Located amid picturesque Bhil villages on a hill at the far end of southern Rajasthan, Mangarh Dham is split between Rajasthan and Gujarat, literally.
Move a few metres away from the statue of Bhil social reformer and spiritual leader Govind Guru, you are promptly greeted with a “welcome to Gujarat” text message by BSNL.
“Look at the Gujarat side of the temple. Gujarat has a small part of this site but its very well developed due to the efforts of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, but the Rajasthan part barely gets power or water,” says Ramchandra Giri, the Mahant of Mangarh Dham.
It was here, six years before the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, that over 1,500 Bhil tribals were killed by British forces on November 17, 1913.
On Tuesday, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje addressed thousands of Bhils from Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, gathered here to observe the “balidaan diwas” (Martyrdom Day) of their ancestors.
The event was held under the banner of BJP’s ST Morcha and was attended by a bevy of tribal leaders from the party including Sudarshan Bhagat, Mansukh Baswa (both Union ministers of state), Udaipur MP Arjun Lal Meena, Chhattisgarh MLA Ramvichar Netam, ST Morcha national president Faggan Singh Kulaste among others.
Raje, a frequent visitor to the region’s Tripura Sundari temple, arrived at Mangarh in a chopper with a Bhil priest. During her speech, she gestured towards the tribals, calling them devi-devta (gods and goddesses) and said she had come to seek their blessings ahead of the Resurgent Rajasthan Summit.
She assured the gathering that the state government would request PM Modi, “who is specially attached to Mangarh”, for a national museum to be built at the martyrdom site.
PM Narendra Modi had visited Mangarh in September 2012 when he was the Gujarat chief minister.
During her speech, Raje made a phone call to Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari about improving highway connectivity to Mangarh and then announced the widening of the 5 km stretch that connected the hill with the villages down below.
“This is a sacred place. It should be away from politics. However, one needs to think about what has happened here during the last five years,” she said. “I don’t want to comment on someone saying what happened to the Rs 2.80 crore they allocated for the development of Mangarh. When we checked the budget books, we found those funds had been utilized,” she said in a veiled reference to former MLA Mahendrajeet Singh Malviya’s allegations about non-utilization of funds given by the previous Congress government.
She later directed Onkar Singh Lakhawat, chairperson of the Rajasthan Heritage Conservation and Promotion Authority to develop a master plan for the site in consultation with the governments of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
In another sop for the tribal region, Raje said the government had for the first time recognized Beneshwar Dham-the confluence of Mahi, Som and Jakham rivers considered sacred by tribals-as a revenue village to ensure its proper development.
The southern Rajasthan region has traditionally been a Congress stronghold but the BJP has lately been trying to strengthen its presence here.
Both parties have recently given ministerial berths to MLAs representing this region-Mahendrajeet Singh Malviya was the Panchayati Raj minister in the Congress government while Jeetmal Khant is the minister of state for general administration in the Raje government.
Luckily for BJP, Khant, who represents Gadhi assembly consituency under which Mangarh falls, had recently switched from the JD (U) to the BJP, days ahead of the 2013 assembly polls.
Mangarh, which is revered as a sacred place by Bhils from three states-Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh-is a key element of tribal identity that both parties have been attempting to harness.
The place has inauguration plaques bearing names of both Gehlot and Raje on opposite sides, besides one with that of PM Narendra Modi in another corner.
While the Congress government was the first to officially commemorate the martyrdom day-on November 17, 2013, the centeneray year of the massacre-the Raje-led BJP government is leaving no stone unturned to reach out to the Bhils either.
“We won’t say which party has worked more for us, but Raje ji has recently done a lot for this place,” says Mahant Ramchandra Giri, whose father had been a Congress MLA in the 1980s.