The Eternal Kashi : II

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 22 Apr 2014

As the current version of political ‘Mahabharat’ enters its more crucial stages and the battle is joined more ferociously the eternal Kashi looms large before excited viewers. Hardly a day passes with one  news channel or the other taking the viewers to share one aspect of this oldest living city or the other. The customary rounds to the ‘Kal Bhairava’ ( the Kotwal of Kashi), ‘Baba Vishvanath’ ( the Lord of Kashi) temples, or a dip in the Ganges by the ‘heroes of this modern day War’ in full view of rather indifferent daily-bathers, a panoramic view of its magnificent ghats with flattened steps and high-rise princely palaces, fortresses and Havelis from the vantage point of slithering-boats – are some visuals which  is difficult to miss. If it is the morning –ablutions time, the ‘chattris’ shades the faithful from the hot rising sun while he or she gets pasted liberally on the fore-head with ‘chandan’ by the attending ‘panda’ while next to them is a ‘pucca Banarasi’ busy exercising his body on the ghat, post-‘niptan’ across the Ganga, before he takes the finishing dip prior to departing for his daily chores. On the ghats, especially in the morning hours, everybody seems to ‘mind his own business’, and the elections be damned, as they come and go while this scenario suffers no change. ‘Ganga’ is central to Kashi, its very rationale for existence. Without the Ganga, there is no Kashi.       

Kashi  Ke  Kasera and  Harmandir

Quite like the current times, and one can lay a safe bet that it certainly is not for the first time, that the brand-Kashi is being used to win a political Mahabharat. It has been said that the cultural capital of India has now been turned into a political capital of India. The route to Delhi passes through Uttar Pradesh, rather Eastern UP or even more pointedly through the Grand Trunk Route through Kashi. If Adi Guru Shankarachrya, and before him the greatest challenger to the Brahminical India, Gautam Buddha had to focus on Kashi ( the Sarnath ) to preach what he wished to the rest of the world, it had to be Kashi. What Gautam Budhha, the Light of Asia, had to say has spread to more than  140 countries and what Adi Guru Shankaracharya attempted to do, the concept of India, the rest of the world is about to realise. So, it is no wonder that this lesson has been well absorbed by those in Delhi or Pune, where the grand strategists confabulate. Post 1984, India passed through a very difficult phase and Rajiv Gandhi took over as the Prime Minister on 31st October 1984 in the wake of assassination of his mother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ( January 1980- 31st October, 1984). Kashi has had its share of post Indira Gandhi assassination after effects- imposition of immediate curfew, armed posse of PAC and RAF battalions rushing to rescue, burning tires, targeting of a particular minority groups, and so on. The GT road entry-point, Varanasi-Bihar border witnessed, massive jamming of traffic, as a large number of goods truck that crossed the GT belonged to that particular minority group which had now become an unfortunate target. The GT road became a major concern for the district administrations, wherever it passed as almost every third truck-driver belonged to that target group. Inside the cities the situation was no better. In UP, surprisingly only Kanpur, NOIDA received some attention whereas the fact is that even as small a hill town like Haldwani witnessed unprecedented law and order situation, keeping the administration on its toes, for months together. Not many would know that even in post Blue Star operations Kashi played a major role, when it came to repairing of Harmandir insides with gold-plating was concerned. Harmandir, as we all know is gold-plated and gold-plating is not every body’s cup of tea. Kashi’s Kasera community, is the one of the two major communities who know what it takes to gold-plating of metals, when it comes to a world-class finesse. This writer distinctly remembers Sardar Buta Singh’s  SoS seeking the  help in rushing the Kasera community for Harmandir repairs. Rajdhani had to be stopped to board whatever Kaseras could be herded hurriedly to be taken to New Delhi and thence to be airlifted to Amritsar, where they were to join their brethren from Jaipur, yet another set of gold-plating experts. Later the shared with the writer how they were made to work almost round-the-clock, allowed rest only to answer the call of nature ! They had not seen so much gold in generations as they battled against time, sitting inside the temple amidst mounds of pure gold with their instruments. When asked for any reward, on their return from the national duty, all they wished to have was just a Certificate of Appreciation from their Deputy Commissioner that they were found equal to the task when the Nation needed it. That year the Kaseras had to abandon their Ram Lila, exceptionally it was, as they could not practice enough — their main characters having been drafted on a national duty ! This writer remembers when he went to their temple, at the fourth halt of Panch-Koshi parikrama on the periphery of the City, they presented to him a specially cast-moulded statue of Durga, thanking him for allowing them participate in a nation building opportunity. A bona fide Benarasi is a deeply nationalistic human being, large hearted with a liberal doze of accommodation. He has seen the worst of times, and the best of times. He just refuses to be surprised anymore, as he celebrates death every day at his ghats, he knows how to laugh at things.

The Ganga Action Plan

The last time the Kashi was perceived to be used ‘politically’, as far this writer remembers, was when it was decided to launch the Ganga Action Plan from Dr. Rajendra Prasad ghat, a newly renovated ghat for this purpose. This writer had completed the main task for which the entire Divisional Administration had been shifted on an adverse observation made by no less than the highest court of the land, and this had taken the new team of a brand new Commissioner-DIG, and Deputy Commissioner-SSP, team. The infamous Doshipura case, hanging fire since a Munsif had passed an order on an alleged set of Sunni graves, situated over a piece of land over which the local Shias had established customary ritual claims, with the land in question belonging to no other than a deeply devout Hindu, Raja Benares, way back in 1810 ! The team had successfully satisfied the highest court that there existed yet another solution to this age-old ticklish problem, than shifting of this ‘alleged-Sunni graves’, a matter which occupied national attention, as the case reached its point of no return. Kalyankrishnan, the then Chief Secretary had assured the writer that the a successful launching of the Ganga Action Plan would be his last assignment, as the past two and a half years had not been anything that an average district charge would offer to any officer serving in a KAVAL city. Benares, mind you has everything in it to challenge the very best in any officer worth his or her salt.

Imagine going to Parliamentary Elections with a grand promise to improve the quality of holy Ganga with the launching of The Ganga Action Plan from the hollow ghats of Varanasi, in full glare of Door Darshan relaying the launch to a world-wide audience, LIVE, with a battery of OB Vans in attendance ! Whoever, conceived it, was sure of receiving the maximum ‘ear-time’ of the highest, and that is what really matters. The main characters are well known personalities of the day. Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was to launch it, covered LIVE by the official publicity organ Door Darshan which was to relay it to the international audience, for the first time. Main Ministry was obviously Environment Ministry with a person called T. N. Sheshan, as its Secretary, one Mr Krishanmurthy, as Director, Ganga Action Plan, while Chief Minister Vir Bhadra Singh, from Gorakhpur, looked up to one Mani Shankar Aiyer, a colleague of the young Prime Minister from the Doon School days having joined as staff in the PMO.

Ordeal  by  Sheshan – Aiyer

T.N. Sheshan – Mani Shankar Aiyer, a green-horn Indian Foreign Service staff, apprenticing for his future political career, designed and pushed through this ambitious Ganga Action Plan, which did not leave much to imagination. Imagine, an ambitious Ganga Action Plan, to cleanse the Ganga right from its source down to the Ganga Sagar, cleansing the highly polluted ghats right through its course, helped by sewage treatment plants, pushing back treated waters to irrigate thirty agricultural fields all along, stopping flow of polluted waters at Kanpur etc. etc. created a grand vision for the gullible voters to be. One had no quarrels with any of those operations as it was day to day attendance on certain details that had to be worked out locally, by a host of departments, Central and State, that made life of every one just miserable. Experts of all shades kept descending from all quarters, with their brilliantly conceived suggestions, and as days went by it was no less complex and miserable in details and logistics planning than the proposed main Plan itself. Chief Minister Veer Bhadra Singh made it clear that all he could help with was offering support to what the local administration was capable of objecting to and standing firm on its objections, if any, and convincing the Sheshan –Aiyer duo. Matters came to a pass when  District Magistrate-SSP duo were forced to veto a suggestion which suggested laying of two –lane pontoon bridges, connecting the east city end-with west-end Ram Nagar ghat, allowing spectators to come over to the City ghats to witness the Grand Opening ! It had become the District Magistrate vrs Sheshan-Aiyer duel, and often the meetings would be called at the UP Bhawan, Chief Minister Verr Bhadra Singh chairing the show, swivelling his chair, left and right, listening to both the parties, passing no judgments, taking no sides, tactfully allowing both parties to sort out difficulties, of course, in his presence. This writer, as the captain of the district team, marshalled all possible arguments against all ‘out-of-the-world’ suggestions. The DM-SS became the villain of the piece, vetoing all grandiose suggestions. Their worst scene scenarios was imagine a strong dust-storm, accompanied with heavy rain lashing the show or preceding the Grand Show, which could carry an impact which could be just catastrophic.

The Promises, Old and New

To cut a long story short, notwithstanding the quarrels and jealousies of a heavily divided Congress party into three groups, a grumbling Railway Minister from Kashi, Kamalapati Tripathi, who felt slighted and marginalised in his party, a by now thoroughly annoyed and enraged duo of Sheshan-Aiyer, a last minute very heavy dust-storm accompanied with lashing rains during the preceding night ( as predicted by the DM-SSP team of Cassandras ) the ambitious Ganga Action Plan was launched by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, from a podium erected at the recently renovated Dr Rajendra Prasad Ghat, at exactly the time which had been planned, rehearsed umpteen number of time, before the entire world-at-large, broad cast from the first time to an international audience through a battery of Door Darshan OB vans. Nothing in the world could equal the sight of it, on the Ganga, stood a huge barge, with Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan announcing it launch with his inimitable style with a glistening cap, tilted slightly to the left, accompanied with a Padm Shri violinist to his right, and another Padm Shri Tabla player to his right ! The three-some held the audience in their thrall as only such a class of musicians can do, with an ecstatic huge Benarasi crowd in attendance proud of their rightful place under the sun. The ghats were occupied to the last inch of space, across the front, behind the security chord stood rows and rows of large barges, choked with adulating audience. Underneath lay the Naval divers, securing the underwater surface, not visible to the naked eye, which had been planned for months in advance. After the official launch, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi promised the world from the podium that the Ganga would no more be polluted and it was the responsibility of the Nation, the Government.

Rajiv Gandhi was blessed with an unprecedented victory, TN Sheshan and Mani Shankar Aiyer received rewards for their labour, but it had nothing to do with either the Ganga, or for that matter the Kashi, a witness to their promises, which are quite dated now, only in Ministry of Environment records of expenditure, justifying that such a Ganga Action Plan was once indeed perceived and in fact launched from Kashi. This writer was one of the premier witnesses of such a promise in a long forgotten year 1986. 

In April 2014 Kashi is back centre-stage, politically speaking. Modis, Kejriwals, Rais and Charasiyas are in full action, plans far more ambitious than the forgotten Ganga Action Plans are being promised. Chances are that Kashi may once more bless yet another Promiser, as it did the Great Reformer Gautam Buddha, or the Crusader cum Revivalist of Sanatan Dharm, Adi Guru Shankarcharya, or say lately Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and his associates TN Sheshan and Mani Shankar Aiyer ( if the last two remember their days in Kashi planning big ). The moral of the story is that as far Kashi and the Kashiwalas are concerned they have seen it all, Gautam Buddha downwards and they also take you all, new promises also, with their ‘pinch of choona-in-the-paan ’, cheerfully.

Tail-piece

Did the Chief Secretary Kalyankrishnan keep his promise, an sceptic civil servant might ask ? Late  at night, after  seeing off all  the  VVIPs  and  VIPs, and scores of celebrities Governor Khan downwards, when I returned to my  residence office to check on any urgent messages or RGs ( police radiograms

It used to be in the good old days ) my Steno handed me the Hot-Line ( it was a privilege for a selected few !) saying the Chief is on line. “Good show, I was watching it on TV. Now, get packing for Lucknow. You are now to set up the Rural Development Commissioner  office. Order  are  on  way ! ” 

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