Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Varanasi riots

(Very exceptionally, I am deferring to the wish of two eyewitnesses, who do not want their names publicized, to publish their account of recent religious violence in Varanasi, also known as Benares.)

The personal view of two close witnesses


My wife and me were close witnesses to the happenings in Varanasi from 22 September to 23 October. We present here an account of how we experienced these happenings.

On 20th September we went to Srividya Math to meet Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati. Around 20-30 people from the Durgapuja Samitis had gone also to meet him. They were telling swamiji that the Allahabad High Court had issued an order prohibiting the visarjan of the murtis in the river Ganga. Last year it was authorised as an exception, but this year the order would be enforced.

During the conversation that followed, it was mentioned that the High Court had previously issued orders to stop the sewers from throwing dirty water into the river, about which nothing had been done. The Assi Nala is continuously throwing thousands of litres of extremely dirty water and nothing has been done to date to prevent it. According to some estimates, dirty water from cities amounts for 60% of the Ganga pollution, factories for 35% and 5% comes from religious actions. It was said that the solution laid in constructing eco-friendly murtis which would not use dangerous chemicals. The Puja Samitis said that they were ready to pay more for this kind of murtis.

The people of the Samitis requested swamiji to help them in this endeavour. Swamiji said that he was ready to fight for dharmic causes, but that usually “I go ahead, and when I look back nobody is following me”. There ended the meeting.

Next day, a procession that was proceeding to Ganga for visarjan of a murti of Ganesh was stopped near Godowlia by the police, who asked that the visarjan should be done in a kund. People did not understand why the police had not stopped the procession in the pandal, and had allowed it to proceed to Godowlia. People were keen in having visarjan in Ganga, but the police let them stay there along the Ganesh murti for many hours (36 hours in total).

After 24 hours had passed, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati thought that it was not proper to stop the murti of Ganeshji, on which pranapratishtha had been done, in the middle of the road for hours. He went to Godowlia and sat there in dharna along with many other people.

Next day we were shocked on reading in the newspaper headlines that the police had brutally lathi-charged swamiji and the other people there. Several people, including swamiji, had to be admitted in the hospital. At 91 or 2 am in the night, the police, after a brief order to leave the place, closed all the possible exits (why?) and started beating everyone, including swamiji and several Vedic students of tender age. The brutality of the charge can be seen in this video:

The   of this brutal action by the police provoked a deep indignation among the people of Banaras. The video of the lathi-charge was also instrumental, and clearly countered the police efforts to say that nothing had happened. The Ganesh murti was taken by the police and thrown in a haphazard way in Lakshmi Kund.

All kinds of people, including several groups of Muslims and representatives of all political parties, came to meet swamiji and the other injured at the hospital. When he came out of hospital two days later, swamiji went to Kedar Ghat and did a puja of a Ganesh murti fashioned with Ganga clay; a symbolic proper visarjan in Ganga was then done. Around twenty or thirty policemen were present; it looked as if a big criminal was there. Only then swamiji accepted water and food, for he had not taken any during these days.

After this, daily meetings were held at Srividya Math to consider possible actions. Many people attended and presented their views. The indignation at the police action was prevalent. The Administration did not show any regret about the police lathi-charge, nor any action was taken against the responsible authorities. Only later, on the force of the video recordings and the media attention, an impartial enquiry of the happenings was reluctantly agreed upon.

In one of the meetings a representation of Kashi pandits came, and explained that, according to the shastras, visarjan should be done in running water. Although the tradition of murti visarjan as done nowadays with large images shown in pandals is only one or two centuries old, still the tradition of making murtis from Ganga or other rivers and releasing them in the same place is there since time immemorial, and rules for this are given in the shastras.

Also came to different meetings politicians, boatmen, murtikars, etc. The murtikars, the people who construct the statues, said they were ready to construct eco-friendly murtis, even if that would be harmful to their business.

Of common accord it was decided to call a procession “Anyay pratikar yatra” on 5 October. People were to meet at Town Hall and proceed peacefully towards Godowlia and to the river Ganga. A number of sadhus were there, along with representatives of most political parties except Samajwadi Party (in power in Uttar Pradesh; however, some members of this party attended personally) and many common citizens. Also attended a few dozens of Muslims. It is to be mentioned that, during the discourses in Town Hall, Swami Avimukteshwaranand took away the microphone from the hands of Sadhvi Prachi when she started to communally polarize the event by making remarks about the Muslim community. Swamiji ordered that the procession should proceed in peace, that no political party’s banners should be shown (although later a few were), that no “murdabad-zindabad” slogans should be raised, etc. Everything should proceed in a peaceful atmosphere.

The procession started peacefully from Town Hall, Maidagin, towards Chowk and Godowlia. Probably from 50,000 to one lakh people of all religious and political tendencies participated in the march. From the houses and terraces along the way many people were looking, encouraging and supporting the march, throwing flowers and giving drinking water to the participants, etc. The procession was headed by a representation of Kashi Viswanath; behind were several swamis, then women, then the rest of the people. I was at 30-50 m behind the head of the procession. In Bansphatak, before getting to Godowlia, we saw a column of black smoke rising ahead. Shortly after, people started to run in stampede. I tried to protect a startled old dandi swami from being trampled upon, then fell down. Tear gas spread and made us all cry. There was a lot of confusion. Nobody was knowing what was going on.

We later came to know that, before the procession reached Godowlia, a group of people concentrated from the other side of Godowlia and started to burn motorcycles and throw stones at the police. There was extreme violence and several people, including policemen, were hurt.

However, as shown clearly in some photos, a part of the police seems to have collaborated to some extent in spreading the troubles. The photographer who took photos of several policemen burning a motorcycle was strongly beaten and had to go to hospital. Who were responsible for the violence is not yet clear. But whoever the culprit, they succeeded in converting a peaceful movement into a violent one. After that, no one gave attention to the fact that many tens of thousands of people had united in a peaceful demonstration, an event unique in the story of Varanasi.

After this, the Administration reacted strongfully. Many people were arrested and put into jail. A long list of cases: sedition, loot, dacoity, attempt to murder, etc., were charged on Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, other swamis and Ajay Ray, leader of the Congress. Ajay Ray was arrested and sent to jail, although several political leaders did exactly the same as he did. Afterwards, without trying to bring out any meaningful negotiation or compromise, the Administration threatened the Puja Samitis with dire consequences (jail, etc.) if they did not do the visarjan in the places marked: two ponds constructed in a hurry at far away places. The atmosphere was of police dictatorship. The Administration succeeded in forcing people to do visarjan as they wanted, but then nobody was satisfied and a sense of bitterness had spread in Varanasi.

Our personal opinion is that all the problems can be traced back to the Administration’s incompetent behaviour. First, stopping the procession with the Ganesh murti in the middle of the road without clear options or way out. Next, the brutal lathi-charge on cornered peaceful people, which remembered one about the times of the British Raj and Mahatma Gandhi. Later, the absolute obstinacy and the refusal to negotiate or bring out a compromise. A small problem which could have been easily solved to the satisfaction of all was, by treating it as merely a law-and-order problem, converted in a big and dangerous issue.

Moreover, instead of concentrating on the main sources of pollution of Ganga and the lack of water current that makes this pollution much more dangerous, the Administration has concentrated on a very minor source of pollution and chosen a soft target where results can be shown without hard work, just by applying force. Even this minor source of pollution should be avoided, on this everyone agrees. Apart from its religious significance, the murti visarjan is an important part of the festivals. To do the visarjan in a far away kund built for the occasion, without any religious significance and where the symbolism is killed, is no good solution. If the murtis contain dangerous chemicals, these are also venomous in the kunds (in the new constructed kunds the water will return to the Ganga or filter down to the aquifers).

The solution clearly lies in encouraging the construction of eco-friendly murtis, which can be then submerged in the Ganga, clay mixing with clay and divinity returning to divinity. It should not be difficult to arrive at an understanding on these lines, where everybody would feel satisfied.



Sharan Sharma said...

The visuals were disturbing and angering. Nothing justifies this kind of state violence.

Having said that, one must note avimuktheshwaranada's political leanings - he's been an old time Congress supporter and strongly anti-Modi. Which is also why Ajai Rai joined his protest and was later released on bail. Strongly feel the 'swami' (sorry for the quotes) was used to foment communal trouble - and then the blame again goes to the BJP since that are associated with Hindus.

Unknown said...

Why always politize everything? One of the purposes of the demonstration was to unite all Hindus above party lines and other divisions. Swami Avimukteshwaranand succeeded in this. Moreover, these happenings were not Hindu-Muslim communal trouble: they were a clash between the Hindus and the U.P. Administration (in the hands of the Samajwadi Party, if we want to politicize the matter)...

Gururaj B N said...

It seems to me that the U.P.Government has manufactured this problem to bring bad name to Namami Ganga Project- simultaneously bring bad name to the PM's pet project, and to the Hindus as the leading pollutants of Ganga. This is not a simple case of incompetent local administration.

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