Steam­rolling ahead

FrontLine - - CONTROVERSY - BY VENKITESH RA­MAKR­ISH­NAN RE­CENTLY IN VARANASI

The

de­mo­li­tion drive in Varanasi con­tin­ues, bring­ing down

her­itage ed­i­fices and po­lar­is­ing the pop­u­la­tion.

“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 Ardhkumbh 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.

PO­LAR­I­SA­TION

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-the­clock 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.

PEO­PLE WALK PAST a nar­row lane cov­ered with dust caused by the de­mo­li­tion of build­ings, in Varanasi on Novem­ber 24. De­mo­li­tion work is be­ing car­ried out for the Kashi Vish­wanath Tem­ple Cor­ri­dor.

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