Hindu religious leaders have always played a galvanising role in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s electoral strategy. Over the years, this mix of religion and politics has helped the RSS create a saffron tide for the Bharatiya Janata Party. But this year, an unusually large number of Madhya Pradesh’s god-men have come out on the streets against the BJP for the upcoming assembly elections on 28 November. Amid the state’s high-tension election campaign, the sadhus are now vowing to uproot the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government.
Namdeo Das Tyagi, a high-profile sadhu popularly known as Computer Baba, is leading this rebellion. “All we want is protection of Narmada River and cow, but Shivraj Singh Chouhan is not willing to listen,” he told me after a massive conclave of Hindu religious leaders on the banks of the river Narmada, in Jabalpur, on 23 November. “He is anti-Narmada and anti-cow and wants to fool the ascetic community by patronising sadhus who enjoy the backing of the RSS,” Computer Baba said.
The one-day conclave, called Narmade Sansad, was attended by over 1,000 sadhus from across the poll-bound state. It started with an early morning yajna, seeking divine intervention to topple the Chouhan government in the assembly elections. The conclave concluded with the adoption of a resolution asking people to save “dharma” by voting out the anti-saint BJP dispensation.
The Jabalpur conclave was the culmination of a series of street protests organised by a section of Hindu religious leaders in different parts of the state. The first of these protests was held in Bhopal on 2 October, followed by protests in Indore, on 23 October; Gwalior, on 30 October; Khandwa, on 4 November; and Rewa, on 11 November.
Computer Baba has played a key role in organising these protests and the conclave. In April this year, sensing simmering discontent among some Hindu religious leaders, Shivraj Singh Chouhan had installed Computer Baba and four other god-men as ministers of state, or MoS, in the state government. This was not the first time that the state government inducted god-men in the administration—in 2016, an RSS pracharak-turned-sadhu, Akhileshwaranand Giri, was made head of the Madhya Pradesh Cow Protection Board, or MPCPB. The appointments in April this year took the total number of sadhus involved in running the state to six. But within six months, Computer Baba had a fallout with Chouhan amidst allegations that the government was giving preferential treatment to RSS-backed sadhus.
“When I joined the government, I thought Shivraj Singh was genuinely concerned with issues raised by the saints. But within months I realised that there is a class among sadhus who receive preferential treatment. This class is backed by the RSS and its sole objective is to promote the politics of the BJP,” Computer Baba told me. Citing Giri’s RSS connection, he said, “Akhileshwaranand was a pracharak of the RSS. Even after becoming sadhu, the promotion of the RSS agenda, rather than dharma, is his prime concern.”
“The massive response that we are getting from sadhus is mainly because a large number of them are upset with the RSS’s attempts to interfere in their world,” Computer Baba said. “Most sadhus have seen through the real motive of the RSS. They know that its sole objective is to polarise Hindu votes for the BJP,” he said.
For decades, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)—the RSS’s flamboyant body that is meant to organise sadhus—has sought control of Hindu religious leaders. The VHP’s primary objective is to convince sadhus to lend support to the political project of the RSS, the BJP. Working with the RSS can also be lucrative for the sadhus—in exchange for campaigning, they received the patronage, monetary and otherwise, of the RSS-VHP. But many sadhus endorsed and participated in the common use of explicitly Hindu rituals and symbols in routine affairs of electoral politics solely as a means of propagating the Hindu religion—some of them feel that all they did was celebrate religion in the public sphere.
The sadhus’ agitation has forced the RSS to tread cautiously in Madhya Pradesh. Instead of hitting out at protestors and instigating confrontations, it has devised a strategy to quietly expose these “fake sadhus”—who are agitating—among ordinary Hindus.
Giri, who has been a part of Chouhan’s cabinet since June 2018, is leading the RSS’s counter strategy. Giri told me that the RSS “deployed nearly 1,500 sadhus in different parts of the state to educate people. Their objective is to expose these fake sadhus who are trying to create confusion among Hindus.” He said, “The confusion they have created will harm the Hindus. It will divide them and make them weak.”
When I questioned him why Chouhan has not responded to the allegations levelled by Computer Baba and other agitating sadhus, he said, “Why should Shivraj Singh Chouhan respond to their charges? What they are saying is baseless. We know that Congress is propelling them, and we are competent enough to deal with fake sadhus.”
Giri may be right about the Congress extending a helping hand to the protesting sadhus of Madhya Pradesh because the agitation suits the opposition. Moreover, the conflict is unique as this is the first time that sadhus have publicly expressed anger against the activities of VHP and RSS. According to media reports published today, Computer Baba has publicly endorsed the Congress for the impending elections.
The rebellious upsurge is the first concrete sign that some sadhus in Madhya Pradesh have realised that the RSS is using them for its political purposes. The outcome of the assembly election is likely to have a great bearing on this realisation. In case the BJP wins, this realisation may fizzle out—but a defeat may open the floodgates for an anti-RSS build up of sadhus, not just in Madhya Pradesh but other states as well.