Thousands of NRIs gathered in Varanasi to celebrate Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, but the city’s heritage buildings are biting the dust.
Meri Kashi!” exclaimed Prime Minister Narendra Modi Tuesday morning as he welcomed 4,000-odd non-resident Indians to the 15th Pravasi Bhartiya Divas celebrations in his constituency Varanasi. The foreign invitees will be taken to the Kumbh Mela later this week, where several diplomats have also been invited, to showcase the largest gathering of people anywhere in the world.
The venue for the NRI mela in Varanasi is not without thought; by now it is clear the PM hardly does anything without careful homework. Soon after he came to power in 2014, the Pravasi Divas was held in the PM’s home state, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, after which it moved to Bengaluru, Karnataka, the state most connected with the outside world.
As polls near, the action must move to Uttar Pradesh with its 80 Lok Sabha seats. With 73 seats, the BJP is nervously eyeing the alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP, and as the MP from Varanasi, the PM wants to naturally show off his constituency, also the oldest living city in the world.
The theme for this NRI summit is ‘Role of Indian diaspora in building a new India’. The road from Varanasi airport to Bhojubeer in the city has been broadened, tarmacked and khajoor trees (date palm) planted for shade. Both NRIs and Banarasis admit it looks beautiful, even if most other development works are still patch-work. After all, it’s impossible to fix such a vast, complex city in a few years. Assi Ghat, where the PM had wielded a spade in the early days of Swachh Bharat, has done well with a lick of paint.
“It is true, Banaras has been dressed up like a dulhan, a bride, and everybody is dancing and singing with joy,” B.P. Rana told ThePrint. A former professor of geography at Banaras Hindu University, Rana also works with the UNESCO affiliated body, the Asian Cultural Landscape Association. “The problem is that when the bridegroom returns home, everything comes to a standstill. If you come back a fortnight after the Pravasi Bharat Divas comes has ended, you will see the same garbage back at Assi Ghat,” he added.
Because it is Modi’s constituency, the enthusiasm to “do” things and showcase results is considerable. For example, when Modi travelled to Japan for his first visit after he became PM, he announced a much-vaunted – and much-needed – initiative to twin Varanasi with Kyoto. Anyone who has seen Japan’s beautiful heritage city will vouch for the symbiosis between the two. So a committee was formed, headed by the then mayor of Varanasi. But the mayor changed and several officials were transferred. According to Rana, the Varanasi-Kyoto project is probably limping along.
More significant is the campaign by the Varanasi Development Authority to clean up and beautify the city. The VDA decided to take up an idea, as old as 1931 when it was thought of by the Kashi Tirtha Sudhar Samiti, to improve facilities for pilgrims. So in 2018, it had already bought 175 houses that had been built, ‘higgledy-piggledy’ (since the orientalist and English scholar James Prinsep lived in Banaras from 1820-1830) and were allegedly obscuring the beautiful view to the famed ghats.
The VDA’s idea was to broaden the corridor that led to the ghats between the Manikarnika and the Dashashwamedha ghats, clear the passage to the 18thcentury Shiva temple and the space around it so as to reduce the filth, the mess. People were supposedly offered four times as much as their homes were worth, some even 200 years or so old.
When some of those homes were brought down, Shivlings and other statues were discovered and some even, inadvertently, destroyed, including a ‘dugdh Vinayak’, or a ‘milk Ganesh.’ According to Rana, at least 25 Shivlings have been saved by the VDA, which promises to build them a shelter near the temple.
Local Banarasis were soon up in arms, including motley of sadhus and saints, as well as opposition politicians. Rana was at pains to insist that there was nothing wrong in clearing up space or beautifying “our very congested Kashi”, except that “no one talked to us about how to implement your projects”.
“The biggest problem is that all the hi-fi people come from outside, they make big, coffee-table books about Kashi that were presented to the 4,000 or so NRIs, but not one local architect or planning student was consulted. Kya hum sab Banarasi moorkh hain? Are we fools?” complained Rana.
He said he was sure the PM doesn’t know what is really going on in Banaras because he doesn’t know any local people. (PM ko bataane vaala koi nahin hai. There is no one to tell the PM. ) Rana admitted that the destruction of some old temples had even led some locals to make anti-Modi slogans.
As the Pravasi Bharati Divas gives way to more immediate matters, the coming elections, the ongoing matter of the so-called restoration of Varanasi remains. In the rise and fall of empires, the latest beautification exercise is sorely needed and must take locals along. Mark Twain once described Varanasi as being “older than history”. It is only fitting the MP from Varanasi leads the charge.