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India's prime minister just selected an anti-Muslim firebrand to lead its largest state

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, Yogi Adityanath, left in saffron robes, and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, second left, wave to the audience after Adityanath was sworn in as Uttar Pradesh state chief minister in Lucknow, India, Sunday, March 19, 2017.
(AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

The head of the world’s biggest democracy just appointed to a top government post a person who once publicly supported killing Muslims.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday appointed Yogi Adityanath, a five-term member of India’s parliament who’s been called the “hate spewing ‘yogi,’” as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Uttar Pradesh is home to 220 million people — one-fifth of whom are Muslim. Three years ago, communal violence in Uttar Pradesh killed more than 60 people.

In recent years, Adityanath has faced criminal charges of attempted murder, defiling a place of worship, and inciting riots in Uttar Pradesh — the state he has now been tasked with running.

Hindu hegemony and votes

Adityanath is a hard-line advocate of Hindutva — an ideology that advocates for Hindu hegemony over India. Always photographed in saffron robes, his head shaved, Adityanath is known for his devout Hinduism (he is a Hindu priest) and avid practice of yoga — and equally well-known for his incitement against Muslims.

He publicly supported President Donald Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, stating, “Similar action is needed to contain terror activities in this country.”

In 2015, he said, "If given a chance, we will install statues of Goddess Gauri, Ganesh and Nandi” — Hindu deities — “in every mosque." He also once said, “If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return … If they [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”

"Adityanath has been one of Uttar Pradesh's most polarising politicians, given to hateful rhetoric that incites discrimination and hostility against minority groups, particularly Muslims,” Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India, said in a statement.

Attempts at calm ring hollow

Adityanath’s deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, told the Indian Express newspaper that Muslims in Uttar Pradesh “have no reason to worry.”

“We consider all of UP population as one and we don’t distinguish it as Hindu and Muslim,” Maurya said.

But that statement, as Time magazine writer Nikhil Kumar notes, runs directly against Adityanath’s public statements over the past decade. In 2005, Kumar notes, the new minister of Uttar Pradesh said he would “not stop” until he turned Uttar Pradesh “and India into a Hindu rastra (nation).”

Adityanath’s words are particularly dangerous in a region known for communal violence. A Hindustan Times report on riots in the region noted most violence there began with “mundane arguments that turn violent.” Indeed, the newspaper Indian Express called the selection of Adityanath a “tragic letdown.”

“The BJP’s fig leaf was that hate talk was a speech bubble of the marginal and the fringe. That fringe is now in charge of India’s most populous and politically crucial state.”

Adityanath was sworn in promising to uphold Modi’s idea of development for all. His fellow politicians remain dubious that a man known for divisiveness can serve all the people in his populous state. Manish Tewari, a former information and broadcast minister of India, tweeted it was a “harbinger to greater polarization.”

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