Opinion: In Varanasi, Priests Of 2 Key Temples Speak Against BJP.


Saba Naqvi

OpinionUpdated: January 11, 2022 10:04 pm IST

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kashi Corridor to non-stop television coverage about a month ago, there's been much discussion about how the event will impact elections in Uttar Pradesh where voting begins on February 10. The new site in Varanasi, which is the PM's constituency, has, despite the Covid surge, been drawing thousands of visitors, both tourists and devotees, but it's not clear whether it will overcome anti-incumbency in the eastern part of the state. For BJP supporters, the massive new structure reinforces the PM's image as a mighty political avatar in the city, but there is debate over whether a mega-event overcomes the economic disenchantment that has permeated this part of the state.

PM Modi inaugurated the first phase of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham last month

The urban area of the PM's constituency consists of three assembly seats that vote in the last phase of the election on March 7, 2022. These three seats are:

·         Varanasi South;

·         Varanasi North;

·         and Varanasi Cantonment

All three have voted BJP much before the Modi era began.

Varanasi South, where the Kashi Vishwanath temple stands, has been held by the BJP since 1989; the runner-up has been the Congress and in 2017, its candidate won 42 per cent of the vote in the state election while the BJP candidate got 53 per cent. The Congress' 2017 candidate, Rajesh Mishra, is not certain he will run again but says "My 2017 performance without a party structure shows there is a section in Kashi that yearns for Congress." Outside this seat, there is no mention of the Congress in eastern Uttar Pradesh referred to as "Purvanchal."

Congress' 2017 Varanasi candidate, Rajesh Mishra

What cannot be missed today is that two Mahants or priests of the most influential temples in the city, the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir and the Sankat Mochan Mandir are strongly anti-BJP in an era when the Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, is a Mahant himself (the Gorakhpur math is about 215 kilometres from Varanasi). The Mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath mandir, Dr Kulpati Tiwari, says he had once gone campaigned with cries of "Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi" but is now enraged with the destruction of several small temples hosting companion deities of Lord Shiva for the corridor. "Eventually, the Gods and Goddesses of Kashi will drive them (the BJP) out," he says.

He attended the inauguration of the new corridor which connects the iconic Kashi temple to Lalitha Ghat along the Ganga but reveals "I sat in a corner, both insulted and amazed that so many details in worshipping, rituals and even taking the holy dip were all wrong." He says this on the record adding, "I am not afraid of dying", and will enter politics, if needed, after forming "a party of Baba Vishwanath". He drops hints that various political parties have been in touch and claims that recently, Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee telephoned him. "But I will follow Baba Vishwanath," says the 64-year-old.

Dr Kulpati Tiwari, Mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir

If the Mahant feels disrespected, a short distance away, the Domsof the Harishchandra Ghat have felt respected ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the "Dom Raja" (king of cremators) to be one of the proposers of his candidature for Varanasi MP in the last general election. Harischandra and Manikarnika are the two main ghats used for cremation in Varanasi. A leader of this community, Pavan Chaudhary, sits amid the smoke rising from burning pyres and recalls the second wave when people would dump bodies on the ghats. The images of Covid-wrecked bodies floating down the Ganga made international headlines and pointed to vast mismanagement of this deadly phase of the pandemic. But Pavan Chauhary says that in Varanasi, every unclaimed body was cremated with full rituals, adding that the miracle was that none of the Doms contracted Covid. The Doms have their own gods such as Kalu Ram Baba, and Pavan Chaudhary proudly displays a garland made of old human skulls that he calls "priceless". Life is full of hardships, he says, but "at least the PM gave us some respect". This was a symbolic gesture for the PM as the Doms, a Dalit community, add up to just a few thousand in Varanasi.

Dom leader Pavan Chaudhary

According to the 2011 census, 70 per cent of the population of Varanasi is Hindu while 28 per cent is Muslim.

There are many hereditary traditions in Varanasi. Unlike the sudden anti-BJP vehemence of the Mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, of older vintage is the critique of the family that manages the very significant Sankat Mochan Mandir, a Hanuman temple said to have been established by poet-saint Tulsidas. Visitors from all political parties call on the current Mahant, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, who is a noted environmentalist and a professor at Banaras Hindu University. He speaks against the new "event-based Hinduism being promoted by the state" and says it seeks to destroy the fabric of society. He is critical of the Kashi corridor and what he calls "the smart city model" which ignores the basic fact that there is still no sustainable plan to stop sewage flowing into the Ganges. He points to an image of the ghat where the PM took a dip in the river on December 13 and says the very next day, it was surrounded by rubble from the construction that continues even after the inauguration.

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, Mahant of the Sankat Mochan Mandir

The Mahant's family follows an approach that is the opposite of the BJP-RSS project. In 2006, Varanasi witnessed bomb blasts at the Sankat Mochan temple followed by another at the railway station. The death toll was 28; an Islamic terrorist group was identified as the likely culprit. The family in charge of the temple responded to terror with a civilizational embrace of the syncretic culture of Banaras. For 97 years, the Sankat Mochan Mandir has hosted the most eminent music festival of Banaras; the family is rooted in the classical traditions of the city, with the current Mahant himself playing the Pakhawaj, which is a version of a drum. Till that year, the music festival was not open to Muslim performers as it took place in the temple. But after the blasts of 2006, an invite was sent to Mumtaz Hussain Khan, a shehnai player from Banaras, to be the first Muslim performer at the temple.

Mumtaz Hussain Khan, who has himself passed away since, was a nephew of the great Bismillah Khan, the recipient of the country's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, who died in 2006. Old residents still talk of Bismillah Khan's routine: playing the shehnai on the Balaji ghat, followed by a dip in the Ganges and performances at the Kashi Vishwanath temple even as he remained an observing Muslim. Kulpati Tiwari, the Kashi Vishwanath Mahant, too remembers the era of his grandfather listening to Bismillah Khan and patronizing the musician. "No one went around saying we should remove Muslims," he recalls.

Shehnai maestro late Ustad Bismillah Khan

But such memories can be lost in the fog of hate. On January 6 this year, posters were put up on Assi Ghat, one of the most popular ghats of the city, warning non-Hindus to stay away. They were signed by the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. I happened to be staying at the same ghat that day; Varanasi friends said it was just another attempt to vitiate the atmosphere but urged me to be careful.

Muslims cannot be torn away from some of the richest traditions of Varanasi. After all, the 15th-century Bhakti Poet philosopher Kabir was said to be born into a family of Muslim weavers of Varanasi, although he would critique all organized religion. The weavers of Varanasi, overwhelmingly Muslim, are elemental to the fabric of the city. There is a phrase that is used to describe the weaving process, "taana baana", that can also be a metaphor for the community's relationship with Varanasi. "Taana" means creating the first layer of the fabric by spreading the thread vertically; "baana" is the thread laid out horizontally. We are all knotted and woven together, says master weaver Maqbool Hassan, sitting among his exquisite works that have won national and international awards.

Master weaver Maqbool Hassan

In spite of all the economic troubles that have erupted from demonetization, Covid, and a shrinking business, there is much pride in the fabrics, designs and motifs that have been created on the looms of Varanasi. There is sorrow and fear too at the systematic exclusion of a community that makes up a large part of the population of Varanasi. Muslim votes will overwhelmingly go to Samajwadi Party nominees with some in Varanasi South opting for the Congress. They know that the city is a stronghold of the BJP, they want their votes to help them get through the charged atompshere.

Beyond the mega-events that have visited its ghats since Varanasi was chosen as the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the city exists at many layers. It is indeed the city of the magical ghats that remain wrapped in mist on winter mornings, a settlement known for the gharana of classical music and sounds of riyaaz (practice), chants of "Har Har Mahadev" and the humming of the looms that weave those exquisite Banarsi silk sarees in small lanes and by-lanes.

The Kashi corridor is the latest monument in town, one that is expected to consolidate the political Hindutva sentiment and shore up the image of the Prime Minister in what is turning out to be a tougher election than the BJP expected some months ago.


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