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The Journey of Yogi Adityanath: The Kinetic Sanyasi

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From timid villager to Hindutva’s warrior monk. The journey of Yogi Adityanath

ON THE MORNING OF March 20th, a day after Yogi Adityanath took charge as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, 5 Kalidas Marg, known as 5KD, is getting ready for a puja. Several young priests, accompanied by Pandit Ramanand Tripathi, head priest of the Gorakhnath temple, are here to perform the housewarming rituals and Rudra abhishek. In the afternoon, the Yogi drops in for a quick visit, but there just aren’t enough hours in his day. In two decades of active politics, Adityanath has achieved enough and more to make his opponents inside and outside the BJP envious, and to inspire scores of religious leaders to step out of their maths and into the political landscape. In Karnataka, where there are 36,000 maths, young karyakartas are exhorting influential seers to enter the political fray, says Pramod Muthalik, leader of the Sri Rama Sene, a Hindu outfit. “There is a sense that a man in a saffron robe can lead the people, and not with his tilak and jhanda, but with his nationalist ideals and political ambition. Yogi Adityanath has over time fashioned himself as the BJP’s answer to all that is wrong with Uttar Pradesh,” Muthalik says.

Had he won the first election of his life, the world may never have heard of Yogi Adityanath. Born Ajay Singh Bisht, a Rajput, in Panchoor village in the Pauri region of Uttarakhand (then UP) in 1972, he went to Kotdwar to attend college in 1989, and graduated in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. “He was very quiet, a typical village boy who would hesitate to talk to fellow students,” says Harsh Singh Rana, a classmate who now lives in Gurgaon and runs his own business. In these formative years, the Ram Mandir movement, which was gaining momentum across the country, made an impression on Ajay. He joined the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, along with his friends. In 1991, when the college student union elections were announced, he decided to contest the post of secretary, but failed to get an ABVP ticket. He contested as an independent instead and, predictably enough, lost. “He was a staunch Hindu ideologist, but he was not very good at campaigning. The elections, however, made him a known face in college,” recalls Rana.

Ajay had planned to join Gorakhpur University for further studies. But later in the year, the rooms he had rented in Kotdwar were burgled, and, among other things, the thieves took his educational certificates. The incident altered the trajectory of his adult life, but Gorakhpur would remain the focal point he kept coming back to—Gorakhnath Temple was central to the Ram Mandir movement. On one such visit after the demolition of the Babri mosque, he stayed at the Gorakhnath temple, where he grew close to the peethadheesh, Mahant Avaidyanath. In just a couple of years, he would become Yogi Adityanath, the successor to Avaidyanath, and be entrusted with leading the monastic order of Guru Gorakshanath, who is believed to have lived in the 11th century. Over two decades later, he has been entrusted with redeeming Uttar Pradesh.

Situated south of Gorakhpur city, the eponymous temple is the biggest shrine of the Nath religious sampradaya or tradition. Unlike other Hindu orders, the Nath order does not believe in caste divisions. The mahants of the main shrine, for instance, are not Brahmins but Rajputs. The math controls another temple to Gorakhnath in Nepal and therefore has close ties with the country. Adityanath is a strong advocate of Nepal being a Hindu rashtra. The former king of Nepal, Birendra Bikram Shah, used to visit the temple in Gorakhnath at least once a year, during the month-long Makar Sankranti festival in January. In 2013, the Yogi invited former king Gyanendra to inaugurate the new Gorakhnath temple on the outskirts of the city.

The temple has a long history of political entanglement. Its one-time mahant, Digvijaynath, had joined the Congress in 1921 and was even arrested for taking part in the Chauri Chaura incident that made Gandhi suspend his peaceful Non-Cooperation Movement. In 1949, it was Digvijaynath who’d had idols of Lord Rama and Sita placed furtively inside the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, resulting in the mosque being locked for decades. This put the math at the forefront of the saffron cause. Digvijaynath went on to become an MP in 1967 on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket. His successor, Mahant Avaidyanath, was a four-time MLA from Maniram constituency and four-time MP from Gorakhpur. “Unlike other Hindu sects, the Nath order believes politics is a tool to serve dharma,” says Ramesh Dixit, former professor of Political Science at Lucknow University. “Mahant Avaidyanath was the leading figure of the Ram Mandir movement and the Gorakhnath temple was the centre from where the movement was orchestrated in various regions of UP and Bihar.”

He would become Yogi Adityanath, the successor to Avaidyanath, and be entrusted with leading Guru Gorakshanath. Over two decades later, he has been entrusted with redeeming UP

A five-time MP, Adityanath is a political figure in his guru’s mould, a warrior in a monk’s robes, a protector of the faith. He started out managing the 1996 election campaign of Avaidyanath and proved himself to be a good administrator. “He had details of all party workers and he would plan the next day’s campaign till late into the night,” says Dr RMD Agarwal, the Gorakhpur MLA who at the time was a follower of Avaidyanath. In 1998, Avaidyanath, who was unwell, fielded Yogi instead for the Lok Sabha polls. He won the election by a little over 27,000 votes and became an MP at the age of 26. “He wouldn’t make any speeches and was very shy initially,” says Saiyed Jamal Ahmad, the Congress district president who contested against Yogi in 1999. “He was not connecting with the people.” The Yogi scraped through in the 1999 General Election with a margin of 7,000 votes. That is when he became a true politician.

Heeding the margin as a warning, Adityanath rolled up his sleeves and became active beyond the math. There was something missing from the cocktail of politics and dharma, he realised. No movement could last forever without the involvement of society, especially youth. He started travelling in eastern UP with the message of protecting the Hindu faith and won over thousands of supporters. “While some Hindu sects see Dalits as untouchables, the Nath sect, under Avaidyanath and later under Adityanath, tried to accommodate them in order to create an inclusive platform for Hindus,” says Dixit. “The Assembly election results reflect Yogi’s hard work towards consolidating the Hindu vote.”

Adityanath appealed to the Hindu imagination by positioning himself as a firebrand leader who didn’t mince words, says veteran Gorakhpur-based political commentator Jagdish Lal. In 2002, he established the Hindu Yuva Vahini, calling it a ‘cultural organisation’ that would work to stop anti-Hindu activities and fight against Maoist influence. “There is a difference between the Yogi and his guru Avaidyanath. While his guru was content with his influence in Gorakhpur, Yogi wanted to establish his ideology beyond the region,” says an associate at the temple. The Vahini, expanding to neighbouring districts, looked for opportunities to make its presence felt, especially in communal conflicts. A number of cases were registered against him and leaders of his outfit. Sunil Singh, the state president, has 70 cases against him with charges ranging from ‘attempt to murder’ to inflicting ‘communal violence’.

IN JANUARY 2007, Hindus and Muslims clashed at the Muharram Tazia procession in Gorakhpur, resulting in a Hindu boy’s death. A curfew was in place, but Adityanath and other Vahini leaders went into town to further foment communal passions. The leader of the Gorakhpur math was arrested on January 28th on charges of creating tension between communities. There are three cases pending against him, with charges ranging from ‘rioting and carrying weapons’ to ‘attempt to murder’ and ‘insult to a place of worship’ of another community. The Vahini carried on with its work on the ground and the Yogi kept hitting out with his words. His dominance in Gorakhpur gave rise to the slogan, ‘Gorakhpur mein rehna hai toh Yogi Yogi kehna hai (If you want to live in Gorakhpur, you must chant Yogi’s name)’.

In 2002, Adityanath established the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a ‘cultural organisation’ that would work to stop anti-Hindu activities and fight against Maoist influence

“He used the Vahini’s growing influence for his political outreach. At a time when the BJP was struggling to find a state leader after Rajnath Singh and Kalyan Singh, Yogi Adityanath became indispensable to the party,” Lal says. The mahant never occupied a party position, but he was beginning to dictate terms to the central leadership. In 2002, he objected to the party’s decision to field Shiv Pratap Shukla from Gorakhpur city Assembly constituency. When the party did not take his advice, he put up his own candidate— Dr RMD Agarwal—on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket. With Adityanath’s support, Agarwal won the seat comfortably and has since continued as MLA, albeit on a BJP ticket now.

Adityanath’s relationship with the BJP has steadily improved with his growing clout. He almost quit the party ahead of the 2007 Assembly elections, but a compromise was reached and the Yogi had a say in the ticket distribution in his region. He gave eight tickets to his loyalists, but only one of them won. In 2012, he openly criticised the party’s decision to induct tainted BSP leader Babu Singh Kushwaha. Kushwaha did not join. In 2014, Adityanath was placed in charge of the Assembly by-elections in UP, and he campaigned extensively, raising issues like ‘Love Jihad’ and cow protection. But the party lost seven of the 10 seats to the Samajwadi Party. Some leaders blamed Adityanath for his communal campaign but the mahant’s verbal war has been relentless. In 2015, when ‘Love Jihad’ was a major issue in western UP, a video surfaced of Adityanath saying that if Muslims took one Hindu girl, Hindu boys should avenge her by converting 10 Muslim girls. He goes on to say that riots take place where Muslims are more than 10 per cent of the population. Adityanath denies making the speech and has asked for a forensic test of the video.

Controversy is his middle name. In June 2014, ahead of International Yoga Day, he famously said that those who did not want to do yoga should move to Pakistan. In November 2015, he attacked Shah Rukh Khan on his comments about freedom of expression in the country. “Shah Rukh Khan should remember that the majority population of the country made him a star, and if they boycott his films, he will have to wander the streets. It is unfortunate that he is speaking the same language as that of Hafiz Saeed,” said Adityanath.

The Vahini now has branches in more than 40 districts of eastern UP and new ones are coming up in western UP, Bihar and Nepal. Over the years, the political aspirations of Vahini leaders have swelled and Adityanath has indulged them. In the present Assembly, there are seven MLAs who are Vahini leaders. They had contested the election on BJP tickets given by Adityanath. Sunil Singh, the state president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, revolted when he was denied a ticket and fielded his own candidates in 13 Assembly seats. It was believed that this move was orchestrated by Adityanath to accommodate more of his people. But he denied this and suspended Singh and his co-conspirators from the Vahini. However, Sunil Singh is now back with him and they are regularly seen together in Lucknow.

Every election, his rivals in the party try to write him off. “Those who oppose him have no base and can’t win their own seats,” says Chandra Mohan, state BJP spokesperson. “Yogiji is a match winner who plays on the front foot and defies his opposition.” Post the Lok Sabha elections, his supporters were hopeful of a ministerial position for him, but he was left out in subsequent Cabinet expansions too. “Maharaj-ji would say after the Cabinet expansions that the Government needs him only during elections,” says a regular visitor to the temple in Gorakhpur. “We would tell him there was a reason he had been kept waiting.”

His Parliament record—close to 100 per cent attendance and participation in 56 debates in the current Lok Sabha—throws light on his hard-working nature. He was instrumental in getting an AIIMS for his constituency and also reopened a fertiliser factory that had been closed for years. He is approachable and runs over 30 schools and colleges under the Maharana Pratap Educational Trust. The social work has helped bolster his reputation as a cult leader. This January, when everyone said Adityanath had been sidelined, he was asked to come to Delhi on a special flight to meet Amit Shah to finalise UP ticket distribution. He addressed more than 100 elections rallies across UP, more than any other BJP leader of the state. He was even called to Mumbai to campaign for the municipal elections and spent three days there, travelling and speaking in the heat despite an eye infection. In western UP, he did four rallies in a day. The priest-politician went on a verbal rampage against the then Uttar Pradesh government led by Akhilesh Yadav. “In western UP, while Modi focused on the development pitch, it was Yogi who took the Hindutva line, raising question on the exodus of Hindus at some places and comparing it with Kashmir,” says AK Verma, head of the Department of Politics at Christ Church College, Kanpur. “He has a mass appeal among Hindus which cuts across castes and that has helped BJP get Dalit votes to some extent.” Verma says Adityanath could help the BJP grab the attention of at least a section of the 52 per cent Dalits who have never voted in any election. “His near-god status among Dalits in and around Gorakhpur could inspire more Dalits to come to the BJP’s fold.” He is different from other fringe elements in Hindu politics, says Verma. “What makes Yogi a hit is the association with the Gorakhnath temple and a legion of followers. He draws power from this faith.”

The saint has now become Chief Minister of the largest state in the country. But he has no time to bask in this glory. There is another war coming in 2019 and the general must prepare.