In March 1946, a three-man 'Cabinet Mission' arrived from England to seek to transfer power from British to Indian hands. They invited Mahatma Gandhi to come from Sevagram to meet them. Gandhi's old patron and disciple, G.D. Birla, wanted to host him at his capacious house in the heart of New Delhi. But Gandhi decided to stay in the Bhangi (sweepers') colony instead. Birla now hastened to install electricity and provide fresh water to the humble home which his Master had chosen to grace.
Before Gandhi came to Delhi, his secretary, Pyarelal, sent Birla a note conveying the Mahatma's wishes that "these arrangements will be permanent. If the wires are removed the moment he goes out of the Bhangi Niwas, the whole thing will become a farce". As Pyarelal, speaking here for Gandhi, directly and clearly put it: " There should be some permanent improvement in the Bhangi Niwas as a result of his stay there."
Gandhi arrived in Delhi on April 1, 1946. The same evening, at a prayer meeting, he called "Untouchability the blackest spot in Hinduism". The "least expiation" caste Hindus could do, he remarked, was " to share with the Harijans their disabilities and to deny ourselves the privilege[s] which the latter cannot share".
I was reminded of this incident when reading of the recent visit by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister to the home of a Border Security Force soldier who had been brutally murdered by the Pakistani army. Before the UP chief minister reached the dead soldier's house, his staff had installed an air-conditioner in the living room, along with sofas and a carpet. Fresh towels had been placed in the bathroom as well. However, no sooner had the visiting VIP left that the AC, the sofa, the carpet, were all removed.
When this incident was reported in the press, some commentators professed surprise that a ' yogi' could want an air-conditioner. But it is not merely a love of luxury that should call into question the appellation the UP chief minister has awarded himself. Where yogis are supposed to eschew power for a life of meditation and spiritual quest, this man ran a powerful and resource-rich enterprise before acquiring political control of India's most populous state. And where holy men are supposed to preach compassion and mutual understanding, this man has often preached and sometimes provoked violence against his fellow Indians.
Shortly after the head of Gorakhpur's Gorakhnath Math became his state's chief minister, Nayantara Sahgal - one of UP's most respected writers - observed: "As a practitioner of yoga for many years, I have been taught that a cardinal principle on the spiritual path is non-violence. No one who advocates violence is a yogi so permit me to refer to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh as Shri Adityanath."
While Sahgal was disturbed by Adityanath's appointment as chief minister, other writers celebrated it as a master stroke. One columnist wisecracked that making the naughtiest body in the class the monitor was the best way to keep the class in order. Some reporters thought the belief that Adityanath was anti-Muslim could not be true, since at least one of the keepers of cows in the Gorakhnath Math was a Muslim.
Adityanath has been in power in UP for a mere two months. In that brief period, he has - sadly - proved that the older and more independent-minded writer, Nayantara Sahgal, has a deeper understanding of his character and politics than younger writers anxious to keep in with the ruling order.
No sooner had he assumed office that the new chief minister ordered a crackdown on 'illegal' slaughter houses. However, before checking the records as to which abattoirs had proper clearances and licences and which did not, the police, goaded by Adityanath's followers, indiscriminately attached properties across the state. Meat export is one of UP's few viable industries, earning valuable foreign exchange as well as employing tens of thousands of people. By his hasty order, and the bullying manner in which it was implemented, the chief minister imperilled his state's economy as well as the livelihood of many of its citizens.
Meanwhile, Adityanath's appointment as chief minister emboldened freelance gau gundas to venture into the streets, looking for targets. In the past two months, several attacks on innocent citizens by cow vigilantes in UP have taken place. Remarkably the police have sided with the gau gundas, letting them go free while foisting criminal charges on those they attacked. There have also been more generalized attacks on Muslim homes and hamlets, by Hindu extremists claiming to be against 'love jihad'.
Hindu-Muslim tension has been visibly on the rise since Adityanath took office as chief minister. So have tensions between upper and lower castes. In Saharanpur district, the Thakurs - perhaps emboldened by the spectacular rise of one of their own - savagely attacked Dalits and burnt their homes. As one Dalit who was at the receiving end of Thakur brutality so poignantly put it: " Jab Chunav hoté hain humko Hindu bana diya jata hai, aur baad mein Dalit (When elections take place we are told we are Hindus, but as soon as the elections are over we become Dalits once more)."
The UP police seem to be intimidated by Adityanath's gangsters, increasingly prone to taking orders from them. Meanwhile, some courageous citizens of UP have moved the courts seeking the prosecution of Adityanath for hate-filled speeches that he made in the past. In one recorded speech he said that "if they take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 Muslims girls", and further: "If the government is not doing anything, then the Hindus will have to take matters into their own hands." On another occasion, Adityanath sat on the dais while one of his supporters said Hindus should dig out dead bodies of Muslim women and rape them.
The evidence that Adityanath and his supporters have made hateful speeches and encouraged violence is incontrovertible. However, for the court to proceed towards prosecution, sanction has to come from the state government. And this, with Adityanath himself now being chief minister, has inevitably been refused.
Adityanath's impoverished worldview is captured in a quote from a recent speech he made in Lucknow. He said there that "Akbar, Aurangzeb and Babar were invaders. The sooner we accept the truth, all the problems of our country will vanish." Poverty and ill-health, violence against women and Dalits, environmental degradation, Maoist extremism and police brutality, caste and religious conflict, the collapse of our criminal justice system, the corruption and corrosion of public institutions - to make these problems go away, claims Adityanath, one has to merely chant: "Akbar, Aurangzeb and Babar were invaders! Yes, invaders!" Such is the man to whom the prime minister has entrusted the future of 200 million Indians.
The economic and social backwardness of UP is due to the faulty and flawed policies of many previous chief ministers. Congress chief ministers encouraged cronyism and corruption; Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party chief ministers promoted casteism and corruption. The belief that the 'U' in UP stands for 'Ungovernable' long precedes the rule of Adityanath. Yet there is little question that in the 60 days he has been in office, the state has moved further backwards. One statistic says it all. Before Adityanath became chief minister, reports the Indian Express, his Hindu Yuva Vahini received between 500 and 100 applications for membership per day. Now more than 5,000 people seek to join this vigilante army each day. That translates into a lakh- and-a-half volunteer vigilantes a month, 1.8 million in a year, or 9 million if Adityanath serves out his full term. I suppose that is one way of solving UP's unemployment problem.
But this, of course, is too serious a matter to make jokes about. One in every six Indians is a resident of UP. If UP descends into mob rule, the rest of us, living elsewhere in the country, cannot escape its ripple effects. It is said that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party are seeking belatedly to rein in Adityanath. But given his background and his temperament, it is unlikely that, in policy terms, he can change course, and begin to sincerely preach Hindu-Muslim harmony, actively profess and practise respect for the rule of law, credibly reach out to entrepreneurs who might invest in UP.
The fate of India's most populous state seems bleaker than ever.