Most residents of the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi, also Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, say modernity has taken its toll on their livelihoods and sense of identity.
The Indian city of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, attracts thousands to its meandering lanes and temples every day. In fact, the historic city is a magnet for visitors from around the globe all year round.
Yet, in recent years, the ancient city has been subjected to structural changes that many locals have described as an attack on its essence.
The Kashi Vishwanath corridor was initiated by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, supposedly to provide worshippers with easier access to the holy city. But it has cut through the area, leading to the incremental demolition of scores of ancient houses, some of them 300 to 500 years old, as well as Kashi lane, home to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Although the government claimed that the corridor, 56 metres wide and 300 metres long, aims to beautify the area and establish a direct link from the temple to the Ganges river, the project was met with vehement protest when it was announced.
Perhaps even more distressing to locals than the actual demolitions is the fact that many of these homes have small, holy temples within them.
“We never even got official notice,” Krishna Kumar Sharma, a local resident, told TRT World. Sharma’s is one of the houses that has been demolished.
“We found out about this corridor [and the fact that our homes would be acquired] through a Hindi news channel report in 2017.”
“A unique part about Kashi was that almost every home housed a temple,” says Sharma. “Now that they have demolished over 250 houses thus far, you can imagine the number of temples that have also been broken. On top of that, there’s no count of the number of deities’ idols that have been damaged.”
While the narrowness of the lanes always posed a challenge to the devotees, plans to modify or expand the area were reportedly shelved in the past owing to the threat of political losses. Things changed after Yogi Adityanath, a saint-turned-politician, took over as chief minister in the state in 2017.
Lives and livelihoods affected
Earlier this month, Modi, who is the Varanasi MP, laid the foundation stone of the corridor in the vast maidan (ground) that was created after razing down several shops and homes.
He said that it was with Lord Shiva’s (a Hindu God) blessings itself that the project is moving forward. But these words have not struck the right chord with the locals. “Modi said that whatever work has been done for the corridor was undertaken in keeping with religious tenets. This is a blatant lie,” said Ganesh Shankar Upadhyay, head priest of a small temple in Kashi.
While most locals are critical of the project, some support it. Sumit Dwivedi, an 18-year-old priest at the Kashi Vishwanath temple, is all praise for the corridor and blames the opposition for creating a controversy.
“This project is good for us,” Dwivedi says. “It will help give devotees a clear darshan [vantage point] of the Ganga [Ganges]. Congress [the opposition party] is just creating politics over this.”
While Sharma, like others, got compensation, for him, it was never about the money. “My ancestors lived in that house,” he says.
“I belonged there. We all did. They not only took my house away, they took away my livelihood, too. I used to run a general store on the ground floor.”
Sharma’s disappointment with the current government also comes from his decades-long allegiance to the ruling party. He had been associated with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organisation said to be the ideological backbone of the BJP.
“In the name of ‘being Hindu’, they took votes and formed the government. The Hindu community gave them their full support. Now look what they have done. They promised to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. They have razed down so many temples here as it is. They should not call themselves Hindus,” he added.
“We used to worship the BJP at one point of time. They have stabbed us in the back,” said Manish Khanna, Sharma’s former neighbour, who also lost his house because of the project. Khanna’s residence housed a famous temple that he says finds mention in sacred texts dating back over a thousand years. While his home has been demolished, the temple still stands.
According to local sources, more houses and shops will be demolished as the work progresses. “We have been supporting each other. Many people who lost their jobs because of the demolition were hired by other shops and many moved to different parts of the city looking for other work,” Akash Seth, a shopkeeper who sells religious paraphernalia, tells TRT World.
Girdhar Yadav, 36, another shopkeeper who sells lassi (a yogurt-based drink) at the entrance of one of the temples, has started looking for another location to move to. His shop stands next to the debris and the remains of other shops that have been pulled down.
“My shop is also in danger. The people who owned houses are still getting good compensation. Shop owners like us will hardly get anything,” Yadav said.
According to Ekta Shekhar, Co-Founder of Varanasi-based Climate Agenda Trust, which advocates on the issues of environment, says the demolition can have a hazardous impact. “The structures of these houses were such that the wall of one house was leaning on that of another. If they pull down one building, the next will also be in the danger of crumbling.”
The local BJP leadership is strongly backing the project. “People have willingly given their homes for Baba Vishwanath (Lord Shiva). We should thank Modi ji and Yogi ji that such facilities will be made available to people after so long,” Pradeep Agrari, BJP city president, tells TRT World. He blames the criticism of the project by the locals on their “negative mindset”.
Making of Ayodhya-II?
As the former residents of the lanes of Kashi struggle to rebuild their lives, the Muslim community has reason to be anxious, too.
Located right next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple stands a 17th-century mosque called Gyan Vapi. On the night of October 25 2018, the wall of one platform, which separates the mosque from the temple, was broken down by the state government contractor, purportedly to facilitate the construction of the corridor.
“The platform is the property of the Sunni Waqf Board. The moment we came to know about it, thousands of us gathered there immediately. The administration had to rebuild the platform within a few hours,” Eijaaz Md Isullahi, a cleric and the caretaker of the mosque, tells TRT World.
Isullahi says that there is no bitter sentiment among community members, but that their fight is with the administration.
They are suspicious of what the government is trying to achieve with the project. “This is an old BJP tactic to foment tension between the two communities to get votes. We somehow managed the situation that night.”
“This incident took place on Thursday night, the night before hundreds of people come to the mosque to offer Friday prayer. Anything could have happened. But the community handled the situation very well and circulated messages among themselves to keep calm,” AK Lari, a senior journalist from Benaras, tells TRT World.
Another senior journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells TRT World that the corridor project looks like the preparation for the “next Ayodhya”, in reference to the 1992 tensions that followed from the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh by a mob allegedly led by LK Advani, a senior BJP leader.
The incident led to riots and communal tensions in several cities across the country.
“When we used to go to Ayodhya to cover the Babri Masjid land dispute, we noticed a wide road next to the site, which gave easy access to the mob. Here, with those narrow lanes, it was strategically difficult to gather a mob of thousands. Now that the path is clear, anything can happen. This project has put both the mosque and the temple at risk,” the journalist adds.
This fear is resonated in the words of Sayid Yaseen, the general secretary of the Anjuman Intazamiya mosque.
“We don’t have any objection with the corridor. Our concern is that our mosque stands exposed. Didn’t the same happen in Ayodhya?” asks Yaseen.
“Millions of people come here to visit the temple but never once did an untoward incident happen. There was camaraderie between the two communities. They [the government officials] say nothing bad would happen, but how can we trust them? The politics of this region is based on communalism. Just a few days ago, some people outside the mosque raised the slogan “Ayodhya toh bas jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hain” [Ayodhya was just a trailer, Kashi-Mathura is still left]. For how long can we stay alert? We will go to the court if they try to do something with the mosque again,” he added.
Still, Modi will probably win in Varanasi
Modi recently announced his candidacy for the 2019 elections from Varanasi again. As his tenure as prime minister remains marred with controversial policy decisions, like that of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, his term as Varanasi MP is also not favorably viewed.
“If you look at him solely as an MP, then I can say he has done decent work, but as a prime minister, not enough has happened in Varanasi in these five years,” Lari tells TRT World.
“Instead of tending to more urgent matters, like traffic and unemployment, this government has focused its energy on this corridor,” Rajnath Tiwari, senior journalist and President of the Kashi Journalists’ Organisation, tells TRT World.
“How will that help the average citizen? They talk about the Ganga [Ganges] river, but they don’t see that sewage water that flows into it. They just cover up the drains with Modi’s cut-outs when he visits.”
“On one hand, they talk about Ram Mandir [a temple] and Hindutva [or ‘Hinduness’, the predominant form of Hindu nationalism] and on the other, they pull down so many temples that had historical significance. They removed shops that were sustaining so many families. This was not done for the common man. This was done for the elite who would like to drive up their big cars to the temple. And what compensation are they talking about? With the amount that they have given, hardly anybody will be able to afford a decent house in the city,” Shekhar tells TRT World.
The locals of Kashi have taken the demolitions to heart and many say their effects will be visible in the coming general elections. “People are angry. They love their culture and do not like what is happening right now. What people feel about this and about Modi will be clear in the elections,” says Rajendra Prasad, a local from Varanasi.
While there is a feeling of resentment among many people, there is a lack of a strong opposition leader from the Varanasi constituency. “Modi will not lose here. There is no leader from the opposition who can compete with him unless a big celebrity or a local influential leader decides to contest from here,” Lari says.
Tiwari agrees. “Our prime minister is a gifted speaker, because of which he has managed to create a certain perception about himself. People do not want to listen to anything beyond what he says. But one thing is for sure, his popularity has taken a hit. He may not get as many votes as he did in 2014.”