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If Gyanvapi has Shivalinga, Who’s in Kashi Vishwanath?

Rashme Sehgal |
Varanasi’s renowned engineer-mahant says the Ganga river is dirtier and residents worse off than ever, but the government is busy stoking conflicts.
Vishwambhar Nath Mishra

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra. File Image

The controversy created around the wazukhana, or ablution pond of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi containing a Shivlinga, has become a bitter legal dispute. Prof Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a highly-regarded engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in the Banaras Hindu University and the mahant or head priest of the renowned Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, says the Hindutva brigade has latched on to the Shivlinga claim motivated purely by politics. But their claim is also based on an incorrect religious premise, he tells Rashme Sehgal in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Rashme Sehgal: As the head priest of Sankat Mochan and Varanasi resident, what do you make of the claim that the fountain of the Gyanvapi mosque is actually a Shivlinga?

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra: So many crucial issues need to be addressed in our city, so why has this issue become so important? It is obvious this is being done for political gains. This claim that a Shivlinga has been found in the wazukhana is very strange. If the Shivalinga found inside Gyanvapi is the real Shivalinga, how does one make sense of the Shivalinga that is being worshipped in the Kashi Vishwanath temple?

Another aspect—Kashi is said to be the dwelling space of Lord Shiva. There is a saying here, ‘Kashi ke kankar-kankar mein Shankar—Every stone in Kashi has Lord Shiva.’ That is, there is no place in Kashi where the lord is not present. So all this “Baba mil gaya—Lord Shiva has been found!” slogan-shouting is farcical.

Fourteen hundred years ago, there was no mosque to be found in Varanasi. But after that period, mosques began to be built in our city, and this is a reflection of the pluralistic culture this city symbolises. All religions and traditions have flourished here, which is why its culture is unique and symbolises the diversity of our country.

The people of Varanasi are very proud of their syncretic culture, which has evolved over centuries. And they are stunned and horrified by these new developments. It is obvious this is an attempt to create a rift between the two communities, considering there cannot be two jyotirlingas in the same space. No one should be allowed to trample on our culture built over the last 350 years. But the public is scared of speaking out. They know only too well that if they open their mouths, their homes will be bulldozed and destroyed. But I am speaking on behalf of the public and bringing to the forefront how much they are suffering.

RS: Was it a mistake for the courts to have addressed the claims of the five Hindu women petitioners in this case?

VNM: Let me explain this issue differently. Look, if I owned a property, which I either sold or lost because of some reason, then, ten generations later, if someone were to arrive and lay claim to it because their family owned it earlier, does it make them the legitimate owner? This is exactly what is happening in the Gyanvapi mosque case. The government has already passed the Places of Worship Act in 1991, which clearly says that the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947 cannot be changed, with the exception of the Ram temple under construction in Ayodhya. They should have abided by it. This is the law.

RS: Are you implying this controversy is politically motivated?

VNM: Of course. Mass polarisation happened during the Ayodhya movement when the Babri Masjid was brought down—but it will not happen a second time over. The model of Ayodhya cannot be applied in Banaras, which has a very different cultural tradition. Our cultural history, which evolved over 5,000 years, has seen different religions. A deliberate effort is being made to undermine our culture and values.

Today, people are suffering a great deal. There is a lot of economic distress. People can see what is happening; they are politically very sensitive. They realise the time for political change has come.

The Karnataka Assembly election had a cascading effect on the psyche of people living in North India. They can see the manipulations the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is indulging in—and this is true across the country. Look what they have done recently in Maharashtra, where they have formed a government by hook or crook.

If they were so concerned about the well-being of the citizens of this city, would they not have been serious about cleaning the Ganga?

RS: The government has spent over Rs 20,000 crore on the Namami Gange project, and you say the Ganga is not clean?

VNM: The River Ganga is dirtier today than ever before. Ninety per cent of the pollution in the river continues to be caused by raw sewage. Government planners have graded Ganga as a Class B river whose water is fit only for bathing. But we have been measuring the water quality for the last five decades, and it has only gotten from bad to worse. For a river to be in the Class B category, the faecal coliform count should be less than 500 per 100 millilitres. The Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) should be less than 300 milligrams per litre, and dissolved oxygen should be five milligrams per litre.

When Gangaji enters the city, everything is fine. But we find that its tributaries, the Assi and Varuna, which join the Ganga in Varanasi, carry 100% sewage. At the point of the Assi River confluence, the faecal coliform count is 30 million per 100ml and at the confluence of the Varuna with the Ganga, the faecal coliform count is 62 million per 100 ml. This data is based on the measurements of water quality we took on July 24, 2023.

On June 24, at Tulsi Ghat, the faecal coliform was 74,000 per 100 ml; at Rajendra Prasad Ghat, located in the centre of the city, it was 23,000 per 100 ml. By which standards do you say the water of Gangaji is fit for bathing?

The BOD levels should be less than 3 milligrams per litre, but at the Varuna confluence, they are 6 milligrams. The question to be asked is, what have the Rs 20,000 crore been spent on? When he (PM Modi) came to Banaras to fight the Lok Sabha election in 2014, he had promised to clean the Ganga by 2018-19.

Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has inaugurated a sewage treatment plant (STP) at Dinapur and Goithaha with a combined capacity of 260 MLD or Minimum Liquid Discharge. But their technology is based on the Activated Sludge Plant, which cannot remove the faecal coliform bacteria! They are at present using the Sequential Batch Reactor, where the technology remains the same, but the space requirement for an STP will be less.

Equally alarming is that Varanasi, famous for its spiritual and academic achievements, is dying. All academic institutions in our city are being targeted. The dwelling place of Shiva is totally choked.

RS: But is that why the Kashi Vishwanath corridor was built?

VNM: The religiosity we residents felt in the past whenever we went to the Kashi Vishwanath temple has disappeared. People living around this temple have been forcibly evicted from their homes. People have lost their sense of belonging and identity, for they were not consulted about changes in the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

The ambience of Banaras is very important. It was both tangible and intangible, and everyone could feel it. This government has destroyed that. By removing important structures, including a beautiful library, they have made the Gyanvapi mosque conspicuous for everyone to see. So, today, it has become a target for everyone.

RS: The government is building a ropeway to decongest the city on which over Rs 1,000 crore will be spent.

VNM: Have you ever heard a more absurd idea? Ropeways are meant for hilly terrains, but the [BJP government] plans to connect urban areas through ropeways! The public here is laughing at their grandiose projects. Thousands of crores will go down the drain. Everything they do is at the cosmetic level and good only for social media.

RS: You are a technocrat by training and also a mahant. Do you find these two hats contradictory?

VNM: No. My father was a civil engineer and taught at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He had started monitoring pollution levels in the Ganga in the eighties. I am an electronic engineer by training and a professor at IIT BHU. I have continued with the spiritual traditions of my family, and we have our own laboratory to monitor the health of the Ganga, which, sadly, remains very poor.

(Rashme Sehgal is an independent journalist.)

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