Manikarnika crematorium in Kashi and there was once Jalasen Ghat and Bhikhari Mahal, which is being demolished to make “Gangadwar”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project in his constituency to alter the topography of the ancient city has not gone well with his voters. Local Varanasi people complain that dozens of small and medium-sized old temples, most built-in residential complexes, were destroyed along with the scores of shops and ‘Bhavan’s’ to clear the way for the project.
They see the demolitions as a loss to the Hindu cultural heritage of the city. At least 296 structures have been identified by the government for demolition to provide direct access to the temple from the Ganga.
The mood can be gauged outside Gate No. 3 of the Mughal-era Gyanvapi Mosque, which shares a boundary with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
Entire Varanasi is dug and demolished and the modern structures make it look like a concrete jungle. The most common voice among the critics is that demolition is ruining the mainstay of Varanasi, its heritage structures and narrow lanes. Many are irked by the demolition of temples and historic structures of Kashi. Various taxes were imposed and unnecessary modernization of the city.
Suresh Pratap Singh, a senior journalist from Varanasi wrote a book “Udtaa Banaras” dedicated to the warriors of the Save the Heritage and Temples movement, who fought to protect the Pakkappa culture and civilisation of the Harappan brothers, in Ganga Valley. “Whenever I see temples getting demolished and gods getting dumped in debris, why heart stops breathing its pain.”
Kashi resident Ram Ayodhya Singh said, “By destroying the originality of Kashi, Brahmarakshas has proved that Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh are also man-made. Those who destroy and distort should know what is called creation and beauty?”
Ganesh Shankar Upadhyay, head priest of the Kashi Karvat Mandir says, “The modus operandi of the project disregards the heritage of Varanasi and feels consent was not acquired before the demolition drive. “I am not against development. But since it is a religious site and development is taking place in the name of religion, development must also be based on it,” he added.
Kanhaiya Tripathi, Save Ganga activist, regrets that despite the scale of demolition, pro-Hindu groups have not come out in protest like they should. “After an initial protest by several groups and some religious heads, the campaign against the corridor seems to have fizzled out, with locals giving in to the pressure of better compensation. He also hit out at the alleged hypocrisy of the BJP leaders.”
Sharad Shukla said, “Modi has become modern Aurangzeb, Baba Vishwanath has been branded, religious goods have become tourism, we are hurt.”
Varanasi residents in the holy city, who were displaced by the ambitious projects, were not so enthused when the old structure was demolished for modern constructions. Many families are displaced by Modi’s ambitious project.
“We were a joint family and lived together happily till our property was taken up for the corridor. Now, we live separately at different places in Banaras. Not only did our century-old family property get dismantled but our joint family, too, got broken,” said Varanasi resident Prabhat Singh.
Lalji Yadav, a city resident, who lives in a lane near the project site, also alleged that several heritage buildings were bulldozed in the name of development. “Many of these structures had ornate carvings and should have been preserved. “Vikas ke liye Virasat ki aahuti di gayi hai” (Heritage has been sacrificed at the altar of development),” he said.
Pradeep Kumar Bhalla of Varanasi said, “As per information available no heritage buildings have been destroyed. Maybe some local buildings have been uprooted for better planning. Even to carry out changes in Heritage buildings, the national government has to take permission from the UNESCO world heritage committee. They will not allow any nation to destroy any heritage site.”
Khanday Imtiyaz, the Editor at Alternate Kashmir stated that “Recently Indian politics seems to be religiously centred. With the inception of BJP, the developmental progress has come to halt and the govt is after only two things either their Hindutva agenda or Pakistan as an enemy. Unfortunately, all other parties seem to have got influenced and instead of development on an economic, technological and social level, their politics have mainly reduced to who is better Hindu or anti-Hindu.”
Chander Sharma works at the Bank of India, says, “I have seen Varanasi pre and post-Modi. Earlier it was like any other congested overcrowded old City. Roads were narrow, plagued by encroachments, electric wires hanging overhead, potholed roads, dirty Ganga, ghats in a state of total neglect-dirty and uneven. I went to Varanasi again after attending Kumbh in Prayag. Ghats are now more beautiful than any other ghats in India, Ganga Aarti was the most wonderful and spiritual experience, all-electric wires have gone underground, roads are well paved and broader and above all, we could perform the most peaceful Abhishek in Vishwanath Temple.”