On a sweltering afternoon in March, 35-year-old Naveen Choudhary received a video on WhatsApp. In the video, a man interrogates a teenage boy, asking him to spell out his name, his father’s name, and explain why he had entered a temple. The boy, who responds with a Muslim name, says he had gone to the temple to drink water. The man then goes on to brutally assault him.

The incident, captured on video, had taken place on March 11 outside the Dasna Devi Temple in Ghaziabad district, Uttar Pradesh, 37 km from Delhi.

First uploaded on Instagram by a handle called Hindu Ekta Sangh, the video had spread over social media. By the time Choudhary watched it, there was a raging controversy over the incident. An MLA of the Bahujan Samaj Party Aslam Chaudhary said it was unfair to bar Muslims from entering the temple, and described its head priest Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati as a “goon”.

This triggered a mobilisation in support of Saraswati. Among those who rushed to the temple to stand in solidarity with the priest was Choudhary, an active worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ghaziabad since 2011. Choudhary did not go alone: he gathered at least a hundred other men who use the gym that he runs in Loni, a town within Ghaziabad district, about 30 km away from the temple, and drove them in cars.

“We went there for Hindutva,” he said. “He [Saraswati] is like our leader. He clearly says that you [Muslims] do not disturb us and we will not disturb you.”

Then chillingly, Choudhary asserted his support for Saraswati in a startling sentence: “Hum unke saath tan, man, dhan aur gun se hain.” We support him with our body, heart, wealth and weapons, he said.

Links with BJP?

A former engineer by profession, 53-year-old Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, the head priest of Dasna Devi temple, is now seen as one of the shrillest voices in the Hindutva ecosystem in western Uttar Pradesh. Relatively unknown outside Ghaziabad till recently, he is now frequently in the news for repeatedly calling for a “final war against Muslims”.

Many recent flashpoints in the national capital region, including the shouting of anti-Muslim slogans in Jantar Mantar in August, have been traced to Hindutva activists who have identified as his followers or acknowledged being influenced by his speeches. Saraswati himself attended some of these controversial events. Despite that, the police have not taken any major action against him.

While Saraswati has no formal association with the Bharatiya Janata Party, his meteoric rise and the police inaction against him have provoked questions about whether he enjoys the patronage of the ruling party, which is in government in both Uttar Pradesh and at the Centre. The Delhi Police reports to the Centre.

At the same time, given the fact that Saraswati’s supporters have often criticised the BJP governments as being soft on Muslims, some have wondered if he represents an even more strident version of Hindutva that operates autonomously, challenging even the ruling party.

Scroll.in travelled to two districts of western Uttar Pradesh adjoining Delhi, where Saraswati’s influence is most pronounced, to gain more insight into how BJP workers and leaders perceive him. Do they see the rabble-rousing priest as an ally or a threat?

Outside the Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad on August 12. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

High pitched Hindutva

Dasna is a hamlet which falls on the outskirts of Ghaziabad city, the headquarters of the eponymous district. Its peripheries are surrounded by bakeries, auto-part shops, car mechanics, salons and restaurants, most of which are owned by Muslim residents who form a majority of the population in Dasna, according to the Census in 2011.

A maze of narrow lanes leads to the temple, outside which an enlarged image of Saraswati’s face is plastered on several boards alongside a billboard that states: “This temple is a holy place for Hindus. Muslims are not allowed to enter. By the order of Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati.”

The presiding deity of the temple is a goddess whose worship has grown from a few local families to devotees well beyond Ghaziabad, from as far as Haryana, said Sandeep Tyagi, a member of the BJP’s city unit, who runs an NGO that is campaigning for a change in the district’s name from Ghaziabad to Gajaprastha.

Before he became the head priest, Saraswati was a young man who quit his career in engineering in Moscow and London, reported The Print. He returned to India in 1997 and got an offer to lead the Samajwadi Party’s youth wing, according to the report.

It is unclear when he became the head priest of the Dasna Devi temple, but he had already been appointed by 1999 when Tyagi claimed to have met him for the first time at an event in Ghaziabad. At the time, the priest had a modest following among residents of the area.

Between 1999 and the present, the saffron-clad leader became a member of the Hindu Swabhiman, a radical organisation that allegedly provides arms training to Hindu youth in UP, and president of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Parishad, a consortium of Hindu leaders.

In recent years, his inflammatory statements against Muslims have catapulted him to wider fame.

While protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were underway in Muslim neighbourhoods in Delhi in December 2019, Saraswati held several meetings in the capital, in which he reportedly called for violence against Muslims and encouraged the use of weapons against them.

Saraswati labelled Sai Baba, a 19th century priest in Shirdi, Maharashtra, as a “jihadi” and a “lawless raider”, and exulted when an idol of the saint was demolished in the national capital in March.

In April, he allegedly made abusive and inflammatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad and Islam at an event held in the Press Club in Delhi. The Delhi Police registered a case against him on charges of 153A for promoting enmity and 295A for outraging religious feelings. When the police interrogated him in June, he admitted to making remarks about the Prophet but claimed his intention was misinterpreted, Indian Express reported.

Such vitriolic statements have contributed to the priest’s rise and influence among supporters of Hindutva. “Not everyone has the courage to say what he says,” said Tyagi, the BJP worker.

Credit: Facebook/Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati

Social media craze

Many BJP workers said they discovered Saraswati not by attending any events on the ground, rather through social media.

On Twitter, he was followed by more than 15,000 accounts, including that of the office of Union Minister Piyush Goyal. He regularly shared videos of his speeches, photos and newspaper clippings on the platform. Although the exact date is unclear, his account was suspended this month.

His Twitter account was linked to his YouTube page, which also stands terminated for violation of community guidelines. But his inflammatory videos remain splashed across other accounts with thousands of views and comments. There are more than five Facebook pages and groups in his support as well. It is unclear which page is run by him.

“He just needs to give one live video for support and people will reach,” said Monu Garg, a 31-year-old general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing, in Jewar, a town in Gautam Buddha Nagar district, which lies 72 kms south of Ghaziabad.

“Since elections are coming, BJP would want such an atmosphere to build up,” he added, referring to the state’s upcoming Assembly elections in 2022.

Himanshu Sharma, a 35-year-old BJP worker who is the media incharge of VK Singh, the MP of the constituency, said he first came across a video by Saraswati through WhatsApp in 2013. The video showed Saraswati staging a protest at the Dasna Devi temple after carcasses of cows were supposedly found within 500 metres from the temple’s perimeter, said Sharma.

“Sometimes when I drive, I listen to his speeches,” he said. “He is a hardcore Hindu and says Hindus should have five children.”

In March this year, when controversy erupted over the assault of the Muslim teenager outside the Dasna Devi temple, Sharma too drove down from his residence in Loni to the temple to support the priest. “Lots of BJP workers and leaders were there too...they are also Hindu, right,” he said.

Naveen Choudhary, the BJP worker who runs a gym in Loni, said Saraswati’s speeches had inspired him to rally around the area urging Hindus to purchase groceries and other items only from Hindu shopkeepers, cutting out other businesses run by Muslims.

“We made Loni, a theli-mukt [free from Muslim vendors on carts] area,” he claimed. “We have to explain to our mothers and sisters to buy only from Hindus. It does not matter if we have to pay Rs 2 more.”

The narrative to drive away Muslim vendors has picked up in the capital as well. In Uttam Nagar, West Delhi, local BJP leaders and other Hindutva activists staged a demonstration and called on Hindus to end businesses with Muslims after a Muslim fruit vendor was physically attacked by unidentified men, and was accused of committing “redi jihad”.

Closet support, open benefit

While young party workers of the BJP spoke effusively of Saraswati, its middle-aged district chiefs sounded wary of him.

“We cannot support him openly because of [how it could impact] our international image,” said Ravinder Sharma, the BJP’s district coordinator in Jewar. “They [Centre] want to show Muslims that they do not want to oppress them,” said Sharma, 50.

Others drew a parallel between Saraswati and the teenage shooter from Jewar who opened fire on students protesting against the CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi last year. “I understand his [Jamia shooter] emotions...but no party would ever want to openly show support because he broke the law,” said Sanjeev Sharma, a 45-year-old party functionary and its former board president in Jewar.

Some were uncomfortable with the attention that Saraswati was getting. They dismissed him as a temporary fad, likened his work to “publicity stunts”, and claimed his presence was limited to social media.

“We also believe in Hindutva but we do not prefer to give provocative speeches against anyone,” said Manoj Jain, the general secretary of the party’s unit in Gautam Buddh Nagar. “You have to work on the ground,” said Jain, 51.

Ravinder Sharma in Jewar on August 11. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

However, even his critics in the BJP admitted that his work as a Hindutva leader would only serve their political interests.

“Without any doubt it can be agreed that with his ideology, BJP will benefit in 2022, if he takes his ideas to more places,” said Pradeep Choudhary, the party’s media incharge in Ghaziabad.

However, Choudhary, 52, sought to emphasise that the priest had no formal links with the party and it was only their ideology that matched. “He does not work on the BJP’s agenda,” he said. “It is well and good till the party’s ideology matches with his, otherwise it is use and throw [of Saraswati’s influence and ideology].”

Pradeep Choudhary at the party office in Ghaziabad on August 12. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

A growing figure

For now, Saraswati seems to enjoy the patronage of the government. While the police have largely overlooked his hate speeches, they have been prompt to act against the alleged threats to his life, after some Hindutva outfits demanded security for him.

In May, Delhi Police claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate the priest after they arrested a man allegedly associated with a terrorist outfit. In June, UP police claimed to have uncovered another such plot after two men allegedly faked their identities to enter the temple.

On the night of August 9, a priest from Bihar was allegedly stabbed inside the premises by unknown persons. The priest was residing at the temple and had travelled to Ghaziabad especially to attend the rally at Jantar Mantar the previous day where some called for the murder of Muslims. Saraswaticlaimed that the accused had come to attack him.

When this reporter visited the temple on August 12, at least 11 armed policemen were posted there. At the entrance, two police officials asked every visitor their name and address, which they noted down in a register, while asking them to furnish an identity proof.

Party workers said providing Saraswati with security was essential for them because of the blur between their followers. “If the government or administration would not provide security for him, then there would be an opposition from his platform,” said Pradeep Choudhary. “And that is bad for us,” he said.

No matter what they think of Saraswati, BJP workers recognise his current importance. As Choudhary pointed to this reporter: “It is not BJP’s popularity but his that brought you here.”