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Monk’s death over mining dispute churns Rajasthan politics ahead of election

Workers at the site of Encasa Mines and Mineral Pvt. Ltd., Village Nangal, Bhuapur Garhi and Beg Pahari, Tehsil Nagar, Bharatpur District, Rajasthan.

Workers at the site of Encasa Mines and Mineral Pvt. Ltd., Village Nangal, Bhuapur Garhi and Beg Pahari, Tehsil Nagar, Bharatpur District, Rajasthan. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The self-immolation and death of a septuagenarian monk, Baba Vijay Das, who was protesting against mining in Bharatpur has intensified politics in Rajasthan, the State set to witness polls by the end of the next year.

While both the Congress and the BJP, in their respective tenures, allowed the mining industry to flourish in culturally demarcated Braj region, the incident has given an opportunity to the Opposition BJP to attack the ruling Congress government for ‘neglecting a long-pending public demand’. The seers, struggling to get the region mining-free since decades, are happy after the government placed an ‘immediate ban’ on quarrying in the mountains which has religious significance, but those involved and employed in the trade are miffed with ‘appeasement politics’.

BJP’s Rajasthan president Satish Punia attacked the Congress government over the monk’s death and accused the Ministers and MLAs of having their own mines and hence ‘personally favouring’ the mining mafia lobby.

“The government overlooked the issue of religious significance and failed to maintain law and order,” he said.

The Opposition also sent a fact-finding committee to probe the monk’s death and has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry in the matter.

The agitation against mining in Braj — spread in 15 districts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — was started by Ramesh Baba from Man Mandir (Mathura) in 2004. He succeeded when the State government, in 2008, declared hundreds of hectares of the revered area — including mountains — as ‘forest’. But Aadi Badri and Kanachal mountains were left out.

As time passed, some seers felt that what had been done was not enough and Baba Vijay Das was one of them. The agitation started again but gained extraordinarily momentum in January 2021. On July 20, the 553rd day of protest, Baba set himself ablaze. He passed away due to burn injuries in a Delhi hospital on July 23.

The government said that the incident happened when it had already declared a ban on mining in the mountains. Even the seers had agreed to end the protest.

Congress blames previous BJP regimes

“What Vijay Das did was unexpected and it had changed everything,” said Radhakant Shastri, office-bearer of Braj Parvat Avam Paryawaran Sanrakshan Samiti that lead the agitation from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress, which is now bearing the brunt of ‘delayed action’ from seers and allegations of ‘appeasement politics’ from the mine owners, said that things would not have taken a turn for the worst had the BJP, in its previous tenures, taken a stand on the issue.

“The Opposition leaders, who are accusing us themselves have never visited the protest site,” said Swarnim Chaturvedi, spokesperson of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee.

He also accused the Opposition of trying to incite communal tension in Rajasthan.

Amid the political chaos over the death of the monk, those involved in the agitation feel that despite the matter being environmentally and religiously important, political parties which ruled Rajasthan took it lightly.

“When we organised protests in 2017, when Vasundhara Raje was the CM, it was suppressed,” said Mr. Shastri.

The locals in Pasopa village — that housed the temple of Lord Aadi Badri and is the centre of the agitation — said that both the BJP and the Congress were in direct contest in polls but as politicians from both parties have a stake in the mining business, either directly or otherwise, the matter stretched so long.

“The VHP and the RSS were in favour of getting Braj free from mining, but the BJP paid no heed to it. The Congress also didn’t want to stop it but the U.P. elections spoiled the plans,” said Nirmal Kumar, a resident of Mathura.

A delegation of the Congress headed by Pradeep Mathur met Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Priyanka Gandhi before the Uttar Pradesh polls. Mr. Gehlot immediately announced that mining would be stopped, but after the polls the issue took a back seat. BJP MP Hema Malini has also written to Mr. Gehlot to declare the two mountains as forest land last year.

Sandeep Chaudhary, owner of Encasa mines and minerals, the biggest mines located on the mountains in Bharatpur’s Sikri divison, which seers say is ‘Aadi Badri’ mountain, said that things were not as bad in the BJP’s tenure as they were now.

“Seers have tried to do similar agitations during BJP’s tenure also but the matter was handled and persuaded wisely by Vasundhara Raje,” said Mr. Chaudhary.

The owner of the mine — that has been ordered to stop quarrying — claimed that it had to supply the stones needed for the construction of a large part of the Ganga Expressway, the road between Gaziabad and Aligarh and Mathura bypass. They were also hopeful to get a contract to supply stones at Jewar airport.

To save his investments of over ₹ 100 crores that had gone into setting up the mine, Mr. Chaudhary is now planning to move to court.

Workers left in the lurch

The sudden ‘shutdown’ of the mines has not just miffed the rich owners but also the poor workforce employed in the activity.

Haseena Begum from Bhuapur Garhi village, was employed with Encasa mines for over five years. The job had changed her life. She is one among the nearly 25,000 workers employed in over 40 ‘legal’ mines that were running on the two mountains.

The seers and mining owners still have a long battle ahead of them. Thirteen-year-old Durga —grandaughter of Baba Vijay Das — has already lost all she had. Durga came to Man Mandir Ashram with her grandfather after the death of her father. Her mother also died reportedly due to ailments.

“Now, she is our responsibility,” says Mr. Shastri who said that the government’s ₹5 lakh ex-gratia would be deposited in her account.

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Printable version | Sep 1, 2022 1:33:35 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/monks-death-over-mining-dispute-churns-rajasthan-politics-ahead-of-election/article65694361.ece