In popular imagination, Varanasi has become a symbol of timelessness. Not only the western travellers but the English-educated Indians too find the city intriguing as its people and their culture, especially those living near the Ganges, seem to be of a bygone era.
Though elements of outward changes do sometimes manifest themselves as marks of the modern age but essentially Kashi (a name synonymous with Varanasi) lives in the past. It is perhaps for this reason that Mark Twain was prompted to comment in 1897 that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
However, since March 2018, there has been an attempt that might make the age-old idea of Kashi obsolete in the years to come.
Local Dissent Simmers
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rs 600-crore dream project – the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project – aimed to extend, beautify and facilitate easy access for the pilgrims to visit the 18th century Vishwanath temple directly from the Ganges. This has altered what many consider the essence of Kashi.
The project headed by the Varanasi Development Authority and Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust has already achieved eighty percent of its primary objective: demolition of old buildings needed to vacate the entire Lahori Tola area to make fifty-feet wide pathways from Lalita Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat to the Vishwanath temple.
More than 250 houses have already been razed to the ground while, as the government claims, keeping intact and making visible for the first time many old temples that were so far covered by those buildings. The project also aspires to provide drinking water, restroom, refreshment and medical centres and other amenities to the pilgrims who arrive in large numbers.
Though right from the beginning there were some locals who had protested against this drive. And they claim to have reasons to justify their dissent.
One among them is sexagenarian Krishna Kumar Sharma, a devoted RSS worker for the most of his life, who doubts the very rationale of the project. For him, and many others born and brought up here, the idea of Kashi goes well beyond the temples.
It includes a plethora of other things like the narrow serpentine alleyways, the old residential structures (some of which are heritage buildings), many small temples set into recesses of their walls and raised terraces jutting out from them where men chat for hours and the tiny tea and paan shops below the staircases.
He further adds, “We have been involved in trying to make Kashi neat and clean emphasising the availability of proper drinking water and sewerage system since 1989 under the leadership of Shyamdev Roy Chaudhari, the BJP MLA from Varanasi South for seven consecutive terms. We always thought it was possible to improve the conditions without trampling the cultural heritage of Kashi. This project is demonic.”
The Dharohara Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, Kashi – a platform formed almost immediately after the project was initiated to save the heritage of Kashi and of which Sharma was an integral part had other objections too.
Rajnath Tiwari, president of the now-defunct Samiti, says, “The details of the plan have never been made public. We are not against development. We believe it could have been done without causing this havoc. Alleys could have been widened without the complete demolition of buildings. The government seems to be bent on acquiring the land at any cost. There may be some ill motive.”
Not only Tiwari, but many others in the locality apprehend the role of crony capitalism behind the whole project.
Fears of Little to No Compensation
Their fear is due to the fact that the number of houses earmarked for demolition has increased with time and the initial proposal for rehabilitation of the shop owners seem now to be chimerical.
Sanjeev Ratan Mishra who alleges that his shop has been demolished without being paid any compensation asks, “If the master plan has not even now been finalised, can we not raise doubt about the transparency of the project?” Besides, there seems to be much concern among the locals whether the project would be limited to the area demarcated so far.
But, haven’t the residents agreed to give away the houses for the corridor in return of the money that is double the current circle rate? “The issue is much more complex than meets the eye,” explains Krishna Kumar Sharma.
“There were many buildings here where tenants were paying a meagre amount as rent for many years. The landlords who could not otherwise evict them were the first to seize the opportunity to sell their houses once the government agencies approached them. Next in line were the indigent owners for whom the compensation meant a fortune in hard times. The problem aggravated in case of the jointly owned properties where some acceded to the proposal. They succeeded to break up the families. They even employed brokers to lure owners and gave for some residential buildings the money allocated for commercial buildings,” alleges Krishna Kumar Sharma, who is one of the last persons to have moved out of Lahori Tola.
History Lost? Ancient Temples Razed
Another factor for forcing some to sell their houses was that the buildings in the area are attached to one another. Therefore, if the wall of a house is demolished, the adjoining one becomes vulnerable too.
Padampati Sharma, a senior sports journalist and a long-time RSS worker, claims that he has been a victim of a ‘divide and rule’ policy of the government. “I was dead against the project from the start. My brothers have agreed to the proposal when I was in the US. I had nothing to do but to see my two-century-old ancestral house brought down,” he says, with tears welling up in his eyes.
“An irreparable damage has been done. They have demolished even the house where the former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri spent twenty years of his life and the residence of the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and the Union Minister for Railways, Kamalapati Tripathi. They have no regard for history,” Sharma adds.
However, some claimed to be happy to have availed the opportunity and compensation provided by the government.
One such person is septuagenarian Shravan Kumar Goswami whose son is constructing a new house about ten kilometres away from Lahori Tola. “The building was dilapidated. Good riddance that it is gone,” he says, though he continues to visit the locality every morning to chat with his old companions. When asked, he replies, “I come here out of habit.”
Jai Prakash Sharma, who has signed the agreement but is yet to receive the money, seems sad. “We have been acting as sewaits (caretaker-priest) of the temple housed in the building for generations. The money cannot bring back my vocation.”
The project has landed many shopkeepers in problem too. They used to run business in such buildings. With the houses demolished, they are now severely cash-strapped. They will have to relocate themselves in other places as the rehabilitation scheme has not yet been finalised.
Prabhu Singh, a courteous young man in his forties, represents yet another aspect of the issue. “I didn’t want to leave but as most of the houses have now been acquired, I have no option. However, I am not satisfied with the amount they are paying. We are a big family and unless we get what we demand, we won’t budge,” he says firmly.
Though individuals like Krishna Kumar Sharma and Padampati Sharma have ultimately accepted defeat, there are still some who are as resolute as ever. Bhanu Mishra, a shopkeeper who sells items needed for puja, has managed to get a stay order from the Allahabad High Court. “Eight years back, I had paid eight lakh rupees for the shop. Now they are offering me five lakh as compensation. I want what I had paid plus bank interest for all these years. Till that is met they won’t be successful. I open the shop every day knowing well that there won’t be any customer since they have blocked the alley from both ends.”
There are other dissenters as well who allege they are facing harassment every day.
Sant Ram Singh, the General Secretary of Vriddh Sant Seva Trust that houses seventeen saints, alleges there is constant pressure on them to yield. “Though we have not yet been served any notice, the officials often try to convince us verbally in various ways. Sensing our firmness, they have now resorted to pressure tactics. Sometimes, there is a huge pile of rubble thrown just outside the front door of our ashram and at other times electricity is disconnected,” asserts the scholarly saint Ram Singh who hails from Punjab.
“Modi had said he would remake Varanasi somewhat like Kyoto. But there they have preserved the past; here he is destroying it,” he adds with a wry smile.
The same sentiment was voiced by Swami Kailash Bharti, the founder of the Vriddh Sant Seva Trust. “They tell us that Kashi will be beautified the way the areas adjacent to the Somnath Temple in Gujarat or the Golden Temple in Amritsar had been. What they forget is that Kashi is essentially different,” he says with conviction. “They can’t remove me from here before my death,” he declares.
The heart of the debate now rests on the issue of temples that are to be restored in the area.
The locals claim there were more than two hundred temples worth keeping intact. The number put forward by the government is, however, about fifty. “There were temples in almost every house here. How can they demolish the most while keeping a few intact? Their claim that many temples were invisible due to encroachments is equally untenable,” affirms Krishna Kumar Sharma.
“It has always been like this here: houses and temples are closely associated with each other,” he further adds. “It was out of fear of Aurangzeb’s wrath in the seventeenth century that many had covered the temples by making houses around them. This is history and it should have been preserved and showcased the way for the future generations.”
Padampati Sharma shares a similar sentiment when he says, “Initially, the government had said they would protect all the old temples. But their practice has been contrary. The six-hundred-year-old Neelkanth Mahadev temple has been razed.”
Vikas Yadav, a local journalist, stresses on the alleged callousness of the whole demolition process. “Many temples have been damaged and the idols were found in the rubble. In most cases, these have been thrown away and no one knows where. I have taken many photos of such broken idols,” he says.
There is doubt in Krishna Kumar Sharma’s mind too. “The whole project is suspicious. Their dating of the temples restored is also untrustworthy. Had there been the endorsement of organisations like the ASI, things would have been credible”, he contends.
Padampati Sharma contests, “They say the project will give easier access to the pilgrims and there will never be any long queues. But they do not have an answer when I ask them about the size of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of the Vishwanath temple that cannot accommodate more than ten devotees at a given time. If that remains the same, how can the queues vanish?”
To add to the hopelessness of these protesters, they did not get respite from the court of law. “It is like banging your head against a wall. It is so disappointing,” utters a visibly frustrated Krishna Kumar Sharma.
“None of the Opposition political parties were serious in their protest against the project,” claims Rajnath Tiwari. “This has been a BJP bastion for years. They must have thought it fruitless to put in their energy. Only AAP is doing a bit. But they are insignificant here,” he utters with a sigh.
“The project is nothing new. It was first initiated in the days of Indira Gandhi. But sensing trouble she had halted it. Later, Mayawati and Akhilesh were approached with the plan. They too didn’t give their nod. The irony is this time a party that considers itself the custodian of the Hindus is tearing down the temples,” declares Krishna Kumar Sharma.
Padampati Sharma senses a political agenda behind the project. “I fear whether they have a plan similar to that of Ayodhya here. The Gyanvapi Masjid which was so far hidden behind the buildings stands exposed now. Will it be difficult for a riotous mob to gather with such a large vacant area now?” asks the veteran journalist.
Rajnath Tiwari is equally apprehensive. “The officials will dismiss such fears readily. But we still have doubts. The people of different communities have been living here peacefully. We don’t want the atmosphere to be vitiated,” he says.
It is, however, for the future to say what the outcome of this mammoth project will be. But Varanasi for now is definitely being torn between the past and the future as it never has been before.
(Subhendu Sarkar is an academic and independent documentary photographer based in Kolkata. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)