'Benares has always encouraged healthy debate where disagreement and dissent was never frowned upon. Today, the people are faced with a situation where a political opponent is not being allowed to give election speeches and is being physically attacked.'
'We are going to hand over power to a person who has a reputation of being dictatorial, who does not brook dissent and is known to be vindictive to his opponents,' author Kashinath Singh tells Rediff.com contributor Anita Katyal.
Well-known Hindi novelist Kashinath Singh is disturbed these days. As Varanasi resounds with chants of 'Modi for PM' and the political discourse in the city's streets gets polarised, Singh, a long-time resident of Varanasi, is worried that Varanasi's famous composite culture or 'Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb,' as it is popularly called, is under threat.
His is among the few liberal voices to be heard in Varanasi today at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's arrival in the city has virtually silenced all those who disagree with his brand of politics.
Nevertheless, the author of the well-known novel Kashi ka Assi has not given up. He continues to soldier on with his beliefs and has been busy organising meetings of like-minded writers and activists who are on the other side of the political divide.
Sitting in his modest home, not very far from the Benares Hindu University, the 77-year-old Hindi litterateur tells Rediff.com that Modi had chosen to contest the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi to further the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Hindutva agenda.
Recalling the mood of triumphalism in the country after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, he says the RSS and the BJP had then coined the slogan 'Yeh to abhi jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baaki hai (this is but a preview; Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura are left).'
"Modi has come here to take this agenda forward," a pensive Singh feels.
Singh says the difference between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Modi is that the former prime minister was a "liberal and a democrat." Modi, Singh believes, has neither quality. He has sidelined senior BJP leaders and virtually silenced his critics, the writer adds.
Today, Singh points out, they are confronted with a situation in Varanasi where a political opponent is not being allowed to give election speeches and is physically attacked, a reference to Aam Aadmi Party candidate Arvind Kejriwal's experiences in Varanasi after he announced his candidature from the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency.
This, Singh says, has never been the culture of Benares.
Upset that political discourse has touched a new low, he says political rivals in the past never made personal attacks against each other, but only criticised each other's policies.
"When (the late Congress leader) Kamlapati Tripathi contested elections from Chanduali, (the late Socialist leader) Raj Narain campaigned against him. And yet when Raj Narain ran out of money, he did not hesitate to approach Kamlapati Tripathi," Singh recalls, stating that elections in the past were fought in a far more "congenial and democratic atmosphere."
Speaking nostalgically about Varanasi, Singh says this secular and vibrant city always encouraged healthy debate where disagreement and dissent was never frowned upon. The city's open spaces and its famous tea stalls provided a ready forum for thinkers, academics, writers, activists and journalists to exchange views.
The composite culture of Benares was reflected in these discussions and in the works of writers. "In fact, there has always been a special bond between Hindus and Muslims here," Singh says, adding that few people are aware that the well-known poet Nazir wrote extensively about the Ganga and Tulsidas.
The Hindus here have been equally liberal, he observes. "Hindus reside in Benares, but the people here have never believed in Hindutva... there are so many maths and akhadas, but no talk of Hindutva," Singh explains.
Benares, which was once a bastion of leftists, socialists and liberals, Singh rues, has been gradually taken over by the proponents of Hindutva.
"The biggest danger before us today is to ensure that the plural character of India is not destroyed," Singh says, certain that an effort will be made in this direction.
The ideological shift began after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he says. The number of temples sprouted overnight while the discourse from the temples and masjids became more strident. "Today, we find (RSS) shakhas being held in BHU while its teachers and students are aggressively propagating Hindutva," says Singh who retired as head of BHU's Hindi department.
Singh attributes Modi's popularity in Varanasi to the fact that he has been projected as the prime ministerial candidate.
"People here are extremely emotional... they are excited that for the first time their city will be represented by the country's prime minister. After languishing on the sidelines for decades, the people of Benares feel their city will become politically significant if they elect a prime minister from here," says Singh.
Benares, he says, has been represented by an MP from the BJP for several terms now, but there has been no improvement in the city's civic conditions which have only got progressively worse.
"People realise that no development will take place here, but they are happy to be represented by the prime minister," Singh explains.
At a time when the residents of Varanasi are mesmerised by Modi, the award-winning writer dares to swim against the tide. He is convinced that if Modi does become prime minister, there is every possibility that India could witness a spell of an "undeclared emergency" when there will be no space for contrarian views and the media will be not permitted to present independent news and views.
"We are going to hand over power to a person who has a reputation of being dictatorial, who does not brook dissent and is known to be vindictive to his opponents," says Singh.
The writer is not convinced about Modi shedding his Hindutva image and playing the development card. Modi's real face surfaces each time he pokes fun at the Congress party's brand of secularism. "This is Modi's way of making fun of Muslims," says Singh, adding that when BJP leaders make hate speeches against the minorities, they are actually speaking on Modi's behalf.
"We will continue to dream. Voices will be raised," Singh says. "Modi will not be allowed to get away destroying democracy."
Images: Top: Narendra Modi greets supporters on his way to filing his nomination from Varanasi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters. Bottom: Kashinath Singh