Chants of “Modi Modi” have been replaced by “Yogi Yogi” in the largest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Yogi Adityanath is 44, wears saffron robes, and renounced worldly pleasures at the age of 21.
And now this hard-line Hindu priest is the chief minister of the state, having been hand chosen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party and sworn in on March 19.
Many view this appointment as Modi moving to consolidate Hindu support in the run up to 2019 elections, and Adityanath certainly fits the bill. He is popular, controversial and full of religious ideology, but critics warn that he also relies too heavily on divisive policies.
In 2005, Adityanath launched a ‘purification drive’ to re-convert Christians to Hinduism, later claiming to have reconverted more than 5000 people. In 2007, he spent 11 days in jail for defying prohibitory orders imposed by the administration during a time of heightened sectarian tension.
More seriously, Adityanath’s 2014 election affidavit says he faced criminal charges including attempted murder, intimidation, promoting religious enmity, defiling a place of worship, rioting, and trespassing on burial places.
Throughout his many electoral campaigns, Adityanath has repeatedly reinforced the message of “Hindu unity” against a perceived threat from Islam. In January, he voiced his support for a Trump-inspired Muslim immigration ban in India.
The new chief minister’s incendiary speeches against minorities are popular in a state where muslims make up just one-fifth of Uttar Pradesh’s 220 million citizens. In the past, Adityanath has accused Muslim men of waging “love jihad,” or a love war, to entrap Hindu women and convert them to Islam.
“If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return … If they [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men,” he once said addressing a frenzied crowd.
Some of his other controversial statements include saying that minority groups who oppose yoga should either leave the country or drown themselves in the sea, and declaring that he would like to place Hindu idols in all mosques.
In the hot seat
Since his appointment as chief minister, Yogi has hit the ground running. His curiously named anti-romeo squads – supposedly set up to curb cases of harassment of women in public spaces – are already on the streets, though many fear this could turn into moral policing by the state.
In other ‘purification’ drives, there have also been mass closures of slaughterhouses. Government officials claim this is a “crackdown” on illegal businesses. But owners of slaughterhouses and meat shops are crying foul. Meat shops in Noida, just outside of Delhi, are being covered with ‘veils.’ Show-owners say they are being forced by the police to “cover up” the entrances to their outlets so as to prevent offending vegetarians. Many began an indefinite strike Monday, prompting fears of a meat shortage.
Yogi supporter Rakesh Sinha says the old way of doing politics is out. “Grassroot sentiments, polemics, communication skills are at the top,” Sinha told VICE News.
“This is not merely a change of power but an ideational change. We need decolonisation of minds… The future is a battle of ideas and we will win this battle globally,” Sinha continued.
However, many public intellectuals and noted figures including jurist Fali Nariman, are now questioning the nation’s commitment to a tolerant, pluralist, and progressive vision of India.
“The constitution is under threat. The appointment of a Hindu priest: Is this the beginning of a Hindu state? PM (Prime Minister) must be asked so that the people know what they should be prepared for,” Nariman said at a media event last weekend.
India’s 1.3 billion population is about 80 percent Hindu and 14 percent Muslim, with the rest made up of Christians, Sikhs and other minorities. In the face of these statistics, the decision to appoint a man with a history of violent rhetoric against people of other faiths cannot be cast off with any ease.
Asaduddin Owaisi, an opposition lawmaker in the Indian parliament and a prominent Muslim leader in India told VICE News: “The BJP is appeasing the majority community, the Hindutva (militant Hinduism) elements in the country.”
What lies ahead?
As chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath is expected to play a major role as an old feud around the legal battle to reclaim a contested holy site threatens to resurface in coming months.
Dec. 26 will mark 25 years since the Babri Masjid mosque was demolished by rioting mobs, fraying the country’s fragile Hindu-Muslim ties. The ruins of the mosque in Ayodhya still remain one of the most bitterly disputed religious places in the world. Many devout Hindus, including Adityanath himself, have vowed to replace it with a temple to Rama.
Despite such looming and thorny issues, many argue that the chief minister must now be judged on his administrative capabilities and not his past. “Give him a chance” was a popular Twitter refrain the day his appointment was announced.
What follows will be a tense wait to see if Adityanath will push the agenda he so stridently campaigned on, or whether he’ll assume a more reasonable tone befitting government office. Either way, his appointment has rattled those who had cause to hope that India was determined to move past religious division and the politics of fear.
Zeenat Saberin is a freelancer journalist living in New Delhi.