In 2017 Uttar Pradesh swore him in as its Chief Minister. Now, there is no man more powerful, visible, and controversial in India’s most populous state.
Ajay Singh Bisht was born in Uttarakhand, a hilly state carved out of Uttar Pradesh. A mathematics graduate, at 22, he was unemployed and looking for work. So he joined the Gorakhnath Math monastic order, named after 11th-century saint Gorakhnath, in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The Nath tradition did not believe in idol worship or one God. Rather, its syncretic culture welcomed people from all castes and religions. Even today, the Math has non-Brahmin priests, a break from the Hindu caste order, and runs schools, hospitals, and cow sheds in its large temple complex.
On joining the Math, Ajay took on a new name and a vow of celibacy, shaved his head, embraced saffron robes for life, and officially changed his last name to be similar to that of the head of the Gorakhnath Math, Mahant Avaidyanath.
Four years later, in 1998, he would become the youngest Member of Parliament in India at age 26, representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose claim to fame at the time was the political arm of a national movement to reclaim Hindu god Ram’s birthplace.
In 2017, Uttar Pradesh would swear him in as its Chief Minister. Uttar Pradesh, as the most populous state in India, sends the most people to the Indian Parliament. The party that wins Uttar Pradesh impacts national politics. There is no man more powerful and visible in the state today than Yogi Adityanath. And this is his story.
In 1998, the BJP, a right-wing party that believed in making India a Hindu nation, won enough votes to form a coalition government and install its own prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The party had grown in strength within a decade of starting the Ram Janmbhoomi movement, a nationwide campaign to reclaim the land of Lord Ram’s birth. The campaign’s followers had destroyed Babri Masjid, which they believed was sitting atop Ram’s birthplace, in 1992. The incident sparked sectarian violence all over the country, with thousands dying and millions injured. The event also shaped the future of modern India, turning a secular republic into the seat of Hindu majoritarian, sectarian politics.
In the last century, in a departure from the earlier Math traditions, the head priests of the Goraknath Math have played a crucial role in making Gorakhpur the crucible of Hindutva. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose political wing is the BJP, has long promoted the ideology of Hindutva, which believes in the supremacy of a Hindu nation. Avaidyanath, a four-time member of parliament from Gorakhpur, was a key figure of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
His predecessor, Digvijaynath, was a member of the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, a militant organization whose members included Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for condoning Partition. Digvijaynath was in jail for nine months for inciting Hindus to kill Gandhi at a public meeting on January 27, 1948. Two years after Gandhi’s murder, when he became the General Secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha, he famously said that if they come in to power, they will take away voting rights from Muslims for five to 10 years. The Math now worships idols of several Hindu Gods.
“Around the time Adityanath became part of the Math, east Uttar Pradesh was in the grips of organized crime,” said Omair Ahmad, a writer who grew up in Gorakhpur.
Unemployment and other low socioeconomic indicators meant that people turned to crime. The city had one of the largest railway hubs in northern India and gang wars would break out over acquiring high-budget railway contracts. Many would call east Uttar Pradesh the “Chicago of the East” and “Slice of Sicily,” and the gang wars, “varchasva ki ladai,” or fight for absolute power. During that period, the police would gun down many gangsters, most of them Brahmins or from Other Backward Castes (OBC).
Adityanath used this dynamic to power his rise in local politics. “Adityanath played his upper-caste Thakur identity, started making public appearances unlike his predecessors, and tapped into the resentment amongst the youth and rose,” added Ahmed. Adityanath was now part of the varchasva ki ladai. Within five years of Adityanath joining the Math, Avaidyanath, at age 77, retired from politics and declared him his heir and candidate for the 1998 general elections for Gorakhpur district.
During his first term as a Member of Parliament, two months after the Gujarat 2002 pogrom that left over 2,000 Muslims dead, Yogi Adityanath formed the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), a militant Hindu youth organization. HYV members were mostly unemployed, young Hindu men. The group even fielded candidates against the BJP.
The HYV’s agenda included cow protection, ghar wapsi-reconversion drives of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, and combatting love-jihad, namely the alleged practice of Muslim men feigning love to convert Hindu women to Islam. HYV members beat up Muslims on accusation of cow slaugher, separated Hindu-Muslim couples, and terrorized churches. The HYV also served as a vigilante system. People would watch over others for not towing the Hindutva line and complain to HYV, pitting people against each other to create an endless cycle of terror and violence.
Between 1998 and 2017, Adityanath was elected to serve as the Member of Parliament (MP) from Gorakhpur five times. As MP, he created the template for what a majoritarian Hindu nation could look like: no tolerance for multiculturalism, violation of civil liberties, and repression of political opponents via legal cases against them.
During this period, Gorakhpur saw several sectarian riots. There were advantages to wearing Hindu majoritarianism on the sleeve. So Gorakhpur police stations constructed Hindu temples on their premises and started holding weekly Hindu prayers and celebrations. Gorakhpur changed the names of local places from more Persianized Hindi to Sanskritized Hindi: Mian Bazar became Maya Bazar, Urdu Bazar became Hindi Bazar, Ali Nagar became Arya Nagar. In 2005, Adityanath also led a purification drive, forcibly converting 1,800 Christians to Hinduism in the town of Etah.
In 2008, at the Virat Hindu Chetna rally in Siddharthnagar, Uttar Pradesh
— which the HYV had organized — Adityanath claimed that Hindu culture and Muslim culture can never coexist and that a religious war is inevitable. On his official website, Adityanath’s prominent articles include “Khatre Mein Hindu” (Hindus in Danger), “Savdhaan! – Yeh Islami Aatankvaad Hai” (Beware, This is Islamic Terrorism).
In 2015, when Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan joined writers, filmmakers, scientists, and historians in decrying the growing religious intolerance in India, Adityanath compared him to Pakistan terrorist Hafiz Saeed, threatened to invoke the Hindu majority to boycott his films, and suggested that he “go to Pakistan.”
In his election campaign in 2017, Adityanath linked the crime graph of Uttar Pradesh to the religious composition of the state, hinting that the Muslim community was responsible for criminal activities and that criminals should be killed.
By the time he was elected as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, Adityanath had been accused of 18 criminal charges, including hate speech, attempt to murder, and instigating sectarian violence. When he became Chief Minister, he dismissed all the cases against him. It was the first time in independent India that an active religious leader was appointed to public office.
Within a year of his appointment, the Chief Minister’s Office, the state secretariat, public buildings, curtains, and towels in government offices, police stations, transport buses, toilets, road dividers, toll plazas, school bags in government schools, felicitation and beneficiary certificates, and even the state Haj office that facilitate the pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims, were colored in saffron, considered holy in Hinduism.
In March 2018, Adityanath said in a state assembly that, as a proud Hindu, he doesn’t celebrate Eid, a Muslim festival. This was a departure from the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, a local phrase denoting the multicultural way of life in large parts of the state. According to the 2011 census, 19% of Uttar Pradesh is Muslim. The state is known for its syncretic fusion of Hindu and Muslim culture, a result of centuries of interfaith exchanges where Muslim rulers with Hindu subjects and vice versa actively participated in each other’s culture and festivals. This is reflected in its cuisines, art forms like Kathak, celebration, literature, clothes, and daily life.
Every Holi, Dewa Sharif, the white shrine of Sufi Saint Haji Waris Ali Shah in Barabanki district, turns red, yellow, red, pink, purple. Waris Ali Shah was a 19th-century saint who believed that all religions are based on love and affection. His followers were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. To mark this tolerance, he started the tradition of celebrating Holi at the shrine every year, which has continued for over a century.
On November 26, 2017, while campaigning for local elections, chief minister Adityanath used electricity distribution to Dewa Sharif as a poll issue. Dewa, he said, “got electricity 24×7, Mahadeva got none.” He implied that “discrimination has ended in the BJP government” because now both the temple and mosque have electricity.
Lodheshwar Mahadev temple is an hour away from Dewa Sharif on the banks of Ghaghra river. The temple is also known for its syncretic culture. For centuries, shops outside the temple have sold offerings, owned and run by both Hindus and Muslims. The two annual fairs held at this temple, one on Shivratri in March to April and the other, a cattle fair in October to November, are major contributors to the village’s economy. Both Hindus and Muslims participate with equal enthusiasm.
In 2017, Mahant Adityanath Tiwari, a priest in his 30s who fashions himself after Yogi Adityanath, and known as “Chota Yogi” was designated as the chief priest of the temple. Following Adityanath’s statement, Chota Yogi, aided by a local HYV unit, started removing loudspeaker from the 200-year-old mosques next to the temple, and ousted all Muslim shop owners from outside the temple complex.
Police have also arrested several Muslim vendors under the draconian National Security Act (NSA), which empowers federal and state governments to detain a person without trial for 12 months without appeal.
“I want to ask these people, have they forgotten how a Muslim tailor has been serving Ramlalla in Ayodhya for years? Have we not served the Mahadeva by taking care of the devotees who come every year?” ask Shakeela, whose son Rizwan was also arrested, using the colloquial phrase “Ramlalla” to refer to baby Lord Ram.
She says that such arrests of breadwinners are further weakening Muslim communities, who have the worst socioeconomic indicators in the country. According to the Sachar Committee report, a report to study the socioeconomic conditions of Muslims in India, 31% of Indian Muslims were living below the poverty line.
In the first 18 months of the Adityanath government, 160 people were charged with NSA, most of them working-class Muslims: brick kiln workers, rickshaw pullers, street vendors, students. More than one-third of the 120 cases in which authorities in Uttar Pradesh invoked the National Security Act between January 2018 and December 2020 were against Muslims accused of cow slaughter.
Hindutva proponents use cow protection as an excuse to target Muslims. Since Adityanath has come to power, official dinners no longer serve meat, though data shows that only 20% of Indians are vegetarian. Adityanath’s government has targeted the slaughterhouse business in Uttar Pradesh, which contributes about two-thirds of the total exports of buffalo meat from the country; India’s buffalo meat exports are worth more than $3 billion. The business is mostly run by Muslims. In the past nearly five years, the state government has reportedly shut down 150 illegal slaughterhouses, and arrested 319 alleged cow smugglers in the state.
Apart from arrests, several Muslims have been lynched to death in the state on rumors of cow slaughter. “There was no cow, knife, axe, or blood. We were attacked because we are Muslims,” said Samiuddin, who was brutally injured by a Hindu mob on accusation of cow slaughter in Hapur in June 2018. His friend, Qasim was lynched to death.
By October 2021, the Uttar Pradesh police had killed 151 people and injured 3,473 in pre-planned police shootouts, known as police encounters. Almost all of them are under trial — as an under trial, you could spend several years in prison while the case is being tried in the slow judiciary system in India. According to National Crime Record Bureau prison data for 2015, 67% of all jail inmates are under trial. Over 55% of under trials across the country are either Muslims, Dalits, or tribals.
The Adityanath government lists the encounter numbers as an achievement in annual reports, celebrating and awarding cops. Meanwhile, family members who demand information on the killings have been threatened, their houses vandalized.
“If we are a family full of such dreaded criminals, why don’t we have any money to feed ourselves even twice a day? Why do we still live in
a kachcha house?” asked Nasreen, whose husband Furquan was killed in October 2017.
The National Human Rights Commission has issued over a dozen notices to the Adityanath government. In January 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights wrote to the Indian government expressing alarm. Between 2016 and 2019, the National Human Rights Commission registered 2,008 cases where minorities and Dalits were harassed, including lynchings. Of these, 43% of the hate crimes were from Uttar Pradesh alone, making it the most unsafe state for minorities, Dalits, and the tribal community in the country.
Dalits form 21% of Uttar Pradesh’s population and play a decisive role in the state’s politics. For centuries, they have faced societal marginalization and discrimination.
In April 2017, within a month of Adityanath coming to power, the Dalit community was denied permission by the district authorities to install a statue of B.R. Ambedkar in Shabbirpur village in Western Uttar Pradesh, owing to objections by the Thakur community. Ambedkar was the father of the Indian Constitution, and inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement.
Within a few weeks, in the same village, the Thakur community was granted permission to take out a procession of Maharana Pratap, a warrior king. Clashes broke out and the mob burned down 55 houses in the Dalit neighborhood, grievously injuring many. In the protest that followed, over 50 Dalits and only two Thakurs were arrested.
“Adityanath does not want any space for dissent, especially for the Dalit community,” said Meerut-based Sushil Gautam, president of the anti-caste group Blue Panthers. “Most top police officers in his government are Thakurs. There is a blatant upper-caste dominance in his government.”
In May 2017, Adityanath held a public meeting with the Dalit families in Kushinagar district, in east Uttar Pradesh. A day before his visit, the families were distributed soaps and shampoo to clean themselves before attending the meeting. The move was criticized globally.
In August 2018, the Dalit community of Uldepur village in Meerut was denied permission to protest in the Chaudhury Charan Singh Park, at the heart of the city. They had gathered to protest the killing of a Dalit boy by the Thakur men in the village. This was just two weeks after the Thakur men from the same village had gathered at the same place to show solidarity with the accused. Each time, people come out to protest, Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of five or more people in an area in urgent cases of apprehended danger, is imposed.
“Large parts of Meerut have been under section 144 for the past four-and-a- half years. He does not tolerate dissenters,” added Gautam.
While the Indian constitution reserves seats for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Class in government colleges and jobs, Adityanath has opposed the reservation policy. One out of every five Dalit students drops out of school in India because of lack of resources. His government has changed the rules for scholarship for Dalit students: now, students from marginalized communities will get a scholarship only if they secure at least 60% marks.
This year, in January, just a month before the Assembly elections in the state, Adityanath and a couple of BJP members ate at the house of a Dalit family in Gorakhpur. Gautam shared, “We all know that members of Dalit community do not drink mineral water. But Adityanath was sitting with a Bisleri bottle. So it was a photo op, not breaking the practice of untouchability. If he really wants to treat us as equal, he should also enter the gutter with us, the jobs that have been traditionally assigned to us.”
On July 17, 2019, 11 people were killed and 25 injured in Sonbhadra district. The Gond tribe had refused to vacate land claimed by the village headman, Yagya Dutt, who belonged to the dominant Gujjar community. Even though the tribe warned Adityanath’s office in advance, the administration refused to act.
“The Adivasis have been tilling the land for the past seven decades. After the Adityanath government took office, the Adivasis have been threatened by the local land mafia to stop tilling the land,” said S.R. Darapuri, a former Indian police services officer and president of All India People’s Front.
Darapuri says that the Adityanath government is not happy with the assertion of tribal identity, which has its own customs, rituals, and religion. “Assertion of a Non-Hindu identity by the local tribe upsets him and so the tribes are being punished with eviction.”
Women are not capable of being left free or independent, wrote Adityanath in his 2014 essay, “Matrushakti, Bharatiya Sanskriti Ke Sandarbh Mein” (Power of the Mother Figure in the Context of Indian Culture), which he first published on his personal web site. Adityanath firmly believes in providing male protection to women, controlling them, and protecting them from western ideas of feminism that could threaten the social order.
He writes: “If you leave energy free and uncontrolled and unregulated, it may become useless and destructive, similarly ‘shakti shakti swaroopa stree’ — woman as the epitome of power — does not really need freedom.”
“Only such controlled and protected women power will give birth to and raise great men …Else the thoughtless storm of women freedom of the western world will drive them to an even more disastrous condition and it will hamper the creation and stability of the home and family and prevent the glorious rebuilding of the nation and motherland,” he writes.
His ideas have a stark parallel to the idea of an ideal women in Nazi Germany, one who did not have a career outside her home and her most important duty was to be a good wife, raise able son to fight for the Fatherland, and populate the Aryan race.
He also opposes the Women’s Reservation Bill, which allocates 33% of seats for women in Parliament, because he thinks it will impact their roles in the family structure. He writes: “Women who are in active politics and public life like men, whether in this process they may not lose their importance and role as mothers, daughters, and sisters.”
But since women as an electoral block have played a key role in several elections since, Adityanath has since removed the essay from his website. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest report, 371,503 cases of crime against women were reported across India in 2020. Among states and union territories, Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 49,385, followed by West Bengal (36,439), Rajasthan (34,535), Maharashtra (31,954) and Madhya Pradesh (25,640).
In June 2017, just three months since Adityanath took over as Chief Minister, a 17-year-old was gang-raped by a BJP Member of Legislative Assembly, Kuldip Sengar, and his associates in Unnao district. For two years, Aditynath provided patronage to Sengar while the survivor’s family faced threats. In her pursuit for justice, the survivor tried to self-immolate in front of Adityanath’s residence. Instead, her father was arrested and later died in police custody. Her uncle was arrested, two aunts killed in a truck collision, she and her lawyer seriously injured in the same incident.
Only after the Supreme Court recognized the case, after civilian protests, and opposition parties raised the issue in Parliament was Sengar finally arrested and convicted in December 2019. But only two years later, courts discharged Sengar and his associates due to insufficient proof.
In September 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped by four dominant caste men in Hathras, hundreds of miles from Lucknow. The violence damaged her spinal cord and left her paralyzed, and her tongue was cut off. She died in a Delhi hospital two weeks later. The state government forcibly cremated the body of the victim, without the family’s consent, in the middle of the night.
The case received widespread media attention and generated nationwide protests. Adityanath claimed that the Hathras incident was being exploited to incite caste violence. Within a week, the Uttar Pradesh government filed 19 law and order cases, including sedition, against people who highlighted the case in public. This includes the arrest of Siddique Kappan, a journalist who was on his way to cover the case and charged with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and has been in jail for over 16 months.
Adtiyanath’s government hired Concept PR, a Mumbai-based public relations firm, that pushed a clarification note ‘Hathras girl was not raped’ among international media.
“He is not interested in the progress or empowerment of women,” said Subhashini Ali, a former Member of Parliament and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “He is only interested when a Hindu woman is involved with a Muslim man.”
In 2017, soon after taking over as Chief Minister, Adityanath formed an Anti- Romeo Squad, a moral policing force that targeted young men and women in public places, forcing them to show their identity cards to check if Hindu women are dating Muslim men. Between March 22, 2017 and November 30, 2020, the Anti-Romeo Squad had arrested 14,454 people.
In November 2020, UP government enacted the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020, called the “love jihad law” in popular parlance. The act makes religious conversion non-bailable with up to 10 years of jail time if undertaken through misinformation and allurement. It also requires that religious conversions for marriage in Uttar Pradesh to be approved by a district magistrate.
In December, 2021, the first sentencing under the new law came about, when a young Muslim man in Kanpur was given a jail term of 10 years and slapped with a fine of ₹30,000.
“It is a tool to arrest Muslim men and control Hindu women…who are seen as the property of the community,” said Ali.
In May 2021, Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar reported hundreds of unaccounted dead bodies on the banks of Ganges River. Uttar Pradesh had seen a large number of deaths during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Two months later, several bureaus of the newspaper all over India were raided by the income tax department. Opposition parties called it an attempt to intimidate the media.
Over 200 people have been arrested for criticizing Adityanath on social media.
Dr. Kafeel Khan was a lecturer at the Department of Pediatrics, Baba Raghav Das Medical College, Gorakhpur. In August 27, 63 children died after the hospital ran out of oxygen. The deaths attracted national attention. Kafeel spent his own money to buy oxygen cylinders to remedy the situation.
Three days later, the Uttar Pradesh government denied any deaths due to oxygen shortage. Several cases were filed against him, including the NSA. He was arrested, incarcerated for over 500 days in several Uttar Pradesh prisons, and terminated from his job. During the pandemic in 2021, Adityanath ordered a crackdown on several hospitals flagging a lack of oxygen, and asking officials to take action under the NSA and seize their property.
“A pseudo euphoria has been created around him because [Adityanath] crushes anyone who brings him bad press and criticism,” Khan told me.
As Chief Minister, like his predecessors, Adityanath changed the names of Uttar Pradesh cities: Mughalsarai became Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Nagar, Allahabad became Prayagraj, and Faizabad became Ayodhya.
During his Chief Ministership, estimates suggest that the gross domestic product (GDP) of Uttar Pradesh grew only 1.95% per year as compared to 6.92% during the previous state government between 2012 to 2017. In Uttar Pradesh, the urban unemployment rate stands higher than the national average of 7.7%, at 10.6%.
Between 2017 and 2020, sectors like agriculture, forestry, and fishing have displayed satisfactory growth but livestock, manufacturing, transport, communications, and financial services have contracted. Adityanath has spent much of the state’s limited resources — Uttar Pradesh is one of the poorest states in the country — in creating temples.
In March 2020, Adityanath named and shamed anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters by putting up their names, pictures, and addresses on billboards all over Lucknow. The Act fast-tracked Indian citizenship to people of all religions from neighbouring countries except Muslims.
“We were not even allowed food, medicines, our spectacles,” said 78-year-old Darapuri, who was arrested for three weeks. “This has been one of the worst periods of suppression.”
“As an MP, he has had no impact on the development of Gorakhpur. His party was voted out of power in the elections soon after he became the CM because he could not keep his promises,” said Ahmad. Yet, Adityanath remains the star campaigner of the BJP.
He is a firm proponent of the Akhand Bharat dream of the Hindu nationalists and endorsed it in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly. Akhand Bharat literally means undivided India. The idea posits that modern-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma are one big Hindu nation.
Many are now viewing him as far more radical and committed to the Hindutva cause than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under whose leadership the state of Gujarat saw one of the worst pogroms against Muslims.
After a large number of deaths in the second coronavirus wave in Uttar Pradesh, rumors floated that Modi was unhappy with Adityanath. Many RSS officials even visited the state to do an audit of the government. A few months later, Modi and Adityanath did a photo-op, where both were seen walking the corridors at Modi’s residence.
People are calling Adityanath Modi’s successor. “If he succeeds, our Constitution will be thrown out and Hindu supremacy will be imposed. There will be no democracy, only dictatorship,” said Darapuri.
The cult around Adityanath is not designed to convince or reason. Instead it destroys anyone who questions his leadership.
“His life trajectory is now a guide book for the politically ambitious, who have learned that communal poison and not development leads to advent,” said Ali.
As a Hindu monk promising to replicate the Ramjanmabhoomi model in cities of Varanasi and Mathura, he now enjoys varchasva, absolute power without constitutional limitations.
Assembly elections are currently underway in Uttar Pradesh. The results will be out on March 10. While the Adityanath-led BJP party had an edge initially, the recent farmers’ protest has dented the BJP vote in the sugarcane belt in western Uttar Pradesh. Some are predicting a tie between the BJP and the opposition put up by Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal coalition.
But perhaps the results don’t matter for Adityanath. His eyes are set on a far larger stage.
“[Uttar Pradesh] has been in a state of social and economic Emergency,” said Gautam. “If he comes to the national stage he will use the same methods to create India into a homogenous Hindu society with one religion, one language, one ideology.”
Published by The Juggernaut on Feb 15, 2022