Last month when violence erupted in Bangladesh, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ram Madhav gave sermons to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. He counted the virtues of secularism and advised her to protect the interest of the minorities in her country.
But last week, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited his electoral constituency Varanasi, he left nothing to the imagination. He invoked communal tempers so brazenly that it sent shivers down the spine. Without mincing words and polarizing voters, he attacked Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Sufi saint Syed Masood Salar Gazi, who is buried in Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh.
For Ram Madhav, the situation was like bells calling others to church but not entering in themselves. In Urdu, his predicament could be said like Auroon Koo Naseehat Khud Mian Fazihat.
During his two-day tour to his constituency, situated on the banks of the holy Ganges River, Modi inaugurated a corridor leading to Kashi Vishwanath Temple with the ghats of Ganga. The event was an unprecedented display of religious rituals. Modi took a dip in the Ganges which is considered sacred by the Hindus, inaugurated temples, applied saffron and sandalwood on his forehead like a priest in the temple.
Thousands of saffron-clad sadhus attended the ceremony, which was widely covered both by state and private media outlets. Prasar Bharti CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati in a tweet announced that his team had deployed 55 cameras, seven satellite uplink vans, drones and other high-tech devices to cover the event. Prasar Bharti operates the state-run Doordarshan and All India Radio.
What surprised many observers that Modi, took upon himself to use acidic language to polarize people. Normally in realpolitik, this job is left to the second or third rug leader. In UP, the BJP already had a Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is leaving no opportunity to taunt Muslims. Was Prime Minister competing with the UP-Chief Minister?
He targeted Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and said: “Whenever an Aurangzeb comes, a Shivaji rises. For every Salar Masud, there is a brave warrior like King Suheldev to show the world the might of India’s unity.”
Construction and Demolition Squads
But while mentioning Aurangzeb as an invader, Modi forgot that much before Aurangzeb, the temple was demolished and rebuilt several times. While it was demolished by Mohammad Ghori, it was rebuilt by Turk Sultan Iltutmish a century late. It was demolished again during the Lodhi rule but was restored and rebuilt by Mughal Emperor Akbar. Even before the Muslim period, Buddhists and Hindus had been demolishing each other’s shrines, depending on the allegiances of the rulers.
This is also not the first time that Mughal rulers have been invoked to create communal divisions. In the past ministers and members of the BJP have spoken against the Mughal rulers, have called them tyrants to garner Hindu votes. But never has any sitting Prime Minister spoken in this tone.
It was also on the ghats of Kashi where Kabir Das lived and shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan whose house overlooked the temple, played the tunes to please Lord Vishwanath. His guru Ali Baksh also a Muslim played at the temple.
“BJP and Modi have no sense of history. Baba Vishwanath and Kashi do not belong to saffron-clad Hindus. It is a standing example of how beautifully Hindus and Muslims have woven this city together,” said a professor from Banaras Hindu University told The Friday Times. For fear of reprisal, the professor requested anonymity.
Instead of seeking votes on a concrete agenda, the BJP has made it clear that it will drum up construction of the temple corridor and renovation of Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath temple to lure Hindu voters.
For building this 400-meter-long corridor, some 300 properties were acquired and 1,400 shops and homes were rehabilitated.
“It may look like rehabilitation in the government books, but they were a part of the Kashi culture that has been uprooted. And it has left several hundred people unemployed.” If the prime minister had dined with the labours, he should have thanked all those who sacrificed their earnings for the project,” said the professor.
In a veiled attack on the two-day extravaganza, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, another professor of the university, tweeted that Kashi is known for its cultural and religious values and not for a corporate cultural event. Referring to the hype created by the media, he also wrote that the real Kashi will be seen to the world after the 55 cameras had gone. Mishra is also the founder of the Sankat Mochan Foundation in the city.
In the big religious event that was projected as national pride at the cost of state exchequer prime minister spoke like a leader of the Sanatan, ancient, orthodox India and not a secular India.
Modi’s Long List of Temple Visits
Like every citizen of this country, the prime minister has the right to follow his religion. But what is being questioned is the use of the office of the prime minister to mix politics and religion. Modi’s list of temple visits is long.
In the past, he has laid the foundation stone of Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the Kedarnath Temple, has unveiled the status of Adi Shankaracharya in Kedarnath, has released a giant Bhagwat Gita at Delhi’s Iskcon temples amongst the long list. All these visits have been covered as a major event and have been sponsored by taxpayers amongst whom, many do not subscribe to the idea of Hindutva and Hinduism.
“The Prime Minister can be a practising Hindu. But the kind of aggressive messaging that he and the BJP are doing – may bring electoral dividends in the short run, but the real issues of the masses remain unresolved,” said Professor Rajesh Jha, who teaches political science in Delhi University.
He also pointed out that such spectacles brought religious politics to the centre stage at the cost of the concerns of the common masses.
“Let us not forget that India has much bigger problems to attend to. Unemployment, inflation is at an all-time high. Public Health and the education sector need massive upliftment. And instead of discussing all these, the routine matters like renovation are projected as something radical,” he added.
When India’s first President, Dr Rajender Prasad was planning to inaugurate the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressed his reservations against the visit. He believed that his visit by a constitutional authority was against the idea of India, in which state and religion were to remain separate.
Historian Ram Guha in his book India after Gandhi writes: “The prime minister thought that public officials should never publicly associate with faiths and shrines. The president, on the other hand, believed that it should be equally and publicly respectful to all.” At Somnath, Prasad justified his idea of state and religion thus: “I respect all religions and on occasion visit a church, a mosque, a dargah and a gurdwara.”