It took months of anti-government campaigning and a sudden twist in the tale for a man named “Computer Baba” and four other Hindu religious leaders to become junior ministers in Madhya Pradesh.

For at least six months, Hindu sadhu Namdeo Das Tyagi – known by the moniker Computer Baba – had been running a fierce campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state. Alleging large-scale scams and corruption in the conservation of river Narmada, Computer Baba had mobilised hundreds of other sadhus across the country to participate in a six-week long Narmada Ghotala Yatra from April 1 to May 15, aimed at exposing the alleged problems of the BJP state government.

On March 31, however, a meeting with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan appeared to have made the difference. Computer Baba and four other sadhus were appointed as members of a special government committee for promoting the conservation of the Narmada. On April 3, the state government accorded Minister of State status to all the five religious leaders.

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In addition to Computer Baba, the state also appointed Yogendra Mahant, Bhaiyyuji Maharaj, Narmadanand Maharaj and Hariharanand Maharaj to the committee. Yogendra Mahant had been working with Computer Baba as the coordinator of the Narmada Ghotala Yatra. Bhaiyyuji Maharaj is a former model and a spiritual guru, whose followers include politicians like former president Pratibha Patil.

In their new roles as Ministers of State, the sadhus will be entitled to an allowance of Rs 7,500 a month along with other perks.

Claiming that this was “not a political move”, state BJP spokesperson Rahul Kothari told Scroll.in that the religious leaders had been made junior ministers so that the state government could “support their work” with the people. “When these sants met with the government, they understood that the government is actually doing very good work with Narmada conservation. So the government thought of setting up a committee to let them work directly on this issue,” said Kothari. “But the roles and powers of the committee have not yet been decided – that will take some time.”

Change of mind

According to a state government order on April 3, the official purpose of the special committee will be to “raise public awareness” about tree plantation along the Narmada, water conservation and maintaining cleanliness of the river.

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The five sadhus tasked with this job, however, had been crying foul about these very issues just days before their appointment to the committee.

Computer Baba – named either after his “fast” brain or the fact that he always carries a laptop – had planned the Narmada Ghotala (scam) Yatra on the premise that the state government’s claims about Narmada river conservation were a sham. His campaign alleged that the state government was allowing the sand mafia to illegally excavate sand from the Narmada, and that the state’s project of planting six crore trees along the river’s banks had remained on paper.

In a video promoting the Narmada Ghotala Yatra that was to begin on April 1, the organisers added another allegation against the government: that it had failed to prevent cow slaughter. The video claimed that the purpose of the Yatra would be to campaign against the sand mafia, those who commit cow slaughter and those who commit crimes against the environment.

Computer Baba, who was at the forefront of this campaign, had been critical of the BJP government for years, and had attempted to stand for the Lok Sabha election on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket in 2014. While he failed to get the ticket, he had claimed in a February 2015 interview that the “saffron brigade” had only “exploited sadhus”.

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“Right up to March 30, Computer Baba was claiming that the BJP government is under the influence of the sand mafia,” said Bhupendra Gupta, the head of the intellectual cell of Madhya Pradesh state Congress. “Now the government has come under the pressure of these sants and has appeased them with minister positions. The public is not going to be happy.”

In an interview with ANI on Wednesday, Computer Baba claimed he was thankful to the BJP government for making him and other sadhus ministers. “We thank the government on behalf of the sadhu community for showing trust in us, we will try our best to work for welfare of the society,” he said.

A day after he was made a Minister of State, Computer Baba advertised his new position on his car. Photos: Raj Patidar