“Target Varanasi Project”—the so-called “beautification and modernisation” of the ancient temple town—and the political and communal polarisation propaganda that has accompanied it have gathered momentum over the last fortnight of 2018. This is visible both as work on the ground and as new attempts to vitiate the atmosphere of peace and communal harmony in Varanasi.
The communal polarisation games have not led to an ugly situation yet, thanks mainly to the restraint shown by the demographically significant Muslim minorities of the town. However, the resentment against the demolition drive has also grown, albeit marginally, with a new set of religious and political leaders joining hands with those who were already protesting against the project advanced by the Varanasi Development Authority and the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust.
Bulldozers and JCB excavators arrived on the scene in the last week of December, forcing their way through the narrow lanes and mohallas around the Lalita Ghat and demolishing scores of heritage edifices, including houses and places of worship. The demolition drive started in July, when the parameters of the project were officially presented before Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For five months the demolitions were being done manually as the lanes were too narrow for big machines. By the third week of December, officials in charge of the project assessed that enough number of structures and spaces had been cleared and brought in the machines. As a result, the drive has acquired a new speed as the path towards the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex is becoming wider, with ancient houses and buildings around it razed to the ground.
According to official estimates, as of the last week of December, approximately 215 of the 270 structures identified for demolition have been brought down. Although there is no official confirmation, the talk among the demolition squad, including senior officials, is a semblance of the “Ganga Darshan pathway” would be ready by mid January, when two major events are slated to happen in Varanasi and Allahabad, two big towns on the banks of the Ganga.
The events are: the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference to be held in Varanasi from January 21 to 23, 2019, and the Prayagraj Ardh-Kumbh from January 15 to March 4. The participants at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas will also be taken to the Ardh-Kumbh for a holy dip.
The “Ganga Darshan pathway”, an important component of the “beautification and modernisation” plan that is widely considered to be a pet concept of Modi, is envisaged as a wide, tree-lined pathway from the Ganga to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, with many public facilities and fancy lights along the way.
The venue for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference is across the the Kashi Vishwanath temple ghats. The plan, according to an official involved in the demolition drive, is to enable conference participants to view the temple from the other bank of the river.
Even as the demolition and construction works were on, a number of protests broke out in different parts of the town on a variety of social and faith-related issues. One of the major triggers of the protests was the discovery of some 185 sacred idols, most of them “shivlings”, dumped in a drainage at Lanka near the Assi Ghat area, which is also on the “beautification and modernisation” map.
These idols were discovered over a few days between December 15 and 20. The natural conclusion of the local people was that these were dumped by the demolition team during an intensified drive in the last two weeks of December. People believe that the demolition team had taken recourse to this despicable act in its hurry to clear the rubble from the demolished places of worship so that they could speed up the project. People came out to protest spontaneously at different places.
Swami Avimukteshwaranand, the chief disciple of Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati, the shankaracharya of Jyotirmath, took a leadership role in these protests. He led a march to the Lanka police station and demanded that the idols be reinstated at places of worship with necessary rituals. The spiritual guru also offered to carry out the purification rituals necessary. However, the police and representatives of the Varanasi Development Authority refused to hand over the idols to him and said that they would do the purification rituals on their own.
On their part, the Varanasi Development Authority and the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust offered a twofold defence on the discovery of the idols. One line of argument is that the discovery of the dump is the result of a social and political conspiracy that needed to be investigated. The second line is that many of these “shivlings” were being used by bad elements in the local population to dupe pilgrims and that they did not have much sanctity. There is also a third line, put forth by some police officers, which says that the original places of worship of the “shivlings” have been found and that they are being returned to these places.
Ajay Rai, a local Congress leader who is considered to be fairly influential in the region, took up the issue and filed a first information report (FIR) on the dumping of the idols. The FIR pointed out that the project authorities did not accord the honour and respect that sacred idols deserve and that they blatantly violated Hindu religious practices.
Speaking to Frontline , Rai said that along with the structures, the rich history of the lanes and bylanes was also being razed. He pointed out that the authorities were using a combination of ploys to get possession of the structures and houses standing in the way of the project. “Wherever it is possible, they induce owners of structures and houses through huge monetary offers; wherever it cannot be done, they exert various kinds of pressure, foisting property-related cases on owners to open threats and physical evacuation. The cumulative effect of this is such that people are terrified, and this is the primary reason for the resistance to this project not being as widespread as it should be,” Rai said.
One aspect of these tactics is unambiguously communal and aimed at polarisation. Along with the intensification of activities on the ground for the project, Hindutva activists at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple are engaged in systematic transgression on the Gyanvapi mosque in the compound adjacent to the temple. The transgression has taken different forms. In the last fortnight of December, it began with the installation of an audio system within the temple premises and round-the-clock recital of bhajans and kirtans. The speakers of the audio system were placed in a manner clearly aimed at disturbing the azaan from the mosque. The Anjuman Intazamiya Masjid, the trust that manages the Gyanvapi mosque, took up this issue with the district administration, and the bhajans and kirtans were stopped at the time of the azaan, which is recited five times a day for a few minutes.
However, a new round-the-clock bhajan-kirtan system has been instituted at the temple, marking new styles of audio or sound-effect dominance in the Mandir-Masjid complex. Along with this, an important structure that demarcated the boundaries of the temple and the mosque has also been demolished.
Evidently, all these have generated an overwhelming sense of trepidation within the Muslim community in Varanasi. A group of Muslims, who did not wish to be named, told Frontline that although it was heartening to see important religious and political leaders highlighting the issues related to the project and the demolition drive, they were not sure how effective these would ultimately be.
“As far as we can see, the administration seems to be going ahead with a clear plan that has prefixed milestones such as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and the Ardh-Kumbh. We do not know what milestones they will fix next and indeed we fear the worst,” they said.