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'We are defensive against terrorism'
Krishna Kumar

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July 31, 2006

A rationalist, he is the head priest of one of the most ancient and holy Hindu temples in the world. A hydraulic engineer, he teaches subjects such as fluid mechanics at one of India's oldest universities. He is also an ardent environmentalist who is as dedicated to the cleaning of the Ganga as much as he is devoted to Tulsi Das or Lord Hanuman [Images].

Meet Veer Bhadra Mishra, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, Varanasi, and the head of the department of civil engineering, Banaras Hindu University.

"Whenever I say I teach at the Banaras Hindu University, people ask me, 'Philosophy or Sanskrit?' It comes as sort of a shock for them to learn that I teach civil engineering," says Mishra, who was in Mumbai last week to honour those citizens who helped victims of the serial blasts in Mumbai's suburban trains.

In the wake of the Sankat Mochan temple blasts, the 66-year-old Mishra is said to have played a major role in maintaining peace and harmony in that town.

In an interview with Krishna Kumar, Mishra, who took over as mahant of the temple when he was 14 and has been campaigning for 25 years to save the Ganga, talks about terror, the role of society and how politicians should get their act together in tackling terrorism.

How do you see the spate of terror attacks across the country?

This is not good. Terrorism must be curbed and controlled at all costs. It is undermining the nation. Terror spreads fear and hatred. It is creating a rift in the society.

How do you think we as a society should react to -- or contribute in tackling -- terrorism?

Right now, we are taking a defensive line. We have to be careful and alert. It is a global phenomenon.

What do you mean when you say, 'we are taking a defensive line'?

Look at the way people have reacted. We are right now in a position where we are explaining to each other that this is not something based on religion. Even in a place as diverse as Mumbai, we are talking about the need to preserve harmony. It should not have come this far. It should not have been a religion-based issue at all. We wait till something happens, and then hope that it doesn't spiral into a religious issue. We, as a nation that has a long history and great culture of coexistence, should be more proactive.

By proactive, I mean we have to be more observant, vigilant and alert. These terrorists have not jumped from the skies. They have been -- at least most of them -- here with us for a long time. If we had kept our eyes open to things happening around us, we would not have been in such a situation now.

What do you have to say about the opposition charge that the government has been soft on terror?

Politicians have not acted firmly. It is the same case with all politicians from all parties, without exception, which is not good.

The way they have been acting, it has to be stopped. Yes, they may stand to lose something due to the decisions they take, but they have to face it. I would say that is the occupational hazard of politics. You face the situation in every profession... there are hazards. Likewise politicians should also very carefully examine their actions.

What about the issue of India lacking a strong anti-terror law that will deter terrorists?

These are not questions that I can answer, but still, I would say whatever laws we have are sufficient to tackle terror if they are used forcefully and with conviction.

What do you think are the reasons for these acts of terror?

There are some nations that will stand to benefit if a big power like India is shattered.

And the terrorists are trying to do exactly that by destabilising India.

Why do you think places of worship are being targeted?

As I said, their motive is to destabilise our country. Targeting places of worship will create tension among people. Also, for the reasons I mentioned earlier -- to spread fear and hatred -- terrorists target places wherever there are large number of people. A place of worship is also like that.

What is your advice to people when such attacks take place?

We have already given a good account of ourselves. We can be more watchful and not be guided by fear and hatred, which will defeat the motive of the terrorists.

How is it that a temple as conservative as the Sankat Mochan temple does not discriminate against persons of any faith?

It is true that the temple does not discriminate against anybody. It has been the case from the time of Tulsi Das.

How did various communities in your city handle the blasts?

The day after the blasts, the people of Varanasi called for a total shutdown in the city.

Accordingly, the entire city shut down. It was unique. Muslims did not ignore the call and were there, participating in the hartal. It was a unique show of unity. Even my house... If you had seen it the day after the blasts, you would have mistaken it for a Muslim neighbourhood. There were so many Muslims worried about the situation.

As much as these things are good, there still are temples in the country that do not allow people of other faith or for that matter some that do not even allow women. What can one do about these places?

First and foremost, one must respect the beliefs of such places. But at the same time, we must also remember that India is a plural and diverse society. I have faith that these things will change in due course. Just give them some time.

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