Politics

In Modi's Varanasi, the Vishwanath Corridor Is Trampling Kashi's Soul

The demolition of buildings near the historic temple has triggered resentment and anger against Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi.

Note: This article was originally published on January 23, 2019 and is being republished on March 8, 2019, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the corridor.

Varanasi: Krishna Kumar Sharma is short and generously built. He wears a thick mop of straight greying hair. A thin and small ponytail – characteristic of devout Brahmins – hangs at the back. Sharma has been a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker for 50 of his 57 years. But now he feels abandoned.

“All my life I waited and hoped for a time when the RSS and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) have the power to change things in our country. Not in my wildest of imaginations did I think that they will cause hardships on their own people,” he says as he guides me through mounds of rubble in the heart of Varanasi.

The rubble – which is being added to, as we speak, by a JCB digger – is the remains of around 250 multi-storeyed buildings that had existed in the area for over 300 years. Sharma is one among the thousands who have – not entirely willingly, they claim – lost their shops and homes for meagre amounts of compensation.

A damaged temple.

Locals have claimed that several temples that stood in the area have also been demolished. They have accused the administration of having destroyed and thrown away several idols and Shiva lingas. The administration has denied that any temples have been demolished.

The demolition is being carried out as part of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, which aims to provide devotees easier access to the Kashi Vishwanath temple that houses one of the pre-eminent Shiva lingas in the country, and is thus considered among the most sacred temples. The temple is contained in the interior of Varanasi in a maze of narrow lanes which – along with the ghats – have come to define the city. On days like Shivratri, the temple sees more than two lakh devotees who jostle for space. Getting inside the temple for darshan (sacred sight) can take more than 6-8 hours.

The lanes that lead to the temple can be as narrow as two feet in width. “Agar samne se gai a jaaye to nikalna mushkil ho jata hai (If a cow enters, it can be difficult to pass through the lane),” Sharma explained.

Before the demolitions, the lanes contained several 3-, 4- and 5-storeyed buildings built in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Some as old – or older, if locals are to be believed – as the temple itself. The ground floor of most of these buildings housed shops that sold flowers and other religious offerings that the devotees may want to buy. The higher floors are residences of ‘the real Banarsis’, as one local journalist described the residents who have, by most accounts, been living here for generations.

But the narrow lanes pose challenges of space and amenities for the devotees. There are limited options for food and water, and almost no toilets. Over the last eight years, successive governments have tried to change that. But the plans have been shelved by both the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, owing to the complexities of clearing a space densely packed by people with relatively substantial political agency.

The current BJP government in UP, armed with an impressive mandate and led by priest-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath, decided to move forward with the plan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the elected Member of Parliament from Varanasi, is known to have taken a particular interest in the project.

A path that leads to Kashi Vishwanath temple.

The Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, set to cost Rs 600 crore, was officially set in motion in March 2018. The idea is to clear around 45,000 square metres of space around the temple and create dedicated pathways that are 50 feet wide. The pathways will, the government claims, ease congestion at all four entrances to the temple. The government also plans to set up a hospital, rest houses, shops, cafeterias and help desks.

But the project has met with stiff protests in Varanasi, from people the BJP would usually consider staunch supporters – religious Hindu leaders and the largely ‘upper’ caste residents of the area around the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Also read: ‘Remove BJP to Save God’ Says AAP, Opposing Kashi Vishwanath Corridor

The protests have been vociferous against the destruction of the buildings which, they claim, has put livelihoods at risk, in addition to forcing thousands to leave their homes against their will. The alleged destruction of temples has led Modi and Adityanath to be compared to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who, in popular imagination, is most often associated with the destruction of temples.

The protestors claim that the character of Varanasi, or Kashi as they prefer to call it, is being destroyed to make way for the corridor. “This corridor is being built by crushing the soul of Kashi,” a resident exclaimed.  

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In January last year, rumours were rife in Varanasi that the Adityanath government in UP will soon be going ahead with the Kashi Vishwanath corridor plan. Padampati Sharma, a veteran sports journalist who lived near the Kashi Vishwanath temple, realised that the rumours were true when officials of the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA) arrived on January 29 to conduct a survey.

The next day, he wrote a post on Facebook threatening to commit suicide if the government puts the plan into action. Since then, the government has moved rapidly on the plan, Sharma has sold his house to the administration and his protests have dropped in intensity. But his opposition remains.

He now lives with his wife, children and grandchildren in a modern apartment complex around 4 km from the temple. He claims that his two brothers, who, along with him, owned the 300-year-old property in the heart of the city, forced his hand to sell the property.

“I had gone to the United States to visit my son who lives there. While I was away the brothers decided to sell. What could I do when two of the three owners had decided?” he said when we met him at his house in mid-January. “I did not want to sell. I was forced to.”

Krishna Kumar Sharma at a demolition site about 200 m from the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

Sharma argues that several families in the area have faced similar situations. “They have not only demolished houses, they have split families down the middle. Some in the families have wanted to sell, while others have wanted to stay on.”

According to Sharma, the administration has deployed several methods to ensure that residents vacate their homes.

Krishna Kumar Sharma, the RSS worker, also claims that he has been forced to vacate his house. “Many houses in Kashi have common walls. So, if one house is demolished, the house next to it stands exposed,” he said.

According to him, the house next to his was bought by the administration and demolished. Since the two houses shared a common wall, he was left with no choice but to give in.

Majboori mein becha hai. Nahi to koi Kashi chhod ke kyun jayega? Yahan to log marne aate hai kyunki moksha prapt hota hai (I was forced to sell. Why would anyone want to leave Kashi? People come here to die because they gain liberation),” he said.

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According to the city’s mythology, those who die within the boundaries of sacred Kashi – the nearly-3-km area on the banks of the Ganga between the rivulets Varuna and Assi that flow into the Ganga– gain moksha, or liberation.

Now, Sharma has rented an apartment 4 km away, outside the boundaries of sacred Kashi. But he still spends his day in his old neighbourhood, hopping from one chai stall to another, from one ghat to another, in true Banarasi fashion.

He is resigned to his fate and feels powerless. “Unko jo karna tha kar chuke. Kashi ki shaili, galiyan, mandir, makaan aur sanskriti ka vinash kar diya. Tourist aapki sadken dekhne aate hain kya? (They have done what they had to. They have destroyed the lifestyle, lanes, temples, homes and culture of Kashi. Do tourists come to see your roads?)” he said standing at the door of his erstwhile home, which was scheduled to be demolished the next day.

“I hope that Modi will be taught a lesson in the elections,” he added.

A view towards the Ganga from Kashi Vishwanath temple.

“You don’t have to hope. He will be taught a lesson. He has destroyed Mahadev’s (Lord Shiv) city. Mahadev will teach him a lesson,” said Ram Nath Yadav, who was standing close by and listening.

He is a slim 66-year-old man and wears a thick red tilak on his forehead. “We moved here in the lap of god 60 years ago,” he said. Yadav had been living on rent in Neelkanth gali, about 200 metres from the temple. His monthly rent was Rs 100, in an arrangement not uncommon for old tenancies.  

“Our landlord decided to sell. There was nothing we could do,” he said.

Many who were living on rent in the area have faced Yadav’s fate, with little say in what the future holds for them. The state claims that, in addition to the landlords, the tenants too have been compensated.

Yadav says that he received Rs 1 lakh in compensation. “Is that enough to find a new house, to start a new life?”

Achi zindagi thi. Neeche Ganga, uppar Baba Vishwanath (Lord Shiv). Unki god mein reh rahe the. Hume hata diya (Life was good. The Ganga below and Lord Shiv on the hill. We were living in their lap. They have removed us).”

A temple stands in an area being demolished.

About 100 metres away from the Kashi Vishwanath temple stands a half demolished 200-year-old hostel for students who come to Varanasi to study Sanskrit. Jitendra Tiwari is now the sole occupant and the caretaker of what remains of the hostel. “There were 20 students who used to live here. They were rendered homeless within a day when the government decided to demolish this building. They had no money and nowhere to go,” he said.

Tiwari contends that Narendra Modi will have to face the ire of the people of Varanasi when he seeks re-election in the Lok Sabha elections to be held before May 2019. “Modiji char mahine ke mehman hain. Fir hum unhe Ganga pahoncha hi denge (Modi is here only for 4 more months. Then we will take him to the Ganga).”

“Vishal Singh too will have to answer for his actions,” Tiwari added.

Vishal Singh was a name repeated by almost everyone I met in Varanasi. Most had an unfavourable opinion of him. Some were more forgiving and said that he has orders to follow.

He is the secretary of the Varanasi Development Authority and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, and the local authority responsible for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor.

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I met him one afternoon at his residence in a colony in Varanasi. Probably in his early 40s, he was dressed in a black suit and sat behind a large desk, signing papers brought by his subordinates. Behind him was a portrait of Shiva.

He explained the rationale behind the corridor project. “On any given day, over one lakh devotees come to the temple. Right now, the lanes are so narrow that the queues stretch out onto the main streets. It is a major inconvenience for the city which already suffers from congestion and traffic jams. The devotees also don’t have any facilities of water, food or urinals. So, we want to ease out all of this.”

He was dismissive about the opposition of the locals to the project. “There is no credible opposition. If their opposition made any sense, we would have been willing to accommodate them,” he said.

When I asked him about the grouse of the residents that they have been forced to vacate and that the compensation has been too low, he said, “There is no end to greed. The compensation has been as per the law – twice the circle rate. Everyone has left of their own accord. No one has been forced. Yet, they are complaining.”

“See, this is an essential service. First time in our history, there is so much focus to improve a Hindu place of worship. So, if some people come in the way then we have to acquire. The state can do that. So, far we haven’t had to do that,” he added.

It is clear that Singh has taken ownership of the project. “Things are moving rapidly now. Eighty percent of the demolition is over. Hopefully, in six months, I will be able to complete 75% of the corridor. Now, I even have a consultant for the project.”

The consultant chosen for the project is the Ahmedabad based HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited which was founded by Hasmukh Patel – an influential architect credited for the Sabarmati riverfront development project in Ahmedabad. After his death last year, it is his son, Bimal Patel, who is now in charge of HCP Design.

The firm has created a blueprint for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project. Singh reluctantly shows it to me but refuses to give me a copy. “It still has to be finalised by the cabinet,” he said.

The rough plan, as of now, is to create one dedicated pathway that provides easy access to devotees from the Lalita Ghat to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Deliberations are on to decide on the nature of the pathways that provide access to the temple from other parts of Varanasi.

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On a pleasantly sunny winter afternoon, I walked in the area around the Kashi Vishwanath temple where demolition is in full swing. The area was teeming with policemen. They jumped to action as they saw me clicking pictures. The area closest to the temple has been declared a ‘red zone’, marked by red flags. “You cannot click pictures here. You should not even be here,” a burly policeman with a handlebar moustache informed me.

As he got busy with a round of tea that his comrades procured, I walked around and found JCB diggers moving swiftly to demolish the few buildings that remained. Several workers were also contributing to the demolition with chisels and hammers. Most buildings in the area had been completely demolished, while others were waiting their turn.

Locals stood and watched. Some public-spirited individuals warned passers-by to be careful as buildings next to them might collapse, or bricks might fall from above. Most continued regardless.

Temples 200 m away from the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

In a lane right next to the temple, in the middle of the ‘red zone’, a structure stood unaccompanied. Everything that once stood in its vicinity had been demolished. “This used to be a busy bazaar because it is very close to the temple. There were around 30 shops here. Now, this is the only one that remains,” a local said, pointing at the shop which had its shutters pulled down.

The shop – which sells flowers, prayer beads and other religious offerings – belongs to an eccentric and litigious young man, Bhanu Mishra. As soon as he learnt that the buildings in the area will be demolished, he approached the Allahabad high court seeking a stay. “My argument was simple. I showed the court documents that proved that I paid Rs 8 lakh for the shop in 2011. The government was offering me Rs 5 lakh which, I argued, was not enough compensation unless an alternative space is provided me to conduct my business in the area,” he said.

Earlier, when I met Vishal Singh, he had informed me that the maximum compensation that the administration is offering is Rs 5 lakh for shops and Rs 10 lakh for houses. The administration is not prepared to offer any alternative arrangements either for the residents or for traders.

The court agreed with Mishra’s argument and granted a stay. Now, Mishra’s shop stands alone, amidst the destruction. “Ek tarah se Kashi ke pratirodh ka pratik (A symbol of Kashi’s resistance).”

But business has dried up. The path that earlier led to Mishra’s shop has virtually been sealed due to the demolition. The shop being in the ‘red zone’ has also meant that it remains pretty much out of bounds for devotees.

“I have been sitting since eight in the morning. Not a single customer has come,” he said.

Earlier, he would earn around Rs 30,000 a month, on an average. “Now, I have earned Rs 20,000 since March, when the demolition began.”

But he is not worried. “Mahadev ki sharan mein dukan khole hain. Kharcha-paani Mahadev de hi denge (My shop is in Lord Shiv’s sanctuary. He will take care of my livelihood),” said Mishra.

Next to Mishra’s shop was Ram Swaroop Dixit’s shop, where he sold perfume. The court’s stay did not apply to his shop and it was demolished. He claims he did not receive any compensation.

Dixit has now rented a shop in a lane close to Manikarnika ghat, considered the most auspicious place for cremations. “There is no business here,” he says.“Murde ginte hain bas din bhar (I just count the number of dead everyday).”

Ram Swaroop Dixit at his perfume shop.

Pata nahi kaun sa vikas ho raha hai Kashi ka vinash kar ke, kiske liye ho raha hai (Don’t understand this development, who is it benefitting),” said a friend, Raman Mishra, who dropped in to say hello to Dixit.

He turned to me and said, “Humne gadhon ko nam diya hai vikas. Wo aate hain malba uthane to hum kehte hai ‘dekho vikas a gaya’ (We have named the donkeys Vikas. When they come to pick up the debris, we say, ‘Look, Vikas has come’).”

Mishra has a shop in the Vishwanath gali which is on the other side of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, away from the ghats. That part of the area has escaped demolition so far. “There are rumours that they will be expanding the corridor and might demolish this lane too. But the administration has assured us that our shops are safe. So I am unsure,” he said.

Sohne Lal, a 72-year-old who has his shop next to Dixit’s, is more certain. “The administration is only spreading rumours that these shops are safe so that people don’t get the time to unite,” he said sitting inside his flower shop. “They are definitely going to demolish buildings in this lane too. I have friends in the administration who have told me that they are demolishing Vishanath gali.”  

Lal, who also lives in the same lane, could lose both his house and his shop. “My life will be ruined. At this age, where will I go? What will I do? The compensation of Rs 5 lakh that they are giving is simply not enough. Shops in this area cost between Rs 25 lakh and 30 lakh.”

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Over the last few months, he has attempted to unite traders in the area to protest against the corridor. But it has not been easy. “Most people here are BJP supporters. So, it is difficult for them to protest against a BJP government. Had this been done by a Samajwadi Party government, all hell would have broken loose,” Lal said.

A middle-aged man walks into the shop. “Here, meet him. His shop was demolished even when he did not consent,” Lal told me.

Brijesh Kumar owned a shop close to gate number 4 of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The administration wanted to demolish it. Kumar refused. “They started demolishing the floors that were above it. Naturally, the ceiling of my shop was broken. There was rubble all around. No customers could come anymore.”

Temples amidst the rubble.

The traders who have been impacted by the corridor project have one simple demand – rehabilitation. “They are clearing out so much space here. They can create a complex where all of us can be provided shops,” said Sohne Lal.

Vishal Singh, however, made it clear, when I met him, that no complex for the traders will be constructed in the area of the corridor. “We can think of constructing a complex. But not in this corridor. And nothing will be provided for free,” he had said.

“Our livelihood is connected to the temple. There is no point in constructing a complex far away from it,” responded Lal.

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Another major reason for the opposition to the corridor project is the alleged destruction of temples.

“They just went on demolishing everything. They did not care what it was,” Krishna Kumar Sharma told me as we walked through one of the lanes where the demolition was almost complete.

Locals claim that several temples have been destroyed in the demolition exercise. These temples, they say, were built inside residential complexes and were brought down along with the residences. “Kashi ke liye kaha jata tha ki pata nahi ghar mein mandir hai ya mandir mein ghar (It was said about Kashi, that one does not know whether there are temples inside homes or homes inside temples),” said Sharma.

Religious leaders too have opposed the project for this reason. Swami Avimukteshwaranand is the head of the Sri Vidya Math at Kedar ghat in Varanasi and one of the disciples of Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati. He has been among the more vociferous opponents of the project.

“We are not against the corridor. But they have destroyed 15 or 20 temples and numerous idols. They had been there since ancient times. It is an attack on our faith,” he said.

Swami Avimukteshwaranand in his math at Kedar ghat.

Modi aur Yogi Hindu nahi hain. Aurangzeb se bhi bure hain (Modi and Yogi are not Hindus. They are worse than Aurangzeb).”

Most residents of the affected area I spoke to accused the administration of having destroyed several temples. “There were temples that were as old as Kashi which they have destroyed. I have seen them destroy them with my own eyes,” said Rajesh Yadav, who owns a paan shop in Vishwanath gali about 100 metres from the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

“Not just temples, they have destroyed idols of our gods. They are barbaric,” said a man who stood around the pan shop.

Kya hota tha humara Banaras. Vinash kar diya. Modi aur Yogi rakshas se kam nahi (How glorious our Banaras was. They have destroyed it. Modi and Yogi are no less than demons),” said another.

“Kashi ka dharohar nasht kar diya hai. Ab chunav mein Kashi inko nasht kar dega (They have destroyed the culture of Kashi. Now, in the elections Kashi will destroy them),” Yadav said while applying finishing touches to a paan, which he claims is more Banarasi than any other Banarasi paan.

The Lalita ghat, where the pathway from the Ganga to the Vishwanath temple will begin.

The Aam Aadmi party (AAP) – which has, even after Arvind Kejriwal’s unsuccessful challenge to Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, insisted that Varanasi remains a key constituency for it – been quick to see potential political capital in the issue. Earlier in January, Sanjay Singh, Rajya Sabha MP of the AAP, moved a private member bill in the Upper House seeking to halt the project. A few days later, he went on a two-day yatra from Ayodhya to Varanasi with the message ‘BJP bhagao Bhagwan bachao (Remove BJP, save God)’, alleging that the BJP destroyed idols and demolished 36 ancient temples.

“In Ayodhya, the BJP pretends to be the saviour and wants to build a temple there. In Varanasi, they have destroyed temples,” Singh said when he concluded his yatra on the ghats of Varanasi on January 13. “We demand that the UP government stop this project and restore all demolished sites. If it doesn’t, we will take this movement across the state.”

Vishal Singh denies that any temples have been destroyed. “There is absolutely no truth there. No temples have been demolished.” On the other hand, he claims, that due to the demolition of buildings, temples that remained hidden can now be seen. “All the temples that have come out will be protected. There will be more grandeur. They will be preserved and they will be a part of the corridor,” he said.

Avimukteshwaranand objects strongly to Singh’s claim that temples have ‘come out’. “Galat dhaarna hai ye. Excavation ho raha hai kya yahan pe? Jo mandir nikal ke a rahe hai? (This is wrong. Is there an excavation going on here that temples are coming out?)” he said.

He argues that it was only after he and others protested the destruction of temples that the administration stayed away from demolishing the temples that remained.  

“And Vishal Singh may not have known. But we have always known about these temples. They are ancient temples,” said Avimukteshwaranand.

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A temple close to Manikarnika ghat that some people claim is 2,000 years old.

Amidst the rubble in the area that is being demolished stand several strikingly beautiful temples. There are temples of all sizes. A temple every few metres. Some betray signs of damage, which may have been caused by the administration. Equally, it could have been due to natural wear and tear.

The claim that some of these temples are ancient, or are more than 2,000 years old, has been made by many. In particular, two temples close to Manikarnika ghat that are now entirely visible as the buildings close to them have been demolished, have attracted great curiosity and intrigue. Among the temples that are now visible in the area, they are easily the most spectacular, with intricate carvings on each part of the structures.

“These were hidden earlier. But, now look at them. They are spectacular. This art must be thousands of years old,” said a trader who has his shop in the same lane as the temples.

Vishal Singh himself has reportedly said that these temples belong to the Samudragupta era.

Maruti Nandan Tiwari, emeritus professor of history and art at the Banaras Hindu University, however, disagrees. He was tasked by the local administration to provide his perspective.

“Nothing in that area is 2,000 years old,” he said emphatically. “Ancient Kashi settlement was not here. It was north of the current settlement in Rajghat. The current settlement is not more than 400-450 years old.”

When he surveyed the area, he said, he found 20 large temples and ‘countless’ small temples that are now visible due to the demolition around them. “All belong either to the late 18th century or early 19th century.” Only two have inscriptions on them – one of 1820 and another of 1899. Interestingly, he said, “there is also a temple in Neelkanth mahalla which is an exact replica of the Vishwanath mandir.”

Tiwari explained that there was an ‘explosion’ of temple building in Varanasi in the late 18th century.

The ‘explosion’, Tiwari argued, was in response to widespread destruction of temples and other structures in Varanasi under the rule of Aurangzeb in the 17th century. “In reaction to the destruction people doubled the exercise of building temples. They built a temple in every house. Every five metres.”

Diana Eck, who is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, published a study of the history and culture of Varanasi in 1983 titled Banaras: City of Light. She writes that in the ‘Muslim centuries’, beginning in the early 13th century, The religious life of the city was under almost constant threat. At least six times during these years the temples of Kashi were destroyed.” The only exception being Akbar, who permitted and even sponsored the building of temples.

Eck writes, Some of the city’s greatest temples, including Vishveshvara (Vishwanath temple), Krittivasa, and Bindu Madhava, were razed during the reign of Aurangzeb, and their sites were forever sealed from Hindu access by the construction of mosques.”

According to Eck, no religious monument in Varanasi is older than the ‘time of Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century’.

“It is a historically established fact that everything that stood in Varanasi was destroyed in the 17th century. But, it was quickly rebuilt,” said Tiwari.  

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The Vishwanath temple, or Vishveshvara, itself has been subject to several demolitions. The original temple was destroyed in 1194 by Qutb-ud-din Aibak. It was rebuilt but destroyed again in the 15th century. Akbar, during his reign, sponsored its rebuilding in the 16th century.

The last time it was demolished was in 1669 by Aurangzeb. On its ruins, he built a mosque, called the Gyan Vapi mosque, which incorporated one wall of the old temple. A century later, in 1780, the Queen of Indore, Ahilyabai Holkar, constructed the present-day Kashi Vishwanath temple, less than 100 metres from the mosque.

Gyan Vapi mosque.

Some people in Varanasi – Muslims, who make up 25% of the city’s population, in particular – feel that the demolitions in the area could rekindle old wounds. “The mosque now stands exposed in an area filled with only temples. Earlier, it was a densely packed area with shops and houses. But, once the corridor is complete, there will be the temple and the mosque next to it,” said a Muslim resident of Varanasi, preferring to remain anonymous.

Sayid Yasin is general secretary at the Anjuman Intazamiya Masjid, the body that acts as caretaker of the Gyan Vapi mosque. He draws a parallel with Ayodhya of 1992. “Before the Babri masjid was demolished, the area around it was cleared. Everything around it was brought down till the mosque stood alone and exposed. And because the area was cleared, it meant that lakhs could gather. They did and eventually demolished the mosque.”

Yasin fears that something similar could potentially take place in Varanasi. “Earlier because of the narrow lanes and the densely packed areas, not too many people could gather at one place and at one time. When the area will be cleared, lakhs could potentially gather,” he said.

A potential communal flare up was narrowly avoided last year in October when a platform that was part of a boundary wall between the temple and the mosque was demolished by the administration. “Within minutes, thousands of Muslims gathered. The administration had to rebuild the platform,” said a resident of Dal mandi area which is about a kilometre away from the temple and the mosque.

The demolition has also exposed the back of the mosque, the remnant of the old Vishwanath temple which had been incorporated into the mosque. Earlier, high walls around the mosque ensured that that part could not be seen. Now, it is clearly visible.

Kya bolen? Wo to invitiation card hai (What do I say? That is an invitation card),” said Yasin with a wry smile.

A view of the ‘red zone’ with Gyan Vapi mosque at the centre.

In November last year, the Anjuman Intazamiya Masjid approached the Supreme Court expressing its fear and seeking the court’s intervention. The court dismissed the petition. “Merely on the basis of apprehension this writ petition has been filed. We find absolutely no merit in this writ petition,” the court observed.

“The court also said, but did not put it in writing, that it guarantees the security of the mosque,” said Yasin.

But the community’s fear remains. “In Varanasi, Hindus and Muslims have always lived peacefully. Our fears are not because of the Hindus here. But it’s because of those in power,” Yasin said.

Vishal Singh feels there is no reason for the Muslim community to feel threatened. “Their fears are unfounded,” he said.

A heavy police presence remains around the mosque who are careful to not even allow pictures to be taken of the section that was the old temple.

Kashi duniya ka pramukh dharm sthal hai. Yahan ke log kisi bhi aastha ke sthaan ko nuksaan nahi pahonchne denge (Kashi is the world’s foremost religious place. Its people will never allow a place of worship to be damaged),” said a policeman – whose family has lived in Varanasi for three generations – stationed at the mosque.

All photographs by Kabir Agarwal.