Motorcycles on fire after a clash between sadhus and police in Varanasi on Monday. Photo: PTI
Heavy police force arrives. Photo: PTI
Sadhus holding a demonstration in Varanasi on Monday against the 22 September police baton-charge on a procession where they were heading to immerse Lord Ganesha's idol in the Ganga. Photo: PTI
A policeman fires towards protesters. Photo: PTI
Police in action against protesters. Photo: PTI
Protesters damage a police jeep. Photo: PTI
Discontent simmers in Modi's Varanasi; and BJP is not gaining
After more than two decades, Banaras is under curfew. The constituency represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing unrest over a crackdown on immersing Ganesh idols in the Ganga.
More than 20 vehicles, including some patrol vans of the police and Rapid Action Force, have been set afire and many others have been damaged. Several people, including women, and paramilitary jawans have been injured.
The unrest started around 21 September when the police stopped several people from immersing idols in the river, citing high court orders on pollution. This led to protests and dharnas (sit ins) against what was projected as restrictions on the hindu traditions, rituals and the sant samaj (the circle of religious heads) of Banaras.
The police tried to disperse protesters in the early hours of 23 September. They lathicharged Swami Abhimukteswaranand, the chief seer of Vidya Math, his pupils and supporters. Many were badly injured. The math is the ashram of Swami Swarupanand, the Shankaracharya of Joshimath.
The silence of the Prime Minister Modi on the lathicharge did not go down well on the ground. More than 300 BJP workers tendered their resignation in protest.
Avimukteshwaranand's supporters then decided to register a strong protest on 5 October. District Magistrate Raj Mani Yadav and Senior Superintendent of Police Akash Kulhari met the Swami several times to convince him to cancel the protest. He, however, put the condition that the DM must apologise to those who were injured.
On 5 October, more than 20,000 people gathered at the Town Hall ground in Banaras to protest against 'brutal police action' on some mahants (sect heads) and their pupils. A non-violent march then approached towards Gudauliya Chowk - the gateway to the renowned Dashaswamedh Ghat and Vishwanath temple.
Before the protesters, led by Avimukteshwaranand, could reach the spot another group of protesters at Gudauliya Chowk turned violent. They attacked some police personnel, pelted stones and set some vehicles on fire.
The police retaliated with tear gas shells, rubber bullets and a lathicharge. Soon curfew was imposed by four police stations - Chowk, Kotwali, Laksa and Dashaswamedh. For quite some time Avimukteshwaranand and Balakdas, a religious leader of the Patalpuri Math, could not be traced.
The protests have provided a political opportunity to those who oppose the Bharatiya Janata Party. Many are desperate to become the voice of the sadhus and Hindus in general to break the monopoly of the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in this seat of Hindu spiritualism.
Increasingly, it looks like a political gang-war has broken out among saffron-draped godmen. Politically, the protests were backed by Congress supporters and opposed by Samajwadi Party leaders while BJP tried to keep a neutral stance.
According to many in Banaras, the protests are actually targeted at Modi: Avimukteshwaranand, the convener of Ganga Sewa Abhiyan, is the representative of Swarupanand in the city.
Swarupanand has been close to the Congress since the days of th Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. The BJP and the VHP have even called him a Congress agen. Avimukteshwaranand has also bore the brunt and the Sangh Parivar has opposed his Ganga Sewa Abhiyan.
In August, heavy rains prevented Modi from making it to Banaras to inaugurate a trauma centre. At that time, Avimukteshwaranand and Congress leaders like Ajay Rai, Rajesh Mishra and Anil Srivastava protested against postponing the inauguration and forcibly opened the centre. Rai was fielded by the Congress against Modi last year while former Mishra is a parliamentarian.
However, saffron politics is changing fast in the temple town with the likes of Sadhvi Prachi supporting Avimukteshwaranand. Balakdas - known for his proximity with the VHP - was part of the recent protests. The Hindu Yuva Vahini's support to the protests has also come under focus.
Both the BJP and the Congress have supporters in the upper caste-dominated Vishwanath temple area which pitches them against each other to stay relevant.
The unrest is now under control. But the political heat is still in the air. Seems there's more to come.
Update: The police have filed FIRs against more than 100 protestors, including some legal professionals. Rai, a legislator, has been arrested.