Opinion: Varanasi’s Spirit Of Pluralism Is Under Threat From ‘Manuwadi’ Forces

Varanasi, one of the oldest and continuously inhabited cities in the world, is also known as Banaras or Kashi and is said to incorporate different schools of thought, and religions Making it the centre of attraction among people across the globe.

In Ghalib’s poem Chiragh-i-Dair (The Lamp of Temple), which was composed during his trip to Benares during the spring of 1827, he mused about the land of Hindustan (the Indian subcontinent) and how Qiyamah (Doomsday) has failed to arrive, in spite of the numerous conflicts plaguing it.

Said I one night to a pristine seer
(Who knew the secrets of whirling Time)
‘Sir you well perceive,
That goodness and faith,
Fidelity and love
Have all departed from this sorry land.
Father and son are at each other’s throat;
Brother fights brother.
Unity and Federation are undermined.
Despite these ominous signs
Why has not Doomsday come?
Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?

One the one hand, it is known as the prominent city for followers of Hindu religion, while on the other hand, it is also known as the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon (Dhammachakra Parivartan) in 528 BC. It is one of the holy cities of Jainism as the three Tirthankars of Jain religion were also born here. It is also one of the epicentres of the Bhakti movement (a current dating back to Hindu medieval times puts it close to Sufi Islam, ed.). Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, visited Varanasi in 1507 and was inspired by the city. Thus, Varanasi holds an equally high place among followers of Hindu and other religions.

Varanasi has been the birthplace and workplace for poets and saints like Sant Kabir, Sant Ravidas and Sen Nai, opposing sectarian thinking, communalism, and casteism. They established the dignity of labour with spiritualism. Maulana Alvi brought the world-famous Banarsi silk sarees that now has a Bollywood celebrity as its brand ambassador. Banaras has been home to several great personalities from the field of art, culture, music, and literature.

The poet-saint, reformer, and philosopher Tulsidas’ doctrine has been described as an assimilation and reconciliation of the diverse tenets and cultures of Hinduism. Munshi Premchand, was an Indian writer famous for both his Hindi and Urdu writings, along with great author Bhartendu Harishchandra, Jai Shankar Prasad, Dr. Shyam Sunderdas and Acharya Ramchandra Shukla, have called Banaras as their home.

Ustad Bismillah Khan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The city has had four Bharat Ratna (the highest civilian award of the Republic of India) recipients too. The Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, Lal Bahadur Shastri the second prime minister of India, Pandit Ravi Shankar the renowned Sitar player, and Bhagwan Das an Indian Theosophist allied with the Hindustani Culture Society and was active in opposing rioting as a form of protest. For a time he served in the Central Legislative Assembly of British India. As an advocate for national freedom from the British rule, he was often in danger of reprisals from the Colonial government. He was the fourth recipient of India’s highest civilian award. He established the Kashi Vidyapeeth in association with Mahatma Gandhi.

In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who invested in the city and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. The Raja of Poona established the Annapurna mandir and the 200 meters (660 ft) Akbari Bridge was also completed during this period. The earliest tourists began arriving in the city during the 16th century. In 1665, the French traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier described the architectural beauty of a temple on the side of the Ganges. The road infrastructure was also improved during this period and extended from Kolkata to Peshawar by Emperor Sher Shah Suri. Later under the British Raj it came to be known as the famous Grand Trunk Road.

Annie Besant, a prominent British socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer, and orator, and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule was also active in the city.  In April 1911, Besant met Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and they decided to unite their forces and work for a common Hindu University at Varanasi. The Banaras Hindu University started functioning in October 1917 with the Central Hindu College as its first constituent college.

Nazir Banarasi is a popular name both in literary and popular circles in Kashi. He was born on November  25, 1909, in Benares. His father was a well-known practitioner of Unani medicine in Benares. Nazir also joined his father’s profession. Nazir picked the material for his poetry from the conditions around him which made him acutely relevant to his readers. His poetry is thus a living record of his contemporary scenario with respect to politics and society. He also wrote long poems on the prominent literary, social, and political personalities of his time. His publications include Gang-o-Jaman, Rashtra ki Amaanat Rashtra ke Hawaaley, Jawahar se Lal Tak, Ghulami se Aazaadi Tak, and Kitab-e-Ghazal. He died on March 23, 1996, in Benares. Sheikh Ali Hazim (1697- 1766), a great Sufi saint, philosopher and Persian poet from Iran, visited the city and settled here.

There is something special about the Banaras Gharana of music that is based upon Indian classical instruments quoting Hindu Gods and deities, and it also incorporates the Sarod from Afghanistan, Shehnai, and Sitar from Persian culture with the same pride as they do for the Indian instruments.

Reconciling various branches of Indian philosophy with Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Bahai, Jainism, Sikhism, Sufism, and Judaism all have an equal connect in this ancient city that believes it is a centre for pluralism and inclusive culture. This has been the heritage of pluralism and inclusive culture by the River Ganga.

Without usurping the majoritarianism in Kashi, it would be rather difficult to establish Manuwadi fascism in India. For ushering in fascism in Germany, Hitler, for stamping his authority in Europe’s cultural capital of Weimar, had organised his party’s conclave in the city and also visited it several times. However, it was known only after World War II that Hitler and the Nazi army had built torture centres near Weimar city, where tens of thousands of people were killed by burial or in gas chambers. While accepting the Weimar International Human Rights Award 2010, I had visited Weimar along with my family. On the lines of Weimar city, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a radical manuwadi group and its manuwadi fascism have also attempted to usurp Kashi and seemingly wants to eliminate its pluralism, diversity, and inclusive culture.

Mass demonstration in front of the German parliament (Reichstag) against the Treaty of Versailles (source: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Neo-fascism and the authoritarian Manuwadi project which feeds communal hatred and divides the poorest majority of the society is also promoted by economic leaders, to seemingly hide the implementation of an economic policy of impunity. A policy that is supposed to make India an attractive destination for foreign investments has been simultaneously enriching both the political and economic leaders in clandestine ways.

So, we can say that all those political repression, police torture, bureaucratic corruption, economic exploitation and rigid hierarchy of social domination result in implantation of those social, political and economic cognitive cultures of impunity such as ‘the dangerous cross-currents of neo-liberal capitalism and communal neo-fascism’  as much by the actors of cognition than by the contextual factors.

A society where emotions don’t exist is bound to be ruthless. It’s bound to be dangerous. In my experience, a society that doesn’t respect women resorts to violence, conflict, and war. But, the RSS seems to believe in fascist philosophy, and ideas of Manusmriti as supreme, based on the caste system and patriarchy. In India, regressive forces after the general election of 2014 have been systematically dismantling institutions that had led us to commanding heights, by undermining the radical welfare architecture that was laid down over the last 70 years since independence, and by destroying the pluralistic fabric of Indian polity. This poses a grave threat to India’s inclusive conception of policy and citizenship.

In the ‘Declaration by United Nations’, the “United Nations” had been the official name for the coalition fighting the axis powers since January 1942, when Roosevelt and Churchill had led twenty-six nations, including the Soviet Union and China. The declaration committed the twenty-six countries not to cut separate peace deals with the Nazis and to subscribe to the principles of the Atlantic Charter for the post-war world. The Charter provided the political basis for countering Nazi ideology.

The decline of trade of Banarasi sari and the state’s interference in matters of religion is just the beginning. People of Kashi have been fighting this trend, and its outcome would also impact the future of India. We should pursue the path shown by the people of Kashi and wage a nationwide agitation for subduing the fascist government and establishing the rule of law and spirit of Indian constitution based on pluralistic democracy and human rights.

People across the world can learn how to live and make co-existence meaningful even as there are differences among people. They live in harmony as an inclusive culture based on diversity and pluralism. It is therefore necessary that Varanasi or Banaras be given status of a ‘Living Heritage City’ of inclusive and plural culture. It is necessary that the city of faith, belief, indigenous wisdom and logic be declared a heritage city. It is required that the water in the city should be Ganga Jal (water) and not Ganda (dirty) Jal. Rivers are central to our culture and civilization. People’s survival, religious believes, Peoples’ life, dignity spirituality, and civilization are linked to them. The Sand (Bull) Lord Shiva’s favourite animal must be given dignity in the god’s own city, and must be provided with health support.

For Representation Only

It is necessary that the old city is conserved as a part of our heritage, as done in Singapore. The new city must be developed with expansion plans with the future in-sight. The artisans of the city must be given means of livelihood. Weaving, toy making, zardoji must be promoted and helped to grow. The police and military badges of various countries are made in Varanasi. Dress of Hindu Gods and Deities are made by Muslims in Varanasi. The history of the city’s pluralism and inclusive culture based on reconciliation must be taught to young students in schools. This is not important just for the sake of the past but for the very fact that in India and South Asia, there is a need to end communal/sectarian thinking and to bring positive conflict resolution. This kind of resolution should be the manner to develop the concept of citizen in the region. This shall help to put an end to torture and large scale organised violence arising out of casteism, sectarian thinking, and communal fascism.

According to Sramana culture (culture of inclusiveness and diversity) of Kasi, “Human security based on inclusiveness and justice is one of the main factors for the foundation of sustainable peace based on resilience and humane relationship.”

The original article in Hindi can be accessed here.

Featured Image Credit: Provided By The Author/Pixbay
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