Cover Story

Target Varanasi

Print edition : December 07, 2018

The Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

River Ganga at one of the Ghats near the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

A Siva temple awaiting demolition.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath presents a memento to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi on September 18. Photo: PTI

In a striking similarity with the way in which the area surrounding the Babri Masjid was cleared by a BJP State government in 1991-92, homes, temples and shops are being demolished around the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex, raising fears about the fate of the mosque.

Yeh toh sirf jhanki hai, ab Kashi, Mathura baaki hai” (This is only the trailer, now Kashi and Mathura remain). This was the slogan that thousands of kar sevaks chanted as they left Ayodhya a day after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Two and a half decades later, a series of developments in Varanasi, especially around the Kashi Vishwanath temple, signal that the Sangh Parivar has launched an expedition to realise its goals. The most striking manifestation of this operation, which has been advanced in fervent bouts over the past four months, is the brazen moves made to gain full geographical control of the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex by demolishing over a hundred structures, including heritage buildings and temples around it. It is a multipronged undertaking facilitated by various departments of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in Uttar Pradesh and at the Centre and accompanied by communally polarising propaganda by a clutch of Hindutva-oriented organisations, some of which have sprung up all of a sudden and seem to have been set up especially as part of the “Target Varanasi Project”.

Significantly, the “project” is being advanced even as the leadership of the Sangh Parivar, from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) sarsanghachalak Mohan Rao Bhagawat to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, has revived an aggressive campaign on the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue, claiming that the construction of the temple is getting delayed unduly. The Sangh Parivar has even targeted the Supreme Court as part of this hostile campaign.

Another development that forms the backdrop for the “ Target Varanasi Project” is the series of renaming of several districts and towns across different parts of India, and in each case a Muslim place name has been changed to a Hindu one. Many senior leaders of the BJP, including Union and State Ministers, have repeatedly sought to highlight the “anti-Muslim” character of this serial name changing, which included turning Allahabad into Prayagaraj and Faizabad into Ayodhya. Many other similar proposals are being vociferously pushed across India. All these political and administrative exercises undertaken by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP governments at the Centre and in the States are evidently aimed at whipping up a communally polarising political narrative in the run-up to Assembly elections this year and the general election next year. These attempts have also exposed the phenomenal failure of the Narendra Modi-led government and State governments such as the one led by Yogi Adityanath to fulfil their election promises and live up to the aspirations of the people. It is becoming increasingly clear that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are blatantly taking recourse to the anti-Muslim, Hindutva plank, bereft as their governments are of any tangible or substantive socio-economic gains to present before the people. This context has aggravated the anxiety and apprehension of people around the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex, particularly the Muslim community in Varanasi.

This project has striking similarities with the acquisition and demolition of properties around the Babri Masjid that were carried out in Ayodhya between October 1991 and December 1992 by the then BJP government in Uttar Pradesh led by Kalyan Singh. The Kalyan Singh government acquired 2.77 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land in Ayodhya adjoining the Babri Masjid and the Ram Chabutra (Ram’s platform) used for Hindu worship, in October 1991. This 2.77-acre-area consisted of several temples, places of religious worship and other structures. The reason stated by the government for the acquisition then was the “beautification and modernisation” of the temple town of Ayodhya and some of its structures. But Sangh Parivar outfits, especially the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, which were at the forefront of the Ram temple agitation, made it clear that the acquisition was in fact for the beginning of the construction of a grand temple. Government agencies went about demolishing scores of structures around the Babri Masjid and the Ram Chabutra, including temples like Sumitra Bhawan and Sakshi Gopal Mandir (Frontline, April 24, 1992). The priests of these temples, Mahant Raj Mangal Das and Mahant Ram Kripal Das, raised objections to the demolition spree and approached the High Court and the Supreme Court. Ram Kripal Das used to constantly follow senior BJP leaders, including Lal Krishna Advani, to their press conferences and other public engagements in Ayodhya and raise pointed questions on the “adharma” that the Sangh Parivar was spreading through the demolition of smaller temples. However, all these objections came to nothing as the Sangh Parivar outfits kept on increasing their presence in, access to and control over large parts of the temple town, capturing and pushing out smaller temples and religious institutions led by mahants and sants who were not in the VHP fold. This process culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. After that, Ram Kripal Das disappeared rather mysteriously from Ayodhya. Raj Mangal Das died an unhappy man.

Nearly 26 years later, yet another BJP administration is invoking the “beautification and modernisation” mantra to unleash yet another round of frenzied acquisition and demolition. According to informal estimates, as of the second week of November 2018, as many as 168 structures, including about 95 residential buildings, have been taken over. Demolition of these buildings is at various stages of completion. The number of temples and places of worship that have been demolished would be approximately 55, say social activists associated with the Joint Action Committee and the Sajja Sanskriti Manch, which has been monitoring the demolitions. These organisations have, from time to time, raised issues of the violation of social and human rights during the demolition drive. While representatives of the government or the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust say that the total number of structures and buildings that need to be acquired will be in the range of 250-300, social activists point out that informal information from government departments puts the figure at 295. Talking to Frontline, Jagriti Rai and Diwaker of the Joint Action Committee pointed out that the acquisition-demolition drive had made hundreds of people homeless and deprived many more of their livelihood. Besides those directly affected by the project, there are many others who will lose their homes or shops for related schemes.

There are several components to the multifaceted “beautification and modernisation” plan. However, the operations around the Kashi Vishwanath temple come under a special component titled the “Ganga Darshan Pathway”. The project, widely considered to be a pet concept of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, envisages creating a wide, tree-lined pathway from the Ganga to the temple, replete with public facilities, benches and floodlights. The concept note on the project also states that refurbished heritage buildings and temples will stand on either side of the pathway. It adds that some of these are centuries old and that they will be restored to their pristine glory.

But, before all this is done, the advocates of the project on the ground—Hindutva combine activists claiming to be part of several new and old outfits—say that hundreds of buildings and shops in the area will have to be demolished. They also add that the religious and ritualistic importance of the project justifies such action. “The Prime Minister’s pet project seeks to fulfil an important ritualistic requirement of seeing the Ganga while the darshan of Siva takes place. This privilege has been denied to pilgrims all these years. Now that Prime Minister Modi has decided to go ahead with this, this ritualistic requirement will be fulfilled,” said Ved Prakash Sharma, an activist associated with the VHP.

That things are moving with the knowledge of Modi is clear from diverse factors. Hindutva activists and government officials associated with the project constantly draw attention to this. More importantly, a presentation made by the Trust before the Prime Minister on July 14, 2018, during his Varanasi visit makes it clear that he was briefed on various aspects of the “beautification and modernisation” plan. The presentation started with the overall objectives of the project and went on to specifically list the number of structures that would have to be “displaced”. At the time of the presentation, 65 structures had been identified for displacement, which included 48 temples, other places of worship and buildings of religious trusts. Significantly, the presentation also contained a rough sketch map depicting heritage buildings and very old structures.

The presentation listed four “important structures” that would have to be displaced. Among them was structure number CK28/11. This listing also had an explanatory note stating that this structure was situated at the Gyanvapi gate, or Gate No. 4 of the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex. On October 25, 2018, three months and 10 days after this point was highlighted before the Prime Minister, a small platform at Gate No. 4 was demolished by the local administration. This is the gate that also leads to the Gyanvapi mosque, which is situated in the same premises as the temple. The platform was the property of the Sunni Central Waqf Board.

The breaking down of the platform created such panic among members of the minority community in the area that within minutes thousands of Muslims gathered at the spot. They were soon joined by a large number of Hindus, including those affected by the demolition drive and activists of the Joint Action Committee. This mass response ultimately forced the administration to retract and rebuild the platform. Although an ugly situation was averted, the incident of October 25 has aggravated the sense of foreboding and fear among the Muslim community in the town. Many among the community have expressed the fear that the modernisation project of the government was just a ruse to implement a sinister game plan a la Ayodhya because the modus operandi was exactly the same as in Ayodhya.

What has added to the people’s fears is the absolute lack of transparency in the administration’s steps relating to the project. The veteran Hindi-language journalist Suresh Pratap, who has been consistently highlighting the violations associated with the acquisition-demolition drive, pointed out to Frontline that nobody in the government had come clean on the parameters of the project. “Nobody knows what is being done, but crores are being spent on mindless acquisition and demolition.” With no blueprint for what is being planned, no public disclosure of what the compensation or rehabilitation would be, there is nothing yet on paper to say what is being planned and how the execution is to proceed in a sensitive project of such huge dimensions. No wonder people are sceptical and are making fun of the Prime Minister. It is a common sight in Varanasi these days to see slogans like “kripya yahan gyaan na batein, yahan sab gyaani hain” (please don’t give us any lecture, here everyone is a scholar), a funny take on the Prime Minister’s assumption that people in Varanasi are ignorant about preserving their culture.

As in the case of the early days of the Ayodhya campaign in 1991-92, large sections among Hindus are opposing the government’s acquisition and demolition of heritage buildings, temples and houses. Many of them pointed out that the entire temple-mosque complex, along with its narrow lanes and bylanes, is the centre of Kashi’s heritage dating back to thousands of years and is supposed to be the seat of Siva. Not only the temple, but even the lanes and bylanes, and the dwelling units are associated with people’s faith, and local people believe that fiddling with this faith will bode ill for the entire city. These dwelling units also house ancient temples that are held in high esteem by devotees. The temple-mosque complex is a byzantine maze of narrow lanes and bylanes that criss-cross at various points and are densely packed with houses, shops and temples. These lanes are paved with bricks and are a huge attraction for foreign tourists because the bustling life in them is a marvel in itself. Most of the lanes are so narrow that only two normal-sized people can walk side by side through them. Cattle and dogs roam around freely without harming anyone. Shops do brisk business selling the knick-knacks typical of any temple city in India.

The temple has coexisted with these lanes, bylanes, houses and shops for centuries, and lakhs of people have gathered to worship the deity on auspicious days. For example, on July 30, 2018, which was the first Monday of the month of Shravan in the Hindu calendar when devotees consider it auspicious to offer water to Siva, approximately 2.5 lakh people visited the temple from all parts of the country. No untoward incident was reported from anywhere. People in Varanasi are proud that while stampedes have been reported from other parts of India during religious congregations, Varanasi, which has hosted many such congregations, has never ever reported a stampede. Old-timers give the credit for this to the narrow lanes and bylanes leading from the Ganga to the temple, for these act like barricades and force people to walk in single file, thus preventing any stampede.

Hence, demolishing houses and shops to widen these lanes has generated widespread anger and opposition. What makes it worse is that the affected people were not consulted and that there have been no formal disclosures about rehabilitation or compensation. In fact, not even a blueprint of the project is in existence even though demolitions are on in full swing. All sorts of conspiracy theories are doing the rounds. People are being threatened of sudden eviction in the middle of the night, being implicated in false cases, or simply being warned not to dare oppose the project. “People are scared. Lower-level municipality staff are randomly entering our houses and taking measurements. We know nothing about what lies ahead,” said Raj Kumar Kapoor, who owns a 20-room house in the area and runs a saree business from it. His family has been living in the area for centuries, and he is now at a loss to understand how he will be compensated. “At the most they will give me a three- or four-bedroom flat. How will they give me my identity which is associated with this place?” he said.

Krishna Kumar Sharma, who owns a house and a shop in the area, is equally upset, particularly because he has been an RSS worker for the past 50 years. Now he finds there is no one to listen to his grievances. He shows copies of letters written to the Prime Minister (“since he is our MP”), which have not even been acknowledged, let alone answered. Meetings with senior government officers have been of no use. “We don’t know why they are bent upon acquiring complete buildings and demolishing entire structures because if widening the road is the idea we are all willing to give five to 10 feet from our land. But there is nobody to even listen to us,” he said. His RSS background has not helped him, either. “Now new-age bhakts are ruling the city,” he said. He said that the arrogance on Modi’s part would prove his nemesis. “He is meddling with the spirituality of Kashi and will pay a price,” he said.

S.M. Yasin, general secretary at the Anjuman Intazamiya Masjid, the body that manages the Gyanvapi mosque, pointed out that the narrow lanes and shops around the mosque acted as a natural security buffer by preventing large numbers from gathering at any point. “Now what the government is doing will create space for thousands of people to gather at one time in the vicinity of the mosque, and we are afraid an Ayodhya-like situation will eventually develop,” he said. As things stand now, people of both communities are upset, especially with the manner in which the project is being executed. Hindus are upset at the massive destruction of ancient temples and heritage buildings, while Muslims are apprehensive that the widening of the roads will facilitate the congregation of thousands of devotees and eventually pose a threat to the Gyanvapi mosque. The mosque and the Ved Vyas Peeth, a Hindu religious centre and trust in the area with a long tradition, have now joined hands to move the Supreme Court seeking an immediate end to the ongoing upheaval in the area around the temple-mosque and maintainence of the status quo, as per its orders in the past.

Despite this show of unity and solidarity by the local population, fear and anxiety are palpable across the temple-mosque divide in the town. There is also the fact that more and more affected people are being threatened into subjugation. There is a sense that those voicing their protest may not be able to hold on for long before the threats and muscle power. Despite sporadic opposition, the government is continuing to bulldoze its way.

There are other reasons too why the protest has not acquired the traction that it could have. The first and foremost is that the owners of many buildings moved out long back. They either gave the houses to those who were working for them, called shebait (caretaker), or rented them out. The absentee owners who could be traced happily gave their houses to the government. In cases where the owners were not traceable, some shebaits were happy to take money and move out. Those living on rent, or those who had stopped paying any rent long back, have also agreed to hand over the properties. “Only a handful of legal owners are left, and they are protesting. We are getting no support from anywhere because people are afraid to speak out against the government,” said Raj Kumar Kapoor.

In private conversations, however, people cutting across social groups lash out at the Prime Minister for doing just cosmetic service to Varanasi instead of tackling its real problems of power cuts, bad roads and mounds of garbage. V.N. Mishra, professor of electronics at the Banaras Hindu University and mahant (religious head) of the Sankat Mochan temple, said: “Benares is a spiritual city. If anyone wants to develop it as a tourist city, it will be destroyed. Everything in this city is a part of Lord Siva. Don’t fiddle with the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, which in itself is an entire system.” He said that according to the Hindu belief system, Kashi was the centre of the earth, and the Kashi Vishwanath temple area housed the original culture of Kashi. Messing with it would spell doom, he said.

The government remains unfazed. Civic body staff could be seen moving around taking measurements of houses, making entries in their registers and making people fill in forms even as others heckled them. “We will clear all obstacles and complete the acquisition of properties by December 2018. By December 2019, approximately 40 per cent of the work will be completed,” says Vishal Singh, secretary of the Varanasi Development Authority and CEO of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, which is helming the project in a big way. (See interview with Vishal Singh on page 22.)

The temple management was taken over by the State government 35 years ago, and the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust manages the temple’s affairs.

According to Vishal Singh, the controversy about the corridor is unwarranted because no civil construction will take place in the area and no religious structure will be disturbed. “We are only trying to clear encroachments and create some breathing space here, besides providing some basic amenities to the lakhs of people who come here,” he says. He also says that all house owners, whether actual owners, tenants or shebaits, or even illegal tenants, will be compensated adequately. The shopkeepers, too, will be rehabilitated suitably. “Houses that are old heritage buildings will be refurbished and temples will be freed of encroachments and restored,” he says. A unique phenomenon in Kashi is that there are temples inside houses. There are 43 such temples within houses. According to Vishal Singh, the temples will be renovated once they are freed of the encroaching houses around them. A total of 296 properties are to be acquired. According to him, there is no credible ground for opposition; there is only resistance to change. The local people feel otherwise. As V.N. Mishra says: “Who has given you [Modi] the permission to change Lord Siva’s abode?”

People are also sceptical about the government’s intentions because of their experiences so far. Those who have been thrown out of their houses are forced to live either on rent or with friends or relatives. The situation of the octogenarian Kedarnath Vyas and his family is a case in point. He is the patron of Ved Vyas Peeth, the centuries-old centre for research on Vedas and Puranas. Vyas Peeth, a four-storey mansion, that housed thousands of books, antique statues, expensive idols and rare manuscripts, was the first major religious institution to be razed, in August 2017. Although the government promised proper rehabilitation, the fragile old man is now forced to live in a four-room rented accommodation with the family of his son, Jitendra Nath Vyas.

Jitendra Nath Vyas is the main petitioner, along with the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, in the writ petititon in the Supreme Court. In his dark, dingy room, Kedarnath Vyas, who cannot hear or see properly, cuts a sorry figure as he sits on a cot with huge bundles of books and rare manuscripts strewn around. “All I want is a proper place where my books, manuscripts and other ancient items can be preserved safely,” he said in a feeble voice.

The arrogance with which the government is going about this project is shocking. What is even more surprising is the silence of the political parties. “We are in a dilemma. If we start an agitation, this will give a fillip to their [the BJP’s] communal agenda and that is what they want. There are only two ways to stop this mindless madness: either the people rise against this project and prevent the government from executing its communal agenda or the Supreme Court thwarts this nefarious game plan,” says Virendra Singh, former Minister and a Bahujan Samaj Party leader.

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