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Political discussions fall silent as fear grips Varanasi

Let them out: BHU students staging a demonstration demanding the release of anti-CAA protesters.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

The usual crowd at Pappu’s tea stall near Assi ghat chowk (intersection) of Varanasi was missing on December 28 — so was the intense discussion on political issues there. Just a few were sipping hot lemon tea but they were reluctant to speak on the burning issues of Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) or National Register of Citizens.

“It’s not because of the cold wave but people in general here are apprehensive of coming out of their homes and indulging in political discussions”, they say. But why? “You know it better”, was the stock reply before even the few patrons beat a hasty retreat.

Many in Varanasi have learnt politics through lively debates and exchanging nuggets of information at this tea stall. The Banaras Hindu University is nearly two-km from the shop owned by Vishwanath Singh, aka “Pappu”, which elicits instant recognition. These days one of his four sons, Manoj Singh, manages the shop which has no sign board or offers no proper chairs or tables. Only two wooden benches occupy the place by the roadside. People used to stand for hours engaged in political or academic debate here.

A yellow tungsten bulb piercing the winter fog offers a little light. Noted Hindi writers Kashinath Singh, Balraj Pandey and Chowkiram Yadav were regular visitors and spent hours in discussion. Kashinath Singh’s famous novel Kashi ka Assi is based on everyday political discourse at this tea stall and the entire crew of popular Bollywood film Mohalla Assi has been here. It is said veteran socialist leader George Fernandes had once held a two-hour press conference over cups of tea at the stall when V.P. Singh was the Prime Minister.

“But, people, these days, are afraid of visiting Pappu’s tea shop and discussing politics…the very atmosphere is not conducive...everyone is suspicious of everyone”, Rajat Kumar, a student of BHU who on, December 24, refused to receive his Master’s degree in protest against CAA and NRC, told The Hindu while sipping lemon tea here. His friends Shantanu, Gaurav and Avinash too agreed with him. They have all been protesting against CAA and NRC.

“In the 365 days of 2019, Section 144 was imposed in Varanasi town for 359 days…how can one feel free and safe to speak one’s mind?”, asked Rajat.

“To hold any meeting or any function in any park of the city these days, one has to take permission from local RSS or BJP officials as they hold shakhas (daily-meetings) every morning there”, rued some residents of Adarsh Nagar locality of Mehmurganj. A prayer meeting for the safe release of all 54 anti-CAA and NRC protesters was organised on December 28 at the residence of retired irrigation department official Krishna Kumar Tiwari, whose son and daughter-in-law, Ravi and Ekta Shekhar, were among those arrested.

“On December 26, when we were meeting family members of the arrested persons at Bharat Mata temple, near Vidyapeeth, local police forced us to leave”, said BHU students Preyesh Pandey, Rajat, Aakash.

At a police outpost in Bajardiha locality, a large number of policemen were seen sitting by the roadside. “They can arrest anyone, anytime in the name of violating Section 144”, said local residents Mohd Imtiyaz and others. “It’s frightening these days to come outside and meet people”, they said.

People are really afraid to speak freely. “Well, the tenor of political discussions in Varanasi has changed after 2014...people do get fearful while expressing their opinion”, senior journalist A.K. Lari told The Hindu.

BHU professors Brinda Pranjape and M P Ahirwar too said the usual bonhomie in the University as well as the city has been “seriously threatened and throttled” after 2014. “After 2014 the colour of the city and University has become saffron…BHU now has become shelter home of Sanghis (RSS workers)”, they said.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 12:19:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/political-discussions-fall-silent-as-fear-grips-varanasi/article30453511.ece

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