Varanasi on Edge as Tradition – and Politics – Clash With Mission to Clean Ganga

Riots break out in the city after the local administration refuses permission to Hindu groups who want to immerse idols in the river

A heavy police contingent arrives after violent clashes with sadhus and police in Varanasi on Monday. The clashes broke out during a demonstration by sadhus and devotees against the September 22 police baton-charge on a procession where they were heading to immerse Ganesha’s idol in the Ganga. Credit: PTI

A heavy police contingent arrives after violent clashes with sadhus and police in Varanasi on Monday. The clashes broke out during a demonstration by sadhus and devotees against the September 22 police baton-charge on a procession where they were heading to immerse Ganesha’s idol in the Ganga. Credit: PTI

Varanasi: The deep furrows in his forehead belie young Sanjay’s (name changed) age. A 6th generation Bengali clay idol maker, he says “till a few years back, my profession, my skills, were a thing of pride. They brought me decent money and respect. Customers would come and flatter me and try to get me to make idols for them. But now I think it’s a curse.”

Like other members of this small community of Bengali idol makers of Varanasi — most of them bearing the family name Pal — Sanjay finds himself in the crossfire of river and religion politics being fought between the Congress and the BJP in this city.

The Allahabad High Court has banned the immersion of idols in the Ganges. As expected this move has been opposed by Hindu groups and puja committees which have claimed their right to immerse idols in the Ganges as an indelible part of their religious rites. A writ seeking a change in the decision was filed by the aggrieved, but was rejected by the court.

Pressed between the court order and the political pressure from the Hindu collective, till date the administration had taken the convenient path of looking the other way and not enforcing the ban on the ground. But now in 2014, post the election of Narendra Modi from Varanasi, the politics of river and religion finds itself in a queer twist. Hindu politics and clean Ganga are now at cross-purposes and the BJP finds itself in a peculiar situation.

On the one hand Modi began his election campaign from this constituency with the famous emotive statement about how he had responded to the call from mother Ganga, and thus firmly put Hindu religious sentiment at the centre of the BJP’s program here.On the other, accompanied by much publicity, he replaced the Ganga Action Plan of 1986, put together by Rajiv Gandhi, with the newly formed Clean Ganges Mission. Of course, with a budget of over Rs 1.5 billion (15000 crore), no dependency on the state government and a unified command, the Clean Ganga Mission is potentially far more capable. And the Mission is being headed by hardline Hindutva leader Uma Bharti who has famously said that she will clean the Ganges by 2017.

On September 22 this year, many thousand strong processions of Hindus confronted the police and were caned over the issue of immersion of Ganesh idols. Now with Navaratri and Durga Puja festivities set to start in less than a week, tensions over idol immersion in the Ganges are flaring up once again.

A few days later, a few hundred sadhus were joined by political activists in the ‘Anyay Pratikar Yatra’ at the city’s Town Hall grounds to protest this police action. By the time the procession reached the Godawliya area, tensions were high and a scuffle broke out with the police. A lathi charge followed and the activists retaliated by setting afire a police van and pelting stones. Some reports said a police booth was burned down as well.

Tense situation

The situation in Varanasi remains tense and the Rapid Action Force, water canons, armed police and fire trucks have been deployed at busy junctions of the city. The protesters have vowed to get back on to the streets sooner than later.

The Congress party has been quick on capitalising this and has been taking a lead in organising and participating in the protests. Congress MLA Ajay Rai, who is seen by many as the chief political brain behind this, was even put under preventive arrest when he landed from Delhi at the Varanasi airport following a meeting with Rahul Gandhi.

Speaking to this reporter, BJP strongman and mayor of the city, Ram Gopal Mohale said, “Yes it’s a delicate situation. Modiji and Umaji have made it clear in no uncertain terms that the Ganges needs to be cleaned. And we will do all it takes to get that done. But it is also true that the immersion of idols is part of our tradition and it isn’t easy to convince people to change their habits”

When asked how he plans to go about it without risking his core vote bank, he said, “We are liberal enough to find ways around things. This time round we are asking people to use bio degradable and organic paints that don’t pollute the water.” Though he didn’t elaborate on how they would ensure the use of bio-degradable paints only and not harmful ones, or if his office had formulated any acceptable list for the same, he made a stray reference to experts in the BHU doing chemical tests.

Grim mood among idol makers

Back in the Bengali Tola the mood is grim. Though nobody stopped journalists from taking pictures, the workers maintained a stony silence, refusing to make any comment on what was happening.

Sanjay, who agreed to speak only after he was convinced by a common acquaintance of this reporter of complete anonymity, explained the silence. “Obviously no one will talk. They are all scared. Overnight we have become criminals. Officials are raiding our homes looking for paint as if it was contraband. Even when we show them that we are using vegetable dyes and non-synthetic paints it’s no use because they can’t tell one kind from another. There is no clear instruction from anyone. All they do is threaten us with action and all we can do is plead with them.”

“We are the weakest link” his neighbour, another idol maker adds. “We are the only people the officials can pressurise and so they show all their power to us” The neighbour has had his production shut down by officials for using varnish which is on the proscribed list and has now joined work with Sanjay.

“These are made from combinations of hard earth from the fields and soft earth from the Ganges itself. And the insides are made of straw and wood. No plaster of paris or anything is used. These don’t last more than an hour and a half in water. Varnish is used only to highlight eyes, lips of the Goddess or show sweat on the forehead of Mahisasur. How can these be worse pollutants than the diesel leaking from the motor boats on the river or the effluents from Kanpur?”

Data from the Central Pollution Control Board’s 2013 report on pollution in the Ganga agrees with this observation and shows that industrial effluents (especially from Kanpur tanneries) far outweighs any other form of pollution at any point in the Ganga’s flow.

Sanjay ends on a wistful note, “I have invested around 5 lakhs and together with my five hired artisans I have worked for over 6 months making these 20 idols. If we don’t sell these idols or my workshop is closed down, there is absolutely no way for us to recover our losses”


    It is always
    dangerous to use religion to win votes or political support. If the Hindu
    society refuses to accept that idol immersion in the Ganga is harmful, what
    solution can be found? In Maharashtra immersion of Ganesh idols is an important
    part of the Ganesh festival. But slowly but surely there is a growing awareness
    about dangers of immersion of Ganesh idols, that are made of clay, colours and other
    material all of which not biodegradable. In VaranaSI too, the religious leaders
    have to accept that reforms are necessary. There is an obvious need to find out
    more sensible ways to make idols and immerse them. That way, it will be possible
    to clean Ganga and also to protect livelihood of those who are engaged in
    business of making idols and related activity.