Sunday, July 14, 2024

“Vikas” Minus Locals = A Story of Banaras Elections

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गंगा बची काशी, का विकास लेकर चाटी – Loosely Translated – “We can neither visit Maa Ganga nor offer prayers at Kashi Viswanath. What’s the use of such development?”

Banarasis are known for their carefree attitude and their sense of detachment from materialistic pleasures. Taking a dip in Maa Ganga followed by prayers in the Mahadev temple has been a century-old tradition for the people of Banaras. For Banarasis, Ganga is revered as their mother, and Mahadev is considered a part of their family. Both these deep connections have been undermined by the local Varanasi administration, while the local BJP leadership has offered more sermons than solutions.

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Political pundits are making various calculations to understand the recent setback of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Reasons ranging from poor candidate selection to caste equations to the internal conflict between Yogi and Shah are being cited to explain the BJP’s poor performance. However, these reasons fail to explain the situation in Banaras, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself contested. As the foremost leader of the BJP, how could his winning margin be reduced to just 1.5 lakh votes, especially against an opponent who isn’t well-regarded among the locals?

I’m from Varanasi myself, and it was widely expected that PM Modi would win with a narrow margin. What surprises me is that these so-called political pundits seem completely out of touch with the real undercurrents. I traveled extensively across Varanasi, interviewing people in the BJP’s strongholds, trying to understand how a leader of PM Modi’s stature could only secure a slim victory margin and even trailed in the initial phases of counting. Notably, the weather on voting day in Banaras was fine, so the argument that turnout was affected by weather conditions doesn’t hold water either.

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The main reason behind this situation, as the title of this article suggests, is “Development without the involvement of the locals of Banaras.” This implies that the pursuit of development has overlooked and exploited the local people of Banaras by the city administration. Let’s delve into this with three case studies.

Case Study 1: Maa Ganga – Local Love and Abuse by Water Police at Tulsidas Ghat and Major Ghats

Maa Ganga, holds profound cultural and religious significance for the locals of Banaras. However, the relationship between the local community and the administration, particularly the Water Police, at iconic locations like Tulsidas Ghat and other major ghats, has been fraught with challenges.

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For generations, the people of Banaras have swum in and performed daily Puja, in the sacred waters of the Ganges. It’s not merely a routine but a cherished tradition where locals gather to share their joys and sorrows. It’s an emotional connection that defies description.

Since 2014, the Varanasi administration has stationed Water Police at major Ghats, who now prevent locals from swimming and compel them to perform Puja near the jetties in the polluted waters. During my interviews at Tulsidas Ghat, locals expressed feeling abused and confined, as they face daily threats and harassment from the Water Police.

Locals at these ghats say they are supporters of BJP. They argue that while tourism flourishes with big ships, new hotels and restaurants along the Ganges, their simple morning routines have been disrupted and deemed unlawful. They have pleaded with the administration and local BJP leaders to allow swimming and Puja for just three hours each morning, from 6 am to 9 am, to no avail.

One respected elderly citizen, who has swum daily at Tulsidas Ghat for the past 40 years due to health reasons, shared how he has faced increasing insults and threats from the Water Police over the past five years. Despite his doctor-prescribed exercise for diabetes, he now risks confrontation every morning. He gestures towards the Water Police (pic attached below), armed with sticks, intimidating locals with threats of violence if they dared to cross the jetties for swimming or performing Puja. The Water Police justify their actions as necessary for tourist safety and drowning prevention, but for the locals, it has turned their once serene mornings into moments of conflict and humiliation.

Water Police official standing with a stick abusing local people who wish to swim and do Puja

The local boatman points towards the large commercial cruise ships (pic attached below) and remarks that despite tourism increasing manyfold, their business has not benefited. They feel that these big ships have taken over the entire business. There are rumors circulating that these ships are operated by business owners from Gujarat. This has further upset the local people, who feel completely sidelined in the growth of Banaras.

Cruise ship in Banaras

Locals now lament, “ये विकास नहीं सोचा था कि मां गंगा से हमारा जुड़ाव ही कमजोर हो जाए।” (Loosely translated – We did not imagine that development would weaken our connection with Maa Ganga). They emphasize that development should align with the sentiments of the local people instead of exploiting and mistreating them.

Case Study 2 – Temple Corridor, Alleys of Banaras – Beauty of Banaras

The alleys of Banaras are world-famous, cherished alongside the Ganges and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Within these narrow lanes thrives a way of life deeply rooted in tradition. Generations of Banarasis have grown up in these alleys, and anyone who meets them can attest to the contentment they find in their modest homes.

For temple corridors, these narrow bylanes were demolished, displacing many local residents. While compensation was provided, these residents were not seeking financial reparation. Not everyone prioritizes money, especially the Banarasis who have cherished their lives in these bylanes for generations.

There was hardly any anger over the the Kashi Vishwanath Temple corridor as many felt that their beloved deity, Mahadev, deserved a grander place. Mahadev is not just a divine figure to the Banarasis but a cherished part of their family.

However, tensions have risen as the local administration plans to build the Jagannath Corridor in Banaras, which will result in the demolition of 200 homes along the bylanes leading up to the Jagannath Temple. What has most aggrieved the locals is the secrecy with which this decision was made. During the recent election campaign, local BJP MLAs were confronted by affected families, forcing assurances that their homes would not be demolished (Link of this news – https://www.abplive.com/states/up-uk/bjp-mla-saurabh-srivastava-fierce-protest-against-in-varanasi-video-viral-on-social-media-watch-ann-2684205). The video of this incident went viral just before polling in Banaras.

I spoke with several residents who have lived in fear for the past six months. They expressed deep disappointment as staunch BJP supporters, feeling betrayed by the injustice of demolishing their legally owned homes, which were not encroachments on government land, and in such a clandestine manner. They did not expect this from the party they helped bring to power.

This situation echoes a recurring theme: development at the cost of displacing locals is a dangerous path. Almost in tears, a senior retired professor from Banaras Hindu University told me that the essence of Kashi lies in its bylanes. By converting these intimate spaces into broad roads for tourism, the administration risks destroying the timeless beauty of Kashi and the communities that have flourished within it for centuries.

Case Study 3 – Rope way Project – Destruction of Local Businesses 

 

Once more, the recurring theme emerges: “विकास की आंधी में सब उजड़ गया।” (Loosely translated, it means that in the whirlwind of development, everything stands destroyed).

The trading community has historically been a significant vote bank for the BJP, particularly led by the Marwari and Gupta communities. However, recent developments have strained this relationship, prompting them to vote against Modi and not in favor of Ajay Rai. This shift warrants understanding.

During the construction of the Kashi Corridor, the trading community around it was also adversely affected. Despite their grievances, their reverence for Mahadev meant that their anger did not translate into votes against the BJP. However, the recent ropeway project has sparked major discontent among traders, as many face the loss of livelihood from decades-old shops being demolished to make way for the project.

I interviewed a local leader from the Marwari trading community, who has previously had regular meetings with Modi during his visits to Banaras. Even his shop is slated to be affected, and when he approached local BJP leadership, he was simply told that this is the Prime Minister’s favored project, implying he should remain silent.

Another trader, who operates near the Kashi Vishwanath corridor and is differently abled, shared his plight. Despite his condition, he has not been issued a special pass allowing local transport to drop him near his shop. Instead, every day he is forced to walk 1 km, which is extremely challenging for him at 70 years old with paralysis in one hand and leg. He contrasts his treatment with the VIP treatment afforded to ministers and celebrities who are dropped right outside the temple.

Once again, locals feel that for the sake of tourism, their way of life and livelihoods are being sacrificed. This sentiment underscores the deep-seated frustration among the trading community in Varanasi.

The people of Banaras are feeling increasingly disconnected from both Maa Ganga and Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The aggressive tactics of the water police have driven locals away from Maa Ganga, while the overwhelming tourist crowds at Kashi Vishwanath make it inaccessible for daily visits by locals. In both cases, the local administration and BJP leadership are being held responsible. Banarasis have repeatedly requested that one of the several entrances to Kashi Vishwanath be reserved for locals, but their pleas have been ignored. Recently, local Congress leadership has taken up this issue and gained support from the community.

Elections are often won and lost on sentiments. A prevailing sentiment in Banaras now is that only tourists are welcomed, and in the pursuit of tourism, the people of Banaras are being forced to sacrifice their centuries-old way of life, traditions, and livelihoods. This time, the core BJP vote bank in Banaras did not vote against PM Modi or in favor of the Congress candidate; instead, they voted against the local BJP leadership and Varanasi administration. They feel betrayed by the ‘development’ agenda with no local participation that has suffocated, exploited, and constrained the Banarasis.

The core message from Banaras is clear: development that erases local culture will not be tolerated. It is crucial for senior BJP leadership to take heed because the path to Delhi goes through Uttar Pradesh.

I will conclude this article by again stating a poignant quote from a local resident in Banaras, which encapsulates the prevailing sentiment in the city, especially among core BJP supporters: “ गंगा बची काशी, का विकास लेकर चाटी।” (Loosely translated, it means, “We can neither visit Maa Ganga nor offer prayers at Kashi Vishwanath. What’s the use of such development.”)

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