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Who is behind Madhya Pradesh’s ‘Bulldozer baba’? Not BJP or RSS, it’s the Congress

Dhirendra Krishna Shastri is a 25-yr-old man who went from an auto driver to a godman. Last week, he told Hindus to ‘wake up’ and level ‘stone-pelters’ houses with bulldozers’.

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Sagar/Chattarpur: It is 2 pm in the afternoon, and mercury has hit 42°C. It’s inadvisable to leave the confines of your house. But in the arid, unforgiving heat of Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, hundreds of bare-footed people are standing directly under the sun, hands folded.

Some of them have grave physical ailments. There’s a 5-year-old child with a hole in her heart, a 16-year-old who recently suffered a paralysis attack, and a 40-year-old man whose leg was amputated four months ago. They are attending a 7-day-long programme at Chil Pahadi village in Banda constituency, where Dhirendra Krishna Shastri is organising darbars and giving sermons. Shastri is 25-years-old and the head priest of Bageshwar Dham in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur town and recently garnered nationwide ‘fame’ for his dog-whistling against Muslims. “If you don’t wake up now, you’ll have to suffer in your village too. I request all the Hindus to stay united, and get the houses of stone-pelters levelled by bulldozers,” he had said addressing a huge gathering in Chil Pahadi last week. Many now call him ‘Bulldozer Baba’—something Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has also been called. Shastri’s devotees don’t seem to care.

“I am in incredible pain. I just need some relief,” says Vinod Kurmi, a farmer who travelled 200 kilometres from Sironj to Sagar to meet the latest godman making headlines. “I saw him on television, I have heard he’s god’s messenger. He can help relieve some pain,” the 39-year-old says. Kurmi’s right leg was amputated four months ago because of the fear of gangrene, and he’s experiencing phantom limb pains. Standing on one leg, breaking into sobs, Kurmi is waiting for Shastri to heal him.

Shastri is one of many Hindu godmen and sadhus who have recently made headlines for their Islamophobic remarks. Another recurring theme in their inflammatory speeches are calls for the unification of Hindus against an ‘enemy’, with threats of violence.

Shastri’s ‘bulldozer’ comments were a reference to riots in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone that happened on 10 April on Ram Navami. After the riots, the district administration destroyed houses and shops of alleged rioters, profiling persons who overwhelmingly belonged to the Muslim community. ThePrint had earlier reported that of 148 arrests made so far in Khargone riots, only six were Hindus. Bulldozing houses of rioters also earned Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan the nickname ‘Bulldozer mama’. 

How do these ‘godmen’—babas, sadhus and sadhvis—gain importance and armies of devotees? Shastri didn’t need to go viral by making some provocative remarks; lakhs of people were already turning up to attend his sermons. ThePrint traced his journey, the new kid on the block, for some answers, and found that political patronage, not limited to the RSS or the BJP, is behind the success of saffron monks.

People stand in scorching heat, waiting for Dhirendra Krishna Shastri | Shubhangi Misra/ThePrint

Also read: BJP’s divide-and-rule plan is working – Hate is now fully automated, led by youth

From auto driver to ascetic

Shastri’s Bageshwar Dham, a Hanuman temple, in Gadha, Madhya Pradesh, is about 25 kilometres from Khajuraho.

The way to this remote village is currently dotted with new construction of ashrams, small hotels and restaurants on either side. As the temple becomes popular, the local economy booms. The place has gained prominence in the past four years, ever since Shastri became popular for his ‘clairvoyant’ abilities. People say Shastri can read everyone’s mind, and that his prayers are directly answered by Lord Balaji himself.

“Pandit ji used to drive an auto, just like us common folk till about 3-4 years ago,” said Shivam Mishra, an auto driver in the area. Till four years ago, Mishra says, there was nothing but a kuchha (makeshift) mandir here. But now devotees from the entire country pour in on Tuesdays and Saturdays— considered auspicious days by Hanuman devotees. “Sab balaji ki kripa hai, my business is doing well,” Mishra says.

Shastri’s success was almost overnight. While the Bageshwar Mandir established by Shastri’s grandfather is said to be as old as village Gadha itself, the popularity of the temple or the priest was still limited. Shastri’s popularity seems to have ballooned in 2021, when right before the Covid lockdown, a three-day programme was organised by Chhatarpur Congress MLA Alok Chaturvedi in April and was broadcast on Aastha TV.

Since then, Shastri’s programmes have been regularly televised on Sanskaar TV, which made his appeal go nationwide.

“Maharaj ji has been visiting me since 2012-13 when he was still a 17-year-old boy. He would often invite me to his temple to attend his darbars, back then there wasn’t even a concrete road to reach the temple, and about 10-12 people would visit him,” Chaturvedi told ThePrint. “2016 is when Maharaj ji’s popularity really increased, but in the past year or so it has touched unprecedented levels,” he added.

That television is the main source of Shastri’s popularity is evident in his limited social media relevance or reach. Bageshwar Dham’s YouTube Channel was launched in June 2019, and currently has over 6 lakh subscribers. While a public Facebook group only has 2,800 members. The Youtube page is full of sermons given by Shastri at various programmes, it also has YouTube shorts where Shastri can be seen cracking a joke — he is known for his sense of ‘humour’ among his followers.

However, Chaturvedi says that word-of-mouth is the biggest reason why so many people come to Shastri. “Maharaj ji has been reading his kathaein [sermons] in various villages of Chhatarpur for eight years. You can call it the consequence of television or social media or coverage in local news, but when people hear personal stories of miracles that have happened because of his blessings, they automatically associate with him,” he adds. According to Chaturvedi, Shastri has a special ability to treat people’s diseases. 

“He treats people suffering from cancer, I personally know someone who was suffering from kidney failure and with Maharaj ji‘s kripa [blessings] was taken off dialysis. A lot of people in the initial stages of cancer also seek treatment from him.”

Some philanthropic ventures by Shastri have also catapulted him to a godman status. This includes tending to cows, helping arrange weddings of poor women, tree plantation and arranging 24×7 annapurna bhandaras (rice distribution).

A woman being ‘exorcised’ at Bageshwar Dham | Shubhangi Misra/ThePrint

Also read: Indian Constitution was bulldozed between Ram Navami & Hanuman Jayanti. It needs to be rescued

Congress ka ‘haath’ 

When asked about his contribution to Shastri’s success, MLA Chaturvedi smirked and said: “See, we are nobodies, what can we do? We are mere followers. We do what we need to do for religion.”

Shastri’s 7-day programme at Chil Pahadi was organised by Ajit Singh, a local member of the Congress party who is said to be the right-hand man of Banda constituency MLA Tarvar Singh Lodhi.

In these polarised times, says Chaturvedi, development issues are not winning any votes. “I didn’t get as much praise for any developmental work I have done, as I did for putting 1,000 saffron flags across Chhatarpur on Ram Navami,” he said. “Dharam ke aadhar pe abhi vote aa rahe hain [votes are being cast on the basis of religion]”.

Chhatarpur MLA Alok Chaturvedi who has long been associated with Dhirendra Shastri | Shubhangi Misra/ThePrint

In that sense, the Congress party is also not shying away from Hindutva politics. Dhirendra Shastri was staying at the house of a Congress member, parroting the politics endorsed by the BJP. “I made that remark for protecting the sanatan, the sisters and mothers of sanatan, I didn’t make that remark against any particular community,” he said.

Behind every successful neta is a baba and vice-versa. From the deras of Punjab to the akhadas of Haridwar, followers of godmen make for a tempting vote base every politician wants to get their hands on. While this programme was organised by a Congress member, BJP leaders like Bhupendra Singh were also in attendance.

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