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Mahant who united Varanasi

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By POORNIMA JOSHI in Delhi
  • Published 18.03.06
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New Delhi, March 18: Soon after the Varanasi blasts, Virbhadra Mishra received a call from a worried Karan Singh. Some 2,000 angry Hindu devotees had gathered outside the blood-splattered Sankat Mochan temple, site of one of the explosions, and were crying for revenge.

The local administration seemed to be sleeping.

In that hour of looming crisis, Delhi knew only one man could stop a communal bloodbath. And Virbhadra ? mahant of Sankat Mochan temple, professor of hydraulics at Benares Hindu University and Time magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” ? was equal to the task.

How he did it is, in the words of poet Javed Akhtar, the “lesson of Benares” to the rest of the country.

The city, despite the resilience of its deeply religious residents, had been vulnerable to external provocation immediately after the blasts. It’s no mystery why L.K. Advani chose to announce his rath yatra hours after the bombs went off.

“About 2,000 people were screaming slogans outside the temple. But mahantji handled the situation very well,” said Kulpati Mishra, a priest at the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

“It was around 6.15-6.30 pm. We were at Tulsi ghat when we heard about it (the blasts). My elder son rushed back and I followed,” Virbhadra told The Telegraph.

The police were trying to pass it off as a gas cylinder explosion. “But we heard of more blasts across the city. By then the crowd had swelled to around 2,000. Anything could have happened,” Virbhadra said.

The district officials seemed oblivious to the situation but the Centre realised the danger.

“Around 7 pm, Dr Karan Singh called. He was extremely worried,” the mahant said. The Congress Rajya Sabha MP and descendant of the Kashmir royal family is seen as a calming force by the party.

“I urged the crowd to calm down. We appealed, I and my son. We told people they should go back home,” Virbhadra said.

His word carried weight. Slowly, the slogan-shouting died out and the mob broke up.

The mahant decided the best way to restore normality would be to continue with the temple routine.

“We decided to hold the evening aarti. People came back, around 200 of them. We cleaned the temple complex and held aarti. It calmed the people somehow.”

Late at night, around 1 am, Sonia Gandhi arrived with home minister Shivraj Patil.

“You won’t believe how relieved I was. It made us feel that someone in authority cared and we were not completely alone in our hour of crisis,” Virbhadra said.

“People tell me I have become a Sonia fan. I don’t mind. I know that I don’t belong to any political party. I’m only stating the truth. It was Soniaji who helped at the time and I have no hesitation in saying it.”

The saffron brigade had other plans. Vinay Katiyar, who has graduated from Bajrang Dal activist to Rajya Sabha nominee, sat on a dharna outside the temple. He wanted Virbhadra to garland him. The mahant asked him to leave.

“Mahantji told him it is a 400-year-old temple. Anyone can come and pray. But nobody would be allowed to play politics from here. Katiyar was told to go away,” Javed Akhtar said.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists wanted to wash the temple with gangajal soon after Salman Khursheed came and met Virbhadra there. “They were politely escorted out. We don’t allow such people here. Mahantji gave instructions that nobody should be allowed to pollute the atmosphere here,” a devotee said.

An “overwhelmed” Javed Akhtar is lost for words when he speaks about Virbhadra and the people of Varanasi.

“I touched his feet, something I don’t normally do. What happened in Benares has restored my faith in India all over again. With people like mahantji in command, India will never give in to the terrorists,” the poet-lyricist said.