Earlier this week, BJP leader and Uttar Pradesh Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya lashed out at a BBC journalist for a series of questions about the communal nature of the Haridwar Dharam Sansad that was held in December 2021.
The leader walked out of the interview, but not before defending the right of the conclave's speakers: “religious leaders have the right to express themselves”, and “why are you only asking about Hindu leaders?," he retorted.
The conclave, which took place between 17 and 19 December, saw several Hindu seers calling for a Muslim genocide.
The speakers have had a history of delivering hate speeches. From one hailing herself as ‘lady Godse’, to another calling for "extermination of Jihadis", they have had a past replete with controversies. But even with all the scrutiny surrounding them now, they continue to flaunt their proximity and ostensibly close association with top leaders of the ruling BJP.
The Quint traced the background of some of the prominent names in the list of the Haridwar Dharam Sansad speakers, their past arrests, communal statements, and appearances with BJP leaders. The Supreme Court on Wednesday sought a response from the Uttarakhand government on a petition seeking a probe into the speeches. So far, no BJP leader has condemned the speeches.
POOJA SHAKUN PANDEY ALIAS 'SADHVI ANNAPURNA'
One of the most vocal faces among the seers, Pooja Shakun Pandey, aka ‘Sadhvi Annapurna’, was seen giving a call to arms against Muslims of the country, at the Haridwar Dharam Sansad. Originally from UP's Saharanpur, Pandey sought her education at Meerut's CCS.University and subsequently worked as a professor of Mathematics.
Soon, however, she and her husband Ashok Pandey, began dedicating themselves to the All India Hindu Mahasabha, headquartered in Aligarh. The duo would be involved in organising the body's events and rallies, and Pooja gradually rose to the post of the national secretary of the the Hindu Mahasabha.
At the conclave, Pandey had said: “If you want to eliminate their population, then be ready to kill them and go to jail. Even if a 100 of us get together and kill 20 lakh of them, we will be victorious, we are ready to jail then."
“You can malign me like Godse, I don’t care, I will pick up arms to defend my Sanatana Dharma and Hindutva,” she adds.
This is not the first time Pandey expressed admiration for Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.
Her Facebook bio reads reads ‘Lady Godse’ and in May 2020, she celebrated Godse’s 111th birth anniversary, by bowing down to his bust.
Pandey has also been spotted multiple times with 2008 Malegaon blast accused and BJP MP from Bhopal, Pragya Thakur, with pictures of the two hugging on Pandey's Facebook page.
She was also seen with now Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and senior BJP leader Uma Bharti at an event back in 2017.
In November 2021, after the Modi government revoked the controversial farm laws, Pandey took down the portrait of the PM from the Hindu Mahasabha’s office in Aligarh.
Lashing out at PM Modi, Pandey said, “Just for securing his chair and politics, he sacrificed his principles. I did not expect this from him.”
“Jiski ek baat nahi, uska ek baap nahi” an angry Pandey said in TV interviews.
In May 2019, Pandey and her colleagues at the Hindu Mahasabha distributed knives to minor girls to mark Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s birthday. Before that, in January 2019, she marked Gandhi’s death anniversary by holding a celebration, where she shot at an effigy of the freedom fighter, before setting it ablaze.
In May 2018, Pandey instituted the first self-styled ‘Hindu Court’ in Meerut, at the inauguration of which she said: "If Godse had not killed Gandhi, I would have done it.”
Since coming into limelight in 2018, Pandey has been arrested twice for different cases, only to be released on bail soon after.
In 2019, it was for enacting the assassination of Gandhi, and in 2020 it was for her provocative statements against members of the Tablighi Jamat.
Another very controversial speaker part of the Haridwar Dharam Sansad is Prabodhanand Giri. Leader and convenor of the 'Hindu Raksha Sena', the priest has been staying in Haridwar for nearly 2 decades now. Originally from Meerut, he began getting involved with religious preaching at an early age and eventually grew to be associated with the Juna Akhara — the largest recognised sect of Hindu seers in India. Today, he is the top-most leader of the body.
"Like Myanmar, our police, our politicians, our Army and every Hindu must pick up weapons and conduct a Safayi Abhiyan (ethnic cleansing). There is no other option left,” he had said at the conclave.
He then released a video of himself saying how he “won’t allow any ‘ ‘Mullah’ (Muslim) or Christian to celebrate their festivals in Haridwar”, reiterating the statements he made at the conclave.
The Quint had reported that on 2 January, Prabodhanand received a hero’s welcome in Ghaziabad, where he delivered another inflammatory speech, and recalled his conversation with UP CM Adityanath from 2017.
“When in 2017, there was no one to speak for Hindus in the whole world, UP CM Yogi Adityanath hinted to me that he was going to join the government so who would fight the Hindutva battle? It was evident in his eyes what he wanted...I told him, ‘Don’t worry. The sword of Hindutva that you have prepared, it will continue. It will get so sharp that no one would be able to survive in front of it’”, he said, addressing the crowds.
Besides flaunting his connection with Adityanath in his rally’s speeches and banners, Prabodhanand has also posted pictures with the CM on his Facebook.
Besides CM Adityanath, Prabodhanand was also seen with Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Pushkar Singh Dhami, in a picture now going viral. The CM can be seen touching Prabodhanand’s feet and taking his blessings.
An earlier picture of Prabodhanand’s Facebook shows him gifting a sword to former Uttarakhand CM Tirath Singh Rawat in June 2021.
Prabodhanand has been making brazenly anti-Muslim remarks for some time now. In June 2021, Prabodhanand released a video with Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, the key organiser of the Haridwar conclave. In the video, Narsinghanand is seen bowing down to Prabodhanand, calling him his “elder brother” and expressing gratitude and reverence to him.
In the video, Prabodhanand says: “Jihadis should be treated. A few days ago someone said that those born in Islam are rapists and terrorists. I agree with this and have been saying this for some time, there is a jihadi and a terrorist in every Islamic home.”
In 2018, Prabhodanand delivered a speech in UP’s Shamli where he said “Muslim men rape Hindu women” and how “all terrorists are Muslims.”
In 2017, he had urged Hindu couples to follow the 'hum do aur hamare aath/we two and our eight' formula to “protect” Hindu population.
Anand Swaroop, who is named in the second FIR registered in the case, spoke at length at the conclave about how “the government will have to listen” to whatever is decided by the seers.
“The decision of this Dharma Sansad would be the word of God and the government will have to listen to us…If it won’t, then we would wage a war that would be more bloody than the revolt of 1857,” he said.
A native of Varanasi, Anand Swaroop has been associated with various groups outside of being a Hindu seer. He has been heading the 'Ganga Sewa Mission', an activist group working to cleanse and protect the Ganga river, since 2011. In 2019, he became the president of Shankaracharya Trust, and the Shankaracharya Parishad, a subsidiary of that Trust, both of which work with a back-to-basics approach to attain the goal of "reconstruction of ancient India." Some of the things on the agenda of the body are motivating people to do farming without tractors and borewells, focusing entirely on 'cow farming', and teaching people how to wake up at 4 am to do aasans and pooja, before starting their regular jobs.
Anand Swaroop had earlier supported the call against “land Jihad”, led by BJP leader Ajendra Ajay.
Ajay, who was formerly the vice-chairman of the media advisory committee to the Government of Uttarakhand, has for many months now been speaking against alleged demographic change in the state.
In January 2021, a video of Anand Swaroop had gone viral from a Hindu Panchayat organised in Meerut, in which he can be seen calling for a social and economic boycott of Muslims. “One who reads the Quran becomes a beast, they are no longer human. For those who wish to remain connected to India, they must give up the Quran and namaz. If we start boycotting Muslims socially and economically, they will embrace Hinduism.”
The leader of the clan, and the linchpin holding them together is Yati Narsinghanand.
At the Dharam Sansad, Narsinghanand said he will offer 1 crore to anyone who is ready to become the “Prabhakaran of the Hindus.”
This was Narsinghanand’s reference to V. Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who was behind the assassination plot of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
An engineer trained in Russia and England, Saraswati is the head priest of the Dasna Devi temple in Uttar Pradesh. In the last 3 years, countless anti-Muslim speeches of his have gone viral, sometimes attracting police FIRs, other times going unnoticed.
While Narsinghanand has been cultivating followers on his youtube page for a few years now, he first shot to fame at a national level in March 2021, when a 14-year-old boy walked into the temple for water but was assaulted after the devotees there learnt he was Muslim. Following this, he issued clear directives to “not allow any Muslim” to enter the temple premises.
Subsequently, in August last year, many from the Hindutva right wing who were the priest’s self-acknowledged fans, turned against him. The reason: a viral video showing him telling devotees that “women politicians, particularly of the BJP, are rakhails (mistresses) of their male counterparts.”
WASEEM RIZVI ALIAS JITENDRA TYAGI
Until recently known as Syed Waseem Rizvi, the former chief of the UP Shia Waqf board converted to Hinduism on 6 December 2021 in the presence of Yati Narsinghanand, and changed his name to Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi.
In a statement, Rizvi said that when he dies, his body should be cremated as per the Hindu customs, and that Narsinghanand should be the one to light his funeral pyre. He also said he chose that particular date to convert, because it marked the anniversary of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition.
A month before his conversion, on 4 November, he released a book on Prophet Muhammad at the Dasna temple, in Narsinghanand’s presence. Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Hyderabad MP, lodged an FIR against Rizvi on 17 November for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through “objectionable” content in the book.
Before that, in March 2021, he had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking the removal of what he alleges are violent verses from the Quran.
In 2019, following the Ram Janmabhoomi verdict, Rizvi hadn’t only supported the Ram Mandir movement but also donated Rs 51,000 for its construction.
While Rizvi has showed a clear allegiance to the BJP since the Yogi government came to power in 2017, he had actually started his public life with the Samajwadi Party back in 2000, when he was elected as a corporator from the Kashmiri Mohalla ward of Lucknow’s Old City on an SP ticket. But in 2012, he was expelled from the SP after falling out with Shia cleric Kalbe Jawad, when the latter accused him of embezzlement.