With its gleaming white shikharas reaching for the skies, the Gorakhnath temple stands in the heart of Gorakhpur city. Next to the sprawling temple is a peach-coloured building. There was a time when the arched openings of its long verandah, leading to a raised platform, would be filled with supplicants waiting to meet Yogi Adityanath — then the head priest, or mahant, of the temple and now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Days before he was sworn in as the chief minister on March 19, 2017, I met Adityanath in the temple. The room was a mélange of colours: Saffron cushions, a maroon Mirzapur carpet and strawberry pink-and-saffron walls. Photographs of Adityanath, his predecessor mahants and a picture of the Hindu deity Ram in battle mode adorned his office. A saffron-coloured shelf with figures of other Hindu gods flanked his desk.

I had asked him whether, as a religious leader, he should be in politics. “In Hindu spiritual thinking, there are two streams — pravriti [engaged in action] and nivriti [when you retire from action]... They seem different, but their goal is the same. We have adopted politics to achieve our goals, but have not adopted politics for a post or fame. Ours is a missionary approach. I am just a yogi,” he had replied.

In a little more than two years, a lot seems to have changed in the Uttar Pradesh city. Fourteen months ago, in what may now be seen as a test run, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combined forces to script a spectacular victory in Gorakhpur. The Lok Sabha seat had just been vacated by the chief minister, who had represented the constituency from 1999 to 2017. It was a defeat not just for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had held the seat for close to 30 years, but a blow for the politics of the Gorakhnath temple. Another defeat for the BJP in this key constituency — which influences the politics of eastern UP — in the May 19 election could adversely affect Adityanath’s political standing. Not surprisingly, he has deployed members of his own Hindu militia — the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) — in this election.


Tactical turn: The BJP’s defeat in the 2018 by-election was a blow for the politics of the Gorakhnath temple, and another loss could adversely affect Adityanath’s political standing.


Over the years, successive mahants of the temple have represented the constituency. From 1989 to 1999, Adityanath’s predecessor, Mahant Avaidyanath, was the MP from Gorakhpur. He first won the seat as an Independent in 1970, after the death in 1969 of the sitting MP — the man he had succeeded as mahant, Digvijaynath. Avaidyanath won the seat in 1989 on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket, and later from the BJP in 1991, 1996 and 1998.

Indeed, Gorakhpur has long been a crucible of Hindutva politics. While it acquired some notoriety in the last three decades, after the movement for a Ram temple in Ayodhya first gained traction, Digvijaynath introduced a “Hindutva agenda” into Gorakhpur politics. Initially a Congressman, he joined the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, and rose to head the party in the erstwhile United Provinces. He was jailed for nine months for inciting Hindus to kill MK Gandhi at a public meeting on January 27, 1948.

Today, Dwarika Tiwari, the manager of the Gorakhnath temple for the last 47 years, justifies the mingling of religion and politics. “Hindus suffered on account of their religion. The Congress was the dominant force, and Hindus did not get a hearing. We started doing what political people couldn’t do, and began to serve Hindu society,” he says.



Adnan Farrukh Shah, known popularly as Mia Saheb, has kept his distance from politics


Barely five kilometres from the Gorakhnath temple stands an austere structure — the green-bordered, whitewashed Sunni imambara. Its guardian is the sophisticated Adnan Farrukh Shah, known popularly as Miyan Saheb. The sixth-generation mutwali of the waqf properties in the area, Shah — usually dressed in Western clothes — dons his white robes and turban to lead the 10-day Muharram processions every year.

Unlike Adityanath, Shah has kept his distance from politics, even though at election time, it is not unusual to see candidates queuing up to seek his support. Shah is part of the Muslim elite in Gorakhpur, and has many close friends in the Hindu community. He prefers to spend his time managing his many properties in the twin districts of Gorakhpur and Maharajganj. Urbane and mild-mannered, he has always maintained good relations with the district administration.

In 2007, when communal violence broke out on Muharram, he cancelled the last three days of the rituals, and used his influence to calm down members of his community. The then district superintendent of police had urged me to meet Miyan Saheb, pointing out that he was the man who had helped restore peace.

I visit him in his home again this time, and he tells me about another era in the town. “My grandfather and Digvijaynath were very good friends; they would play tennis here every evening,” Shah says. “After their game, Digvijaynath would come in and have a cup of tea and snacks.”

The civilities extended to honouring each other’s religious traditions, with Digvijaynath waiting at Beniganj, close to the Gorakhnath temple, to receive the Muharram procession every year. The grounds where the annual Ramlila is held belong to the imambara.


The grounds where the annual Ramlila is held belong to the imambara


The ties continued with the next generation, too. Avaidyanath, he recalls, was close to his father. As a child, he met the mahant several times. “When my father died in 2002,” Shah says, “Avaidyanathji rang me up several nights in a row, and told me: ‘ Baap ka saya nahin gaya. Main hoon’ (you haven’t lost the protection of your father. I am there). I was very touched.”

The easy relationship between the temple and the imambara ended with the rise of Adityanath. Though neither criticises or attacks the other in public, there is barely any contact between the two men. Part of the reason, of course, is that Adityanath, unlike the two previous mahants, is driven by political ambition — and this tension is reflected in Hindu-Muslim relations in the constituency.

“The real reason for the rift is that the Yogi has divided the communities to do his politics,” says Aftab Hussain Ansari, a retired dentist, whose father, Istafa Hussain, was a minister in the state in the early 1960s.


The Gorakhnath temple, given its origins, should have been a symbol of the region’s syncretic and liberal culture. Its inspiration comes from the Nath sampradaya (tradition) dating back to the 13th century, when a group of ascetics formed a community around the teachings of Guru Gorakhnath.

“Overlapping and competing with Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain communities, these yogis professed a belief in one unseen god — a belief which allowed them to straddle the theological boundaries between various religious traditions,” C Marrewa-Karwoski, research scholar at Columbia University, wrote in the news website Scroll.in. “...the group prominently defined itself as neither Hindu nor Muslim, but distinctly as Jogis [yogis].”

Gorakhpur resident and historian Chandrabhushan Gupta holds that the Nath tradition does not believe in idol worship. “When I was growing up in Gorakhpur, I recall that the Gorakhbani [the order’s teaching] was accepted by both Hindus and Muslims,” he says.

But this temple is not the only symbol of a liberal religious tradition in Gorakhpur. The imambara owes its origins to a Sufi saint, and adopted the Shia practice of Muharram processions, to which people of all faiths are welcome — a practice common in other parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh, too.

The manner in which the land for the temple and the imambara was acquired also underscores the spirit of religious tolerance. Legend has it that Asaf-ud Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, who reigned between 1775-97, came to Gorakhpur on a hunting expedition. His followers urged him to visit a Sufi saint, Baba Roshan Ali Shah. The saint, in turn, asked him to meet his friend, Baba Gorakhnath. Dazzled by the piety of the two holy men, the Nawab granted half of the territory of Gorakhpur to each of them.

“The story expresses very succinctly and efficiently the distinct but complementary relationship between the city’s two major religious shrines,” write Shashank Chaturvedi, David N Gellner and Sanjay Kumar Pandey in their article ‘Politics in Gorakhpur since the 1920s: the making of a safe ‘Hindu’ constituency’ in the journal Contemporary South Asia . “Both shrines, on opposite sides of the city, are fundamental to the city’s identity and both are closely associated with its origin.”


Gradually, over the last 80-odd years, the temple renounced its syncretic past for militant Hindutva. Communal violence scarred the region, starting in 2002. The two worst incidents were in 2005, in neighbouring Mau during Dussehra festivities and in Gorakhpur in 2007. Violence broke out in areas such as Padrauna, Basti, Deoria and Maharajganj. The HYV’s slogan was ‘ UP Gujarat banega/Padrauna shuruat karega ’ (UP will become Gujarat, beginning with Padrauna).

Adityanath’s HYV provided him the muscle power he needed to establish himself as the region’s dominant leader, taking on Muslims and countering powerful mafia dons such as Hari Shankar Tiwari. It also helped him pursue his individualistic brand of politics — he may share the BJP-RSS’s ideology but has often clashed with the party over control of his fiefdom in eastern UP and by putting up candidates against BJP nominees. By making him chief minister, the BJP sought to draw him into its fold.


The unique character of the temple — that it enjoys respect among backward and lower castes as well, and that Gorakhnath’s mentor, Matsyendranath, was a Nishad, a fisherman — made it possible for Adityanath to widen his base. It is for this reason that the political rise of the OBCs seen across the Hindi heartland has been less marked here.

Today, however, with the SP-BSP combine challenging the BJP in the Lok Sabha election in Gorakhpur, many of the OBC communities are divided.

In the 2018 by-election, the alliance’s candidate, Nishad Party chief Sanjay Nishad’s son Praveen, defeated the BJP’s Upendra Dutt Shukla. Since then, the Nishad Party has been lured into the BJP camp, amid whispers of vast sums of money having exchanged hands. The BJP, however, has named an outsider — Ravi Kishen, a Brahmin Bhojpuri actor — as its nominee for Gorakhpur and is hoping to retain the substantial upper-caste vote.


The BJP has named an outsider — Ravi Kishen, a Brahmin Bhojpuri actor — as its Gorakhpur candidate, hoping to retain the upper caste vote


With over 3.5 lakh Nishads in the constituency, the alliance has picked Ram Bhuwal Nishad as its candidate. Most Nishads here are annoyed with the Nishad Party chief for having joined hands with the BJP and are upset about the police beating up members who recently hit the streets demanding reservation for the community.

The alliance is optimistic about the poll outcome. Key Nishad leaders Amrendra Nishad and Rajmati Nishad, a former Gorakhpur MLA, returned to the SP after a 42-day stint with the BJP, strengthening the alliance’s chances further. The Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, which represents the OBC community of Rajbhars, has severed ties with the BJP. Travelling through eastern UP, I found that the Rajbhars, who constitute 20 per cent of the Purvanchal population, were divided and no longer firmly with the BJP.

Will caste then be an effective bulwark against Hindutva, or will the Gorakhnath temple once again consolidate the Hindu vote in its favour? And will there ever be a friendly tennis match again?

Smita Gupta is senior fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy