From mahants to saints: meet Modi’s biggest critics on his home turf

Three of Varanasi’s biggest priests have rejected Modi’s claims of development and clean Ganga, and are especially angry with the destruction of heritage for the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project.

WrittenBy:Kanchan Srivastava
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As Varanasi inches closer towards its polling day, all eyes are set on three main candidates in the most closely-watched contest of Lok Sabha elections: Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party who is seeking re-election from the seat, and his two main opponents, Ajay Rai of the Congress and Shalini Yadav from the Samajwadi Party.

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Over 18 lakh voters in the constituency are set to vote on May 19, the concluding phase of the general elections in the country. Riding on the chief poll plank of “national security” and an electrifying campaign, Modi and the mighty BJP hope to clinch another victory in Varanasi which has been the party’s bastion since 1991, barring the 2004 polls.

However, there’s clearly anxiety and urgency to gauge the undercurrent in Varanasi. Case in point is how senior BJP leaders like party chief Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath rushed to the city on Monday night—in a surprise move—when the Samajwadi Party nominated Tej Bahadur Yadav as its candidate, an ex-BSF jawan who was dismissed after complaining about poor food in the Army. Even as the stage seemed set for a “Chowkidar versus Jawan” contest, Yadav’s nomination was rejected on Wednesday—a big breather for the BJP.

Despite this, the dissenting voices of prominent people in the city, especially those who hold the seats of Hindu faith, have become more profound.

Dr Kulpati Tiwari is the mahant of the Vishwanath Temple, the most important temple in the town which has the first Jyotirlinga out of 12 across India. He says, “We take pride in the fact that the PM belongs to this city. At the same time, there is a lot of pain as the people of Varanasi have no say in the so-called development of the city.”

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Dr Tiwari is particularly hurt over the demolition of the heritage colony Pakka Mahal and its iconic narrow lanes around the Vishwanath Temple to pave the way for the controversial Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project. “Scores of homes and old temples were razed forever despite huge protests from locals. On top of that, the PM says this move has released the temples from the clutches of occupants, allowing Lord Shiva to breathe. God is not dependent on humans for his survival; it is the other way round.”

Dr Tiwari says, “Destroying such temples is against the beliefs of Hinduism. Secondly, a PM should take up people’s projects which can help address hunger and unemployment, not his dream project. Had the Modi government been serious about Hindus, it would have taken measures to acquire the Gyanvapi Mosque next door, which is the actual seat of Jyotirlinga.”

Ahead of the 2014 elections, Dr Tiwari had travelled with Narendra Modi’s older brother Sombhai Modi on the campaign trail. Does he regret this? “Being a priest, I can’t say no to anyone. Even yesterday, Sombhai called me up. I will attend some programmes with him. I feel the PM is a good man but his team is not. His aides don’t give him real feedback from the ground. People like me are never invited for any meetings with the PM regarding the city’s development though I stayed at the PM’s home in Vadnagar twice.”

Non-involvement of locals in carrying out big projects appears to be a common concern of prominent people in the city.

‘The Ganga has become filthier since 2014’

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra is the mahant of Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, the second-most popular temple in the city established in the 16th century by Goswami Tulsidas, the author of Ramcharitmanas. He’s also the head of the Electronics Department of the Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University, and is one of the foremost critics of Modi’s work as a representative of Varanasi.

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Looking visibly pained, he says: “Kashi doesn’t include only buildings and monuments, but also their occupants which help us visualise the life of the city during ancient times. No country in the world destroys heritage for swanky projects. It is the misfortune of Kashi that outsiders are taking a call about its infrastructure development.”

Professor Mishra also runs the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which analyses the quality of Ganga water since 1982. He says, “Despite hefty allocation for Namami Gange, our analysis that Ganga has become filthier since 2014, as over 30 drainages continue to pour untreated water in the river. Yet, people claim Ganga looks cleaner than before.”

The UP Pollution Control Board’s March 2019 report found the coliform bacteria count in upstream Ganga was 1,400 per 100 ml while in downstream, it was 31,000—over three-fold and 60-fold above the stipulated limit.

“Over 350 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage flows into Ganga via 33 drains while we can treat only 102 MLD. The sewage treatment process is redundant,” says Mishra, who was so upset with the mess that he contemplated to contest elections against Modi. Neither the Congress nor the alliance considered him for candidature though.

We wish to defeat Modi: Swami Avimukteshwaranand

Swami Avimukteshwaranand, who is chief of the prominent Vidya Math in Varanasi and represents the seat of Dwarka and Jyotish Peeth Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati in Varanasi, is a staunch opponent of Modi and his government. Earlier this month, he launched a political outfit—the Ram Rajya Parishad—with the support of saints from Varanasi. The outfit has one objective: to defeat “anti-Hindu” Modi.

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He’s been sitting on a dharna inside the Varanasi Collectorate since Tuesday, April 30, to oppose the cancellation of the nomination papers of his young candidate Shri Bhagwan (a four-time gold medallist from BHU). On the safe side, he has fielded dummy candidates as well.

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Swami Avimukteshwaranand tells Newslaundry, “This is the most anti-Hindu government India has seen till date. Modi and the BJP were never serious about the construction of the Ram Temple, jobs or welfare of poor. Hence, we decided to bring Ram Rajya ourselves by taking a plunge into politics. Even if our candidate doesn’t win, we will work for the poor for the next five years and come back in the [next] elections.”

Another Modi critic, Acharya Pramod Krishnam, chief of Kalki Peeth at Sambhal, is contesting against Rajnath Singh in Lucknow on the Congress’ behalf. A large number of saints from across India have landed in Lucknow over the last few days to campaign for him.

Apart from the Ganga, citizens claim that the Varuna and Assi rivers are also dying. Dr Vijay Nath Mishra, head of the neurology department at Sir Sunder Lal Hospital affiliated with BHU, says, “The ghats of the Ganga need urgent repair and their commercialisation needs to stop. The hospitals need fund and independence from the BHU. I wanted to meet the PM personally to apprise him of the grim situation, but failed to get through the red tape.”

However, according to locals, some of the ashrams and groups in Varanasi that were openly with the SP, BSP and Congress in the past now support the BJP government. For instance, the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Sabha, which has opposed every move of the BJP and Modi till last year and had supported the BSP in the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, has lately had a change of heart.

Satish Chandra Mishra, the Sabha’s president, says, “We are conducting a special puja for Modi’s victory, who we wish to support for the larger interest of the country. India needs a ruler like Modi who can teach a lesson to enemies like Pakistan.”

Citizen woes

Despite being the prime minister’s seat, Varanasi’s citizens all share something in common: a tale of woe.

Over 200 boatmen and one lakh weavers of Varanasi have stories of financial losses due to erred policies. “I bought an e-boat investing ₹1 lakh in 2015. It worked fine for some months but then the person who used to come to recharge our battery stopped coming. The entire money was in vain,” says a Dalit boatman, who now rows his boat with his hands. Boatmen were on strike early this year due to losses following the entry of a “cruise operator” in their waters.

Roshan Jamil from the Bajardeeha hub of weavers says, “Our business got a jolt first due to demonetisation and then due to GST. We are yet to recover fully, though the city has improved a lot since Modiji became prime minister.”

Meanwhile, the prestigious BHU has been embroiled in a series of controversies over the last three years, including murder, violence and the appointment of RSS man GC Tripathi as Vice-Chancellor, who was forced to resign after massive protests following sexual harassment cases. “The saffronisation of the campus and high-handedness of politically-connected officials is appalling. The BHU now celebrates Deendayal Jayanti, the political science department has got a special gallery of RSS men, a play on Nathuram Godse was staged. These things have angered the students who will show their power in coming elections,” says Dhananjay Tripathi, a PhD scholar at the university who is associated with the NSUI.

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