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Reading between lines in ‘changed’ Varanasi

Varanasi, April 1: Ramzan Ali’s voice rises above the hubbub at Varanasi’s version of Calcutta’s Coffee House, causing all heads to turn towards him.

“We shall support Narendra Modi,” the frail, skullcap-wearing man declares at Pappu Ki Chai Dukan, the teashop at Assi Chauraha where academics and writers gather to discuss politics.

An unexpected statement from a Muslim, perhaps, but Ali’s position is riddled with paradoxes.

As a trade union leader, he represents the city’s handloom weavers, pushed to the brink by the power looms that weave faster and the cheaper, fake “Banarsi saris” flooding the market.

Ironically, it’s Modi’s home state that churns out the fake Banarsis. Yet Ali credits “Modi’s Gujarat” with providing succour to some of Varanasi’s Muslim weavers: those who have left to work in Surat’s textiles mills — the ones producing the fake Banarsis.

“Our handloom weavers’ association has given a call to support Narendra Modi,” Ali announces. “The Congress has betrayed the weavers: mere assurances won’t fill our stomach.”

Asked the obvious question about Modi’s Hindutva politics, Ali turns louder.

Mai kaum dekhun ki daal roti? Roti pehle phir Khuda (Should I worry about my community or my bread and butter? Bread comes before God),” an agitated Ali says before leaving in a huff.

Ramagya Sashidhar, professor of Hindi at Banaras Hindu University and a prominent literary figure, believes there’s a further irony to Ali’s stand. He thinks the weaver’s “public posturing” arises out of “compulsion, helplessness”.

Varanasi’s streets have been awash with “aggressive Hindutva” since Modi’s candidature was announced. This is forcing people like Ali to make public statements they don’t believe in, the professor says.

The aggressiveness was visible on the Assi Ghat on Monday night when a television channel organised a public debate on the elections.

A large group of young men claiming to be members of the “Bhagat Singh Kranti Dal” constantly hurled paper balls at non-BJP participants and kept up a chant of “Modi… Modi”.

Brajesh Pathak, Kamlesh Mishra, Binod Tiwari, Vijay Pandey — all students from various city colleges and universities — seemed in the grip of frenzy as they shouted Modi’s name.

“This had never been the culture of Banaras (which is how most residents refer to the city), of Assi in particular. This place used to be the hub of liberals and rebels — socialists, Leftists, etc,” Sashidhar said.

“Now they have been reduced to a minority. The traditional religious character of Banaras has been infused with militant Hindutva.”

Sashidhar traces the change to the Ayodhya movement of the early 1990s. The change has ensured the BJP’s political control on the city —from its local bodies to the Lok Sabha seat, which it has lost just once (in 2004) in the five elections since 1996.

On the road leading to the Dasashwamedh Ghat — the holiest ghat set bang opposite the gates of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple — stands the CPM office.

The Marxists used to be the BJP’s main challenger in Varanasi in the 1990s. But not any more. The CPM’s rundown office and tired, ageing leaders appear as “helpless” as Ali.

“We have no strength left. People here keep complaining about miserable civic amenities but they have retained a BJP mayor for the past 18 years,” a local CPM leader said.

The Marxists did not field a candidate in 2009 but have put up one, Hiralal Yadav, this time.

“Gujarat-made fake Banarsi saris have flooded the market here. Now a fake leader like Modi could usurp this secular city,” Yadav said.

An uneasy silence has descended on the city’s Muslim pockets as the pro-Modi brigade prowls the streets.

Mauhal thik nahin. Chup rehna hi behtar hai (The atmosphere is not good; it’s better to stay silent),” said Ghulam Mohammad at Beniabad.

Ghulam ruled out communal violence, reposing faith in the “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb”, an allusion to Varanasi’s secular character. But he added that things had not been normal since the announcement of Modi’s candidature from the city.

Muslims turned up in good numbers at Arvind Kejriwal’s rally on Tuesday when he accepted the challenge to take on Modi. But the skullcap-wearing men chose a low profile at the venue, staying on the field’s fringes.

“Kejriwal appears a decent and brave fellow, but you have to wait and watch. He might split the anti-Modi votes to the BJP’s benefit,” said Imtiaz Hussain, who runs a readymade garment shop.

The Muslims, who have a sizeable presence in the constituency, are waiting to see which way the backward castes go. They feel that the so-called Modi wave does not amount to much apart from the support of the upper castes, particularly the Brahmins.

Ali was spotted at Kejriwal’s rally in Beniabad a day after he publicly vouched support for Modi. “I came to have a look at the crowd here,” he said and paced away.