“It is unacceptable that a student of law ignored the law,” said a senior BJP member on condition of anonymity. “Annamalai’s association with Karthik has only tarnished the former’s name.”
This “student of law” is Karthik Gopinath, 33, a right-wing YouTuber in Tamil Nadu who was , and is now out on bail, on charges of “misappropriating” nearly Rs 40 lakh that he had crowdfunded to “renovate temple statues”. He runs a YouTube channel called Ilaya Bharatham – or “Young India” – with over two lakh followers.
BJP state president K Annamalai has come out in ; he called it “trumped up” charges and blamed the governing DMK for “silencing an uncomfortable voice”. Others in the party think Gopinath should have been more circumspect.
“How can a law student not pay heed to the various warnings of the HR & CE department?” the senior member demanded. “He should have known this government – the government he criticises – would leave no stone unturned in such matters.”
HR & CE is the Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department. In Tamil Nadu, temples are administered by the state governments. As a result, soliciting “donations” for temple renovations can only be done after seeking permission from the HR & CE department.
Gopinath allegedly did not, according to the Avadi police in Chennai. He towards renovating the Siruvachur temple in October 2021 and also collected “Rs 6.5 lakh in his personal account”.
Through on his YouTube channel, Gopinath told viewers the temple’s statues had been “demolished and defaced” by a “gang” and that such acts of “vandalism” would pave the way for “religious conversion gangs”. In two videos ( and ), he also encouraged viewers to pay directly into his personal bank account. Only on December 29 – two months after the crowdfunding began – did he send a letter seeking consent from the temple authorities.
Gopinath claimed he received “verbal permission”; the HR & CE department said he did not.
“I met Karthik during visiting hours, like any other petitioner. He asked me to process the proposal. I said I will take a look into it,” said HR & CE commissioner J Kumaragurubaran. “I did not approve his letter of consent for temple restoration.”
The commissioner added, “We are not against donor funds. In the past year, the department sanctioned Rs 100 crore donor work in Tamil Nadu...We encourage donor funds if due procedure is followed.”
Gopinath was arrested on May 30 on charges of cheating and criminal breach of trust. He was granted bail yesterday.
The BJP took up Gopinath’s cause soon after his arrest. Many of Gopinath’s videos are critical of the DMK and its policies, while favourable towards Annamalai and the BJP.
Interestingly, whistleblower Savukku Shankar said he was “tipped off” about Gopinath’s violation by a BJP member.
“I tweeted about it after receiving a tipoff from my sources in the BJP,” Shankar said. “Activist Piyush Manush then took the matter to the Avadi police.” However, Manush learned that an executive officer from the HR & CE department was already filing a complaint, Shankar said, so he “let it take its course”.
A ‘nationalist with a twist’
“It’s a known fact that Karthik drives the ideology of Hindutva,” said Rajapandian M, a resident of Madurai and a fan of Gopinath’s videos. “But he does it subtly, adding entertainment.”
The Ilaya Bharatham channel was started on YouTube in 2009, but Gopinath’s videos became popular only around a year ago. Most videos follow a similar pattern – Gopinath quotes from Thirukkural and references Tamil movies and jokes while discussing Tamil Nadu politics. While his early videos were in English, his fan base expanded after he switched to Tamil.
Soon enough, Annamalai and the BJP made frequent appearances. Last October, for instance, Gopinath posted a with Annamalai, where he described the state chief as “down to earth”, “humble”, “young” and “energetic”. As , a day before his arrest, he defended Annamalai – who was being – and praised his “assertiveness” and “sense of humour”.
Gopinath’s father, Sundaresan, said his son followed a strict schedule while posting videos – timing them for about 7 pm so “viewers can watch it before they end their day”. Gopinath employs two people – a cameraman and a producer – to help with the videos, but he keeps their identities anonymous.
“His criticism of the ruling government is fair and dignified,” said Sundaresan, sitting on the stairs of the Poonamallee magistrate court in Chennai while waiting for his son’s bail petition to be heard. “We never thought the DMK government would throw mud on us and fabricate cases...I did not see this coming.”
Sundaresan refused to comment on whether his son got permission from the HR & CE department to collect donations.
Sundaresan retired as a bank manager in 2016. His job took him out of Chennai for about 15 years, during which his wife, who was principal of a private school, and Gopinath stayed behind. He attributes his son’s right-wing ideology to the fact that he attended a “cosmopolitan” school – Kendriya Vidyalaya in Avadi – and the “climate” in their home.
“There are no politicians at home, neither are we members of the BJP,” Sundaresan said. “It’s just that we like the party’s ideology and the enigma of Modi. Our family supports the BJP.”
Gopinath has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Velammal Engineering College in Chennai. As a child, he participated in debates and played cricket and basketball. He also has an MA in economics and an MSc in geography through distance learning. His father said Gopinath then taught at Chennai’s Kingmaker IAS Academy and Victory Academy – both UPSC exam coaching academies – though he did not specify what Gopinath taught.
“In the academy, he was drawn towards the constitution and therefore pursued law,” said Sundaresan. So, Gopinath enrolled at the Dr Ambedkar Government College two years ago.
“He has always been good at everything he does,” his father said proudly. “He never spent a lot of time studying but he always scored first. He has good grasping power – a strength that helped him in the success of Ilaya Bharatham.” He said Gopinath “doesn’t like to work for anyone, he wants to provide work for others”.
He added, “Desiyam [nation] and deiveegam [god] are his mottos in life.” This ties in with Gopinath’s – “nationalist with a twist”.
Because of the pandemic, a lot of Gopinath’s classes took place online so not all his classmates know him well. He’s made a name for his “knowledge on various subjects”, said R Janakiraman, 23, who is his classmate.
“But he doesn’t talk about his ideologies at college,” Janakiraman said.
Sundaresan said his son earns “around Rs 4-5 lakh a month” through his YouTube channel, sometimes “up to Rs 6 lakh a month”.
“He takes time to analyse things before talking on his channel,” said a Tamil YouTuber who was also at the Poonamallee court. “He is good at researching. It amuses me how he digs out decades-old memes and videos to corroborate his statements.”
Annamalai’s ‘keen interest’ in Gopinath
After “following” Gopinath’s videos, BJP state president Annamalai soon took a “keen interest” in him, the senior BJP member said.
“Karthik is a Hindu welfare activist with good social media skills,” he said. “Annamalai supports nationalists like Karthik...Annamalai likes to keep young talent with good digital marketing skills around him.”
Gopinath is not a member of the BJP, but Annamalai has occasionally invited him for BJP events. In April this year, for example, Gopinath accompanied Annamalai to meet union home minister Amit Shah at the airport – photos of which he later posted online.
Got the golden opportunity to meet the legendary @AmitShah ji in Chennai. Gifted him a copy of Dravidian maya(English version of Dravida mayai).Icing on the cake was singham @annamalai_k introducing me to Chanakya. Humbled and truly grateful . Jai Hind pic.twitter.com/6vT6K6NGUZ— karthik gopinath (@karthikgnath) April 25, 2022
Other party members were upset that Gopinath was given the opportunity.
“Annamalai also introduced him to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman,” said the senior BJP member. “When cadres who work for the party for decades are waiting for an opportunity like that, Annamalai’s choice to introduce Karthik to Amit Shah did not go well internally.”
Newslaundry reached out to Annamalai but he was unavailable for comment.
But Mohamed Athaullah, a BJP member and YouTuber, is vehement in the party’s support of Gopinath.
“The government is targeting those close to the BJP,” he said. “No one complained when the temple was demolished. But the government arrests people who take steps to restore temples.”
Athaullah has known Gopinath for about two years. “He is a nationalist like me,” he said. “We aligned on a common ideology. We interact regularly on current affairs and political news. The police who have arrested him are also his fans; they watched his videos. A policeman assured us he would be treated with respect.”
Amar Prasad Reddy, the president of the state BJP’s sports and skill development cell, told Newslaundry, “We are helping Karthik because we know it's a bogus case. Rather than encouraging youngsters who are working on social causes, DMK is crushing their muscles.”
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