It was noon and recorded bhajans were blaring out of cheap loudspeakers at Aligarh’s Ramlila Maidan in Uttar Pradesh, piercing the ears of an impatient audience dressed in shades of yellow, saffron and red.
An hour later, with temperatures soaring above 40 degree Celsius, young men with saffron gamchas (scarves) over their sweaty kurtas elbowed their way to the main gate. They wanted selfies with the ‘holy’ men who were gracing Aligarh with their presence, two days before Eid, to talk about the ‘Future of Sanatan: Problems and Solutions’.
“Aaj iss manch pe sirf dharam ki baat hogi (Today, on this stage, only religion will be spoken about),” announced the organiser and the emcee of the event, Ashok Pandey.
Pandey is married to Pooja Shakun Pandey, better known as Sadhvi Annapurna, national president of Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, a political party in Aligarh and the force behind this meeting. While Annapurna relinquished all past familial relationships when she donned the saffron robe in 2017, Ashok has been her constant shadow.
It was through the combined efforts of the two that Kalicharan Maharaj, a Shiva and Kali devotee from Maharashtra’s Akola district and Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati aka Deependra Narayan Singh, head priest of Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad, among seven others walked together to the stage amid the sound of temple bells.
“It is all possible today because of God, that my father after I took sanyas (renunciation), Yati Narsinghanand Maharaj ji is present with us today. I am his daughter and my last breath is devoted to making his mission successful,” Pooja Pandey said passionately as she joined the seers on stage.
In no time, Aligarh became a replica of Haridwar in December 2021 where open calls were made to ‘cleanse’ the country of Muslims and kill them to make India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (nation).
“Muslims have a clear agenda that they want to make India an Islamic nation…Pakistan is being created everywhere….Worry about your wives, daughters, sisters and lovers,” ranted Kalicharan, the showstopper of the gathering, with hypnotic gestures.
With his long, black hair coupled with a muscular build and a forehead covered with a big round tilak, Kalicharan kept the audience captivated with his oratory skills. Incidentally, he spent the last three months in Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra jails for his derogatory statements against M.K. Gandhi at a dharam sansad (religious congregation) in Raipur in December.
Yati Narsinghanand spoke next. “There are more than 100 cases where Muslims have killed Hindu men and eaten their flesh. One Muslim man was a head constable, Shaukat Ali, who killed seven Hindu men and ate their flesh,” he yelled into the microphone. “Till the time someone teaches Hindus how to fight, we will not survive. If you want to save your children, then you will have to be ready to die for your dharm.” He is also the main accused in the Haridwar hate speech case, for which he was arrested in January, and is booked in other similar cases. Both Kalicharan and Yati Narsighanand are out on bail.
Aligarh MLA Mukta Raja and her husband, former MLA Sanjeev Raja — both members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — were among those who garlanded the guests, touched their feet and sat through the whole programme.
The nine hate speeches, one after another, referred to a common ‘enemy’ — Muslims. They claimed Muslims will “murder, rape and convert” the few Hindus who remain in the only country for them, India. The audience then pledged to choose the right candidate in elections who is a ‘kattar (staunch) Hindu’.
Pooja Pandey aka Annapurna could not contain her excitement. The show was a success. At five feet tall, she often jumped to her feet, clapped her bony hands, marvelling at the hate-filled opinions of others that matched her own.
Born in a devout Brahmin household in Haryana’s Hisar, Pooja, who later took the name Sadhvi Annapurna, shot to fame when her video screaming into the microphone at the Haridwar Dharma Sansad last year played on national television channels and social media platforms on loop.
“If we want to end their (Muslim) population, we are ready to kill. If a hundred of us become soldiers and kill 20 lakhs of them (Muslims), then we will be victorious. We are ready to go to jail for this,” she could be heard saying in the viral video.
Four months later, Annapurna was charging ahead with more force. She organised and spoke at dharma sansads across the country and her shrill voice and aggressive views began reaching more homes through the numerous TV interviews she gave. She portrayed herself as the torchbearer of the ‘sanatan dharma’.
But in a divided political climate where communal clashes are a daily affair in the country, Annapurna is just adding fuel to the fire.
Also read: Haridwar ‘Dharam Sansad’ shows Modi is facing an internal threat from Sangh Parivar
From Pooja to Sadhvi
Daughter of Army Captain R.R. Azad, Pooja Pandey grew up in Uttar Pradesh. She studied in Saharanpur and Meerut, both in western UP and notorious for high crime rates and communal clashes. The family moved where Azad’s army postings, and later his job as a college principal, took them. Her innate fear of being attacked as a young girl took root there. “I used to walk around with an uncapped pen in my hand all the time,” she said, swirling on a big leather chair in her Hindu Mahasabha office in Aligarh.
A PhD in Mathematics from Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut took her to Ghaziabad later, where she worked as a dedicated professor in private colleges. She was a devoted wife and a mother of two young sons when one of her female students committed suicide over a love affair gone wrong with a Muslim boy around 2012. Pooja calls that a turning point in her life.
She decided to dedicate her life to ‘sanatan dharm’. “I was making a lot of money and had a luxurious life, but I was unhappy. I had sleepless nights. I felt like I was not doing my duty.”
Married at the age of 24 in a conservative household where she admits she had to keep her head covered with a dupatta, Pooja’s decision to leave her secure job did not settle well with her family. But that did not stop her.
She first established an NGO in 2012, AHSAS (Azad Hind Social Alleviation Society). The NGO is registered in her father’s name and she is the secretary while her husband Ashok Pandey is its promoter. Within a year, she joined the Hindu Mahasabha.
Her early days in her new role had no impact. Videos posted by the Hindu Mahasabha’s Aligarh wing on YouTube, six years ago, show Pooja in small, unimpactful rallies in open jeeps and saffron flags. She is wearing colourful sarees and her son can be seen tagging along in a few. In other videos, she is praising Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse, who was also a member of the Hindu Mahasabha; or is sitting with a handful of men, praying for Arvind Kejriwal’s early death.
However, this was clearly not cutting the ice.
In 2017, she went for her first image makeover. After 12 hours of rituals, which involved declaring her old life dead and taking dips in holy rivers in the freezing water of January, Pooja Shakun Pandey became Sadhvi Annapurna at Dwarkadheesh temple in Gujarat.
“I was content with my life. I had performed my duties as a Hindu woman. I had four pregnancies. Two of my children survived. And I wanted to dedicate my life to my country,” she noted.
From this point on, her saffron robe, long rudraksh mala and a big red tilak commanded respect wherever she went.
On 15 August 2018, in Meerut, she established an ad-hoc Hindu court on the lines of khap panchayats or the Sharia courts, as Pandey likes to put it, and called it Sanatan Hindu Nyaypeeth. She became its first ‘chief justice’ to settle civil cases mutually and people obeyed.
But it was her 2019 video of shooting M.K. Gandhi’s effigy with an airgun on his death anniversary that brought her national infamy. As she pumped the fake bullets in the effigy, blood oozed out of a balloon hidden behind it. Her small army of young male supporters then burnt the effigy and chanted slogans praising Godse.
Till the video became viral, Annapurna was preaching her hatred in silos. But her arrest after the video brought her under the wings of her present guru — Yati Narsinghanand.
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A project in extreme hatred
Several cases were filed against her in Aligarh as well as in Mumbai by Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam for her effigy video. A week later, she was arrested from a small town, Tappal, in Aligarh along with her husband. Smiling, she said to the cameras following her: “We are revolutionaries. If we are hanged, we will be proud.”
When she was in jail for 10 days, her messiah, Yati Narsinghanand, came to save her. Three years later, Annapurna parroted him.
“He is my guru. I will take his message far and wide and I will die for him. He is the avatar of Lord Krishna in this kalyug,” she announced on stage at the Ramlila Maidan function.
Her videos are filled with extreme hatred for Muslims. According to her, population control and Uniform Civil Code can “stop Muslim families” from bringing demographic change and affecting electoral politics in the country.
“Whenever it is convenient for them, they want to follow Sharia law and whenever they commit crimes like rape, they want to be tried under the Indian Penal Code. The punishment for rape under the Sharia law is public killing,” she said.
Ashok Pandey, who was born and raised in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, reportedly worked as a journalist in Delhi for a decade before moving to Aligarh with Pooja. He too doesn’t hold himself back on showing extreme hate against Muslims as he calls them “reason for the country’s problems”. “Muslims are the reason for increasing population, hunger, and poverty. You go to the delivery wards of Aligarh hospital, 90 per cent pregnant women are Muslims. They are consuming most of the government resources and medicines, they are a burden on the government.”
“If those coming to kill us are Muslims, then we will name them in our speeches. We know they will kill us,” added Pandey, who calls his wife ‘Mataji’.
The couple is also notorious across Aligarh for registering false cases against Muslims, who either comment on social media or express dissent against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath or Hinduism in any form.
Last month, Pooja filed a police complaint against Tauqir Raza, a cleric from Bareilly, who said that Muslims will protest on streets if the government does not mend its ways after violence in Jahangirpuri, northwest Delhi’s township. The police did not register an FIR in this case.
Requesting anonymity, a victim of the Pandeys’ false cases highlighted that several of the couple’s foot soldiers make countless anonymous calls and sustain pressure on victims. Involving the police and filing FIRs is a common tool used by them to harass Muslims.
“It’s complete mental harassment, which pushes you to simply stay silent and delete what you posted,” said the victim.
Also read: Muslim minds, not bodies, are targets of Hindutva vigilantes. Their crimes resemble terrorism
A new avatar
With her hair tied in a puff and over 50 kilograms lighter than her first appearance online, Annapurna’s second makeover is underway. Her sunglasses, red lipstick and kohl eyes make her voguish.
She will no longer conduct dharam sansads to discuss problems related to ‘sanatan dharma’, she said. The meetings will now focus on solutions.
Convincing Hindu women to have more children would be her contribution to nation-building, she claimed. After all, why should Hindu women carry the burden of population control?
“All the women who are present here today, those who can have children, will take oath to give birth to as many children as they can,” she yelled into the microphone at the Ramlila Maidan meeting.
Other things on her to-do list are to make Bhagwad Gita a national text, write a new Hindu constitution called ‘Hindu Nyay Vidhaan’, which is already underway, and build a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna in Mathura.
“The court case on the Krishna Temple is moving fast. We will win this fight following due procedures,” she said proudly.
A suit was filed on December 23 last year on behalf of the deity, Bhagwan Keshav Dev (Lord Krishna), seeking removal of the Shahi Eidgah (mosque), adjacent to the Shri Krishna temple complex in Mathura.
The numerous police and court cases against her or the vociferous criticism of her anti-Muslim hate speeches do not bother her. She has not been called yet for interrogation in the Haridwar hate speech case and has attended at least two more dharam sansads after that. The trial in the Gandhi effigy shooting case is going on and she is out on bail.
A show cause notice to her husband Pandey by the district administration, a day after the Ramlila Maidan meeting, has further increased the ever-growing pile. But the couple laugh it off.
“The notice has come because of Eid. We will handle it,” Pandey said.
Pooja tilted her neck slightly to the left and moved her rudraksha mala to show a gunshot wound. A few goons in Saharanpur shot at her father, who was a principal in a college there, and the bullet hit her.
“I was shot when I was 10 years old,” she said, “These cases cannot scare me.”
She now calls herself a kshatriya (warrior), who is at war.
(Edited by Rachel John)