A HIGHLY controversial Hindu priest-turned-politician has been handpicked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead the country’s most populous state.
With more than a dozen criminal cases pending against him — and despite repeatedly inciting violence against other religions, threatening to place Hindu deities in mosques, praising Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslims — Yogi Adityanath was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, as part of Narendra’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Despite Adityanath’s popularity, political heft, and his appeal across castes, the move came as a surprise to many given his reputation as “the single most divisive, abusive, polarising figure in UP (Uttar Pradesh) politics,” according to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of Centre Policy Research, one of India’s top think tanks.
Adityanath enjoys significant popularity with Hindu’s in the state but his appointment has left many Muslims, of which there are 42 million, concerned by Modi’s decision with many fearing for the future.
“I am deeply disappointed with BJP’s selection and I don’t understand how a man who is charged with attempt to murder, a person who propagates divisive agenda, can be face of Uttar Pradesh chief Minister,” Muslim Cleric Maulana Mohammad Sajid Rashidi told The Indian Express.
During the run up to state elections in March this year, Adityanath delivered highly provocative speeches across the sprawling Uttar Pradesh that many considered hate speech towards the state’s Muslim minority. This attempt to spread division and consolidate the Hindu voters proved highly effective in the Hindu majority state with the BJP winning 325 of Uttar Pradesh’s 403 seats, the biggest majority for any party in the state legislature in 40 years.
Modi’s decision to appoint the firebrand MP is seen by analysts as a clear sign of Modi’s intentions and inclinations going forward, leaving the Muslim community to fear that the marginalisation of minorities will now be translated into a programme of cultural, social and symbolic subordination.
The Times of India called his selection a “defiant assertion” of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist credentials.
“By picking him to govern India’s largest state, Modi and (BJP President Amit) Shah have sent a clear message that they will be bound by neither the norms of ‘politics as usual’ nor the requirements of political correctness,” the Times wrote.
Adityanath has been no stranger to controversy since he was first elected to office in 1999 at the age of 26.
In 2014, he suggested that mosques should feature Hindu deities, and has vowed to cleanse India of all other religions declaring this century as “the century of Hindutva, not just in India but in the entire world.”
He has 18 criminal cases pending against him according to the Washington Post, via South China Morning Post, including attempted murder, criminal intimidation and rioting.
He has accused Mother Teresa of being part of a conspiracy to Christianise India and called Shah Rukh Khan, a popular Bollywood actor, a terrorist.
He praised Trump’s travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations and proposed that a similar measure be taken in India, a country in which over 14 percent of the population are Muslim.
At a rally in the recent elections, he implied his followers should kill Muslims vowing, “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 is regarded by many as the “mascot of militant Hindu sectarianism, reactionary ideas, routinised conflict and thuggery in political discourse,” according to Mehta, and his appointment raises concerns of sectarianism in a state that has a history of inter-communal violence.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state with a population of 220 million, 19 percent of whom are Muslim. In 2013, violent riots between the Hindu and Muslim communities resulted in the death of 60 people with thousands more being displaced.
Some hope that Adityanath’s elevation will see him shed his hardline Hindutva image and his early actions on taking office suggest this may be the case.
Soon after being sworn in, Adityanath promised not to discriminate against any section of the people. He also pledged to fulfil all election promises in the spirit of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (development for all), Modi and BJPs motto of inclusion.
But Muslim communities are sceptical of this promise with feelings of insecurity on the rise.
— Er shadab chouhan (@chouhan_shadab) March 18, 2017
Qazi Zainus Sajidin, Meerut city Qazi and former UP Madrasa Board chairman, told the Times of India that by appointing Adityanath, the BJP “has made development in the state take a backseat”. He also explained that Adityanath’s anti-Muslim remarks and “staunch support for Hinduism” has left the majority of Muslims feeling “insecure” and said they will “remain worried as he continues to rule over the state for five years.”
Voicing further concern of the Muslim community, Maulana Shahbudin Razvi, general secretary of All India Jamat Raza-e-Mustafa, a wing of Dargah Aala Hazrat in Bareilly, said, “There is a sense of fear in a large section of Muslims after the announcement of Yogi Adityanath as the UP CM face.”
“With responsibilities change comes too. All we can hope is that the change comes in this case as well.”