Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot last week wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterating his demand for Mangarh Dham in Rajasthan’s Banswara district to be declared a “National Monument”. This came ahead of the PM’s scheduled visit to Mangarh on November 1.
Mangarh Dham is known for the massacre of tribals that took place six years before Jallianwalla Bagh and is sometimes referred to as the “Adivasi Jallianwala”. British forces killed hundreds of Bhil tribals on November 17, 1913, in the hills of Mangarh on the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. As per another letter Gehlot had written to Modi on August 8, 1,500 tribals were killed in the massacre.
Tribals from Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh revere the site as a sacred place and it is a key element of tribal identity that both the BJP and the Congress have been attempting to harness. While Gujarat goes to polls this year, elections are scheduled in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan next year. Amid the jostling to win brownie points from Adivasis in the region is the importance of the site itself and the growing relevance of the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP).
The importance of the site can be gauged by the fact that one of the main objectives of BTP, formed in 2017, is the creation of a separate “Bhil Pradesh” and that goal has its roots in Mangarh Dham. According to BTP Rajasthan president Dr Velaram Ghogra, Bhil social reformer and spiritual leader Govind Guru first raised the demand for a separate state for tribals back in 1913 after the Mangarh massacre.
A century on, the demand finally seems to be gathering pace with the BTP managing to link tribal politics and the interests of the community. The BTP envisions a Bhil Pradesh being carved out of 39 districts spread over four states: 16 in Gujarat, 10 in Rajasthan, seven in Madhya Pradesh, and six in Maharashtra.
In Rajasthan, the Adivasis are concentrated in the southern-most districts of Banswara (where all five Assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes or STs), Dungarpur (all four reserved for STs), Pratapgarh (both seats reserved for STs), and Udaipur (five out of eight seats are reserved for STs). There is also one seat reserved for STs in next-door Sirohi. Together, the ST seats in these five districts add up to 17 seats of the total 25 in the state. Of these 25, Congress has 13, BJP has 8, and BTP and independents have two each.
However, the BTP’s rise has led to unease among the two big parties. This nervousness was on display during the Rajasthan Zila Parishad (ZP) elections in December 2020 when the ZP members of the ruling Congress and the Opposition BJP joined forces to defeat a Zila Pramukh candidate that BTP had supported in Dungarpur. BTP-backed Independents won 13 of the 27 seats in the Dungarpur Zila Parishad while the BJP and the Congress won eight and six seats respectively.
Modi last visited the region in September, when he addressed people without a microphone at Abu Road since it was past 10 pm by the time he reached. Earlier this month, Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Renuka Singh inaugurated a Janjatiya Sahkar Sammelan in Banswara.
Since the November 1 programme is being organised by the Union government in association with an NGO, Shivganga, the CMs of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh are expected to be in attendance. Similarly, BJP presidents from these three states are also expected to be in attendance. In Rajasthan, BJP state president Satish Poonia has been mobilising party workers to ensure a huge crowd in Mangarh.
On its part, the Rajasthan government has also been focusing on Mangarh. In August, it said, “To pay a rich tribute to the supreme sacrifice of the tribals and the contribution of Govind Guru, the state government (has) built Tribal Freedom Struggle Museum at Mangarh Dham. Along with this, a road has been constructed till Mangarh Dham and various works have been taken up for the development of this site.”
And a day after sending the letter to Modi, Gehlot was in Banswara on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, or World Tribal Day, on August 9. He inaugurated and laid the foundation of projects worth Rs 399 crore for Mangarh and Sanga Doongari.
There are indications that PM Modi may finally announce Mangarh Dham as a “National Monument” and if it happens it may lead to a slugfest between the BJP and the Congress as they vie for credit. Back in May, Union Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and Culture Arjun Ram Meghwal, who keeps visiting Mangarh, said that Mangarh Dham would be declared a “national monument by the central government under the successful leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi”.