//The Benarasi Weave

The Benarasi Weave

Separated by religion but united by the spirit of Kashi, this duo holds peace in the holy town

SMITA GUPTA, Outlook Magazine, March 27, 2006

Veerbhadra Mishra and Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani, the mufti of BenareOverlooking the tranquil waters of the Ganga, on the Tulsi Ghat and in the shadow of the blasts at the Sankatmochan temple of which he’s the mahant, Veerbhadra Mishra greets an unending line of well-wishers come to express solidarity. His temple, he says, has always been open to all. "There is no bar on caste, gender or nationality; even Muslims come here. Yeh aastha ka kendra hai (it is a centre of faith)," he says. "For 400 years, this has been Kashi’s most holy spot." Violated by the blasts, he adds, ruefully, "I don’t know what I’ll do about the security now."

A few kilometres away, at the Madrassa Yatimkhana Mazharul-Uloom—an institution which belongs to the Deoband school and of which he is a product—Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani, the mufti of Benares, sits cross-legged on a carpet in his office.

The fourth in his family to succeed to the post, he says: "So far, the peace has held, but we need to be alert to ensure that it continues to do so."

For the mahant, his immediate concern is how to preserve the open spirit of the shrine he presides over. Till recently, you could enter the temple premises freely, to pray, attend a wedding,
a classical music concert—or just soak in the atmosphere of holiness. No more. For the mufti, his Gyanvapi Mosque along with the Kashi Vishwanath temple has been in a state of siege since the Ayodhya days. Entry is possible only through one of the six heavily secured channels manned by armed police personnel doing eight-hour shifts for a maximum of two months. The mufti’s unspoken worry is: how to ensure there is no anti-Muslim backlash.

Many in Varanasi believe it is this unlikely duo, separated by religion but united by the spirit of Kashi, who hold the key to maintaining the tenuous thread of communal amity in this city.
A city which to the outside world is the cradle of Hinduism but which for its denizens is the capital of all religions, sarva dharmon ki rajdhani.

Who exactly are these two men? A man who combines his spiritual calling with concern for a clean Ganga and a taste for high culture, Mishra retired as head of the department of civil engineering at Benares Hindu University in 1999. The 44-year-old Nomani is a simple man, intent on preserving Kashi’s holy spirit. Last year, he took the initiative to form a sadbhavana committee and keeps in close touch with Hindu religious leaders like Mishra, Rajendra Tiwari, mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, and Swami Avimukteshwaranand of Kedar Ghat.

The blasts have left Mishra a bit shaken but composed—and as critical of those who placed the bombs as he is of those he describes as "radical Hindus" as opposed to "practising Hindus" like him. On March 9, when the BJP’s Vinay Katiyar tried to sit in on a dharna inside the temple premises, Mishra threw him out, saying he did not wish a political protest to sully the sanctity of the temple. "Only Sonia Gandhi (who came at night) showed real concern. Aur sab to laashon pe raajniti kar rahein hain (Others are practising politics on the bodies of the dead)."

Mishra’s problems with the Hindutva votaries go back many years—including one famous encounter with BHU senior Ashok Singhal. Some years back, the VHP chief had invited him to tea. There, he reportedly asked him why his focus was only on cleaning the Ganga near Varanasi and questioned his intentions. Incensed, Mishra told him, "I don’t need a testimonial from you on what makes a good Hindu", and stormed out.

In 1982, Mishra set up the Sankatmochan Foundation which spearheads the Swachch Ganga Campaign, something that won him admirers not just at home but also abroad, including former US president Bill Clinton and American political activist and singer Pete Seeger who sang We Shall Overcome in Varanasi.

In 1992, he was in UNEP’s Global 500 Roll of Honour; in 1999, Time magazine featured him as one of its seven ‘Heroes of the Planet’.

He is also the convenor of the annual Dhrupad festival on the banks of the Ganga and holds a classical music festival—free of charge and open to everyone—inside the temple in April every year. Of course, there are those who accuse Mishra of being a publicity seeker and a "real mahant"—because of the influence he wields—but no one questions his secular credentials.

By contrast, it’s a concern for the well-being of his community that drives the mufti. Most are engaged as traders or weavers in a business heading towards collapse—textiles. Any communal disturbance hits them the hardest. He talks of the fragile peace, underlying fears, and rising unemployment, which feeds insecurities. "I tell young Muslims they must work hard and not lose heart—things will change," he says.

He links the problems of unemployment to the new economic policy which has hit the silk trade, and the growing insecurity to the worldwide antipathy to Muslims fuelled by a hostile West, headed by the US. "There is a conspiracy to destroy this city which is so beloved to its residents, Hindus and Muslims alike," he says. "Yeh pavitra kshetra hai aur Musalmanon ke bhi bahut gahre talukkat hain lambe samay se (This is a holy land and even the Muslims have had a long association with it). The equation between the two communities is like the beautiful Benarasi sari they weave together. After the blasts, the city could have burnt, but it didn’t. It is a tribute to the people of the city."

A sentiment that is being further cemented by his sadbhavana committee. It was the committee which ensured there were no reprisals when on September 2 last year the mufti was frisked by security personnel outside the Gyanvapi Mosque (the mufti and the mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple are the only ones exempt from frisking at the joint entry points). "Even the Hindus came out in solidarity," says the mufti.

This time again, when Hindu shopkeepers pulled their shutters down to protest the blasts, the shutters were down in Muslim localities too. Riazuddin Ansari, a weaver in Lalapura, says, "The mufti gave the call—he said you must all participate in the bandh. Tan, man, dhan lekar saamne aayein."

So, will Varanasi survive these repeated attempts to dent its composure, its air of laid-back equanimity, its utterly civilised cosmopolitanism?

At BHU, archaeology professor Mridula Jaiswal says, "The two communities are bound not just by a common interest in trade, they’re also tied together by the tradition of the eastern UP composite culture, which had an impact on the Awadh culture. Take Shivratri in Varanasi: when Shiva’s baraat makes its way from Kaal Bhairon to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple each year, the entire city celebrates it—Muslims, Buddhists, Christians. Such communal inclusion is also seen during Muharram, Holi and Dussehra."

This is the culture that’s produced celebrated shehnai player Bismillah Khan. Who when once asked some years ago to prove his loyalty to India, said, "Forget India, Pakistan. I’m a Benarasi."