While PM Narendra Modi was inaugurating “Vishwanath Dham,” the so-called Kashi Vishwanath Corridor on the debris of the oldest living civilization in the world, residents of a nearby scheduled caste settlement were virtually locked-up in their premises due to a heavy security cover.
Forget the requests and petitions that they had prepared to present to their parliamentary representative Narendra Modi about the injustices meted out to them over the last few months, they were not even allowed to roam freely in the bylanes of their own neighbourhood and were forced to stay back on ghats for more than a couple of hours during which PM Modi stayed there. Vishal, a youth in his twenties, says, “Modi is scared of us. That is why he has kept us out of the premise which he visited.”
The plight of forty Dalit families living near Jalasen Ghat and only next to Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi is a blot on the development model of Narendra Modi. This is a sordid chapter in the making of Kyoto from Kashi that has gone unheard in the media. This locality, which is predominantly SC and a mix of OBC groups like Mallah, Sahni, etc. bears a single address, CK-10/35. These people are sons of the soil. They do not even remember the exact generation that they started settling in the area. These are the real “ghatias” (people who live on the ghats of Ganga) of Pakka mahal, the local name for the crescent-shaped old Kashi that flourished just on the banks of Ganga. After hundreds of years, ghatias are now facing eviction due to the first phase of the so-called Corridor that is supposed to connect Kashi Vishwanath temple with river Ganga, half a kilometer sloppy stretch. Vishal’s mother says, “We do not know why to go from here and where to go from here.”
Half of the properties in the proposed project area for the first phase have already been bulldozed. It included 167 residential premises and scores of temples. This writer had reported about the project way back in March 2018 when the establishments were being earmarked for eviction. Just in a matter of 12 months, more than 50 per cent of the area is now a flat football ground. Those who have not given up to the eviction demand or have their compensation amount pending are still staying below this flattened and widened “corridor” in dust and debris. The natural topography of Pakka mahal is such that it takes five-degree accent from Ganga to reach up to city level. The ghatias living just above the river primarily face the threat of being injured by the debris that is left unsettled just above their heads on a slope. But this is not the real threat.
On February 24, people from Mandir Trust and the police reached this settlement and started evicting them. There were only women there at that time and men had gone to work. The women asked the officials to wait for their men to return. They were hell-bent on clearing the area and started breaking the walls of houses with hammers. When the women retaliated, policemen attacked them in which Nityanand, Nirmala, Shashikala and Gudia got badly injured. A local filmed the whole episode on his mobile phone. NH has got the exclusive footage of the police assault.
This is not the only such incident. Many such attempts were made before and after this to threaten, coerce and misguide Dalits so that they leave their old habitat. Series of such events reflect the desperation of Mandir Trust and administration working on the high command orders to complete the corridor before March 8th, when Modi was supposed to inaugurate. Video tapes of eviction status were being sent by the administration to CM Yogi Adityanath on a daily basis and it continues till date.
After Modi left the site, people were back to their neighbourhood. On the debris of bulldozed homes near CK-10/35, three youth were spotted sitting idle. One of them was Vivek, a scheduled caste youth who migrated to Italy ten months ago after marrying an Italian girl. He is back nowadays after having known the danger that lurks on his extended family. Talking to NH, he says, “We are completely disillusioned. These all are my friends. We have been brought up together. We played, worked hard, and together faced whatever came our way. Now we are clueless what to do. Anytime we will be thrown away.”
The second youth, Prakash, was much more articulate. “My shop is situated downward this slope. No one comes there now. If we shift to some other place also, we will continue suffering as no one is willing to allow us to live closer to them. We are chamars. So, we have to face double the trouble.”
Down there in the locality, a huge portrait of Baba Saheb Ambedkar was hanging on a wall. When NH reached there, some women started abusing the media. A woman in her forties screamed, “Media waale se hum log bahut bole lekin koi nahin suna. Ab aap log yahan kya lene aaye hain” (We urged to media but none listened. Now what do you want?).
After a few exchanges, those women opened up. One of them said, “Modi ji khaali dikhaawa karte hain. Pair dhone se kuchh nahin hota, yahan aakar dekhein ki hum log roj roj kya jhel rahe hain. Roz mandir ke gunde, thekedaar, police waale aake auraton ke saath zabardasti karte hain. Hum log ghar mein hote hain aur wo log hathauda chalane lagte hain. Ek paisa abhi mila nahin hai. Kiraye par rakhne ko koi taiyaar nahin. Sunne waala bhi koi nahin hai” (Modi only pretends. Washing feet won’t do anything, he needs to come here and see what we are facing daily. Temple goons, contractor and the police come here daily and harass women. When we are inside, they start breaking walls of the houses. We have not got a single penny. No one is ready to rent us space. Nor is anyone willing to hear us).
They were quite critical of media. One youth told NH that on Dev Deepawali night, he requested a media person to visit the locality and see how temples were being demolished. “He came, saw and said- Koi kuchh nahin kar sakta. Ye Modi ji ka personal maamla hai. Sab unke kahe par ho raha hai” (No one can do anything. This is Modi’s personal matter, and everything is supervised by him only).
While Dalit women mostly work here as maids in Marwari houses, some of ghatia Dalit youth work as safai karmachari in the municipality. As the hour of Modi’s arrival came close on Friday morning, these workers were spotted running helter-skelter with their garbage cart on Godowlia-Chowk road collecting litter. One of them in a reply to a question related to wages told NH that they were not getting salaries for last three months and still were forced to do the job. Who will you vote for?
A worker smiled in the response and rushed away with his cart.
Ghats of Benares are alive since ages just because of the people who inhabit them. Among them are mallahs, who have twice gone on strike in last six months opposing a cruise launched by Modi that is supposed to eat in their livelihoods. Others, that include petty shop owners selling artefacts, flower etc. are now without any job. Some of them have made fortunes and moved abroad in various countries. Some are traditional brahmins who make their living by catering to foreign tourists. The “Vishwanath Dham” project of Modi has unified all these castes into a single entity, say the affected, evicted and displaced! This unity must not be confused with the progressive solidarity to resist and oppose. Rather each and every one of them have got alienated and disillusioned.
A Dalit youth who runs a tea shop at Manikarnika says, “Oppose? What are you talking? They will eliminate us if we utter a word. We have no one to back us up. Influential castes have moved away taking huge compensation. We need compensation as well as compassion but both are lacking now. We are destined to be doomed.”
As the day progresses, these unemployed and alienated Dalit youth roll a cigarette with grass and start smoking. Why to smoke grass this time? You are so young? Vishal responds, “They have not left us with any other choice.”
Adjacent to the Jalasen pumping station at a small shop in the same building where Vivek’s family resides, ten-year-old Gudia waits for customers to arrive. She knows all of this is worthless as the connecting by lane to Vishwanath Temple is now a disaster. Tourists have changed their path. Staring upwards at the mount of debris, Gudia says with a white-face, “Now no one will come here ever!”