BHOPAL, India — By the age of 18, Pragya Singh Thakur had renounced her material possessions and become a holy woman.
At 38, she was arrested for allegedly supplying a golden motorcycle used to ferry bombs that detonated in Muslim neighborhoods, killing seven people.
By the age of 47, after eight years in prison, she received bail on health grounds after undergoing a double mastectomy.
After being bailed out, with terror charges still hanging over her head, Thakur kept a low profile — but that all changed last month when, at the age of 49, she joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and was put forward as a candidate to represent a city of 1.8 million people in India’s lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.
Since then she has burst onto the national scene, making headlines for a series of controversial remarks, such as: claiming to have participated in the demolition of a mosque in 1992; saying that she caused the death of a police officer, who was killed in a terrorist attack because she “laid a curse” on him; and claiming to have cured her cancer by drinking cow urine, which made India’s oncologists particularly furious. But worst of all, Thakur declared the man who assassinated Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi to be a “patriot” — a statement so controversial that the BJP was forced to intervene, asking Thakur to apologize.
Even in a country of around 900 million eligible voters, where it takes six weeks to hold an election (voting started on April 11), Thakur is a strange choice for candidate, and not just because she has no prior political experience. Within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party that unexpectedly won a historic majority at the 2014 election for its grand promise of economic development, Thakur’s nomination has been hard to accept.
Some party members see her as an inexperienced outsider, and one who is particularly difficult to control because of her past.
But she has the blessing of Modi himself and the president of the BJP, Amit Shah, who believe that this election is nothing less than a “religious war” between Hindus and minorities.
Known to her followers as Sadhvi Pragya — Sadhvi being the honorific for a Hindu holy woman — Thakur is a candidate in Modi’s image. But where Modi delivers sweeping theatrical speeches, Thakur speaks in short bursts of one-sentence slogans, letting her audience shout the last word back at her. She begins public addresses with Sanskrit chants, during which some members of the audience close their eyes and gently shake their heads as if listening to a piece of music.
The fact that Thakur is endorsed by the BJP’s top leadership is a sign of things to come for India. If Modi and the BJP win again this year, it will be because of — not despite — their Hindu nationalist agenda, which is being put to the test with Thakur’s nomination. Thakur is a rare woman in the world of Indian politics, which is dominated almost entirely by men, but in her campaign she has had little to say about policy or women’s empowerment.
“I have no prior political experience, it’s true,” Thakur said, seated on a red velvet throne, at a public rally in Shyampur, a district of Bhopal. “But I am here because this election is a religious war. This election, you will choose between nationalism and terrorism. This election, if you vote for the BJP, nationalism wins, Hindus win.”
“Whenever the forces of evil grow strong, Hindu gods have been known to appear on earth as ordinary mortals,” she said. “That’s why Modi ji and I are here, sent by the gods, to save you from the monsters of darkness.”
In late September 2008, three bombs went off in Muslim neighborhoods in the adjacent states of Maharashtra and Gujarat in Western India, killing a total of 10 people. A month later, Thakur was the first person to be arrested in connection with the blasts.
The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) was assigned to investigate the case.
Leading the investigation was a police officer named Hemant Karkare, who said the blasts had been carried out by members of a Hindu right-wing organization called Abhinav Bharat. The organization, which comprised serving and retired members of the Indian Army as well as the BJP, hoped to turn India into a “Hindu Rashtra,” or a country that would only be populated by Hindus, eventually getting rid of all minorities. This new Hindu nation would be called “Aryavart,” or the abode for “excellent” Aryans, would have a new constitution, train guerrillas, kill those who opposed them, and form a government in exile until its goal was complete.
In conversations that formed part of the case documents presented in court, the ATS concluded that the suspects had plotted the bombings as “revenge” against Islamist terror — one of the accused carried videos of Muslims allegedly raping Hindu women and killing Hindu men, which he would produce on demand at Abhinav Bharat meetings.
Karkare traced Thakur, who was living as a holy woman at the time, as the owner of a golden motorcycle that was used to bring the bombs to their blast site. She also, according to the ATS investigation, recommended the men who transported the bomb to her fellow alleged conspirators as ideal candidates to undergo training and carry out the blasts. According to the case files, which also rely on transcripts of conversations that allegedly occurred between Thakur and another alleged accomplice after the blasts, Thakur was displeased that so few people had died in the blast. Thakur has denied any involvement in the blasts.
Not long after he wrapped up his investigation on the alleged Hindu terrorists, Karkare was killed on duty in Mumbai in one of India’s worst-ever terrorist attacks, when Pakistani militants attacked hotels and landmarks in Mumbai over a terrifying 62 hours, leaving at least 174 people dead.
According to the official version, he was shot dead by one of the Pakistani militants, but, even then, many posed unanswered questions, especially his colleagues and (now-deceased) widow. In 2008 Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, a state in Western India, and he reached out to Karkare’s widow to offer condolences and compensation worth $10 million from an official relief fund. She refused to accept, saying she did not want her husband’s death to be used for political mileage.
Three weeks ago, Thakur took credit for Karkare’s death, saying on the campaign trail that she “cursed” him.
"Hemant Karkare falsely implicated me [in the blasts] and treated me very badly. I told him your entire dynasty will be erased. He died of his karma."
Her comments caused a political storm and revived the controversy into the death of Karkare, who is considered a national hero in India and was in 2009 posthumously awarded the country’s highest gallantry award, the Ashok Chakra.
After Karkare’s death, the trial against Thakur and other suspects dragged on for years and began to fall apart after the BJP came to power on a nationalist agenda in 2014. The ATS’s carefully investigated case against the alleged Hindu terrorists was transferred to a different body, the National Investigation Agency, and the prosecutor fighting the case on behalf of the state and victims said an official with the agency asked her to “go soft” on the accused. Witnesses turned hostile, the statements of key witnesses went missing, a crucial confession was lost, many of the arrested had charges dropped against them, and several — including Thakur — were released on bail in 2017.
Since Thakur was nominated as a candidate last month, the BJP leadership including Modi and Shah have embraced her past as an accused terrorist and worked it to their advantage. In a broadcast interview last month, Modi said fielding Thakur as a candidate for the party was a response to those who accused a 5,000-year-old civilization of Hindus of participating in terror.
Shah then declared in a campaign speech that “two courts of the country” had cleared Thakur of all charges — this is false. Thakur is still on trial for the 2008 blasts, but stopped attending the trial hearings on account of her “failing health.” In April, a relative of a victim of the 2008 blasts attempted to file a court injunction against Thakur to prevent her from running.
In response, Thakur pointed out that a pending criminal case does not prevent Indian citizens from running for office. She also added that she was unable to attend hearings because she was frequently “wheelchair-bound” as a result of being tortured in prison, and had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer in the past, which had left her in fragile health.
Torture in prison is routine and widespread in India, and Thakur’s claims predate her candidature for the BJP, but in 2015 the National Human Rights Commission and the court looked into her allegations and found no evidence that she'd ever been tortured.
Thakur may not be well enough to attend her trial, but she is certainly well enough to campaign tirelessly through weeks of blistering heat in Bhopal, where she told people she has big plans for the future if elected: building a Hindu temple where the mosque she claimed to have demolished once stood, valuing cows that are considered holy to Hindus over the lives of minorities and, eventually, making India a nation exclusively for Hindus.
Thakur was on the trail in early May, and the moment was particularly tense.
After her comments about cursing Karkare and demolishing a mosque, India’s Election Commission, the autonomous body charged with ensuring the world’s largest democracy plays by the rules, handed her a 72-hour ban on campaigning, just days before polls opened. Thakur flouted the ban by campaigning unofficially anyway, praying at temples where she was surrounded by the press and her followers.
The morning after the ban had lifted, Thakur was scheduled for a full day of campaigning, which was due to begin at 8 a.m., but she was refusing to leave her room or let anyone in. Thakur had been built up as a strong candidate, but now it was clear that even the BJP, according to reports, was unsure of how to handle their hotheaded enfant terrible.
“She’s usually very open to meeting the press to discuss women’s rights,” one of Thakur’s younger sisters, Uttama, told BuzzFeed News at the threshold of her room. “But the BJP’s party workers won’t let her speak to anyone right now. Please try to understand.”
In Riviera Towne, the quiet, green, gated apartment complex where Thakur lives in Bhopal, the air was filled with nervous excitement. Her sisters (one older than Thakur, two younger) had flown in from different parts of the country to help with the campaign.
The compound was covered in wedding tents to shield visitors from the harsh sun, full of party workers, holy men and women dressed in saffron — the color of the BJP and Hinduism — and old college friends. Everyone wanted a private audience with Thakur, who was upstairs, but no one could enter her room — especially not journalists.
Like Modi, Thakur is extremely selective about the journalists she speaks to or allows into her personal space. Days before, the prime minister had given a rare interview to a journalist from the television channel Times Now; today the same journalist was present at Thakur’s home — helping her down the stairs from her room to the general area, where other correspondents including BuzzFeed News had been asked to wait.
Thakur was dressed in her standard attire: saffron-colored clothes, slippers, and holy beads — the only touch of bling provided by a gold pendant and a thick gold bracelet around her wrist. Her failing health and recent controversies did not appear to dampen her fervor, even in the blistering 104-degree heat.
In her backyard, where Thakur sat framed by a grapevine, she looked over the waiting press corps and asked if any children were present. It’s routine for Indian politicians to show their fun, approachable side while campaigning by posing with children. Modi in particular loves serving children food, asking them to eat more vegetables and recite passages from Hindu epics — but it was a new move for Thakur.
As if on cue, a man dressed in saffron robes walked up to Thakur with a young boy in tow. But this was no cute photo op: The boy carried a sheet of paper that Thakur read in silence before finally turning to reporters. She gravely claimed that the paper was a letter the boy had written to her. The letter, Thakur told reporters, referred to the boy’s father who had been falsely accused and arrested in connection with the 2008 bombings like her, but had been missing since the boy was 3 years old.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Thakur said to the man accompanying the boy. “Now tell these people: Do you and I know each other? Have we ever met before?”
The man folded his hands and said, “I came to meet you once when you were in prison…”
“But have we met before?” Thakur asked him again.
“No,” the man said, shaking his head.
“This child’s problem is the same problem I have faced for years,” Thakur said, turning to the crowd. “People who accuse Hindus of being terrorists are the true enemies of this country. Ask them why innocent people like this boy’s father and I have suffered for years on false charges. Ask the opposition — where is this boy’s father now? Is he dead or alive?”
The boy, who Thakur said was now 11 years old, did not speak a single word. Neither he nor the man nor Thakur took any questions, and as Thakur left the compound to begin her campaign for the day — granting a few blessings and selfies on the walk to her car — all questions were met with the same generic response, accompanied by a fixed, benign smile, “The truth always wins.”
Election campaigns thrive on theater and spectacle, but particularly so in India, where campaigns resemble high-octane traveling road shows, replete with loudspeakers, drummers, firecrackers, gawking spectators in party merch, and emotive speeches.
It is only at this time, between an administration’s terms, that India’s poorest and most marginalized populations are made to feel as though their voices matter. Politicians — who are otherwise inaccessible, surrounded by bodyguards while living in high-security homes — are suddenly found among the people, hugging the elderly, dancing with children, and taking selfies with farmers.
The BJP has consistently won elections in Bhopal for the last 20 years, without relying on communal politics. Some long-time BJP supporters told BuzzFeed News they were confused at the party choosing Thakur as its candidate. Hindus and Muslims have historically existed in peace in Bhopal, which according to the most recent census data from 2011 has a 26% Muslim population.
Mehboob Khan, 42, whose Muslim family has lived in the city for three decades and according to Khan are staunch supporters of Congress — historically the dominant party in India since independence — said he had planned to vote for the BJP until he heard its candidate was accused of right-wing terror.
“It’s not as if the BJP doesn’t work here, they have really done a lot for the city,” he said over a cup of tea in Sehore, a district of Bhopal where Thakur was campaigning. “That’s why I was telling my family, ‘we should think about supporting them.’ But I’m not sure what [the BJP is] doing anymore, this ‘divide and rule’ policy won’t work here.”
Thakur has said that the torture she claims she suffered in prison, as well as her health problems, have given her a disadvantage over other politicians. Unlike them, she moves slowly, needs help with stairs, and does not meet and greet people personally. Even the shower of petals that greets her everywhere she goes, Thakur informed a crowd in Bhopal, worsens her infections.
But Thakur is always down to collect divine blessings along the way and prays several times a day: before she emerges from her room, in front of a small statue in her car, at a local temple in Riviera Towne, and at any major temples she encounters.
For most of her campaign, Thakur chose to remain in an air-conditioned bus plastered with massive photographs of her and Modi. Every 20 minutes, she would emerge from the roof of the bus on a hydraulic-powered stage, and repeat the same refrain.
“The fact that you are standing on the road in this scorching heat tells me you are true believers,” she would say. “You believe in me, you believe in the power of saffron, you believe in women’s rights, you believe in the BJP, you believe we will win. Vote for us, vote for me, vote for Modi, vote for the BJP.”
Pratibha, one of Thakur’s younger sisters, spoke to BuzzFeed News as she sat outside Thakur’s house, directing and dispatching campaign teams.
“We caught the spirit early,” Pratibha said, explaining that while her didi, or elder sister, was new to politics, the family’s association with Hindu nationalism was an old one. Their father, Charanpal Singh, had a long history of social and aid work with an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary Hindu supremacist group that is widely regarded as the parent organization of the BJP itself. Modi was a member of the RSS as a young man.
Every day when their father came home from work, Pratibha and her siblings would sit around him, she said, as he expounded on the importance of how to be a good Hindu, helping Hindus, learning how to defend oneself, and taking care of one’s health using ayurveda. Their father was an ayurvedic doctor — ayurveda is a branch of traditional Indian medicine, for which Modi has recently opened an entire ministry.
According to Pratibha, working for social causes or “helping others” came naturally to each member of their family and eventually, even to their circle of friends. But their father taught them to work “mainly for the middle class,” which, Pratibha said, “was unable to ask for help.”
The middle class and its morality are among Modi’s favorite subjects. In speeches, he frequently refers to how much dignity they live with, what their aspirations are, and how happy they are with the BJP and Modi’s leadership. But even though most Indians identify as middle class, data says that the actual size of this class is only 1–3% of the population.
“Everyone is concerned about the poor, and everyone works for the rich,” Pratibha explained further. “But it’s the middle class that cares the most about shame and honor. They’re the ones that need protection.”
These notions also frequently appear in Modi’s campaign speeches: He’s built toilets in India so that women can protect their honor (bathrooms in villages built by the BJP are literally called izzat ghar or “house of honor”), he protected India’s honor by warning Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, to return an Indian pilot, the greatest enemies of the country are those “anti-nationals” who shame India by asking questions of its prime minister. Modi also routinely shames the opposition by calling them names like “jersey cow” and “hybrid calf,” and saying they have dyslexia.
Thakur’s personal story as well as her campaign slogans have come to resemble the qualities Modi propounds about himself ad infinitum — discipline, machismo, and humility.
A huge part of Modi’s appeal for the Indian voter is based on his humble roots. Modi is the poor person's definition of what a powerful but humble man looks like. Modi plays up this narrative all the time: about how Delhi's elites hate him, how he's a simple man, a regular working-class, son of the soil. He has claimed that he sold tea at a railway platform and thus has no desire for wealth. According to a biography of Modi on his official website, at the age of 17 he decided to go wandering in the Himalayas, where he lived as a recluse and met holy men.
Thakur officially became a renunciant, giving up material possessions, in 1998, when she is believed to have met a holy man who gave her the title “Sadhvi Pragya.” But according to Pratibha, the signs were always there. “Didi was always one to give away her things to strangers, even before she became a Sadhvi,” she said. “She is too kindhearted and simple.”
Modi, the hyper-disciplined, says he wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to do yoga before he attends to matters of national importance. Thakur, Pratibha said, is the same way. “The rest of us complain that we’ve only got about four hours of sleep since the campaign began,” she said. “But didi is accustomed to sleeping very little. No matter what, she must pray for three hours every morning before she leaves home.”
Modi says that as a child he went swimming with crocodiles. Thakur, according to those around her, has a similar disregard for danger. She’s always protected the women in her life from “bad men,” no matter the risk.
Pratibha recounted an episode from college when a man on a bus pinched one of her and Thakur’s woman friends.
“Didi slapped him so hard he went flying to the other end of the bus. I caught him and kicked him back to her. It was like we played football for a good half an hour,” she said, laughing. “At first he thought didi was a man, you know.”
Modi and Thakur both claim to have a softer, kinder side that they hide from the public. Recently, in an interview for which many suggested he had seen the questions in advance, Modi said he writes at least one poem per day.
Thakur, Pratibha said, was “very womanly in many ways.”
“One day, I hope you can taste the food she makes — she’s an incredible cook. She uses only the best ingredients and loves feeding everyone around her, loves taking care of people.”
But while Modi’s narrative about his humble roots gestures at a familiar Indian trope of overcoming the odds, where the odds nearly always refer to a lack of wealth and education, in Thakur’s case, the odds are more complicated: The power she seeks is not an act of empowerment as much as it is a bid to legitimize Hindu terror.
The brand of Hindu nationalism that Modi promotes frequently resembles vigilantism. Appropriately, this election he has coined the phrase “main bhi chowkidar” — or, "I'm a guard too" — as a mass slogan. In Hindi, chowkidar refers to a guard, usually the men found outside gated societies and buildings. In his campaign speeches, Modi described a chowkidar or a guard as a “spirit or a feeling” or, alternately, as a trustee or guardian of the country. A day after this speech, Modi as well as a number of BJP leaders across the country and thousands of BJP supporters added the prefix chowkidar to their Twitter handles as a mark of support to the campaign.
This protectionism is evident in Thakur’s campaign too. The only evidence of her “feminism,” shared enthusiastically by her followers, has been protecting women by beating up men and “rescuing” Hindu women who eloped with men from other religions.
Modi and Thakur both promote the idea of “Hindus under attack” — a conspiracy theory the BJP’s social media team has echoed through its millions of bots and troll accounts.
The BJP reminds Indians that the country is under constant threat, sometimes from external forces like China and Pakistan, at other times from journalists and dissenters who are labeled “anti-nationals.” As a result, it is only strong personalities, real chowkidars like Thakur and Modi, who can keep Hindus and Indians safe.
Voters in Bhopal went to the polls on May 12, with turnout at historically high levels. When results are declared May 23, Indians will learn not just whether Thakur has been elected or whether Modi has been returned to power, but whether the BJP’s religious war has been successful. ●