On April 25, the day before he files his nomination from Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to undertake a spectacular road show in this historic temple town. In his interaction with Varanasi’s electorate, it is likely that he will refer to what is often called Modi’s dream project — the creation of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor, a pathway emerging from the city’s three famous ghats, Manikarnika, Jalasen and Lalita, to the old temple covering a space of over 45,000 sq ft. The area will be marked by pedestrian pathways, a Mandir chowk, guesthouses, public facilities including a hospice, all designed to replace the wonderfully chaotic charm of Varanasi’s bustling gullies.
To make way for Modi’s dream project, over 230 structures including shops that used to sell everything from temple offerings to spices to wooden toys have already been demolished. The goal is to raze a total of 290 to the ground. Included in this area is the Gyanvapi Mosque that dates back to the 17th century. The area where one has to move in single file today resembles a vast construction site, piles of rubble, disgorged entrails of shops and homes, some more than 200 years old, that have been flattened. What will emerge from the rubble with the construction of the pathway will be Hinduism as performance and spectacle, garishly emblazoned structures, dazzling lights (“rang roghan” as Varanasi residents described it) and commercialisation of an iconic cultural landscape catering more to the well-heeled rather than to ordinary Hindus.
On March 8, the prime minister laid the foundation of the project, now renamed Viswanath Dham. PM Modi then made an emotional appeal saying he had been called by “Ganga maiya in 2014 to liberate Baba Vishwanath from suffocating encroachments,” so that Lord Shiva could breathe. The project is being sold as a way to attract more young people to the faith. But not all are convinced, even in this stronghold of the BJP-RSS ideology. As one telling poster pinned outside a damaged shop front declared, “Ek hi Bhool, Kamal Ka Phool”.
Over the last few months, hundreds of structures have been uprooted, including, some say, 40-odd temples, depriving thousands of people of their livelihood. People are upset with the very idea of reconstruction because they believe the temple-mosque complex, with its serpentine narrow lanes and bylanes, is part of Varanasi’s heritage which is deeply associated with their history, faith, tradition and culture dating back to thousands of years. No locals or visitors ever objected to the narrow lanes and bylanes, this was what the devout and foreign tourists alike come to see and worship.
Surprisingly, organised protest against the project has been muted despite the fact that most people who have been uprooted did not give their consent until they were forced to. A complex pattern of ownership-tenancy has effectively reduced the scope of public protest. Most Hindu rajas and zamindars who built these structures have moved on: Their descendants having settled outside Varanasi and their buildings have been occupied by tenants for decades. The householders are happy to get compensation at twice or thrice the circle rates for buildings they didn’t occupy for long periods. Tenants too have been placated with a reasonable amount of compensation, thwarting the prospect of any sustained agitation. Generous compensation is clearly a way of containing disapproval and preserving the unity of political Hinduism in the face of an evident disquiet.
The government could have found an amicable way to conduct this process through public consultation without riding roughshod over tradition. However, no architectural or archaeological survey of the area was undertaken to ascertain an accurate count of heritage buildings and the temples within them, nor were there any timely or formal disclosures about the project plans. In fact, a discussion on the project design is now scheduled to take place in May in Ahmedabad rather than in Varanasi, notes a well known architect-conservationist. Sanjeev Singh, a local political activist who has been consistently highlighting violations associated with the acquisition-demolition drive, also pointed to the absolute lack of transparency regarding the project.
Some Muslims fear that the Gyanvapi mosque has the potential of becoming a flashpoint with the project being a precursor to an eventual demolition of the mosque. They recall the rant of the Hindutava brigade when the Babri Masjid was demolished, “Yeh to siraf jhanki hai, Mathura, Kashi baki hai”. Apprehensions gained ground when a boundary wall separating the mosque and temple (called chhattadwar) in the complex was demolished at midnight on October 25, 2018. Fearing a reaction, the wall was rebuilt overnight. Even so, the prospect of the demolition of the Gyanvapi, regardless of whether it will actually happen, helps in making the heritage demolition drive more acceptable.
The way in which the authority of the state has been exercised in the Vishwanath temple project raises two important questions. The first relates to the relationship between state and religion and the question of what the government’s role ought to be. Through this project, the government has enacted a complete Hinduisation of the state and nationalisation of Hinduism. In the end, it actually underlines the power of state and political leadership over religious communities that it claims to represent and hence it can arbitrarily do what it wants even in the face of disagreements. While one doesn’t expect the government to remain distant from religion or to adopt a non-interventionist role towards religion, the point is that this government has accorded to itself greater powers of intervention and interference than any previous government as the sole spokesman and protector of Hinduism. Meanwhile, the UP government is invoking the mantra of “beautification and modernisation” of temple premises for pilgrims to justify the acquisition and demolition of heritage structures. And all this has been done in the name of protecting Hinduism even as this interferes with lived traditions.
The second question relates to the relationship between religion and development. The government decides what is to be done with regard to the development of the area surrounding the temple and the ghats and then decides to define this development entirely in terms of religious tourism and the infrastructure and roads that will be built for this specific purpose, which is supposed to equal development.
In hindsight, perhaps all this could have been avoided if attempts to include the old city of Varanasi on the UNESCO World Heritage List had succeeded. Attempts to nominate Varanasi as a World Heritage city began in the 1980s but they have failed mostly for a lack of political will. Had these efforts succeeded the future of this ancient city may have taken a different course.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 25, 2019, under the title ‘Faith vs spectacle’. Chopra is managing editor of Social Change, Council for Social Development, New Delhi and Hasan is professor emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University.