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On Monday, December 13, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kashi Vishwanath corridor linking the banks of river Ganga with the Kashi temple and providing a relatively open space for the Kashi shrine by decongesting the area to some extent. The event, attended by all the chief ministers of BJP-ruled states saw Modi at the centre of a no-holds-barred publicity campaign. The media covered all the elaborate rituals performed by the Prime Ministers himself, a feat truly worth chastising him for, given the fact that he holds a constitutional post and owes allegiance to the constitution, the basic structure of which is secularism.
Union minister for tourism G. Kishan Reddy and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath said that the staggering corridor project fulfilled Mahatma Gandhi’s vision. In his article, ‘Varanasi: Spiritual and Structural Rejuvenation’, published in the Times of India on December 13 itself, Reddy quoted Gandhi’s words from his autobiography The Story of my Experiments with Truth: “I went to the Kashi Vishwanath temple for darshan. I was deeply pained by what I saw there….The approach was through a narrow and slippery lane. Quiet there was none. The swarming flies and the noise made by the shopkeepers and pilgrims were perfectly insufferable. Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation and communion, it was conspicuous by its absence”.
At the end of the article, he added that the corridor project would have made Gandhi proud.
Adityanath said that the Kashi Vishwanath corridor has become a medium to remove the pain Gandhi had expressed almost a hundred years ago, after seeing the narrow by-lanes and filth. He accused those who “acquired power using his (Gandhi’s) name” of doing nothing to fructify his vision.
While it is true that Gandhi wrote very critically about the the dirty, unhygienic and congested surroundings of the Kashi Vishwanath temple and about its having hardly any semblance of spirituality, even within its sanctum sanctorum, he squarely put the blame for such an unhealthy atmosphere on the Hindus.
While speaking at the opening of the Banaras Hindu University on February 6, 1916 Gandhi searchingly said, “If a stranger was dropped from above on to this great temple and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be?”
So, while invoking Gandhi on the occasion of the Kashi corridor project’s launch, BJP leaders are castigating the leaders of previous regimes for doing precious little to decongest the temple’s surroundings. They, like Gandhi, should turn this searchlight inwards; they need to look within and not selectively quote him for advancing their majoritarian agenda, which they aggressively took forward by invoking the Aurangzeb-Shivaji binary during the corridor’s inauguration.
This was evidenced by Modi’s speech on the occasion. He asserted that history when witnessed the torture of Aurangzeb, who tried to kill culture with radicalism, a Shivaji arose; when Salar Masud, a Muslim invader, marched then a Raja Suhaldev took him on. Modi forcefully claimed that India is now stepping out of the influence and “inferiority complex” brought upon it by centuries of slavery and asserted that the new corridor will give decisive direction to the country and lead it to a bright future.
This narrative of India coming out of “centuries of slavery” flows out of Modi’s strange formulation of “Barah sau saal ki gulami ki maansikta humen pareshan kar rahi hai”(The slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us). He said so while replying to the ‘Motion of Thanks’ to the President’s address to both the Houses of Parliament, assembled together in June 2014, his first speech as Prime Minister. That formulation alludes to the notion that the Mughal rulers perpetuated slavery and, therefore, there is a need to rewrite the history by purging that particular phase and to convey to the younger generation that the Mughals were enemies and present-day Muslims, by a strange twist of that logic, continue to represent that ‘inimical ethos’.
The subtext of the Aurangzeb-Shivaji and Salar Masud-Raja Suhaldev binaries is obviously meant to underline the supposed historical animosity among religious groups in the country and provoke people to give primacy to their specific religious identities. The clear intent is to look at the living present through the prism of past animosity and wilfully ignore the millennia-old shared culture and existence between Hindus and Muslims celebrating religious pluralism. Such binaries are contrary to Gandhi’s vision of pre-British India.
While Modi’s present formulations of pre-British India are anchored in the BJP’s manufactured narrative of “barah sau saal ki gulaami“, Gandhi, a hundred years ago on March 24, 1921 gave lie to any such understanding in his speech in Cuttack on his first visit to Odisha. He said, “The pre-British period was not a period of slavery. We had some sort of Swaraj under Mughal rule. In Akbar’s time, the birth of a [Maharana] Pratap was possible and in Aurangzeb’s time, a Shivaji could flourish. Has 150 years of British rule produced any Pratap and Shivaji?”
Modi, by distorting those binaries and invoking the mischievous formulation of “barah sau saal ki gulami,” is acting in contrast to Gandhi’s vision, who very persuasively followed and advocated an inclusive approach with regards to places of worship, commanding equal respect for every such shrine. This was also eloquently demonstrated in his speech delivered in the All India Congress Committee on September 15, 1940. He said, “It hurts me to find St. Paul’s Cathedral damaged. It hurts me as much as I would be hurt if I heard that the Kashi Vishvanath Temple or the Jama Masjid was damaged. I would like to defend both the Kashi Vishvanath Temple and the Jama Masjid and even St. Paul’s with my life, but would not take a single life for their defence.”
Later, on June 12, 1947 Gandhi, while addressing a prayer meeting in Delhi had said “In days gone by when, accompanied by Hindus, Zain-ul-Abidin (Sultan of Kashmir; contemporary of Rana Kumbha of Chittor, the great grandfather of Rana Pratap) set out on a pilgrimage to Kashi, he got repaired all derelict temples he passed on the way. The name of Allah is inscribed on the Victory Tower of Chittor.”
It is, therefore, quite paradoxical that while Gandhi’s name was invoked by BJP leaders in the context of launching of Kashi corridor alongside claims that it fulfilled his vision, the Prime Minister’s invocation of binaries stands in complete negation of how Gandhi held the Kashi shrine; as part of his all-embracing vision, rooted in religious pluralism and respect for all faiths.
It is quite clear that the BJP leaders’ utterances were made as part of the electoral calculus for winning the UP Assembly election scheduled to take place next year. Their words have gone against the culture of inclusion which defines the idea of India. On August 17, 1947, two days after India became independent, Gandhi had cautioned, “….that there were indications that all was not well with the Muslims. Some Hindus were now beginning to feel that they had the upper hand and some Muslims were afraid that they would have to play the underdog in the Union today.” He then added, “…this would be shameful indeed. If a minority in India, minority on the score of its religious profession, was made to feel small on that account, he could only say that this India was not the India of his dreams. In the India for whose fashioning he had worked all his life, every man enjoyed equality of status, whatever his religion was. The State was bound to be wholly secular.”
That was why he had warned, in his article published in Harijan on November 2, 1947, that attempts to exacerbate communal disharmony and bitterness would produce educational curricula based on a distorted history which would promote an exclusivist outlook and mentality.
Sadly, Gandhi’s apprehensions are coming true. Now the educational curricula being prepared by Modi regime aims at removing many aspects concerning medieval India in a deliberate attempt to promote communal discord. The secular aspects of the country need to be salvaged in order to salvage the idea of India, which is increasingly endangered by measures and articulations such as those surrounding Kashi corridor project.
S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India, K.R. Narayanan.