Varanasi’s secular dream

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Varanasi’s secular dream

Nilanjana Bhowmick writes about tolerance in India’s most holy city.


A boat on the river Ganges in the northern Indian city of Varanasi December 16, 2007. REUTERS/Arko Datta

The rickshaw driver goes carefully through the narrow streets of Varanasi. It is busy with other rickshaws and motorcycles, tourists, pilgrims, priests, school-going children, cows, and a few mules. The rickshaw went past Muslim traditional medical clinics, next door to Ayurvedic clinics. I am deaf from the horns, loud voices, temple bells, and calls to prayer from local mosques, but suddenly I understand something about Varanasi.

Varanasi is the constituency of prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, and a popular Hindu religious city. It is more secular than the rest of India. I don’t use the word “secular” to mean not religious. You can’t take religion out of city.

But secular does mean what the Indian Constitution says - the equal treatment of all religions. In this very Hindu city of about 23,000 temples, there is respect for every religion. Amitabha Bhattacharya is a journalist and he tells me, ‘Varanasi celebrates every religion, every festival.’ This is why perhaps people don’t think Modi’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) politics is so important, where religion is an important part of daily life. Religion is not new in Varanasi and it certainly does not need politicians to rediscover it.

Next morning there is the daily ‘A Morning in Varanasi’ programme on one of the city’s oldest ghats, or steps, leading to the Ganges. It’s 5.30am, it is not yet dawn. A few hundred people are already there for prayers before dawn. I cover myself in my shawl in the cold early morning.

We can hear a priest’s soft voice from the stage. ‘When the sun rises, it is not different for you and me. Everyone has their own god,’ he says. I am surprised to hear him talk about this tolerance in Modi’s India. A few ghats or steps away, AK Ansari, a Muslim skateboard trainer, washes in the river before he prays. ‘I wouldn’t pray anywhere else. The Ganges is our mother,’ he says.

Vijaya Nath Mishra is a famous neurologist. He told me, ‘You will find a ghat specially for Muslims to wash and pray. Only in Varanasi.’

Varanasi is still the India we knew and loved, where people lived together peacefully even with their differences. But now Hindutva fanatics rule us. They have targeted minorities in every possible way. In 2019 Modi and his home minister Amit Shah made a legal argument for Islamophobia after passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The bill wants to give Indian citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees.

It is in Varanasi that you can fully understand the terrible Hindutva, a rightwing political party that is trying to get Hindu control in a country that has no official religion.

Back on Assi ghat, I watched the priests lift the oil lamps for the goddess, and I thought of the Muslims with their mats for dawn prayer a few ghats away. This is tolerance. This is Varanasi.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)