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Varanasi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a dream for his constituency Varanasi. It is, however, proving to be a nightmare, not just for the Muslims in the area but also the Hindus, to please whom he appears to be going to great lengths.
This dream, or nightmare, depending on which side of the fence you are on, is the Rs 600-crore Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project, which aims to clear a 45,000-square feet pathway between the oldest and revered Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Lalita and Manikarnika ghats.
Work on the project has, so far, resulted in the demolition of several structures, residential as well as commercial, around the temple, leaving a flat plateau on its sides. Hundreds of families have been displaced. The Hindus are also upset about the demolition of hundreds of small temples for the project, with several Shiva Lingas lying buried under the rubble; the Muslims, on the other hand, are afraid that this is a plan to bring down another historic mosque.
In Varanasi, the demolition of homes has often led to temples being unearthed. Saurabh Sharma and Amit Singh
That's what makes the project even more contentious. The temple stands right next to the Gyanvapi mosque, which many expect will be in the line of fire as the project progresses. The 17th Century mosque was built by Aurangzeb on the remains of the original Kashi Vishwanath temple which had already been destroyed and rebuilt several times before that. The Vishwanath temple that stands today was constructed in 1780. The white mosque, which had originally been encased by the structures around it, now sits conspicuously and uncomfortably among the rubble. In fact, the corridor project will, in fact, ultimately encompass the mosque.
Despite attempts, the district administration remained unavailable for comment, citing VIP movement due to election duties. Varanasi will vote on 19 May, the last phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Oldest city's soul traded for development, say Hindus
Rajnath Tiwari, a veteran journalist and president of the Dharohar Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, an association of people working to preserve the heritage and culture of Kashi (Varanasi), says the locals are not against the development, but the government should make its plan public first.
"The government has not made its plan public and is destroying smaller temples in the name of widening the path leading to Kashi temple. Four major temples falling in this corridor " Samukh Vinayak, Pramukh Vinayak, Dwimukh Vinayak, and Nilkantheshwar Mahadev " have also been demolished," he alleged, adding that Kashi temple holds no significance without the others.
These temples, they say, were located inside residential complexes and were brought down along with the homes. About Kashi, it was said that one doesn't know whether there are temples inside homes or homes inside temples. It was only after protests that the administration became more careful about the remaining temples.
The activist added, "It is okay to beautify the area, but the government must first make its intentions clear. We don't know what it is doing and why. It claims to be a Hindu government; where then was its Hinduism when the temples were being demolished?
"There is only one Nath (leader) of the Vishwa (world), and he is Vishwanath (Lord Shiva). But the prime minister considers himself bigger than Vishwanath."
Since early 2018, when reports emerged that the project got the green signal, the district administration demolished close to 269 homes, against the target of 297, displacing about 600 families from the Lahori tola area, which is called the epicentre of the project.
A local, Rajendra Kumar Sharma, who has been protesting against the demolition of temples, said, "The project is causing a lot of loss to the locals, especially those who were living and earning their livelihood in this area, where the administration only talks with JCB machines. We don't know what the government's agenda is, but it seems like it is planning a repeat of Ayodhya in Kashi [Babri Masjid demolition]. Let's see what happens."
Sharma isn't alone. Several local Hindus are against the project, saying it's unnecessary, even disrespectful. Amit Lohia, 40, a resident of Lalita Ghat whose home is just beside the Kashi Vishwanath temple, said Varanasi is known for its lanes and lifestyle, the very thing the government is destroying.
Before the demolitions, the lanes housed several multi-storey buildings built over the last three centuries. In these resided 'the real Banarasis' " most of them have been living here for generations " and often ran establishments below to sell flowers and other religious offerings to pilgrims.
"Foreigners come all the way to see how locals live here, in narrow bylanes with homes next to each other. All of this is what makes the city, it's part of its heritage. But the government is destroying that in the name of giving easy access to pilgrims. Pilgrims have been visiting Kashi for ages, and there has never been any disturbance or complaint. This project is not just affecting locals' lives but also killing the soul of the world's oldest city," fumed Lohia.
It is, however, true that the winding lanes and stacked buildings pose challenges of space and amenities for the millions of visitors who come here every year. So much so that demolitions had to be carried out by hand in some places because the heavy machinery wouldn't fit. There are limited options for food and water, and almost no toilets and successive SP and BSP governments have tried to change that but failed, owing to the complexities involved.
But locals are dealing with other worries too, one being that of the compensation given to displaced families. As per figures acquired from the district administration, a compensation of Rs 10 lakh has been given to each family living in a rented dwelling and Rs 5 lakh to each owner of a rented shop.
Lohia said, "The administration says it is giving enough compensation to displaced families, but it is actually dividing the families. Take my example; I have been offered Rs 6 crore, and my brothers and uncles all want an equal share, which is fair. But is it practically possible for a person to buy a flat or land with the compensation money divided 15 ways? The government is blindly going ahead without thinking of the consequences."
Mukesh Lal Sewak, whose rented shop was demolished by the administration, said he received Rs 5 lakh but, in exchange, lost his employment. "Earlier, I used to come and clean the smaller temples and then open my shop. Lord Shiva used to take care of my livelihood; the administration has taken everything away from me."
Safety of mosque under threat, say Muslims
Just six days before the project's foundation stone was laid on 8 March, a few locals were caught red-handed in an act of subterfuge. That afternoon, they had attempted to bury a small statue of Nandi " a bull that, ancient Hindu scripture proclaims, guards the entry to Shiva's abode " near the north wall of the Gyanvapi mosque. These attempts have been going on since Babri's demolition (a temple administrator in the early 2000s reportedly threw a Shiva linga into the mosque's compound), and so security has always been tight around the area. In fact, the security personnel deployed around the area camp at an old library slated to be brought down as part of the corridor. It has been put on hold until the end of elections so as to not disturb the security arrangements.
General secretary of Anjuman Intizamiya Masjid (AIM), a committee that oversees the Gyanvapi mosque, SM Yaseen explained how the project has deepened the fear of the area's Muslims. He said the community did not know the government had been demolishing temples and thought it was merely carrying out some beautification. "This is a threat to the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb [communal harmony] of the city; the situation here is quite precarious. We'd even gone to court, but it dismissed our petition, saying it was based on perception. Also, the prime minister laid the foundation stone in the Red Zone and addressed a small gathering, which is not permissible. I suppose one can do anything when they are in power," he rued, adding that things can go wrong anytime, and a repeat of Babri could be imminent.
With the Gyanvapi mosque facing a dispute similar to the one over the Babri site, Muslims from the area filed a civil suit in Benaras (Varanasi) civil court in 1936, staking claim over the site and their right to pray in the mosque, which was upheld by the court the following year. In 1991, with the Babri Masjid building up into a focal point of communal tensions, the Congress government passed the Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, which decreed that all religious sites would be maintained as they were on 15 August, 1947, and, barring Babri, all other judicial disputes over religious sites pending on the day of Independence were voided. Despite this, the mosque was once again allowed to be dragged into the courts, and after stagnating in the Varanasi Civil Court and Allahabad High Court for several years, the case between the AIM and "Swayambhu Lord Vishwanath" has been stayed by the high court.
Not long after the high court issued its stay on 25 October, 2018, a government contractor demolished the Chhattadwar Chabutra, which is adjoining the mosque's boundary wall in the north. In this demolition, the wall, too, had come down. This had stoked communal tensions in the area: Muslims protested the administration's decision, stating it would endanger the mosque. "Many people gathered that night. Fearing violence, community members themselves piled up bricks to create a makeshift wall, even as the administration and police just stood watching," Yaseen claimed.
A few weeks later, the AIM had approached the Supreme Court with concerns over the mosque's safety, asking it to intervene in the corridor's construction. The SC, however, called its fears unfounded and refused its request, saying it could approach the court later if it felt there was a threat to the mosque.
Mufti Banaras Maulana Abdul Batim says this [project] work is a violation of a high court order, which states that work in the given area can only be undertaken after unanimous approval of the district administration, temple administration, and mosque administration; however, the government did not bother to consult the latter, he alleged.
"The safety of the mosque is under threat¦ we never know what can happen and when."
Maulana Bilal Ahmad Madni of the Gyanvapi mosque said the community still remembers the slogan that was chanted in the 1990s: 'Ayodhya ke baad ab Kashi aur Mathura ki baari (After Ayodhya, it's the turn of Kashi and Mathura)'. "The government has not taken us in confidence, and no one knows its intentions. So it's obvious that we are afraid of this being an attempt to repeat the Babri incident."
The authors are freelance writers and members of 101Reporters