Is BJP planning an Ayodhya 2.0 in Varanasi?

A plan to connect the Kashi Vishwanath Temple with the Ganga ghats in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh has been revived. And guess what? The Gyanvapi Masjid stands in the way

Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Abhishek Srivastava

When Padampati Sharma wrote a panic-stricken Facebook post on January 30, not much were aware of the larger context in which he threatened to commit suicide. Sharma is a veteran sports journalist of Varanasi who lives in his 175-year-old ancestral home on Vishweshwar Pahadi located in the precincts of age-old Ganga ghats. Some officials from Varanasi Development Authority had visited his home for a survey on January 29, 2018. He was taken aback. He had no inkling that the UP government had relaunched a shelved project to connect the Kashi Vishwanath temple with the Ganga and he could lose his ancestral home. He wrote an FB post next day, laced with sorrow, anguish and grief, challenging the state government that he would commit suicide if the administration dared to touch the structures of old Benares.

Barely a month has passed since then and the locals of Benares are now up in arms. The real intentions behind the rejuvenated “Ganga Darshan” project are now out in the open and people are afraid of a repeat of what happened in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. In the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, concerned citizens and activists are apprehensive that the Uttar Pradesh government may be planning to repeat the 1992 Babri episode by expanding the compound of the Vishwanath Temple that is adjacent to Gyanvapi Masjid. The mosque has been on the radar of the Hindu right wing ever since Independence.

The Vishwanath Temple, which has been demolished and rebuilt many times, was last demolished by Aurangzeb in 1669 who built Gyanvapi Masjid on the ruins of the temple. After several failed attempts to rebuild the temple by demolishing the newly built mosque, Ahilyabai Holkar constructed a new temple adjacent to the mosque in 1780. A popular Hindutva slogan during the Ram Janmbhoomi movement reads: “Ayodhya to jhaanki hai, abhi Kashi Mathura baaki hai”. The reference to Kashi is all too obvious.

Now that the latest Hindutva poster boy, Yogi Adityanath, is the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a “Ganga Darshan” plan has been revived to expand the temple corridor. The plan demands acquisition and demolition of at least 167 houses in a 450-metre stretch in order to connect the temple with the river. The initial signs of suspicion arose when around half a dozen residential structures were demolished adjacent to Gyanvapi Mosque last month.

Siddhant Mohan, an independent journalist from Varanasi who wrote on this issue, has quoted a local resident: “The plan, which has been facing protest since its inception, almost makes the Gyanvapi Mosque devoid of any residential support, thus rendering it more vulnerable to threats of nationalist politics. When you build a compound of about half a kilometre around a temple in conflict with a mosque, it is easy to figure out what you are planning to do.”

Some concerned citizens of Varanasi, after having learnt the ulterior motive of this plan, had requisitioned Kal Bhairav, the Kotwal of Kashi, to lodge an FIR against the district administration and officials for killing the old city. Although an act of religious tokenism, this requisition had a resounding effect and local dailies are now regularly covering the issue with much interest.

Some voices defending the plan have also emerged from the old city. Vijay Shankar, born and brought up in Varanasi and dealing in wholesale jewellery business, said, “You see, when people will come to know that the government is planning to revive the old Kashi Vishwanath Temple, they will happily give away their age-old homes and themselves pave way for a fresh Mandir-Masjid conflict. Since people here in pakkamahal (old city) are essentially Hindus, they will not bother as to what happens to the mosque.”

Shankar told National Herald that the houses and structures that lay along the 450-metre stretch from the temple to the ghats were either abandoned or used for commercial purposes. He said, “No one now lives in these narrow bylanes. People have either rented their old houses out for business purposes or have simply abandoned and moved to the main city where they have sufficient space for parking, etc.” He sounded confident that at least the original residents of pakkamahal would never oppose the plan.

Picture courtesy: Social media
Picture courtesy: Social media
Gyanvapi Masjid

People who are opposing the project also have larger concerns about the culture and identity of the place. Benares is essentially known for its crescent shaped Ganga ghats and the narrow bylanes behind them that go back thousands of years. As Diana L. Eck has written aptly in Banaras: City Of Lights, it is one of the world cities apart from Jerusalem, Babylon and Peking where history and geography converge and intermingle. Each and every geographical site in Benares has a history and the history of Benares can only be traced through the geography of the city.

There have been some stray instances as well which expose the irony of an attempt to transform the world’s oldest city into Kyoto, which is PM Narendra Modi’s declared dream. Last month, a stray bull had killed a young lady on the roads of Benares. She was a student. Her friends and some organisations consistently organised protests and launched a campaign to clear the roads off bulls. Eventually, an FIR was filed under Section 304A of IPC against unknown persons which, in this case, is obviously the bull. In a way, these protestors provided enough reason to the insensitive local administration to go on a vulgar spree to tame stray bulls and kill stray dogs by injecting them with poison just before the arrival of Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron in Varanasi.

No one utterred a word in protest as the handful of people who are socially active in the city had themselves demanded an end to the stray bull menace. The same set of people who oppose the expansion plan of the temple complex, who fight communalism on roads, who care for the identity of Benares are now in an ideological fix. Meanwhile, the world’s oldest city is being prepared for a transformation that is socially and politically a risky premise.

A senior Congress leader spoke on terms of anonymity. “The expansion project is an intelligence exercise being supervised personally by Modi. Intelligence is of the view that GyanvapAi complex should be razed and evacuated in the interest of internal security. If that results in the demolition of one more mosque, why should they care for it? After all, it fulfils their agenda,” he told National Herald.

It surely does fit into the agenda. And with barely a year left for general elections and little to show for all the tall promises made, the BJP may think this is going to pay electoral dividends.

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