Anti-Muslim leader’s appointment as new Uttar Pradesh chief raises questions
In naming Yogi Adityanath as the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made the most strident display of its Hindu nationalist roots since prime minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
The appointment of the 44-year-old Hindu priest to lead India’s most populous state was revealed on Saturday evening, a week after the BJP romped to victory in the state elections, winning 312 out of 403 seats in the assembly. He was sworn in on Sunday.
But his installation as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, where 40 million of its 200 million population are Muslims and where religious tensions have regularly spiralled into bouts of rioting and violence, threatens to turn the state into a tinderbox.
A five-time parliamentarian from the Uttar Pradesh constituency of Gorakhpur, Mr Adityanath has a strong base of power in the east of the state. But he is also a highly controversial politician, known his for virulent anti-Muslim comments.
In 2000, Mr Adityanath was accused, in three separate incidents, of crimes including attempted murder, rioting, and promoting enmity between religious groups. He spent two weeks in prison in 2007, accused of inciting riots in Gorakhpur, before being released on bail. Investigations in these cases subsequently stalled, allowing him to pursue his political career.
His appointment – undoubtedly approved by Mr Modi – has surprised analysts, given the prime minister’s careful rhetorical emphasis on development and economic growth rather than on religion.
“It’s bewildering to so many people, because Adityanath’s public image is not at all in sync with Modi’s image,” said A K Verma, a political scientist who heads the Centre for the Study of Society and Politics in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
“Many people who voted for the BJP in these elections also have reservations about this chief minister,” Mr Verma said. “The burden of his performance now rests on the prime minister, because there’s no doubt he was Modi’s choice.”
Mr Adityanath was diplomatic in his comments after being named to the post on Saturday. “People want development for all, without any discrimination,” he told the IANS news agency. “The good governance of the Modi government and in BJP-ruled states attracted people to the party.”
But over the years, he has acquired a reputation for inflammatory speeches targeting minorities – Muslims in particular.
Two years ago, he said: “If given a chance, we will install statues of [Hindu deities] Gauri, Ganesh and Nandi in every mosque.”
The same year, he warned Hindu parents that Muslim men were seducing their young daughters to convert them to Islam. He has also called for the forced sterilisation of Muslim girls, fearing that India’s population of Muslims would exceed its population of Hindus.
An undated video that surfaced in 2011 shows Mr Adityanath talking about religious riots in Uttar Pradesh.
“If one Hindu is killed, we won’t go to the police. We will kill 10 Muslims,” he is seen saying.
Mr Adityanath has repeatedly called for India, a secular state under the constitution, to become a Hindu nation. He has also championed the construction of a temple in the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya, on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was razed in 1992 by Hindu fanatics who claimed it had been built on the spot where the Hindu deity Rama was born.
Mr Avaidyanath was among the leaders of the movement that demolished the mosque, triggering deadly religious riots across the country.
As recently as February, just before Uttar Pradesh began its multi-phase election, he promised: “The hurdles on the path of construction of a grand Rama temple will be gradually removed, and the construction will soon start in Ayodhya.”
Born Ajay Mohan Bisht, Mr Adityanath studied mathematics before entering the Hindu clergy at the age of 21. He studied under the chief priest of Gorakhpur’s Gorakhnath Temple, Mahant Avaidyanath, who was also a four-time parliamentarian.
Among the bills Mr Adityanath has sponsored as an MP is one that calls for the country’s name to be changed to “Hindustan”, while another urges a ban on religious conversions.
His appointment as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister is “a big risk”, Mr Verma said, “and I am not sure I see the strategy behind it.”