Varanasi is us
The city needs our protection, not campaigns of division
In that umbra moment after the blasts, when the television screens suddenly spewed out images of blood-stained floors, panic-stricken crowds and strewn personal belongings, a stone seemed to settle on the chest. It was at that moment that people everywhere in the country looked for clarity, for some decoding of an event that broke the thread of life for so many, and this from someone with the ability to see things clearly. A true interpreter of maladies, as it were.
Of all the soundbites that emanated from the mouths of leaders after the Varanasi blasts, it was surprisingly Uma Bharati — the “daughter of BJP cast out in the darkness” — who spoke with the most wisdom. The burden of her words was this: these attacks are not about religion, they are about crime. The nation needs to remain united now more than ever. True, many others expressed similar sentiments, but when the woman who had once celebrated the fall of Babri Masjid expressed them, they assumed importance; and when her words were compared with the statements of her former colleagues in the BJP — including of course those of the inimitable Pravin Togadia, anxious to convert the blasts into bankable political capital — they assume even greater importance. Because these, precisely, are the two ideas that need to guide political and popular response to the grave and wanton aggression on Varanasi. One, do not communalise these attacks — criminalise them; two, come together in resistance against them, don’t fall prey to the larger design of their perpetrators.
These attacks could not have been planned with greater care. Their ultimate objective — which went far beyond the immediate one of creating chaos and terror — was to trigger a conflagration in a state that has historically been the country’s most significant communal and political battleground and which will soon see an election. The attacks took place on a Tuesday, when the crowds thronging the Sankat Mochan temple were guaranteed to be considerable. It was the tourist season, with the last lot of international arrivals filling up every corner of Varanasi’s tiny airport, before the punishing heat of summer keep travellers away. It came at a time when the Mulayam Singh Yadav government was already in pre-poll mode, with the likes of Yaqub Qureishi cynically stirring the cauldron of Muslim anger against the Danish cartoons, and with last Friday’s anti-Bush demonstrations in Lucknow acquiring a distinct communal tinge. But, most important of all, was the location of the blasts — Varanasi, pavitra bhoomi, mokshapuri, prithvi kshetra, with its 84 ghats that have drawn devout Hindus from all over the country down the ages. A city that is also the site of the Vishwanath Temple and the Gyanvapi Mosque, situated cheek by jowl in an uneasy coexistence that is always under threat from political forces looking for easy trouble.
The only possible response from the rest of India to these blasts is to say that “Varnasi is us”. This city is not just the country’s, but world’s oldest and continuously inhabited urban centre. It has drawn travellers of every clime and vintage; not just pilgrims and seers, but scholars, musicians, painters. Over the millennia, and long before the rail/road Malviya Bridge — which links Varanasi to Kolkata — was built by the British in 1887, they came. These men and women did their parikrama of the city and departed, sometimes leaving behind lasting vestiges of their presence. The Kedar Ghat immediately brings to mind southern temples and gods; while the building locally known as “Nepali Kothi”, with its distinct Himalayan architecture, recalls a tradition more northeastern in its provenance.
Then there is the Ganga that threads its way through the Himalayan plains. The chunar sandstone steps that fringe Varanasi’s riverfront lead to the Ganga, and the Ganga — as Nehru famously observed in his The Discovery of India — “from her source to the sea, from old times to new”, is the story of India’s civilisation.
Last Saturday, in more peaceable times, Veer Bhadra Mishra, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple and chief of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, had addressed a group of parliamentarians on the high pollution levels of the Ganga, and the utter failure of the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan to prevent the city’s sewage from flowing into it. A trained hydraulic engineer himself, he has been ceaselessly campaigning on the issue for the last 25 years. “The fish in the Ganga are dying, soon we human beings living on its banks will follow, if we fail to save the river,” he told his audience. Today, the threat to the river has been overshadowed by the threat to the city itself.
There is, in fact, no better way to view Varanasi than to take a boat ride from the River Varuna to the River Assi. As the ghats arrive at the prow of the boat, one after the other, as magnificent Peepul trees seem to effortlessly grow out of stone steps and cast a generous shade for monkeys and parrots to carry on their high voltage conversation, human activity ranging from the spiritual to the mundane is played out on the ever-stirring river bank. The devout take their holy dip, little boys jump in glee from the same diving stones that their forefathers no doubt used for the same purpose, and tidy wives wash their family linen energetically on well-worn steps. Timeless images of the city, long captured in films and postcards. Then a large sign will come into view. “Fortunate are the people who reside on the banks of the Ganga”, it reads.
Local residents love to tell the visitor that the traditional Benarasi culture is a laid-back one. The saying goes that if a true Benarasi has two gamchas, he can be happy, in fact no less happy than the Maharaja of Benaras. But residents may also add that the times are changing in Varanasi, that life today is no longer as certain, and the people who reside on the banks of the Ganga at Varanasi may not have reason to consider themselves particularly blessed.
This is a city that is uniquely Indian. It demands the country’s protection, not inspired campaigns of hatred and division. Because, in the end, Varanasi is us