Kashi-Vishwanath corridor inauguration: No separation of Mandir and State?

Did the PM have to bring up Aurangzeb in a poll-bound state where temple politics has been heating up after the Ayodhya verdict?

modiImage: ANI

Inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath corridore in Varanasi on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to put the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva agenda front and centre. Granted it was a project to connect an ancient temple, part of the region’s rich heritage, with a river considered divine in religious mythology, but did the lines between Mandir and State need to blur as much as they were allowed to?

At its heart, the 75 meters wide corridor that connects the Kashi-Viswanath temple to the river Ganga is a tourism infrastructure development project, but given its location – Varanasi, a city steeped in history, religion and mysticism – one could argue that it would be impossible to ignore the role religion plays in the region’s economy.

But does that mean, the Prime Minister needed to don saffron clothes as he performed a traditional arti and took a dip in the Ganga? Did he have to perform the traditional puja? Couldn’t that have been left to the priest? Or was this just another public relations campaign in a poll-bound state where temple politics has always been a very touchy subject?

While it is acceptable for crores of taxpayers money to build an infrastructure project (the corridor was built at an expenditure or upwards of Rs 900 crores, including over Rs 400 crores in acquisition of homes and rehabilitation of inhabitants), the question is, shouldn’t there be checks and balances to ensure that the taxpayers money is not spent on promotional activities that have a blatantly religious flavour? After all, India is still a secular State as per its Constitution.

Yet this is not the first time the Indian Prime Minister has been front and centre at a religious function. He also performed an elaborate puja at the foundation-laying ceremony of the Ayodhya temple. Even then, taxpayer money was spent on his travel, security arrangements etc. Not to mention the money spent on the elaborate lighting at the banks of the Ganga as the PM cruised by in a boat for yet another perfect photo-op.

Pitting Aurangzeb against Shivaji

More importantly, what exactly was the Prime Minister trying to achieve when he said, “आतातायियों ने इस नगरी पर आक्रमण किएइसे ध्वस्त करने के प्रयास किएऔरंगजेब के अत्याचारउसके आतंक का इतिहास साक्षी है। जिसने सभ्यता को तलवार के बल पर बदलने की कोशिश कीजिसने संस्कृति को कट्टरता से कुचलने की कोशिश कीलेकिन इस देश की मिट्टी बाकी दुनिया से कुछ अलग है। यहाँ अगर औरंगजेब आता है तो शिवाजी भी उठ खड़े होते हैं!”

(Translation: Terrorists have invaded this city, tried to destroy it! History has borne witness to Aurangzeb’s atrocities and terror. He tried to change civilization with the might of his sword, he tried to crush culture using extreme methods. But the soil of this land is different from that of others. If Aurangzeb comes here, Shivaji stands up to him!)

This was particularly pointed, because not only had Aurangzeb been recorded in history as having destroyed the Kashi Vishwanath temple, but also the Krishna Temple in Mathura, which is said to have been built at the deity’s birth place. It is also noteworthy that both these temples also share a section of their premises with mosques.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple stands alongside the Gyan Vapi Masjid, and was until recently, mired in litigation. It only recently got reprieve when the Allahabad High Court, that is hearing the wider temple land dispute case, stayed a lower court’s order for the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct a survey.

Meanwhile, in Mathura, the Krishna Janmbhoomi movement is gathering steam as the temple complex is built adjacent to the Shahi Idgah. Multiple cases have been admitted by district courts, where petitioners have showcased a desire to reclaim the temple land usurped by invaders and restore the temple to its original glory. Petitions range from stopping namaz, to holding pujas, to removing the mosque in order to restore the temple. Indeed, there has been a rise in temple restoration suits of late, especially after the verdict in the Ayodhya dispute case. 

In fact, another such high-profile suit to reclaim Qutub Minar and turn it into a temple was shot down by a Delhi court recently. Civil Judge, Neha Sharma of Saket Court in Delhi, held, “Nobody has denied that wrongs were committed in the past, but such wrongs cannot be the basis for disturbing peace of our present and future.” While dismissing the plain, she held that ‘public order’ was an exception to Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution, and hence the nature of the protected monument of ‘Qutub Minar’ needed to be protected to maintain status quo instead of changing it into a religious character.

Now, there is a perfectly adequate law in place to prevent such litigations – The Places of Worship Act. The purpose of the law was to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947. The section 3 of the Act clearly states, “No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.” The objective of the law was clearly to maintain communal harmony in the future. But this law itself was challenged in the Supreme Court by BJP member Ashwini Upadhyay.

Destruction of temples in history  

Temple desecration was a very politically motivated action back in the day. The practice was prevalent even before various Muslim and Mughal rulers made their way to India. Royal temples housing the patron deity of the dynasty, symbolised the sovereignty of the king. Temples have been desecrated in inter-dynasty conflicts as well.

While this in no way justifies the destruction of temples, it certainly puts the act into proper historical context.  And while, no one disputes that Aurangzeb destroyed temples, according to History Professor Richard Eaton, the Kashi Vishwanath temple (that was built by Jai Singh) was destroyed to punish Jaisingh for his complicity in facilitating Shivaji’s escape from Aurangzeb’s custody[1].

So once again the question arises, what was the Prime Minister trying to accomplish by referring to Aurangzeb and Shivaji? Words have weight, meaning, value, and have the power to disrupt peace. While the PM’s words may not be construed as outright hate speech, their loaded communal content and electoral implications cannot be ignored.



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