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Victor third time over in Varanasi ?

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Victor third time over in Varanasi ?

By Rashme Sehgal

The mood in Varanasi is one of latent anger, like a volcano waiting to explode. No one is willing to go public and say they will not vote for the Prime Minister but it is obvious, in the scorching heat of the city whose eastern façade of spectacular ghats runs along the Ganges river, that the earlier enthusiasm towards him has long since dissipated.

Take the example of Prof Om Shankar, head of the department of cardiology at Sir Sundar Lal Hospital, IMS-BHU, who has been on fast from May 11 and is surviving by drinking aam ras. His demand is simple. The beds in the entire fourth floor and half of the fifth floor in the super speciality block be given to the cardiology department. An order to this effect was passed by IMS-BHU director Prof S N Sankhwar this March but nothing happened on the ground.

Prof Shankar explained, `Post Covid the number of patients have increased manifold. Today, we are getting an average of 800 heart patients a day. Many come from Bihar. Despite out repeated requests, this has not been followed through and this is unfair to the public at large.’

The electoral battle is being fought full swing in Varanasi with the Prime Minister determined to win this key constituency for a third time in a row. Senior BJP leaders have gathered here from across the country to help Modi sweep to victory but the average BJP worker and the RSS karyakarta do notshare the enthusiasm of the big wigs in the party.

Modi’s Congress rival Ajay Rai who he defeated in both 2014 and 2019 is putting up a spirited fight. Rai declares at every rally “Every Kashi resident now has only one demand — remove the outsider, save Kashi going on to state that while,` Modiji wrote letters to 2,000 people of Varanasi asking for votes. When thousands of people died during the coronavirus period, then why did Modiji not send letters of condolence.’

There is open criticism in the way this city has been micro-managed at the behest of the ruling dispensation and most of all in the BHU campus where both teachers and administrative staff are critical at the way key university position have been handed over to members of the RSS and saffron party.

`The BHU was one of the most prestigious universities of India. Today there are any number of vacancies across all departments which have not been filled up and which have adversely affected the quality of teaching. On top of it, the functioning of the administrative staff has also been adversely affected because they are all being made to work on a contractual basis at salaries of Rs 10,000 to 15,000 per month, Regular jobs have been done away with’ said a retired professor.

Prof Dipak Malik, director emeritus of the Institute of Gandhian Studies, Varanasi which was forcibly shut down because the four acre plot of land on which the institute had been built to give way to a Multi Modal Terminus which would serve as a hub for rail, road and cargo terminus.` I have still to come to terms at the way Asia’s premier library on social sciences was razed to the ground. It shows a lack of respect towards institutions of learning,’ said Malik.

Dalit lecturer Lal Bahadur who teaches at Shri Kamalakar Chaubey Adarsh Seva Vidyalaya Inter College in Varanasi second this point of view. Lal Bahadur, a proud Dalit spokesperson said, ` Varanasi has been a seat of learning and has invited the best minds from across the world. We were proud of our syncretic traditions. Sadly, this government in the last ten years has promoted a culture which is completely contrary to what this city has symbolised.’

But the most damning criticism against the Modi government comes from Prof Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, an engineering professor at the IIT in BHU who is also head priest of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi who pointed out, His place of residence is on the Tulsi ghat where he has a functioning laboratory which tests the sewage and coliform content of the water of the Ganga on a daily basis.

` So many crucial issues need to be addressed and instead the government has deliberately put the limelight on a Shivlinga being found inside the Gyanvapi mosque. If the Shivlinga found inside the Gyanvapi mosque is the real Shivlinga, then how does one make sense of the Shivalinga being worshipped inside the Kashi Vishwanath temple,’ he asks.

`Varanasis are very proud of their syncretic culture which no one should be allowed to trample on. But the public is scared of speaking out. We all know this is a politically motivated controversy. People know what is happening. They are suffering a great deal and there is a great deal of economic distress,’ he pointed out adding,’ `If the government was so concerned about our well being, would they not have cleaned up the Ganga and the Assi river by now.’

The Modi government has spent Rs 40,000 crore on the Namami government project and has spent crores on setting up sTPs but sadly, the Ganga remains dirtier than before adds Mishra.

Varanasi is also famous for its beautifully crafted Benarasi sari. Sadly, one of India’s most loved sari forms that formed an integral party of the trousseau of every bride stands close to extinction. Varanasi weavers, whose strength till some years ago was close to five lakhs, are now being forced to seek employment in handloom factories in Surat and Bengaluru or else have taken to working as daily labourers in construction sites.

`This government has no understanding of the handloom sector. From April 1 this year, they have increased the electricity charges to run the looms from Rs 300 for 2 kilowatts of electricity to a whopping Rs 1720 for two kilowatts. Which weaver can afford these rates? But since the majority are Muslims, they dare not take to the streets to voice their protests. They fear their homes will be broken down or else they will be arrested,’ said Sourav who heads the Kargar Ekta Patrika, a collective of weavers.

They believe only a change of government will help ensure they can get electricity subsidies and also access to cheaper yarn. Aflatun, social activist and leader of Samajwadi Jan Parishad said, ` Modi ji has brought many grandiose schemes to our city but we do not see how these will benefit us. Last year he inaugurated a multimodal terminal on the banks of the Ganga which he said would be part of a grand National Waterway project which would carry millions of tonnes of cargo and be the starting point for cruises. But nothing has happened on the ground after that. Rather, the MM terminal requires over 30 acres of land which is being forcibly acquired from the Gandhian organisation Sarva Seva Sangh and from the Krishnamurti Foundation,’ he said.

Local BJP leader Mahendra Pandey insists to the contrary. `The city has been transformed; Modiji promised to further change the face of the entire Purvanchal region in the next five years whose epicentre is Varanasi and he has kept his promise.’

Prabhu Dayal, who sells chai on the Assi Ghat, refuses to enter into a debate on whether Modi has been good for the city or not. ` Our city’s origins go back thousands of years. We have seen many rulers come and go. If Modiji is re-elected, so be it. We will accept him but the respect we had for him ten years ago has now vanished.’

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