The Narendra Modi government appointed a trust, Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra, to oversee the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. But as the RSS-BJP Parivar has often said, “Ayodhya toh jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baqui hai (Ayodhya is only the trailer, Kashi and Mathura remain).”
Now, with the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham by Prime Minister Modi in Varanasi, the first phase of the BJP’s ‘Kashi project’ is complete. And the manner in which it was done heralds a new era in BJP’s political strategy. The BJP-led government has changed the landscape of Kashi or Varanasi in a way that can only be defined as a metamorphosis of the city, at least the part where the Kashi Vishwanath temple is situated.
The Kashi-related controversy, which the BJP has used to its advantage, pertains to the sharing of space between two religious structures, Kashi Vishwanath temple and Gyanvapi mosque.
Kashi project is complete
Unlike the now razed Babri Masjid, the Gyanvapi mosque still stands, albeit overwhelmed by the newly constructed Kashi Vishwanath Dham. The intention to invisibilise the mosque has been achieved.
Kashi Vishwanath Dham is part of the larger Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project and is near completion in less than three years. This project – including tourist facilitation centre, Vedic Kendra, Mumukshu Bhavan, Bhogshala, city museum, viewing gallery, food court, etc. – is now spread over 3 lakh sq ft, whereas the original temple complex was hardly 3,000 sq ft. At any given time, more than 2 lakh people can assemble in this complex.
What is interesting is that the committee managing the Gyanvapi mosque gave 1,700 sq ft of land for the development of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham and got a 1,000 sq ft plot on the main road in exchange. This exchange took place despite a legal battle over the ownership of land on which the mosque currently stands. The suit was filed in 1991 seeking restoration of the ancient temple at the site. This demand is based on a claim that the mosque was built after the demolition of a temple. The court has asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct a study to ascertain the truth. The case is still pending in Allahabad High Court, which has reserved its order.
What brought the shift in strategy
A similar dispute in Ayodhya saw the BJP-RSS adopt a confrontational stance, which led to the demolition of Babri Masjid. This movement started in the turbulent 1980s and led to communal flare-ups in the early ’90s, resulting in hundreds of deaths and large-scale destruction of properties.
Significantly, in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid, five BJP-led governments were dismissed by then-Union government and despite the communal tension, the BJP failed to reclaim power in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Delhi, while it somehow managed to form a government in Rajasthan with a wafer-thin majority. We don’t know for sure, but this may have weighed on the minds of BJP leaders as the party went about its plans to redevelop Kashi and not adopt an Ayodhya-like confrontational approach.
The BJP perhaps realises that it can’t repeat the demolition act of 1992, mainly for two reasons. First, being the ruling party at the Centre and in several states, the BJP cannot afford to subvert the high court that is yet to pronounce its judgment in the Gyanvapi mosque case, something which it did in the case of Babri Masjid. Being in opposition and acting recklessly is one thing; doing so when in power is another ball game. Second, the BJP has better options to work with this time around.
Because a 1992-like move was not a sustainable option, the BJP changed its strategy from demolition to construction and worked on a plan to make the existence of the mosque insignificant. With Kashi Vishwanath Dham, the party has achieved this. Modi and the BJP are showcasing the renovation and new construction around the Gyanvapi mosque as a grand success. The branding of this project shows how serious the BJP is to make this project look imposing and impressive.
Kashi’s place in Hindutva
Modi also tried to mark the occasion of the inauguration to show the inclusiveness of the Hindutva project. He showered flowers on the construction workers of the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex and shared a meal with them. These events were broadcast live on national television. It was a spectacle.
The iconography and symbolism that Modi wanted to showcase from Kashi are important. Kashi is an important seat of Hindu religion and also the knowledge centre of Sanatan Dharma. It is considered to be the most important Hindu shrine of Shiva and the most prominent of the 12 Jyotirlingas.
It was not long ago that Dalits weren’t allowed to enter the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Gandhi had painfully mentioned this fact in 1936, “Yet, in spite of all that love for Hinduism…I am here to tell you that so long as the doors of the Banaras Temple are closed against a single Harijan, Kashi Vishwanath does not reside in that temple, and I could not possibly approach that temple with a belief in its sanctity, or in the fact that by worshiping there, I should be purified of my sins. I can have no sense of piety in respect of such a temple. And what is true of Kashi Vishwanath is true of every other temple in India which bars its doors to Harijans.” He goes on to say, “I will take by way of illustration the greatest temple known all over the world, viz. Kashi Vishwanath in Banaras. The Lord who is supposed to reside there is known as the Lord of the Universe. And yet in the very name of that Vishwanath the Savarna Hindus have today the impudence to say to the Harijans, ‘You shall not come to this temple!’
The Indian Constitutions came into effect in 1950 and Article 17 abolished untouchability and forbade practicing it in any form. Despite that, it took another seven years for Dalits to be able to enter the Kashi Vishwanath temple in 1957, after violent protests and boycotts by prominent religious leaders. Those restrictions on Dalits are now gone. The BJP is trying to forge a grand Hindu coalition and Kashi is one of the sites for that.
This explains why Narendra Modi is ascribing so much importance to Kashi. It’s not for nothing that he decided to be an MP from this Lok Sabha constituency in 2014 and again in 2019.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)