February 2002 got woven irrevocably into Indian political history owing to the riots, which killed more than a 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the western state of Gujarat, under the watch of then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi.
As India reeled from the images of its first televised riot, a young politician in the remote, impoverished district of Gorakhpur in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh saw an opportunity in the heightened religious polarisation.
Yogi Adityanath, who represented Gorakhpur in the Indian parliament from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , had been struggling with his shrinking margins of victory in the elections. Within weeks of the Gujarat violence, Adityanath announced the formation of an organisation known as Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) or Vehicle for Hindu Youth.
Although it was registered as a cultural organisation, the HYV worked like a Hindu nationalist militia, trying to create a fear of minorities – especially Muslims – among the majority Hindus. Its preferred tactic was to frame every argument and altercation between a Hindu and Muslim in religious terms and turn it into a mini-sectarian riot.
About three months after the formation of the Vahini, on June 16, 2012, news came of the rape and murder of a Hindu girl in Mundera, a Muslim-majority village about 30 miles from Gorakhpur. The victim’s family blamed a Muslim family’s servant, who was arrested and later convicted for the crime. Three days later, Adityanath and his militia arrived at the village where he made a provocative speech. This instigated violence among the villagers and just in a few hours, 47 Muslims houses were burnt.
Within six months of the formation of the Vahini, Gorakhpur and the neighbouring districts witnessed at least six major sectarian riots in addition to innumerable minor ones. Although his party, the BJP, was defeated in the national elections in 2004, Adityanath won in Gorakhpur and his margin of victory rose by 142,000 votes. Adityanath was and remains the head of the influential Gorakhnath Hindu sect, whose leaders have been leading figures in Hindu nationalist politics since the 1940s. The influence of his sect always aided him but his Hindu youth militia helped Adityanath to get a greater number of votes by polarising the electorate in Gorakhpur along sectarian lines in 2004.
Vehicle for Hindu Youth members are so reverent toward their master that they won’t even speak his name, instead referring to Adityanath with a rather long honorific: Goraksha Peethadhishwar Parampujya Yogi Adityanath Ji Maharaj – Lord of the Goraksha Seminary, Most Worthy of Worship, Maharaja Yogi Adityanath. They often repeat it several times in a sentence.
Sunil Singh, a tall, stocky man with an aggressive demeanour, had been unemployed for three years after getting a master’s degree in the Hindi language from Gorakhpur University, when he started working for Adityanath in 1998. Singh came from the same upper caste Thakur community as Adityanath and became one of the first to join the Vahini.
He was 29 and soon rose to the position of state president for the organisation. The patronage of Adityanath also ensured that Singh obtained lucrative contracts for the construction of public buildings from the local government. Singh began driving around in a white SUV after becoming the state president of the Vahini – the big car was an essential status symbol for the small-town Indian politician.
Singh wore a long saffron stole around his neck, which is a marker of being a member of the Vahini. He and other early members began with recruiting young Hindu men in Gorakhpur, which has a population of around a million.
“The response was massive,” he recalled. They expanded their outreach and recruitment across eastern Uttar Pradesh, a mostly impoverished region with a population of nearly 30 million. The official tasks of the Vahini activists were: to mingle with lower caste Hindus by organising lunches for all castes to create Hindu unity, increase membership, and organise public meetings and marches.
Singh and his teams fanned out across numerous villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh trying to recruit young men. They aimed to enlist about 250 men from each village. After recruitment they would put their names on a billboard in the village. “They are also required to put up triangular saffron flags of the Vahini on their houses,” Singh explained.
They came up with some catchy, aggressive slogans aimed at intimidating minorities and building a menacing strongman image for their leader, Yogi Adityanath. “To live in Gorakhpur, you got to chant: Yogi, Yogi,” and “To live in Poorvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh), you got to chant Yogi, Yogi,” such slogans proclaimed.
The aggression and low-level sectarian violence perpetuated by Adityanath’s militia continued. On January 27, 2007, Adityanath made a speech about “revenge” for the death of a Hindu boy who was injured – and later died – in a clash between two groups during a Muslim religious festival. Adityanath also threatened to burn and destroy Tazia towers, small representations of the tombs of Hasan and Hussain, the grandsons of Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims carry during festival processions.
To keep up with his threat, Adityanath and other leaders of the Vahini set out toward the troubled areas but the local government arrested them.
Riots broke out in Gorakhpur and neighbouring districts. Two people were killed and property worth 50 crores ($8m) was burnt.
Until then, the local government had been passive in taking action against the militia but with state elections scheduled in forthcoming months, politicians thought that inaction would cost the ruling party the votes of Muslims. Adityanath was arrested and jailed for 11 days and the bodyguards assigned to him from the state police were withdrawn.
After his release in March 2007, Adityanath appeared before the Indian parliament to recount his experience. While sobbing he spoke of fear for his life. He told the parliament that he feared he might be assassinated like Sunil Mahato, a politician from the neighbouring Jharkhand state, who had been killed a week earlier. “Will we get protection or will our condition be the same as that of Sunil Mahato?” Adityanath had reportedly asked the speaker of the Lower House of the Parliament.
The public crying and pleading for protection had a striking and negative effect for the image of the strongman. His followers, especially the upper-caste Thakurs, who see themselves as a martial, brave people, perceived this as a letdown, a crumbling of his carefully cultivated image of a fearless, firebrand Hindu warrior.
Much pubic shaming followed. The activities carried out by his militia group came to a halt.
Several years passed by quietly. Adityanath slowly returned to the public sphere with his militia. He made hate speeches against minorities but he personally refrained from leading his militia and participating in violence. His big moment arrived in the run-up to the 2014 national elections in India as Modi began his campaign to become the prime minister of India.
In December 2013, during a campaign rally in Balrampur, an Uttar Pradesh district bordering Nepal, Adityanath declared: “Muslims consider terrorists their protector. Hindus must unite and remain alert wherever Muslims live and confront them if the situation so demands.”
Singh, his militia leader, went a step further: “In order to finish Islamic terrorism, Hindus must finish madrassas and mosques where training is given for terrorism … Shout Jai Shri Ram whenever you hear Azaan … Workers of the Hindu Yuva Vahini will not allow Muslims to live in Hindustan.”
After Modi’s victory in the 2014 national elections, Adityanath used his militia to get himself projected as BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for the state polls scheduled for 2017. The Vahini kept the sectarian cauldron boiling by aggressively participating in a broader Hindu nationalist campaign against “Love Jihad”, the supposed plan by Muslim men to lure young Hindu women into marriage and convert them to Islam.
After this, they engaged in a campaign to forcibly convert Muslims to Hinduism. In January 2015, the Vahini men led by Singh forced nearly 300 Muslim residents of Ghazipur village in Kushinagar district in eastern Uttar Pradesh to convert to Hinduism. In February 2015, they forced 82 Muslims of Bhibani village in Kushinagar to convert. Although Adityanath refrained from visiting these villages, he fanned the fire through frequent hate speeches and support for his militia.
In the Uttar Pradesh state elections in February-March 2017, the hindu nationalist BJP was victorious and Modi appointed Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. This was a major boost for the Vahini militia. A leader of the Vahini told The Indian Express that the group, which has about 200,000 members, has been receiving more than 5,000 membership requests every day since Adityanath became the chief minister.
Dhirendra K Jha is a reporter with Scroll.in. Excerpts of this essay appear in his book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.