Yogi: the controversial Hindu monk who could decide India’s future

By David Asta Alares

Lucknow, India, Mar 7 (EFE).- Several men were dancing Monday at one of the major intersections of Lucknow, capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, during the final phase of voting in the world’s largest regional elections, amid a cacophony of music that eulogized two names: Yogi Adityanath, the current head of government; and the Hindu god Ram.

Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath, of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seeking a second term as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, which with its 200 million inhabitants enjoys the highest political weight-age in the country.

These are important regional elections for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as it is believed to gauge the country’s political mood especially in the run-up to the 2024 national elections.

A politically controversial figure, Yogi is criticized by his opponents for his radical Hinduism and his attacks on the Indian Muslim minority, and defended by his followers as an untiring ruler willing to correct the evils afflicting one of the poorest states in the South Asian country.

Adityanath’s appointment as head of government of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 came as a surprise given his hardline profile as a Hindu nationalist.

But for his followers, like those who dancing at road intersections in Lucknow and wearing scarves bearing the lotus symbol of the BJP and saffron flags – the sacred color of Hinduism -, this mixture of religion and politics is not seen as problematic at all.

Ajay Mohan Singh Bisht was born in 1972 and underwent higher studies in his youth before joining the monastic order at the Gorakhnath temple where he was given the name Yogi Adityanath in 1994, according to Shantanu Gupta in his book “The Monk who became Chief Minister” (2017), a biography of Adityanath.

Adityanath became the head of the monastery in 2014 after the death of his mentor and, despite being described as an ascetic who has renounced worldly life, has been immersed in politics like his predecessors.

At just the age of 26, he was elected to the Indian parliament from Gorakhpur, the town in Uttar Pradesh where his monastery lies and from where he is contesting the current elections.

Known for his inflammatory speeches, Yogi is accused of promoting a series of policies that seek to marginalize the Muslim minority, who make up 38 million of the state’s 200 million population and account for 15 percent of all citizens in the country, according to the last census in 2011.

The Hindu monk brought in a law with prison sentences for forced conversions in an attempt to crackdown on what has been described by conspiracy theorists as “love jihad,” where Muslim men deceive Hindu women into converting to Islam by wooing them.

He began his term with hardline steps that included “anti-Romeo squads” to protect the so called honor of young women in public and a strict surveillance of illegal slaughterhouses, as cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. According to human rights organizations, such orders have served to demonize Muslims.

During 2019, a law to naturalize irregular immigrants from neighboring countries, seen as discriminatory by Muslims over non inclusion of people professing Islam, triggered widespread protests with a large female participation and were harshly repressed by the state under the command of Adityanath.

“At that time, Yogi remarked that the men were sitting at home and the women protesting in the street (…). He said he would teach a lesson to each of those women they would remember for years,” Muslim rights activist Naish Hasan from Lucknow told EFE.

The Hindu nationalist BJP party, however, dismisses these accusations, and has focused its electoral strategy on a mixture of economic and religious achievements.

Gaurav Bhatia, a lawyer and national spokesperson for the BJP, in an interview with EFE rattled off the “excellent work” carried out during Adityanath’s five-year term, such as improving state security, reducing unemployment, zero tolerance for corruption, among others.

The spokesperson, busy with the phased electoral process that began on Feb. 10 after months of campaigning and whose results will be released on Thursday, also described Adityanath as an untiring leader during the coronavirus pandemic.

“His father passed away (when) he was busy visiting various districts to oversee the arrangements because the second wave (of Covid-19) had hit the country very badly (…) he could not even attend the funeral ceremony of his father,” Bhatia said.

The story of the CMs tirelessness also resonates in the biography by Gupta, who writes that “he works for 18-20 hours a day and expects the same from his team” and that spending time “with cows in the Mutt’s (monastery’s) gau-shala (cow shelter) was an integral part of Yogi Adityanath’s daily routine.”

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