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THE DEMOLITION OF BANARAS

For development, the current government has aggressively undertaken demolition of Banaras's old structures to make way for ‘new Varanasi’ – but, in this race to emerge on top, the symbols of heritage that pinnacle this ancient city are quickly dissipating into oblivion

Varanasi, the bastion of BJP supremos that has been wrapped in claims and controversy, will be heading to polls on May 19. Current MP and prime minister, Narendra Modi, filed his nomination for the second on April 26, following a massive 7 km roadshow through Kashi's famed narrow lanes that were brimming with enthusiastic supporters. Unsurprisingly, BJP is blazing all guns to secure a commendable win here. But, unlike 2014, the sailing hasn't been remarkably smooth. The saffron corridor is visibly fretted for a number of reasons which its MP must tackle face on.

Unlike most towns of India, Varanasi (earlier Banaras) isn't only contoured in political hues. Its cultural richness has attracted global attention. In fact, American author Mark Twain had said, "Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." This overflowing pitcher of culture that differentiated Varanasi from the rest is sadly at stake now. It is believed here that nothing should obstruct Lord Shiva and the sacred river Ganga – the sun's first rays should reflect off the surface of the river and shine on the summit of the temple.

This city of overwhelming historicity is also marked by its labyrinthine lanes that today are witnessing the painful brunt of forced development. Their essence is quickly dissipating as large-scale demolition projects bring down houses and multi-storeyed buildings (about 300) situated at the heart of the city to allow for the construction of the prime minister's dream Kashi-Vishwanath Corridor.

Varanasi, probably, needs no topography. The city has been rising and setting to its stone-slabbed pavements, crude structures and traditional mohallas. More than its current geography, it is imagination and history that make this city so very picturesque. And, once legendary director Satyajit Ray captured Kashi in his classics {Aparajito (1956) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979)}, there was no turning away from the magnetic aura of this ancient city.

When these aeons-old buildings were being brought down last year to make way for the corridor, a large number of old temples were found covered in the debris of these houses. Perhaps, the idea of 'new Varanasi' created resentment among people. These temples were built in the late-18th and 19th centuries when Varanasi witnessed an unprecedented temple-building spree following the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. The buildings that were brought down belong to the same period. The 45,000 sq. m. area of the religious corridor project has been estimated to cost Rs 600 crore and seeks to create a wide pathway connecting three prominent ghats on Ganga to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, easing access for devotees.

Significantly, PM Modi, once an RSS pracharak and propagator of Hindutva, has not even spared the ancient properties of 'Nirvani Akhara' and 'Juna Akhara', which the priests have refused to allow for demolition. While several ministers have tried to convince them, their resolve has dragged this resistance into a legal battle.

A local shopkeeper (desired anonymity) and member of the 'Dharohar Bachao Samiti, Kashi' who refused to destroy his house, has been intimidated by project managers; they threaten that they will truncate his access to electricity and water. He took us to a scheduled caste colony near Manikarnika Ghat, where people are frightened to talk. Locals said (refusing to mention their names) that they have been harassed and forced to vacate their ancestral lands.

The owners of these demolished houses and shops have of course received some monetary compensation. But Ramakant Misra (70), another owner, explained, "We have received only Rs 23 lakh; with that, we bought land for Rs 14 lakh and the registration cost is Rs. 1.5 lakh. How will we construct our house with the remaining meagre amount?"

The land spread between Manikarnika Ghat and Lalita Ghat is being supervised by Ahmedabad-based HCP Design Planning and Management Pvt Ltd. Reportedly, Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust is restoring and integrating 43 old temples with the milieu surrounding the ancient Shiva temple. The ethos here, characterised by labyrinthine lanes, flower shops, tea and sweetmeat stalls, shops selling saris, wooden toys and items of religious use, has helped Varanasi acquire its distinctive identity.

Incidentally, Modi's religious corridor project has forsaken communal harmony. In a bid to valorise Vishwanath, the minority community here claims that the administration is conspiring to demolish the centuries-old Gyanvapi Masjid which shares a boundary wall with the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Modi's dream project has not even spared Ved Vyas Peeth. Until August 2017, this was an institute of research. Although the administration claims that enough compensation was paid to the Vyas family – Kedarnath Vyas, the patron of Vyas Peeth, did not get a single paisa as compensation from the government, or even a place to stay. Further, he is now being forced to live in a small four-room rented tenement with his son, Jitendra Vyas, and his family of four. Incidentally, the Vyas progenitors also happen to be owners of both the land of Kashi Viswanath temple and Gyanvapi Masjid.

Further, rustic Kashi is also known for its vibrant Banarasi sarees and artisans, besides its religious zeal and tourism. All is not smooth for the saree weavers. The industry is still being buffeted by headwinds: small weavers say their margins have dropped drastically since demonetisation and work has shrunk because of GST, which has increased costs for traders who buy from the weavers.

"GST has become a hurdle for us, small traders and bunkars (weavers). Earlier, there was not a single tax in the saree industry. The demand of sarees has dropped by 50 per cent in the last five years," Sameer, owner of four power looms and a master weaver of Sonarpura said. He also lamented on the lack of education as a big reason for endless suffering. "No government representative ever comes to us. We are not educated enough and it is easy to dupe us. No doubt the government has introduced schemes for us, but we are hardly aware of them," he mentioned.

Some Muslim weavers though are game to give Modi another chance. Sonu Akbar (33), another young Banarasi master weaver and owner of two power looms, feels that five years is not enough to fully implement developmental works, adding, "Modiji should get a second term. I believe the situation will improve."

Wahid Ali, a veteran master weaver, summed up the situation, saying "Work has been undertaken in Varanasi and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh too – that's a fact. It is also true that no one can defeat Modi in Varanasi. Who else is there? But when other BJP leaders talk about religious discrimination, it leaves us very worried."

In election speeches or rallies though, the struggling economy of Varanasi doesn't figure, despite its gnawing problems. If weavers can't deliver, then the entire trade, which follows an age-old symbiotic structure, suffers. A survey conducted last year shows the decline of Banarasi saree weavers as migration to other cities continues.

Simontini Bhattacharjee

Simontini Bhattacharjee

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