Living with the Yogi

As a firebrand Hindu nationalist rises to power in India's most populous state, Garga Chatterjee looks at the implications for culture and society

Living with the Yogi
Whether one likes it or not, Yogi Adityanath, the powerful head of the Gorakhnath Math, is now the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. His party, the BJP, has won the recent electoral contest, convincingly defeating all other competing forces. For many, the ascendency of Yogi Adityanath is unthinkable, whilst for others it is a very positive development. A part of the existing narrative wants to allay the anxieties amongst those who belong to the ‘it’s unthinkable!’ crowd by painting him as a saint (in the social sense of the term and not in the literal theological sense) with certain extraordinary human qualities: a lover of animals, supported by minorities, simple lifestyle and such. In this media age, such spins and counter-spins compete. That is where reality is made - far away from actual truths on the ground. Given the attempted whitewashing of Yogi Adityanath, I would like to present some of his public statements which he has not denied and try to make sense of the ultimate implications of such stances. More importantly - what are the implications of having a Chief Minister with such stances at the top job of the largest state of the Indian Union? For whatever happens, his activities need to be scrutinised very closely.

Much of what Yogi Adityanath has said is on public record. Of course I won’t be proceeding to quote his whole speeches - mercifully for the reader! I will quote portions that are relevant. Are those taken out of context? Possibly, but then it is up to the people who insist on a context to explain precisely under what context do the following lines from the Yogi become acceptable:

“Hinduism is a different culture. Islam is a different culture. They can’t coexist. Two cultures cannot coexist. It will cause friction. There definitely will be!“

Many have argued that the rise of such political figures signals a switch from BJP's development-oriented strategy to a more communal approach

Nearly 20 percent of Uttar Pradesh consists of Muslims

Now, this statement, which perhaps many of the communal proponents of the 1940s Muslim League movement would have been very proud of, comes with a certain problem. Uttar Pradesh actually has nearly 20% of its population consisting of Muslims. Now whether the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh have Islam as their culture, we don’t know - since human cultures for most humans revolves around various things, only one of which is actually religion.

Take for example Yogi Adityanath’s step upon coming to power: banning “illegal” slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh - which incidentally means most places where animal slaughter takes place in South Asia. These are non-cow slaughterhouses since cow slaughter is banned in Uttar Pradesh. So it affects non-cow meat eaters. Now personally I am a Shakto of Bengal. Meat is the prasad of Mother Kali that we consume with respect and veneration. We sacrifice buffaloes, goats and various other non-cow animals to the holy mother and seek her blessings. We have been doing this for centuries. Our religious tradition is timeless. Yogi Adityanath is not. After sacrifice, we slaughter the sacrificed animal and consume that meat as prasad. Obviously, Yogi Adityanath will not take this prasad. Clearly someone who doesn’t consume the meat that is considered prasad in my culture clearly does not belong to my culture. Now, if we take his principle of ‘separate’ cultures as enunciated in Yogi Adityanath’s own words at face value, it also means that the meat-eating Bengali Shakto faith is a different culture. Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani vegetarian religion is a different culture.  Now if we take Yogi Adityanath’s views about the impossibility of the coexistence of different cultures, it will mean that Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani vegetarian faith culture on the one hand and animal-sacrificing meat-as-prasad Bengali Shakto can’t coexist.  According to him, this will cause friction. Why? Because West Bengal is a 98.5% non-vegetarian state and there is no chance that it will be converted to this Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani vegetarian religion of Yogi Adityanath. If some ideology demands friction and there is a sufficient number of adherents to carry forward that mission of friction, there will be friction. This friction in real terms means killing people - Uttar Pradesh is the riot centre of the Indian Union. Thus, when there is someone at the helm of affairs in Uttar Pradesh who believes in the inevitability of friction, those of us in homelands where cultures are not defined solely by religion have much to be worried about. That is because in the highly flawed federal structure that the Indian Union has, what Hindi-Hindu-Hindustanis of Uttar Pradesh decide upon for Tamil Nadu or West Bengal matters more than what Tamils decide for Tamil Nadu or Bengalis decide for Bengal!

New face of Uttar Pradesh?

The rise of Yogi Adityanath may represent that inflection point when the friction-friendly majoritarian force in Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan zones will want to infect non-Hindi homelands. This sort of a situation is typically the point where in multi-national super-states like the Indian Union, minority nationalities demand protection of their homeland’s culture and values by way of increasing assertion of state rights. The Union government is on a spree of centralising all power and the principal opposition to it comes from forces that are holding the banner of federalism. That is not accidental. We are witnessing what could be a long term schism in the body politic of the Indian Union that is much deeper and broader than the classical Hindu-Muslim schism. Whether that is good or bad, time will tell. But what is important is that one side of the schism believes that the two sides of the schism can’t co-exist.

That leaves three options. If friction is to be avoided, one can separate. That’s a peaceful solution. Or one can convert to Yogi Adityanath’s ideology and that deletion of self identity will possibly avoid friction. And if either of these two don’t happen, Adityanath advocates ‘religious war’. If by that, he means a war of ideas or ideologies, that is one thing. If he means something else, then everyone is in trouble.

CM Adityanath was accused of playing upon anxieties from the Hindu Right regarding a perceived 'Love Jihad' from Muslim boys seeking to 'convert' Hindu girls

We see a media refurbishing of the Yogi's image. He is an animal lover, has Muslim employees
and so on

Unlike Yogi Adityanath, I do not believe that the co-existence of difference is not possible. That is the whole basic of the Indian Union, which holds within itself radically diverse cultures – linguistic, ethnic, religious and so on. The Indian Union is at a crossroads but it did not have to be this way. Mutual co-existence without aspirations for dominance over other peoples and other cultures is the basic working principle of a diverse, federal democracy whose constituent units in the form of linguistic homelands have pasts much longer than that of the Indian Union or that British-created entity which we today call the state of Uttar Pradesh. Sheer numerical dominance is making the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani ideology more and more powerful and the reasons behind that numerical dominance are found - oddly enough! - in things that the saffron brigade typically labels Muslims with. Due to higher family sizes and greater fertility rates, Hindi states are increasingly becoming a greater proportion of the population of the Indian Union and Hindi-speakers are becoming a greater proportion of the population of non-Hindi states. This trend has been true for the decades for which data has existed. For the preservation of the federal structure of the Indian Union, something needs to be done that protects the cultures of our homelands against aggressive votaries of “different-cultures-cannot-coexist” ideologies – powerful men like Yogi Adityanath.

In the same meeting where Yogi Adityanath made his statement predicting a clash of cultures, he also talked about preparing for a religious war.  At another venue, he said, “We have decided: if they kidnap even one Hindu girl child, then at least 100 Muslim girl children will be kidnapped”. The crowd cheered.

Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) - the iconic Tunday Kababi restaurant has been forced to stop serving its famous beef products due to the Yogi's clampdown on meat slaughterhouses

The PM and the Yogi

Now with the large megaphone and media face-time that will be available to him as the Chief Minister of a land which, if it were independent, would be two-thirds the size of the USA in population, Yogi Adityanath can spread these ideologies, albeit perhaps in a somewhat more sophisticated manner. The present top-gun in his party has already learned to do that after 2002. He was rewarded for this as he rose to become the Prime Minister of India.

Thus, we see a media refurbishing of the Yogi’s image. He is an animal lover, has Muslim employees and so on. That the corporate media is doing this is revealing. They are betting that he is a long-race horse just like corporate India did after 2002 when it chose to rally behind Modi. Whether in that long race he will end up challenging the man who abdicated his rajdharma (duty of rulers) by failing to protect Muslim citizens of Gujarat in 2002, only time will tell.

Young members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - the premier Hindu right-wing umbrella organisation of India, which has attempted to distance itself from the appointment of Adityanath

The Gorakhnath temple, over which Yogi Adityanath presided, is being described as the new power centre of politics in Uttar Pradesh state

Personally I am a Shakto of Bengal. Meat is the prasad of Mother Kali that we consume with respect and veneration. We have been doing this for centuries. Our religious tradition is timeless. Yogi Adityanath is not

But the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani base of the BJP, the soul of the party and the Sangh, love him and more of them will come to love him in days to come. Modi probably knows this and must have his game-plan ready. For he, too, was once a less-known long-race horse - who made it to where he is today by first becoming the most popular face in the BJP.  And let us be very clear: that was due to one reason alone. He was the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, you see.

Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at