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Kashi demolitions reveal communal faultlines

Construction work is under way near Gyanvapi mosque complex.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor, considered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project in his constituency, may not only alter the topography of the ancient city but also lay bare its communal faultlines.

Critics complain that dozens of small and medium-sized old temples, most built in residential complexes, were destroyed along with the scores of shops and ‘bhavans’ to clear the way for the project. They see the demolitions as a loss to the Hindu cultural heritage of the city. At least 296 structures have been identified by the government for demolition to provide direct access to the temple from the Ganga.

The mood can be gauged outside Gate No. 3 of the Mughal-era Gyanvapi Mosque, which shares a boundary with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

Hopes gone

Rajiv Sharma has a look of dejection as he points to the rubble behind him. Till a couple of months ago, his source of livelihood, a saloon, stood there. Today, he is unemployed. The building was acquired and demolished.

While the property owner received ₹1.46 crore compensation — the administration is paying double the circle rate to convince landlords — Mr. Sharma, among the six tenants of the building, received a nominal sum of ₹1 lakh to begin again.

“What business can I start with this amount,” he asks. His requests to the administration for alternate work have fallen on deaf ears.

His frustration reveals the communal faultlines of the city where , although Hindus and Muslims have existed peacefully, the BJP government’s project has caused anxiety among both communities, and threatens to create mutual distrust. “If this act is not anti-Hindu, what is? Demolish a single Muslim house, then see what happens. They only touched a chabutra and Muslims from several localities gathered in the streets,” said Mr. Sharma.

Asked if his discontentment would reflect in his voting preference come Lok Sabha election, he quips, “How can we vote for someone who kicks our belly?” Mr. Modi is the MP from Varanasi, where the demolition drive has shaken up a lot of lives.

To our left, in the backdrop, the scene resembles an area torn down by war — entire buildings have been reduced to a dusty rubble; those still standing have their façades destroyed, waiting for the final blow, as dozens of construction workers, under the watchful eyes of the police, tear away at the buildings in a hurry. “It is [Prime Minister] Modi’s dream project and is going to provide better facilities to tourists. For us, it has only been a loss,” said Mr. Sharma.

Demolition work is in full swing for the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor in Varanasi

Demolition work is in full swing for the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor in Varanasi   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt


The reference is to the protests by Muslims last October when a raised platform, part of a boundary wall separating the Gyanvapi Mosque and the Vishwanath Temple was demolished by a government contractor. Fearing communal flare-up, the administration restored the structure overnight. But it did little to allay the strong fear among Muslims that the demolition drive around the mosque, which RSS-led groups claim was built after demolishing a temple by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, is to eventually pull it down.

The demolition around the mosque has already left its exterior side exposed, points out Sayid Yasin, joint secretary of the Anjuma Intejamia Masjid, the caretaker of the masjid. Alleging a sinister conspiracy, Mr. Yasin says the October alteration was a “testing point” to see how Muslims would react. “We have no opposition to the corridor. But we are worried about our security and our mosque. It is now exposed from all sides. There is no meaning of the security arrangements...look at what happened in Ayodhya despite a court order,” said Mr. Yasin.

In December, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking its intervention in the matter with the claim that the pulling down of the boundary wall would have adverse consequences for communal harmony. “The court rejected our apprehension but why didn’t it write it in its order? We have not received guarantee of security at any level,” said Mr. Yasin.

Ateeq Ansari, a prominent Muslim weaver, who had helped calm the situation in October, says Muslims don’t think the corridor is an election issue — no political party can be seen opposing Hindu interests — but the start of a long-pending destruction, “with the message to the local Hindus that the symbol of slavery by Aurangzeb is going to be razed down.”

Informally, both supporters and sceptics, be it Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre or Congress workers, too, repeat the same theory. “It is nothing but the BJP’s agenda to create a second Ayodhya,” said a senior journalist who was leading the protest against the demolition, referring to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The most common voice among the critics is that demolition is ruining the mainstay of Varanasi, its heritage structures and narrow lanes. Many are irked by the alleged demolition of a large number of small temples, commonly housed inside residential complexes. Ganesh Shankar Upadhyay, head priest of the Kashi Karvat Mandir located next to Mr. Sharma’s demolished saloon, is resisting demolition. He says the modus operandi of the project disregards the heritage of Varanasi and feels consent was not acquired before the demolition drive. “I am not against development. But since it is a religious site and development is taking place in the name of religion, development must also be based on it,” he said.

Kanhaiya Tripathi, a purohit (priest) and a save Ganga activist, rues that despite the scale of demolition, pro-Hindu groups have not come out in protest like they should. After an initial protest by several groups and some religious heads, the campaign against the corridor seems to have fizzled out, with locals giving in to the pressure of better compensation. He also hit out at the alleged hypocrisy of the BJP leaders.

“There was a time when BJP MLAs would sit in a dharna if a single Shivling was damaged somewhere. But today, they are quiet. If the SP (Samajwadi Party) or BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) would have been in power, this place would be burning now,” said Mr. Tripathi.

He would not mind development work, if taken up outside the cultural precincts of the Varuna and Assi, the two rivers that give the city its name. Widening roads would have been a better strategy, he said.

Divisional Commissioner Varanasi Deepak Agarwal said the shops and houses were purchased through “mutual consent” and claims not a single temple was destroyed. In fact, Mr. Agarwal said 41 small and medium temples that were hidden were “rediscovered” and brought to the public domain during the drive. The administration has already purchased 215 buildings, he said.

Krishna Kumar Sharma, a long-time former RSS worker now disgruntled with the BJP government, also ran a campaign against the corridor. He dismisses the official claim that temples or Shivlings were not damaged in the demolition drive. He claimed 20-25 temples were damaged during the drive, apart from the scores that existed inside homes. This would be raised by seers during the upcoming Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Dharma Sansad at the Kumbh Mela, he said.

Mr. Krishna Sharma also says that while 200 temples exist within the corridor, the administration only recognised 43.

“The administration is lying through its teeth... The CM [Yogi Adityanath] recently claimed that the project would be completed by Shivratri [in March] but, till date, even the base platform is not ready, they are still demolishing structures,” he said.

He feels the demolition drive around the Gyanvapi Mosque-Vishwanath Temple complex exposed them to danger, and even terror attacks. “Now, they can be seen from afar,” he says.

But for many, the disruption, which comes at a cost of ₹600 crore to the State exchequer, is worth it.

“In four years, there is no road where work has not been done by Modiji...only progress. Of course, shifting from old to new causes problems but always leads to development,” said advocate Anand Pathak, who lost his ancestral house and is now living in a rented apartment 7 km across the Ganga in Padao. He received ₹1 crore as compensation.

Mr. Pathak justified the corridor project, saying that given the crowded lanes, there was no other alternative but to raze down the structures. “On the bright side, those displaced will be alloted pucca shops,” he said.

Also near the Gyanvapi Mosque stood Vijay Saini who, though initially unwilling to part with his perfume shop, which he ran on rented space, also succmbed to administrative pressure and general consensus. Mr. Saini had even approached the Allahabad High Court but eventually settled for a compensation of ₹8 lakh, the amount he had deposited with the landlord as pagri. “What can you do alone?” asked Mr. Saini, pondering over what might have been a good business season, given the influx of tourists and pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

But Vikas Goswami, a priest, whose family had to give up their jointly owned 24-room house and four shops in which they sold saris, utensils and puja items, admits to mixed emotions. He is unhappy with the ₹28 lakh compensation he received and says that his consent was borne out of compulsion, as damaging a part of the shared property left him with no choice. Only the temple run by them survived.

Despite this, his faith in Mr. Modi and his project is unshaken. “What did the Congress do in 60 years? Modi has done great work but what can he do alone? When others gave up their property, why should I stay behind?” asks Mr. Goswami, who now lives with his family in a three-room flat in Chowk, paying ₹10,000 as rent.

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Divisional Commissioner Varanasi is Deepak Agarwal and not Nitin Gokarn as earlier stated

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 11:01:29 PM |

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