Tuesday, 9 August, 2022
HomeOpinionWritings on the wallModi’s Hindutva 2.0 written on Varanasi walls: Temple restoration, not mosque demolition

Modi’s Hindutva 2.0 written on Varanasi walls: Temple restoration, not mosque demolition

Modi has boldly ventured to redevelop Varanasi’s messy, filthy inner city. It’s a restoration project that can delight his large Hindu constituency.

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Writings on the Wall is a metaphor that grew out of my travels, mostly through the poll-bound regions of India and the neighbourhood over the past 15 years. Because, even more than its big festivals, the subcontinent comes to life during its elections. And what’s on people’s minds, their aspirations, joys, concerns and fears, you can pretty much understand by reading these writings on the wall. These can be graffiti, advertising, skylines, fences, or even rubble.

You want to see change in Varanasi, you walk on fresh rubble, with a lone bulldozer labouring on yards away, and look at the walls. Don’t read. Because there is nothing to read. Just take a close look at the remnants of what used to be there. See the sketches my young colleague Soham Sen has drawn, better than a picture.  Or, watch the videos on ThePrint’s Instagram account.

These are remnants of doors, windows, ventilators, cupboards, as if these were pasted on these walls with some adhesive and somebody rudely pulled them out. If you were airdropped here, you might for a moment think you’ve landed in the middle of some zany art installation. Or, it could also be the setting of another madcap Fevicol ad: You join two houses with it, knock them down with a bulldozer, our joints will survive.

Illustration by Soham Sen

This is precisely what has happened here. About 300 houses, temples and other buildings stood in this area of just 4.6 hectares (11.4 acres), most of them so close to each other that over time they had become conjoined as if constructed together. Beneath these, somehow, survived Varanasi’s famous — or infamous — byzantine ‘galis’ (lanes), some so narrow that not more than two average-sized adults could pass. It’s now history.

Modi critics say that the cloistered neighbourhood that concealed the Kashi Vishwanath temple, among Hinduism’s holiest and oldest, has been broken down so the entire Hindu world can now see the temple from the ghats of the Ganga. More important, as they see the relatively modest temple, they will notice the more imposing domes of the Gyanvapi mosque which Aurangzeb apparently built in 1669 after demolishing the original Kashi Vishwanath temple. This will be militant Hindutva’s eyesore and next target.

I would find this threat less alarming, not just because officials, including Vishal Singh, 36, the Chief Executive Officer of the Kashi Vishwanath Development Authority (KVDA), remind me that the mosque is already well-protected with 30-foot high solid steel pillars and CRPF armed with automatics. Mine is a realistic view that even if the rulers of the day were violent majoritarian malcontents and the institutions had become so malleable they could no longer protect the Constitution, a building with easy access and view will be harder to harm than one hidden in a maze.

So, just the redevelopment of the area, clearing of the 300 metres to the riverfront for an unhindered view of the temple from the ghats and vice-versa doesn’t add to the threat. Some local Muslims leaders filed a petition in the Supreme Court expressing these apprehensions on behalf of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, but it was rejected.

The greater opposition, in fact, comes from Varanasi’s Hindu conservatives. Walk down the narrow lane connecting the temple precinct’s Neelkanth gate to the holiest Manikarnika Ghat, where cremations take place, and we run into well-known local writer and journalist/intellectual, Trilochan Prasad. He’s furious. Who can dare to change what was never destined to change? They have destroyed our heritage, everything that was sacred, hundreds of crores have been wasted, a way of life has been destroyed and more.

Illustration by Soham Sen

Like him or not, Modi is a risk-taker. This, the redevelopment of a mere 4.6 hectares, involving the demolition of 296 buildings, is among the greatest risks he has taken in his constituency. Because this means annoying not just the liberal, but the most conservative residents of the Brahmin heartland, which takes pride in being eternal and unchanging. Almost 90 per cent of those shifted are Brahmins. Like its priests, Varanasi also must have the highest per capita population of political pundits. And many would tell you, with the greatest conviction, that this Modi-Yogi “misadventure” will cost them anything between 60,000-75,000 votes.

To understand the before-and-after, you need to see the charts and plastic models in the office of the CEO who, incidentally, has a masters in administration from the University of Maryland. Rs 600 crore has been sanctioned for the authority and the old buildings acquired after making a new law in the UP Assembly. The owners have been given twice the circle rate and they seem happy by and large, with a total of a little over Rs 200 crore paid out. Another Rs 15 crore has been paid to the residents who didn’t own the buildings but claimed tenancy rights. Only 12 owners are still holding out in the vicinity of the temple.

The demolition work is mostly over. Modi performed the bhumi pujan for the new precinct on 8 March, and the work should finish in another year or so. By now, 43 temples have been discovered, entombed earlier in houses built over them, mostly as encroachment. When it is completed, this temple complex will become what almost nothing in old Varanasi can still claim to be, even after five years of having the prime minister as its MP: Clean, modern, and accessible. The point is, was it a risk worth taking?

Illustration by Soham Sen

Inner city development is one of India’s greatest challenges. Most of our leaders have stayed clear of this minefield. The first who attempted it was a reckless tyrant who asked no questions (Sanjay Gandhi, Turkman Gate and Jama Masjid), and the other is the spiritual head of his sect whom nobody would ask a question: The Syedna of the Bohris now leading the Rs 4,000 crore rebuilding of Central Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar. Modi is the third, but the first to try and do this using the laws, persuasion, and a wide open purse.

While we question his commitment to secularism and often enough expose the hollowness of his ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ slogan, we also need to acknowledge that in some important ways, he has challenged Hinduism’s social conservatism. The Swachh Bharat and anti-open defecation campaigns are one aspect of it. The other, forgotten by now, was his removal of a large number of temples encroaching public spaces in Gujarat, which put him at odds with his original VHP hatchet-men. The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor is his ‘panga’ with Varanasi’s conservative Brahminism.

Many wise and famous men have spoken immortal lines about Varanasi. Probably the most quoted are Mark Twain’s: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” But must it continue to be twice as messy and filthy as that? Surely, Hinduism deserves better for its holiest, oldest city, supposedly of salvation. Twain would be surprised reading the walls around the new, bulldozed emptiness at the temple today. They speak of change.

Illustration by Soham Sen

Few doubt that Modi will be re-elected in Varanasi. We will also be able to guess on 23 May if it makes Modi lose those tens of thousands of conservative votes the pundits of Banaras predict. But in a year, if he completes the project, it could work wonders with his much larger, pan-national Hindu constituency. And you know what, I’m happy to say I am enthused by this project. It will be a great precedent for other old cities, hopefully for the restoration and pedestrianisation of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to its old glory. And if Modi continues growing as a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’, better that it is done by restoring ancient temples than demolishing medieval mosques.

Also readVaranasi, 2014: Why I’d said, before the secular dip, hold your nose


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  1. World needs today a Hindu culture which is proven secular for ages ( much before media was there) and Modi has embarked on the journey to offer it to the world
    1. He contested from Varanasi Seat of Hindu culture Geometrically perfect city which will be the top city of India
    2. He initiated Ganga cleaning (maximum population on Ganga banks)
    3. His Swatch Bharat
    4.He is reviving the Science which is the base of Hindu culture left dormant for past 1000 years
    A fresh 5 years term( wish of
    the peoplee of Hindu region ) will revive it further

    We the people of the Hindu region should support Modis cause

  2. Modi is doing right opposite to what is required to be done for Varanasi. Vishwanath Gulli and Varanasi’s famous ghats are part and parcel of the heritage of Varanasi. You can not seperate those narrow lines flanking the Temple from the heritage of temple itself. Whta modi doing is clearing up the path to temple for his own comfort and simply ignored the periphery of the city to develop Varanasi for tourism and piligrim comforts and amenities. He is trying to create a smart city by destroying the heritage out of it. Memorable part of my 7 yestay in Varanasi is its narrow lanes, Vishwanath Galli apart from the temple itself.

  3. Please see the video of Dr.Rama puniyani-https://youtu.be/o7SYNYgdaOk-according to this video it was Aurangazeb who reconstructed the viswanath temple.Shekharji should check the truth of this video.

  4. It’s hard to me to believe that this article really written by Shekhar Gupta. The language used in this article is clearly to please Modi’s adversaries. Use of words like masque demolition in the title is perfectly deceiving. Same is the case throughout the article. I can only request Sekhar Gupta not to be used and remain faithful to impartial juornalism.

  5. People need to understand that nothing in life comes in black and white. Modi can’t be entirely ‘bad’ or entirely ‘good’. You may dislike Modi for many reasons but you can also like Modi for many other reasons. But, unfortunately, in the times we live in, there is little room for those between ‘for’ and ‘against’.

  6. Since the elections started, Shekhar Gupta’s mask has been slipping and he has been becoming more and more unhinged by the day. I am sure his political masters in the congress party are demanding payback for past favours rendered. May your clan bite the dust on May 23.

  7. A personal anecdote from the eternal city. Visited Varanasi a little before Writings on the Wall was born. Our Bombay based friends told me, You must visit our ancestral home, have a meal with the family, which I did. At the end of a delicious dinner, we were served Ras Malai for dessert. Feeling a little expansive, I said, Could I have a second helping please. Husband and wife exchanged embarrassed looks. After that, each year, when our friends drop in for Holi and Diwali, along with the other gifts, they bring a container of Ras Malai from Tewari Brothers at Opera House …

  8. Modi and his party should thank their stars because opposition has not instigated the owners the way BJP would do if similar task was undertaken by non BJP party. This is problem with they would create all hindrance in opposition. If some other party had done this, they would immediately say seculars are doing this to please Minorities. Demolishing some thing easy, but construction is very difficult. Modiji probabily knows that to keep cities revered by Hindus is difficult. Will BJP prohibit us from throwing up flowers and other substance in our rivers or immerse idols. Even communal riots does not happen whe BJP rules but while in opposition, one can see the difference.

  9. Fucked up agenda! What’s wrong in buying the land/ property by paying off the concern owners and moreover hundreds of temples were found beneath the houses. I am a Hindu and fully support the work, we are proud of our historical monuments, temples, buildings etc which signifies our history, culture and heritage but developing of existing temples into a cleaner, bigger n better place to pray n conservation of it for future generations of hindus is very important. Now i don’t know y would shekar Gupta have to bring up a mosque is getting demolished n conservative hindus r angry etc. Looks to me like he has never been a journalist rather been a sold out media businessman trying hard to some how stop MR. Modi from getting re-elected as the PM of the country. Well, i would say try harder and pray shekar Gupta to go to the boro community in Assam n asked them what political appeasement has brought upon them since 1947 and 1974 ( after the independence n pak-bangladesh war). Marginalized n second class citizen in our own ancestral land n when we fight back. The national media will paint the entire boro community as terrorists, if we don’t fight back when the elected government of India is neglecting and marginalizing it’s own citizens because of Bangladeshis who r not even Indians ( why, just because the particular secular n peaceful religion will be the receiving end n boros r electorally insignificant). Mr. Modi has changed the attitude of the Indians, we would rather be a leader of our own mind n body rather than surrendering ourselves to some Western influenced elites who wants to paint down their agenda on us. Mr Gupta, we also know there are lots of journalists who were hand in gloves in looting, diverting and destroying the country along with the Congress for so long n none of those journalists will be left out. Mr. Modi is first PM who is loved even by a tribal in far east of northeastern region, not because he is just the PM but because he has the intention n political will to implement any agenda n we have experienced that. I am a boro from lower Assam ( boroland, don’t worry we r asking for a state not a country n it will continue because the Constitution allows us to put fort our struggle). Mr. Modi was the first PM to address a boro rally in the capital of boroland ( imagine after 70 years a PM comes down to a remote tribal land to signify his understanding of the situation n to deliver a message that he understands the pain, anger and lost of lives of thousands of our brothers since independence). Mr. Shekar the community u people called terrorists are giving India the biggest security ( chicken neck passes thru our land, without us u cannot protect north east India because boroland is the only way u can enter the Northeastern region). ISIS is trying hard to make an enroute in to the northeastern region but because boros have been fighters n always fights it’s own battle, they r on check. Remove boros from lower Assam for a year n u will see Kashmir in Assam directly administrated by ISI and ISIS from Bangladesh. If we wanted we could have asked for the nation’s dis-integration but our ancestors choose to live in peace with mainland India ( we are mostly hindus our legends say Gatogach in Mahabharata was born from Bhima and a kachari princess while they were exiled n landed in the forest of kachari kingdom ( our clan is kachari n boros r just a tribe amongst many tribes). Our people too fought the great war n we have the historical facts in the ruins of our forts in the hilly regions of our land.) We r the first settlers in the. Northeastern region, first to grow rice and rear silk worm in this region. We had our own kingdom untill 1800’s but the britishers killed our king and annexed it n later because of the already mismanaged indo-pak division n the horrors it bought along they just handed over our land to Indian authorities. Even today u can see how they divided the boundaries, half of the nagaland still fall under Assam, Manipur, arunachal n mayanmar n 50+% nagas live in Mayanmar and the other states of north east India. Shekar Gupta u might not like it but we ( Kachari, ahom n jiantia kingdom ) defeated mughals 19 times n most famous in the naval war in the river of brahmaputra but sadly elites who were responsible to write a history lessons for kids only show glory and valour in mughals concentrated in the. Northern India leaving the south n east as if we are some lost angels dropped from the sky. I am saying u all these to let u know that a simple college going student understands all these well n the future of this country is only going to be more democratic and with less fake people who would sell off their dignity n professionalism for few extra dollars.

  10. “pleasing to the eye”, “beautiful”, or “beautified”. The first two descriptions within quotes can be applied to THOUSANDS of places in India, AND millions of places around the world. But the third description, “beautified”, is a loaded one. Beautified by invoking cleanliness, and/or appending some aesthetic motifs to an existing premises or structure? Or beautified AT THE COST OF HISTORY?

    Modi and his BJP men are not sensitive enough to understand the nuance of a taunt in the last phrase. Otherwise they wouldn’t have done to Banares what they apparently have done. The younger BJP members may not even know what Banares means – – that it means so much more than what they call Varanasi, or what they so emphatically want Varanasi to be called (:beautiful).

  11. Issue is not of many small lanes and by lanes in Indian old towns. Many other places in the world such as Jerusalem, Istanbul, towns all over Europe have them. Our problem is that our towns are dirty, filthy and there is encroachment of available public spaces. By habit, we are dirty people compared to any one else in the world. Look at way towns elsewhere are kept neat and clean and people take pride in its historical lineage. We have therefore, no other way than to forcefully remove the dirt, filth and the obstructions. Modi is doing the right thing, whether he is called right wing Hindu zealot or whatever. Shekhar given his sickular genes, could not refrain from referring to the mosque in danger narrative. Who cares if he is finally happy with Modi!

    • The problem is two sided: (1) Indians are generally acceptable to living with self-generated filth; (2) corrupt municipalities with no sense of duty and politicians, with no sense where to invest money generated from house tax etc. give a damn as they themselves enjoy bungalows in leafy urban locales.

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