rivalry had gone on for long between Harishankar Tiwari and Virendra Pratap Shahi.
In 1997, Shahi was shot dead by an emerging Brahmin gangster, Sri Prakash Shukla. With his death, the Thakur domination suffered a setback. However, the void was soon filled by another Thakur, Yogi Adityanath. More than Yogi’s capability, it was the reputation and affluence of the math, his position in it and the contemporary situation that led to his rise.
To understand Adityanath’s aggressive politics, it is significant to consider the deviation that arose in the ideology and ethics of the Gorakhnath math. Today, the math has grown antagonistically distant from the original concept it was founded upon. The math was established by a social reformer, Mahant Gorakhnath, in the 11th century. Gorakhnath was a follower of Udasin Panth. Prominent reformer and poet Kabir’s affection for Gorakhnath had drawn him to the math right before his death. The philosophy that prevailed in the math had touched Kabir’s heart. Even today, Kabir’s couplets are inscribed on the walls of the math alongside Gorakhnath’s edicts.
“The direction in which Adityanath is taking the math is completely opposed to its fundamental philosophy,” says Manoj Singh. “The math, which was founded on the concept of nirguna (that god is beyond manifestation) today houses idols of almost every Hindu god and goddess linking it to the sanatani tradition. He claims to lead the Gorakhnath sect, yet intentionally avoids quoting Gorakhvani, because it contradicts his actions.”
Gorakhnathis are a popular sect in north India as well as large parts of Nepal. Yogis clad in black and saffron, who go door-to-door seeking food in the streets of Purvanchal and Bihar, belong to this sect. Ironically, most of these Gorakhnathis chanting Gorakhvani and begging on the streets are Muslims. But now they are unwelcome in the math. The Hinduisation of the math began in the 1940s. The then mahant, Digvijaynath, joined hands with the Hindu Mahasabha and went on to become its president. In 1948, he was charged with involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi and was jailed. The math was now steadily turning into a temple. His successor Mahant Avaidyanath progressively continued with the process. In 1962, Avaidyanath entered politics. Since then, the math has been interfering in Gorakhpur politics at every level.
In 1990, when the Ram Mandir movement was at its peak, the math politics also achieved a new milestone. Avaidyanath became the first prominent religious head to openly support the BJP’s campaign. Soon, he became one of the torchbearers of the Ram Mandir movement and in 1991, he reached the Lok Sabha on a BJP ticket.
“Ever since Mahant Avaidyanath joined active politics, the mahants of the math have always interfered in local politics,” says Gorakhpur Press Club president Ashok Choudhary. “The practice to appoint only Thakurs as mahants was started by Digvijaynath. Earlier, the mahants used to be members of backward or extra-backward classes. But now they have no place here.”
Despite practising caste-based politics, what is then the real reason behind Yogi’s success? Why do other castes support him? According to locals, the support is for the math and not to any specific person and arises from their devotion to the math. The Dalits and backward classes have always been attached to it owing to the principles it ushered. Even today, the largest Dalit community in the region, the Nishads, blindly support the math.
“Yogi does not have an impressive personality,” says Choudhary. “Mayor Satya Pandey is his staunch rival. Yet the BJP appointed her as the mayor, despite Yogi’s opposition. The city’s MLAs also won in spite of Yogi’s protest. What you refer to as the Hindu Yuva Vahini should rather be termed Thakur Yuva Vahini. He brazenly resorts to Thakurwadi politics. Thakurs dominate the entire organisation from top to bottom.”
After 2007, Adityanath mended his political ways. Instead of extremism, he began talking about development and good governance. His close aides claimed that he was a yogi in all senses of the word. He goes to sleep at 11 at night and wakes up at 3 am. The vast courtyard of the Gorakhnath temple is thronged by a variety of people round the clock. In his durbar (court), there is only one chair where Yogi sits and hears out grievances.
Over the years, the ayurvedic hospital run by the temple has been upgraded to a fully-equipped multi-speciality hospital under Adityanath. His followers claim that the hospital would take measures to control the fatal disease, Japanese encephalitis, which has plagued the region.
However, it seems this transformation in the leader’s persona has not lasted very long. The man we see today seems eager to return to his old ways. The explanation is not simple. It is his fifth term in the Lok Sabha. Compared to other BJP leaders, he casts the image of a mass leader. But the party did not focus much on him before the General Election even though Modi’s rally in Gorakhpur was one of his most successful campaigns.
Adityanath was eligible to become a Minister of State from Uttar Pradesh, specifically Purvanchal, yet he was ignored by the BJP. The party appointed Kalraj Misra, a senior leader relatively devoid of base, and Manoj Sinha, a first-time MP from Ghazipur as Ministers of State.
Party sources reveal that Adityanath and his supporters were miffed by the decision. “By giving him charge of the election campaign for the bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP tried to kill two birds with one stone,” says a senior leader on the condition of anonymity. “While pacifying Yogi and his supporters, the party also wanted to gain from his antics.” But the strategy backfired.
Adityanath’s rise in the BJP also resulted from an internal strife afflicting the party. The political presence of Thakurs in Uttar Pradesh has been a monopoly of Rajnath Singh for long. Adityanath is also a dominant Thakur leader of his region. Experts suggest that the party aims to tear down the monopoly by bringing in other Thakur leaders, including Adityanath. The favourable treatment meted out to Sangeet Som in western Uttar Pradesh is also part of this stratagem.
So, what happened in just three months of coming to power that a party, which sought votes on the issues of development and good governance, is raking up the Hindutva agenda instead? During the past three months, things have changed both outside and within the party. Amit Shah has been appointed the BJP president. In the bypolls held in 11 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has suffered a major setback. The BJP also crumbled in the Bihar bypolls when it was claimed that the party was still riding the Modi wave.
“The way the Lalu Prasad Yadav-Nitish Kumar alliance based on caste equations jolted the BJP in Bihar, the party plans to counter it with firebrand Hindutva practiced by the likes of Yogi Adityanath,” says senior journalist Jagdish Upasne. “In states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the party’s priority is to form a government at any cost. They believe that the agendas of development can be considered later. The chief reason behind this changed language is Amit Shah. He has been deployed in Uttar Pradesh for the past one-and-a-half years. It is the first test of his leadership and he must prove himself.”
Adds Jan Satta editor Om Thanvi: “Both Modi and Shah need a like-minded leader to take forward the party as well as the government’s policies. It seems the party wants to make its Hindutva agenda clear to the voters.”
In his Independence Day address from the Red Fort, Modi had called for a 10- year moratorium on caste and communal violence. Yet a controversial leader like Amit Shah is the prime minister’s closest confidant. “It never happened before that a party president was so close to the prime minister. As such, Narendra Modi should worry more than Amit Shah about the party president’s success,” says Thanvi.
For a controversial leader like Shah, who is looking for an image makeover, radicals like Yogi come in handy. Once these extremists are in the public eye, the likes of Modi and Shah automatically appear more moderate.
It all boils down to this. Adityanath is the BJP’s panacea for all ills. He embodies the firebrand Hindutva agenda, expiates the internal strife in the party and is also the party’s answer to Uttar Pradesh leaders devoid of a strong base.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman