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Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday, April 3, accorded status of Minister of State (MoS) to five ‘sadhus’ or ‘babas’ (Hindu saints).

Chief minister Chouhan is known to pay homage to babas of all kinds, from Shirdi Sai Baba to those accused of rape like Asaram and Nithyanand.

While the state assembly elections are due later this year, the move was intended to co-opt them so that they drop their proposed campaign against the alleged scam in MP government’s Narmada conservation program.

A day after they were accorded the MoS rank, two of the babas cancelled their campaign.

Before granting MoS status to the five babas, the government on March 31 appointed them to a committee set up to create awareness about tree plantation, water conservation and cleanliness along the Narmada, according to media reports.

The five babas are Narmadanand Maharaj, Hariharanand Maharaj, Computer Baba, Bhayyu Maharaj and Pandit Yogendra Mahant.

An official of the General Administrative Department (GAD) was quoted as saying that they have been given the MoS status as members of the committee.

Computer Baba had earlier announced to take out the ‘Narmada Ghotala Rath Yatra’ along with Yogendra Mahant in every district of MP from April 1 to May 15, to expose the alleged scam in planting saplings on the banks of the Narmada river and to demand a ban on illegal sand mining. The publicity material of the campaign was also circulated widely on the social media.

Now a MoS, Computer Baba said on Wednesday they have cancelled the campaign because the state government has fulfilled their demand to form a committee of saints and seers for protection of the Narmada river. “Now why would we take out the yatra?” he said.

He defended the grant of MoS status. “What’s wrong with it? We were rewarded for our work,” he said. The baba justified accepting the government facilities meant for an MoS despite being a saint, saying, “If we do not get the post and other government facilities, how can we work for the protection of the Narmada.”

“As a member of the committee, we have to talk to the district collectors and look after other necessary arrangements for the river’s conservation. A government status is required for these works,” he pointed out.

Yogendra Mahant, who was the convener of the proposed campaign, also said that they cancelled the yatra as the state government fulfilled their demand to set up a panel for the river conservation.

On March 31, these five religious leaders were appointed members of the ‘Janjagrukta Abhiyan Samiti’ (Public Awareness Campaign Committee) set up for conservation of the Narmada river.

The opposition Congress dubbed the decision to appoint them as MoS as the BJP’s attempt to exploit the respect these religious leaders enjoy in the society. “It’s a gimmick to score political points. He ignored conservation of the Narmada. These saints should inspect where the state government has planted six crore saplings as claimed by the CM,” said Congress spokesperson Pankaj Chaturvedi.

“This is also an effort by the chief minister to wash off his sins. He ignored the conservation of the Narmada,” said Chaturvedi.

Congress leader Raj Babbar said in Delhi: “They want to use these saffron-robed babas to win elections. They should learn from what happened when they made a saffron-robed priest a Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh.”

The BJP hit back saying the opposition party disliked anything related to saints.

Dismissing their reactions as “a bull reacting to a red rag”, State BJP spokesperson, Rajnish Agrawal said: “The government works according to protocol. The saints and seers were accorded the Minister of State status to make their work of river conservation easy. The saints were roped in for the Narmada conservation work to ensure public participation,” Agrawal said.

A brief introduction to the five babas was carried by The Indian Express as follows:

Computer Baba: His real name is Swami Namdev Tyagi and is called Computer Baba because he claims to have a computer-like brain and a very sharp memory. Moreover, this self-proclaimed modern ascetic is always seen with a laptop in hand. The baba keeps himself armed with all the latest gadgets, including wi-fi dongles, mobile phones and even a helicopter. Apparently, he created ripples in 2013, when he asked Kumbh Mela authorities to allow him to arrive in a helicopter and take a dip in the river.

What has raised eyebrows ,after according the MoS status to Computer Baba, is the fact that he had earlier declared to launch a 15-day “Narmada scam Yatra” along the bank of river Narmada in the state. He, however, junked his plan without assigning any reason. Thanking the Madhya Pradesh government for showing faith on the sadhu community, Computer Baba said they would try their best to work for the society’s welfare. “We thank the govt on behalf of the ‘sadhu’ community for showing trust in us, we will try our best to work for welfare of the society,” ANI quoted him as saying.

Bhaiyyu Maharaj: A zamindar’s son and a former model, Bhaiyyu Maharaj, whose real name is Udaysingh Deshmukh, is known for his opulent lifestyle. He is elegantly dressed, operates from a sprawling ashram at Indore, travels in a white Mercedes SUV with a small band of followers and stays in lavish resorts during his trips. He has a wide following among politicians and businessmen, who flock to him for ‘advice’ on spiritual matters.

According to his website, Yuva Rastra Saint Shri Sadguru Bhaiyyuji Maharaj is mentioned as a spiritual leader, social reformer and motivator, whose sole aim is to bring happiness on the faces of countless poor and downtrodden people, lift them from morass of despair, poverty, social inequality and enable them to live a life of dignity. The high-profile ‘saint’ has married an Indore-based medical practitioner, upsetting many of his disciples. Apparently, Maharaj played an important mediator role in persuading Anna Hazare to call off his fast for Lokpal in 2011.

Hariharanandji: He was among the core group of 50 people who led the Namami Devi Narmade Sewa Yatra — the world’s largest river conservation campaign in terms of sheer scale. Started on 11 December 2016, the yatra concluded on 11 May 2017. The 144-day journey on foot from Amarkantak to Sondwa (Alirajpur) and back to Amarkantak saw Hariharanandji conducting workshops and public meetings on afforestation, sanitation, soil and water conservation, pollution control measures and promotion of organic farming.

Pt Yogendra Mahant: He raised his voice against the BJP state government over the Narmada scam and has convened a rath yatra from May 1 to May 15 in 45 districts. Mahant said the yatra would expose the state government for spending crores of rupees for plantation in the name of Narmada hariyali project. During the rath yatra, he said, it would be displayed on LED screens how the state government was fooling people of the state. The move by Chouhan to grant MoS status seemed to be a ploy to pacify the religious leader, some opposition leaders had alleged.

Narmadanandji: Narmadanandji Maharaj is a revered spiritual guru in Madhya Pradesh and organises yatras during Hanuman Jayanti and Ram Navami. Last year, he held several shobha yatras (procession) and events organised in different parts of the state and is associated with the Hanuman Janmotsava Samiti and Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha.

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