Dasna: A group of police personnel lounge just inside the open gates of the Dasna Temple complex in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh; their hands resting on their guns.
“Name? Give me your Aadhaar card,” one of them asks every entrant, before jotting down the details — name, Aadhaar number, and phone number — in a large register.
The police personnel are ensuring that no Muslims enter, apart from providing security to the temple, which is home to the fundamentalist Hindu priest Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati.
Once unknown outside Ghaziabad, Narsinghanand has steadily built a following through his anti-Muslim rhetoric. His targeting of Muslims has ensured that, time and again, he has made headlines and left a mark on social media. His videos have earned him thousands of views and followers across social media platforms.
“It’s not just online. I have followers from every state, and I have followers outside the country too,” Narsinghanand told ThePrint.
The head priest first shot to prominence in March this year, when a boy walked into the temple for water but was brutally assaulted after devotees learnt he was Muslim.
Two weeks ago, a priest was fatally stabbed at the temple premises, following which security was stepped up. There are now clear instructions here not to let any Muslims in.
“We have been keeping track of the names of people coming to the temple since the incident with the Muslim child. We check Aadhaar so that people don’t have a way to lie about their identities,” said a policewoman, one of the 35 uniformed personnel on duty at the temple. “Since the stabbing, security here has been doubled,” she added.
But the very social media that has helped Narsinghanand gain prominence has also landed him in a spot. Last week, he ran foul of a number of those who had vehemently backed him earlier.
This, after a video of the priest went viral, in which he is allegedly telling devotees that women politicians, particularly in the BJP, are “mistresses” of their male counterparts.
The video has upset even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose members have reportedly tacitly endorsed the priest earlier.
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When ThePrint visited the temple premises Sunday, it found that the latest controversy has done little to dampen the priest’s followers, though damage-control efforts were afoot.
A Scorpio with a BJP flag on it, belonging to a woman party leader, was parked in the complex. Narsinghanand’s voice boomed from a squat, two-storey building. He was recording a video with the BJP leader, this time to deny he ever disparaged women.
“This video was edited by some jihadists and people against me, to make it seem like I was ridiculing women,” he told ThePrint. “I did no such thing. I was talking about how dirty politics is.”
The women who frequent the Dasna temple have no qualms about Narsinghanand’s inflammatory remarks. For them, he’s someone who speaks “the truth”.
“We’re all members or supporters of the BJP,” said Radha, a devotee who lives in the nearby Sriram Colony. “We come here every Sunday for kirtan and to listen to Babaji’s lectures. He speaks the truth; he’s doing good things for our religion. Hinduism is in danger, and he tells us how to save it.”
Other devotees are those who’ve heard of Narsinghanand through his YouTube videos, where he lectures followers about the “evils” of Islam and how to consolidate Hindu “power”. His account has, however, been suspended for breaking community guidelines.
“I first watched his videos on YouTube during the lockdown. I found that I agree with and believe everything he says. My husband is an RSS worker and also a keen follower of his. Babaji said we have to take action to protect our religion, and he’s right,” Radhika Saxena, who lives in Noida and was visiting the temple for the first time, told ThePrint.
Where Narsinghanand has lost backers, with his latest controversy, is in the BJP and the online space.
BJP leaders Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga and Kapil Mishra came out to condemn Narsinghanand’s latest statement, calling him a “fraud” and a “jihadi.” Mishra had actively raised funds for the Dasna temple in April, but has since changed his stance on supporting the priest.
I request @sharmarekha ji @Uppolice to take action against this Fraud Narshianand pic.twitter.com/BD7sWT6S3j
— Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga (@TajinderBagga) August 28, 2021
यति नरसिंहानंद की महिलाओं के प्रति सोच किसी भगवाधारी की हो ही नहीं सकती
ये जिहादी सोच से बीमार कोई कुंठित आदमी हैं
इस आदमी को महिला आयोग और यूपी पुलिस द्वारा गिरफ्तार किया जाना चाहिए
ये माँ जगदम्बा के मंदिर में बैठने योग्य नहीं https://t.co/Q24TGRwy59
— Kapil Mishra (@KapilMishra_IND) August 28, 2021
Right-wing ideologue Shefali Vaidya said she was “sorry she made an error of judgement in supporting this man”, adding that she felt “terrible” about it.
This is shocking. I am really REALLY sorry I made an error of judgement in supporting this man. pic.twitter.com/9wwNOsnp6I
— Shefali Vaidya. 🇮🇳 (@ShefVaidya) August 28, 2021
I am feeling terrible, not just because I misjudged this Yati Narsimhanand, but because he can say such things about women while wearing saffron robes. This is an insult to my faith. Haven’t felt this disillusioned in a long time.
— Shefali Vaidya. 🇮🇳 (@ShefVaidya) August 28, 2021
Film-maker Vivek Agnihotri didn’t name Narsinghanand, but said glorifying saffron-clad “idiots” says more about Hindus than “these thugs”.
“Hindu society has always suffered because of fraud sadhu, babas. Every Hindu knows this. Yet, don’t reform,” he added.
Glorifying idiots because they wear saffron, chant Jai Shri Ram and name Vedas says more about the ignorance and dumbing down of Hindu society than these thugs.
Hindu society has always suffered because of fraud sadhu, babas. Every Hindu knows this. Yet, don’t reform.
— Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri (@vivekagnihotri) August 29, 2021
A strict vigil
Apart from the striking police presence, the Dasna Devi Mandir is defined by a sense of exclusion and vigilance at every turn.
Not only is entry barred if valid ID proof is not produced, Narsinghanand’s aides walk around with guns as a “safety precaution”, at sundown.
One of the aides with a gun at his hip made Manisha Mondal, ThePrint’s photographer, delete some photos “because it won’t look good”.
The temple is also set to install 100 cameras with money donated by devotees to “secure” the area and “protect” Narsinghanand from attacks.
The Uttar Pradesh Police have extended their cooperation to Narsinghanand even though he is a subject of multiple FIRs. He has over six cases of alleged rioting, causing communal hatred, and taking up arms, but has so far managed to evade arrest.
Police told ThePrint that they protect the priest due to “threats to his life”.
“There have been threats to his life and after the latest attack, we stationed police personnel there so that the situation doesn’t deteriorate,” Masuri station house officer (SHO) Shailendra Pratap Singh, under whose jurisdiction the Dasna temple falls, told ThePrint. “The guns carried by his aides are licensed. Police was stationed there before, but not in such large numbers. We placed more people after the attack earlier this month.”
The SHO added that he could not say when the security would be reduced, and that all the pending cases against Narsinghanand were outside Ghaziabad and outside his jurisdiction.
The priest insists that none of this has to do with politics.
“I am a follower of Yogi Adityanath, but apart from that, I stay out of politics,” Narsinghanand told ThePrint, surrounded by his devotees.
Narsinghanand claims to have been educated in Russia, and turned to Hindutva after he had a “revelation” about the alleged exploitation of Hindu women at the hands of Muslim men.
Asked about the furore his latest statements caused among BJP leaders, many of whom follow his lectures, Narsinghanand said, “The BJP leaves their own to die without protection.”
By his own admission, the kind of protection he deems appropriate is to sideline the rule of law. “If a Muslim attacks a Hindu, he should be killed on the spot. You’re going to wait for the court and police to step in?” he said, flanked by uniformed personnel, the irony lost on him.
Around an audience, Narsinghanand’s actions become more performative. When a camera is turned on, he modulates his voice to a shout with ease, as he recites lines he’s practised many times before, booming, “Islam is not a religion. Look at Kashmir, look at Afghanistan. The Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, ISIS, this is the true face of Islam.”
When the camera is off, he chuckles with his devotees who fuss over him, and tells them, “My body may pass, but my words will remain forever,” as they nod along.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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