Renowned writer Kashinath Singh talks on his muse – Banaras – and what Narendra Modi’s election bid means for the ancient city
Abhishek Choudhary | April 18, 2014
Kashinath Singh, who might well be the most popular Hindi author of last decade, reminisces a time when Banaras was a garh – bastion – of the Left.
It’s a late-March afternoon and I and historian Patrick French are at Kashinath’s Sunderpur residence to hear him talk about Banaras, and the everyday struggle of the ancient city to keep up with Mandal-Kamandal politics and economic deprivation.
Only a few days ago, he had found himself in a minor controversy when BBC Hindi quoted him endorsing Narendra Modi’s prime ministership. Singh speaks complete sentences in a low, firm voice. “The reporter hung up the phone the moment he got his bites,” he says, annoyed and amused at the same time. “He didn’t even bother to let me finish.”
Few people know Banaras as well as Singh, who turned 77 this January, does. Born in a village 40 km from the city, he came to Banaras for his higher secondary. Since then he has lived in the city – initially as a student at the Banaras Hindu University, which is also where he taught till his retirement as the head of the Hindi department in 1997.
Till the 1970s, Singh says, life in Banaras was slow: there were few cars; bicycle was a luxury. While the city always had a reputation for poverty, people here, much like their deity Shiva, didn’t fetish wealth. Banaras had a way of balancing work with leisure. In those days every public square had a coffee house or a chai stall, where people – writers, journalists, activists, artists, everyone else – loitered, prattled on politics, culture: the ambience was democratic; dissent was generally respected. Kafka and Camus had a huge influence on the 1960s’ generation.
In the fourth Lok Sabha election of 1967, the CPI candidate Satyanarayan Singh, who had been active in Left politics since pre-independence times, garnered 37.5 percent of the votes, winning by a huge margin. In other Lok Sabha elections, while the Left was not the most important force electorally, till the ’70s they did give tough fights to the rivals: the Congress, and on one occasion, the Janata Party.
“During one of the assembly elections, Sampoornanand [the Congress candidate] had to spread rumours at the last moment that the CPI candidate was anti-Hindu, and he still won only marginally,” Singh says.
With urbanisation in the ’80s came three-wheelers, cars, motorbikes. From a city of mohallas, Banaras started becoming a city of compartmentalised colonies: the communitarian way of life started loosening. The end of this decade saw political turmoil: it started with VP Singh’s implementation of the recommendations of Mandal Commission (reservations for what the government euphemistically calls Other Backward Classes). Hindutva, Singh argues, came as a reaction to Mandal. Around the same time the USSR disintegrated. With that came the sudden decline of Left as an ideology: people started questioning the relevance of Marxism.
It became much easier for Hindutva to attract the young generation. In no time, Hindutva as a political force was established: in two decades the transition was near-complete.
His 2002 novel Kashi Ka Assi is a satire on how these three forces – Mandalisation, Hindutvaisation and globalisation – struck Banaras, a city known for phakkarpan, carefree life. Through Kashi Ka Assi, Singh meticulously transcended the form of the Hindi novel, turning it into a novel as a narrative reportage, and in a lyrical vernacular mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri.
By 2002, Pappu’s chai shop in the Assi area, which finds multiple mentions in his book, became Bhajpaiyon ka adda, a gathering point for the BJP sympathisers. “The problem with a BJP supporter,” Singh says, “is that he doesn’t understand logic. Debate is not a part of their nature. All they understand is an instruction from the top.” The culture of debate that Banaras was known for is a thing of past. All parties are now more or less devoid of an ideology.
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The last time Banaras had a leader of national repute was Kamlapati Tripathi – a journalist-turned-Congress politician who served both as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh as well as a minister for the railways in the ’70s. But after he fell into insignificance in the ’80s after Indira Gandhi’s death (shortly after which he himself died), Banaras lost its political relevance.
In 2014, for the first time in decades, says Singh, the news of a prime ministerial candidate contesting from Banaras has brought a new political promise for the dilapidated city: the city has suddenly realised its relevance as a kingmaker.
What, according to him, does the apparent Modi leher of 2014 mean for the city? It’s based on two simple but contestable assumptions, he says: first is Modi’s image as a vikas purush, development man; the second is the popular belief that after he becomes the prime minister, he’ll eschew his Vadodara seat, and make Banaras the centre of his political career.
Time will tell what to make of these assumptions but the present paints another picture: out of six Lok Sabha elections held since 1991, BJP has won the Banaras seat on five occasions (the party has also dominated the last four municipal elections). And yet, the holiest Hindu city lies in a shambles: Ganga is more polluted than ever, roads tattered, alleys filthy.
This, Kashinath Singh says, gives hints to BJP’s ulterior motives in Banaras: everyone who is not a BJP supporter is scared of what’s coming up. Muslims, who constitute 16 percent of the city’s population, especially.
Indeed, the very same day a young Muslim Congress worker in Bajardiha said that BJP’s affiliated organisations (Bajrang Dal et al.) were already looking for ways to incite violence. That surely must be an exaggeration? No, he said. On the occasion of Holi in 2009 – a few weeks before the 15th Lok Sabha polls – a minor quibble between the two communities led to a firing by the police (which often allegedly sides with the Hindus), which killed two young men and left a dozen-odd people injured, Muslims all of them. Something similar might happen again, the Congress worker feared.
Modi, Kashinath Singh believes, is using BJP simply as a platform to gain power: “Isne Shankarsinh Vaghela ko sideline kiya, Keshubhai Patel ko sideline kiya, Sanjay Joshi ko sideline kiya.” And who would have thought Advani will someday have to beg for a Lok Sabha seat.
“Modi is not Vajpayee: Vajpayee was democratic; believed in the constitution. Modi has the making of a dictator; he doesn’t believe in the Indian constitution.”
Muslims in Banaras were never very fond of Mukhtar Ansari (who contesterd in 2009, was intially set to contest this time, too, but has since withdrawn), Singh says. They voted for him simply for the lack of a better choice. Till the last moment they wait for an alternative – any alternative – that would defeat the BJP. For BJP, on the other hand, it only helps to have a Muslim candidate in the opposition: it polarises the constituency on communal lines.
Later that day we went to Jalalipura, a poor Muslim locality of saree weavers. What party would you vote for? we asked a gathering of men squatting near a chai shop. Any party that would defeat Modi, they answered in unison.
BJP’s agenda of maximising their gains over 30 constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, Singh says, is still missed out on most residents. But, given the influence of regional parties – SP, BSP, Ekta Manch, RJD, JD(U) – it remains to be seen how much success BJP will have here. Modi’s prime ministership would be doubtful unless his party does well in these areas.
Banaras has generally been a cosmopolitan city. While there have been minor communal clashes – especially during festivals like Durga Puja, Holi – the city doesn’t have a historical precedent of riots. “When there was a blast in 2006 in Sankat Mochan temple – the second most important temple in Banaras after Kashi Vishwanath, the mahanth of temple, Veerbhadra Mishra, and the mufti [Mufti-e-Banaras Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani] came together on a forum and appealed to both Hindus and Muslims to maintain harmony,” Singh says. This practice was replicated when blasts took place in Delhi and Hyderabad.
“You must read Nazeer to understand the integrity of Banaras,” he says. “Humnein jo namazein padhi hai aksar,” he reads one of Nazeer Banarasi’s popular poems, “Ganga tere paani se wuzoo kar-kar ke”: Muslims in Banaras have often used the Ganges water to perform wuzoo – ablution – before offering prayers.
BJP, Singh says, has been fearful of the unity of Banaras’s Hindus and Muslims. They know it would be difficult to win the Banaras constituency if the two communities aren’t divided. “The biggest fear with Modi coming here is that this taana-baana – warp and weft – of Banaras might get destroyed!”
(This article appeared in the April 16-30, 2014 print edition)
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