Friday, July 28, 2006

Vidya Subrahmaniam on communal harmony in Varanasi

Vidya Subrahmaniam has a two-part series in the Hindu on how Varanasi has been coping with the aftermath of the March 7 bomb blasts at the Sankat Mochan temple and at the railway station. In particular, the series emphasizes the stellar role played by two key religious leaders: Veer Bhadra Mishra (Mahant at the Sankat Mochan temple) and Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani (Mufti-e-Banaras). Some excerpts:

The Mahant's brilliant management of the blast aftermath is the talk of the town — resuming puja and aarti before nightfall, converting the evening bhajan to a shanti aur satbuddhi (peace and equanimity) prayer for communal harmony, and evicting those — Vinay Katiyar's entourage arrived to shouts of Har Har Mahadev and Jai Shri Ram — looking to stir the communal pot. To quote the Mahant, "Katiyar wanted to sit on a dharna and Advani wanted to start a rath yatra from the temple. I said nothing doing." For Muslims, the gallantry could come only from a true man of God, and with the Mufti responding in kind — swift and emphatic condemnation of the blasts followed by visits to the temple, hospitals, and appeals for calm — it was as if the floodgates had opened. Says Mahant Misra: "These days I'm very popular with Muslims. But I remind them that I'm not a neta." Yet the respect the two men command is, in fact, because they are not netas, because they foiled the politicisation of the blasts. If the Mahant has lost count of the invitations for Muslim seminars and festivities, the Mufti is a similar attraction at Hindu gatherings.

Today the Mahant and the Mufti, each a visionary in his own way, are local heroes whose communal spirit has spawned a rush of copycat gestures — on both sides. Consider the following: The temple city's showcase annual event is the Ram Katha Mandakini Shobha Yatra — an illuminated procession of motorboat-driven tableaux along the Ganga on Ram Navami day. The yatra is flagged off by Mahant Misra with a celebrity invited to be the chief guest. This year, there were two chief guests, the Mufti-e-Banaras and Noor Fatima, a practising criminal lawyer who last year built a temple in the city. A third attraction was Bismillah Khan's son, Mohammad Jamin Khan, who played the Ram dhun.

Yatra over, Varanasi was witness to a unique sight — of burqa-clad Muslim women taking to the streets, shouting "Khichdi hai saara Hindustan, alag na honge Hindu, Musalman (We are a composite people, no one can divide us) and "Muslim mahilaon ne thana hai, aatankwad mitana hai (it is our promise to end terrorism)." The chunauti rally (challenge rally) ended at the Sankat Mochan mandir where the women assembled at the very spot where the bombs had gone off and recited the hanuman chalisa. The same evening, the temple resounded to the strains of Hindustani classical music — again a composite annual festival. But this year the festival became a statement with the biggest names in music and dance turning up to support the Mahant — Birju Maharaj, Pandit Jasraj, Rajan and Sajan Misra, and so forth.

Subrahmaniam uses the famed Banaras silk sarees as a metaphor for the HIndu-Muslim harmony. In the second article, for example, we get this:

Most wholesalers are Hindu while most weavers are Muslim, and the six yards of shimmering silk is quite the metaphor for Varanasi's composite culture. Enter any shop, and you will hear paeans sung to the city's ganga-jamuni sanskriti (complementary like the Ganga and the Jamuna) and to the reshmi mizaz (gracious manner) of its people. "Kashi jahan banti hai yeh saadi, Hindu uska tana hai, Muslim uska bana hai (Kashi where the Banarasi saree is made, Hindu is its warp and Muslim its weft)," goes an ode to the intertwined lives of Varanasi's Hindus and Muslims. This is not made-in-Bollywood integration but integration born of proximity, interdependence, and of an understanding shaped by years of sharing each other's joys and sorrows, of celebrating holi and Id as secular festivals. In these parts, it is the Hindu wholesaler who hosts the Roza iftar during Ramzan.