12 things to know about the hardliner who runs India's Uttar Pradesh

Yogi Adityanath has likened Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan to an alleged terrorist. He's also said Mother Teresa was part of a conspiracy to “Christianise” India.

Photo by: Reuters Archive
Photo by: Reuters Archive

Yogi Adityanath's supporters have raised slogans like "UP mein rehna hai Yogi Yogi kehna hai." which roughly translates into "If you have to stay in UP you have to align with Yogi."

Updated Apr 5, 2017

Uttar Pradesh India’s most populous state has a new chief minister. In March, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the state polls — and then appointed their man to the top job.

But he’s no shrinking violet. Yogi Adityanath now has full control of a northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh — or UP as its commonly known, a state with a  population of 220 million. If it were a country, it would be the world's fifth-most populous.

Uttar Pradesh is also home to 15 percent of the world's poor. 

What makes Adityanath quite so controversial? Here are 12 things to know about him:

1. In 2015, Adityanath said that those citizens who opposed yoga should leave the country and drown themselves. He also shared a platform at a political rally while a colleague and a member of his local party called for Hindus to rape Muslim women after exhuming them from their graves.

2. Religious acceptance has not been a hallmark of his policies: He once said that Mother Teresa was part of a Christianisation conspiracy in northeast India. On another occasion, Adityanath said that if given a chance, he would place the Hindu idol of Ganesh in all mosques. Idols and their worship are forbidden in Islam. 

3. He was adopted into power: Born Ajay Singh, he was adopted by Mahant Avaidyanath, chief of the powerful Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur as a teenager. The firebrand cleric derives most of his influence from his polarising rhetoric — as well as the constituency where the Gorakhnath temple is located.

Two failed monsoons, and sudden unseasonal rains, caused widespread crop damage across northern India in 2014 and 2015. (Reuters/archive)

In Uttar Pradesh, a poor and agrarian state, people tend to vote along social and religious lines. The BJP fielded no candidates from the Muslim minority that makes up 19 percent of the population.

4. He has strong views on relationships: After he took the reins of the state government, police deployed "anti-Romeo squads" meant to keep men and women apart in public to protect women from harassment. But they are also seen by some as an extension of Adityanath's battle against what he calls the "love jihad," or the "entrapment" of Hindu women to convert them to Islam.

5. In 2015, he defended the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri who was accused of possessing and consuming beef. And after Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan claimed  that India was getting increasingly intolerant after that lynching and a spate of other attacks by right-wing Hindu groups, Adityanath said there was no difference between the language of Shahrukh Khan and a proscribed terrorist, Hafiz Saeed —and that Khan should leave for Pakistan.

After India experience a wave of attacks by right-wing Hindu groups in 2015 , Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan had said that there is extreme intolerance in the country. (AFP/Archive)

Hafiz Saeed is a Pakistan-based cleric who runs a charity organisation — and is also accused by India of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The allegations have not been substantiated.

6. He promised to reignite a communal fire: Adityanath pledged during his poll speeches that if people voted for BJP then “no power will stop the construction of the Ram temple,” over the disputed Babri mosque site in Ayodhya, in northern Uttar Pradesh.

Hindus and Muslims have quarrelled for over a century over the history of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a town in Uttar Pradesh. Hindus claim that the mosque stands on the birthplace of their god-king Rama, and was built after the destruction of the Hindu temple by a Muslim invader in the 16th century. (AFP/Archive)

The dispute flared up in 1992 after a Hindu mob destroyed the mosque and nearly 2,000 were killed in rioting between Hindus and Muslims across the country.

7. His political ascendance has been 20 years in the making: In 1998, at the age of 26, he became the youngest Member of Parliament and has since won a seat in the Lok Sabha five more times. He was made Mahant (head) of the temple after Mahant Avaidyanath, his guru, passed away in 2014. Adityanath was not named as a candidate for the post of chief minister before the March 11 state polls. But all that changed once the results of the elections were announced.

Adityanath has been magnanimous in victory, pledging to uphold Modi's slogan of 'sabka saath, sabka vikas' ('all together, development for all'). (Reuters/archive)

A victory in the state has increased Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and BJP’s chances of winning a second term in the national elections in 2019. Adityanath's ascent has prompted widespread questions about India's secular status, and whether Modi, himself a product of a nationalist Hindu upbringing, intends to pursue more religious policies as he pursues economic reforms.

8. He has also advocated for a population control of the Muslims in India — and said that Hindus should marry 100 Muslim women for every Hindu woman wed with a Muslim.

9. He’s got serious backing: Adityanath is supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that provides the ideological base and recruitment pool to the Bharatiya Janata Party and other extremist Hindu groups. The RSS supports "Hindutva" or Hindu-ness as the cultural identity of India and promotes the message of Hindu supremacy in a nation that is constitutionally secular.

Critics say the RSS and its hardline Hindu philosophy hardens divisions in society in order to unify Hindu opinion and votes. He has also spoken against his own Bharatiya Janata Party on several occasions, but due to his clout, these violations of party discipline have been ignored.

10. Slaughterhouses and meat shops have suffered attacks by vigilante groups ever since the priest became chief minister. The chief minister also instructed officials to prepare to shut down all mechanised slaughterhouses, part of a campaign pledge that appealed to some Hindus because many view cows as sacred and because the businesses are run mainly by Muslims.

Muslims working in the meat industry are fearful for their jobs and meat sellers in Uttar Pradesh went on strike to protest attacks on slaughterhouses and meat shops suffered by Hindu vigilante groups. (Getty Images)

The slaughter of cows is, in fact, prohibited in Uttar Pradesh, although not always enforced. 

11. Much like Modi, he has tempered his tone since the March elections: Ever since he became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Adityanath has sounded like more of a statesman than a rabble-rouser. Gone is the fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric and promotion of Hindu supremacy for which the 44-year-old is known, and in its place is a message of social inclusion more akin to Modi's language since sweeping to power in 2014.

On the other hand, Adityanath's devotees at the Gorakhnath temple still say their main mission is to fight against creeping encroachment by Uttar Pradesh's Muslim community.

12. His fanbase is diverse: Despite his anti-Islam rhetoric, some Muslims living in his constituency and near the Gorakhnath temple praise the priest saying he takes care of everyone and provides protection regardless of caste and creed.  

Even though, apart from his rhetorical statements, there is no past precedent that clearly indicate Adityanath’s administrative record.Those defending him say he should be given a chance. They also believe that the appointment will be a better platform for Adityanath, and that all the decisions he makes will be somewhat accounted for because he will now be under closer scrutiny. 

TRTWorld and agencies