On 27 January 2007, despite injunctions from the district magistrate, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, delivered an incendiary speech urging revenge for the death of a young Hindu boy who had got caught in a clash between two groups in Gorakhpur during Muharram. In February this year, the Allahabad high court accepted the state government’s refusal to sanction the prosecution of its chief minister. On 20 August, based on a plea challenging that decision, the Supreme Court asked the Uttar Pradesh government to explain why Adityanath should not be prosecuted for the alleged hate speech. Days before the case comes up for hearing before the apex court, Sunil Singh, once Adityanath’s right-hand man and now in police custody, has claimed that the charge of hate speech is true.
“The meeting that evening happened in a charged atmosphere,” Singh recounted to me in a telephone conversation while being taken to court from the Lucknow Central Jail on 10 September. The gathering, which took place near the statue of Maharana Pratap at the entrance of the Gorakhpur railway station, was organised in the memory of the Hindu boy who had died, he told me. “I addressed the crowd just before Adityanath gave his speech. It is the video recording of that speech that has been submitted to the court. I was very much present on the spot.”
According to Singh, the violence began while Adityanath was still addressing the crowd. “A hotel just in front of the venue of meeting was looted and vandalised even before Adityanath could finish his speech,” he said. “The hotel was owned by a local Muslim. I am myself an accused in that case. From there, the rioting spread to other parts of Gorakhpur.”
Two people were killed and property worth crores of rupees was burnt in the riot that followed. On 28 January, the next day, Adityanath and over a dozen other leaders of the Hindu Yuva Vahini—a Hindu youth militia Adityanath founded in 2002—were arrested while they were marching towards Gorakhpur’s troubled areas. “I was also arrested along with Adityanath,” Singh said. “While Adityanath remained in the custody for 11 days, I was released after 66 days.”
At the time, Singh was one of Adityanath’s most trusted lieutenants, serving as the Hindu Yuva Vahini’s state president. Singh held the post until early 2017, when he was expelled for fielding electoral candidates from the Hindu outfit even as Adityanath explicitly denied that members of the organisation would be contesting elections.
After Adityanath became chief minister in March 2017, Singh remained in the shadows for some time. However, according to various district-level leaders and workers of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, Singh continued to stay in contact with them and the cadre. After all, he had been responsible for bringing most of them into the organisation.
Since late 2017, the cadres told me, they started looking to Singh for leadership. In order to appease the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the BJP’s parent body—Adityanath had begun sidelining his own organisation and dissolved many district level units that refused to fall in line. The RSS’s pressure was a test of loyalty for Adityanath. As chief minister, he had to prove that the political ambitions of his Hindu outfit would not clash with those of the BJP. Though Adityanath has always contested on a BJP ticket, the Hindu YuvaVahini has existed outside the Sangh Parivar, a collection of Hindu nationalist organisations headed by the RSS.
As a result of these tensions, the outfit faced multiple desertions by many local leaders and cadres in several parts of the state. In May, the rebels gathered in Lucknow and declared the formation of a new outfit—Hindu Yuva Vahini (Bharat)—with Sunil Singh as its national president. A war of words commenced on social media between members of the two rival outfits. This was followed by a minor skirmish on 31 July at Rajghat police station in Gorakhpur, following which Sunil Singh and some other Hindu Yuva Vahini rebels were arrested under various charges. Two weeks later, the draconian National Security Act—a measure that allows preventive detention—was slapped on Singh, who was later shifted to Lucknow central jail.
“I am being persecuted because Yogi Adityanath understands that I may become a witness in this case,” Singh told me. “I was very much present on the spot when Adityanath gave that inflammatory speech outside the railway station of Gorakhpur.”
All these years, Singh has preferred to remain silent on the case. Even after his relationship with Adityanath soured ahead of the 2017 Assembly election, he chose not to turn approver. I asked him if he might do that now. “Yes, I will,” he said. “Earlier, my differences with Adityanath were political. But now I am being subjected to all kinds of torture in the jail. This has changed everything. The differences have now become personal. And this is left me with only option: to tell the truth to the court, if I am given an opportunity.”