PM Modi turns Varanasi to tourism hot spot but fails to please all

Many Varanasi residents dispute Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘real’ contribution to the holy city. VIP passes to spectacles, entrance fees and new events have evoked mixed reactions

PM Modi turns Varanasi  to tourism hot spot but fails to please all

Nachiketa Desai

Kashi, the pilgrimage destination of the Hindus, is being transformed into a tourist destination. There is also a price tag attached to pooja of Lord Vishwanath and a glimpse of the river Ganga. Devotees have been categorised as ‘VVIP, VIP and plebeian. There is an entry ticket for the commoner, a VIP pass and a monthly pass for the local residents.

While laying the foundation of Kashi Dham on 8 March, Modi claimed he had freed Shiva from the clutches of the surrounding buildings. He described the event as a liberation day for Lord Shiva.

Modi’s bombast has not gone well with the residents of Kashi. “Who is Modi to liberate Shiva,” retorts Shiv Shankar Tiwari, a resident of Brahmanal, a locality adjacent to the corridor. “In fact, Modi’s corridor has obstructed the path of Shiva who used to roam the lanes and bylanes of the old city to pay homage to hundreds of gods and goddesses who resided in the idols in each of the houses that Modi has razed to the ground,” he adds.

The creation of Vishwanath corridor which Prime Minister Modi described as ‘Kashi Dham’ (Pilgrimage centre) has killed the age-old traditional yatras like the Panch Koshi yatra, Antargrihi yatra, Dwadas Jyotirling yatra, Chhappan Vinayak yatra, Nau Gauri and Nau Durga yatras.

The creation of Ganga pathway and the corridor has disrupted eight yatras (circular journeys) which the residents of Kashi have been undertaking since time immemorial as part of their religious ritual on different auspicious occasions round the year. These yatras (journeys by foot), prescribed by the Vedas and the Puranas, are for paying homage to various Hindu gods and goddesses.

While these yatras along narrow lanes were centred around the Kashi Vishwanath temple in the heart of the city, most popular folk fairs like Ram Leela, Lota Bhanta Mela, Narsingh Leela Mela, Naag Nathaiya, Bharat Milaap Mela, Naak Katayiya Mela held outside the city are facing extinction.

Instead of these age-old traditional fairs and festivals, new events are being sponsored by the Modi-Yogi governments such as Ganga Aarti, Dev Deepawali and Kanwariya yatra. All these government-sponsored events have one common objective – to mobilise huge crowds under one banner. None of these events have a long tradition and history behind them.

The demolition of old buildings and lanes for the construction of Vishwanath corridor has also damaged the intricate network of drainage of the entire area, points out Shailesh Pandey, 82, a resident of Lahori Tola.

The entire old city of Varanasi comprising of a maze of inter-connected narrow lanes has an intricate underground drainage system. Any breakage would disrupt the entire drainage network, points out Shyamadhar Singh, a resident of Bans Phatak.

The corridor has also disrupted the working of scores of vidyalayas (schools) of Sanskrit, Vedas, Hindu religious scriptures and classical music which are all located in lanes and bylanes of the old city. “The life in these lanes has grown organically and members of different castes are interdependent. The forced migration of over 1,000 families due to demolition of buildings for the corridor has deprived the residents of many essential services such as milk supply, vegetables and grocery,” points out Radhey Yadav, resident of Sundiya.

Several hermitages, hospices for acharyas and hostels for students of Sanskrit scriptures, Ayurveda, astrology and music have been converted into hotels and homestay facilities for foreigners. “I had come to Varanasi to study Sanskrit and was living as a paying guest with a resident of Brahmanal. Now that the house I was living in has been razed to the ground, I have shifted to a lodge near Dasaswamedh Ghat,” said Sheila Veronica, 38, from Germany.

Some foreign students also enrol themselves in Banaras Hindu University to study Indology and Sanskrit. There is a separate hostel for the foreign students in the BHU campus. “They do not feel safe there as the campus has seen several incidents of eve-teasing and even a couple of murders of Indian students,” Sheila pointed out.

“Ever since Modi became the Prime Minister, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members have been inducted in large numbers as teaching faculty and non-teaching staff. Even eight of the nine members of the executive council of BHU, the highest decision making body, are all RSS men,” says Vishwanath Pandey, former officer on special duty with the BHU.

He says over a dozen petitions are pending before the Allahabad High Court challenging the out of turn appointments of RSS members as teaching faculty.

One of the main reasons why there has been a deterioration in law and order situation of BHU is that there is neither a students’ union nor a teachers’ union, said Dr Pandey. In the absence of a students and teachers union, there is no elected body which could intervene and defuse any clash or violence in the campus.

Both BHU campus and Kashi Vishwanath corridor have become high security zones swarming with gun-toting policemen. All the entrance points to BHU and Vishwanath corridor are guarded by the police.

“BHU, which had a glorious past with eminent scholars as its vice chancellors, today does not even figure among the list of 200 universities in the world,” says veteran journalist Suresh Pratap Singh.

“There is rampant corruption in appointment of teaching faculty and non-teaching staff. There are gangs of students, enjoying the patronage of the Sangh parivar, operating in the university campus, who run extortion racket. Frequently there are clashes between rival gangs,” says trade union activist Vijay Narayan.

A climate of fear pervades the campus as students who dared to protest against hooliganism have been victimised by the authorities. Over a dozen students have been suspended and false criminal cases foisted on them.

With the announcement of election, hundreds of handpicked RSS workers from Gujarat have been sent to Varanasi to oversee the Prime Minister’s campaign. “These RSS workers from Gujarat attend all the ward-level and central core committee meetings and make it a point to remind other members that they have been sent here to report to BJP national president Amit Shah,” revealed Bhau Acharya Tonpe, a senior RSS functionary of Varanasi district unit.

RSS and BJP workers have been deployed at all popular tea-stalls and paan shops where general public gather daily every morning and evening to socialise and exchange views. These Sangh Parivar workers act like agent provocateurs to create confusion and divert topic of discussion whenever a dissenting voice is raised against PM Modi.

“As a result,” points out Dr Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of famous Sankat Mochan Mandir, “People avoid discussing politics.”

“To avoid confrontation, people at social gatherings speak favourably for Modi. They may be seething with anger, but keep mum. Don’t be surprised if they express their anger by their votes,” says Dr Mishra.

He believes that this time the number of NOTA votes would also increase alarmingly.

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