Varanasi, March 12: Haseena Begum knows why militants’ bombs can never take the sheen off Varanasi’s tradition of communal peace.
The main reason, she explains, is the local silk industry, which has knitted Hindus and Muslims together in a mesh of social interaction and economic co-operation.
“Benarasi sari ka jalwa hamara bhaichara hai (the lustre of the Benarasi silk sari is a symbol of our brotherhood),” she says.
Haseena, whose husband Rizwan works with 10 Hindu colleagues at one of Varanasi’s many silk units, is one of the thousands of Muslim women who have been holding peace marches in the town since the day after the blasts.
They have donated blood for the mainly Hindu victims, prayed for them after the Friday namaz and spoken out against militancy.
Today, they walked for peace with celebrities such as the poet Javed Akhtar and social activist Teesta Setalvad. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who visited the Sankat Mochan temple, also played up the history of communal harmony in the town, which stayed free from violence even after the Babri Masjid demolition.
A visit to the congested weavers’ colonies bore out the truth of Haseena’s claim. The looms were humming at the small, makeshift factories.
“The industry didn’t shut down even for a day,” said Mustaq Mohammad, a 39-year-old silk worker at Gauriganj. “When the loom runs, it sustains the lives around it.”
The silk and sari industry involves more than 500,000 weavers, dyers, sari polishers and traders in Varanasi and the surrounding districts. They come from both communities.
“Artists and technicians have no religion, no colour, no territory,” said Aklaq Hussain, a weaver.
The business has a yearly turnover of about Rs 100 crore. The cheap Chinese silk imports have posed a threat since 1995, but the local industry has survived thanks to the cheap labour and the weavers’ skills that the Chinese products failed to match.
Those skills had developed into an art form during Mughal rule and kept evolving since.
“Over the years, the textile tied Hindus and Muslims in a bond of economic interdependence that only freedom from violence could have generated and sustained,” says Satish Chandra, a social researcher.
“The Muslims make up 60 per cent of the skilled workers. The industry is feeling the strain (of competition), yet it provides more jobs to the rural skilled labour than any other sector.”
The weavers understand the threat communal violence poses only too well. The post-demolition turmoil of 1992-93 had caused huge losses as curfew had continued for over a week despite the town being riot-free. When riots rocked neighbouring Mau in October 2005, the weavers’ colonies there were the worst, hitting the supply to Varanasi.
The mufti of the Gyanvapi Mosque, Maulana Asgar Ali, recalled how the poet Nazeer Varanasi sang the praises of Hindu deities and wove them into Muslim prayers.
“This is the culture and spirit of Varanasi. It shines through the character of the silk industry,” he said.