Varanasi, May 2017

I came to Varanasi so that I could obtain a much better understanding of some of the dynamics that lay behind conflicts in religious cities. What could a grasp of the main issues in Varanasi add to my understanding based, at this stage of my Leverhulme project, on my work in Cordoba and Jerusalem? Are there sufficient similarities to make a comparison worthwhile, but also, do the differences point to the need to have an alternative approach? Is there a possible Varanasi “model” for managing and resolving religious conflicts in urban settings and, if so, how transferable to other locations is it?

The potential for conflict in the city is significant arising from several factors:

  • the aftermath of the 1992 Ayodhya/Babri Masjid riots and the long convoluted Supreme Court judgment process creating uncertainty,
  • the elections in 2014 of an explicitly pro-Hindu community state government in Uttar Pradesh,
  • the overt and covert interventions by Pakistan in Indian communal politics,
  • the dispersal of Islamic State forces in the Middle East into South Asia,
  • an increased religiosity in society in general compounded by
  • the adoption of a neoliberal model of small state contracting out its services to the private sector.

Nevertheless, it is important to be clear that Varanasi is not a contested city in the way that Jerusalem is. There are inter-communal tensions between the dominant Hindu community and the smaller communities, notably the Muslim one, but the Varanasi is not occupied like East Jerusalem is and its place in the Indian state is not in question. The rule of law under the Indian Supreme Court, even if differentially and erratically applied, is the accepted framework by all sides for dispute resolution and the Constitution offers a degree of protection for religious freedoms and minority rights.

In this connection, while the different religious and sectarian communities may emphasize and celebrate different aspects and periods of the city’s history, there are not competing narratives concerning the role of the Varanasi in the long span of Indian history. The genealogy and founding myths may be mostly derived from Hindu mythology but the narratives emanating from the Buddhist, Jain and Muslim communities are seen to be supplementary if not complementary and certainly not negating them.

A final contextual point to note is the lack of international intervention in the affairs of the city. The dispute over the future of Jerusalem is an integral part of the Arab-Israeli conflict which has led to the passing of more UN Security Council and General Assembly Resolutions on Jerusalem than on any other topic in the world. Moreover, there are currently 22 UN agencies with a full complement of international and local staff working in the city. This is emphatically not the case in Varanasi. The role of external actors is minimal and what there is, for example, by Pakistan, the by the Arab Gulf states and by militant Islamic non-state actors, takes a more indirect form: the channelling of funds and the creation of local proxies. You certainly do not have in Varanasi the intense media and diplomatic interest in every violent intercommunal event that you have in Jerusalem.

In this overall political and international legal context, are there enough similarities between Varanasi and other religious cities which make it worthwhile to draw a comparison and, thus, which would increase our understanding of how to address religious conflicts in cities more broadly? I believe that there are but that they are subtle and require a careful unpacking, and more research. The best way to approach this is to take the initial step which is to delineate what would be the components of a Varanasi model – one of the great holy cities of the world with an extraordinary long religious history and complex contemporary demographic and confessional make-up.

In my short stay in May 2017, I think it is possible to discern a number of such components but which will require further research:

1. A key factor is the religiosity and spirituality of the daily life of the city. Much has already been written on this. I wish merely to add that it is embedded in Varanasi to a much greater extent than in any other city I have seen. The prospect of salvation (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation by living and dying in the city offers an egalitarian and overwhelmingly precious reward that cannot be matched by any political ideology or movement. The promise of better sanitation, education, health and housing, for example, pales into insignificance in the face of the belief that one, after uncountable previous incarnations, is living one’s final life in Varanasi. In this sense the Hindu priests hold all the trump cards in mobilising people and creating solidarities. The material rewards available to the politicians cannot match those of the gods and their avatars.

2. Immigration to Varanasi for religious and economic reasons has led to a marked heterodoxy of the city in general. It simultaneously provides a potential trigger for confrontation and at the same time, due to the sheer variety of backgrounds of the immigrants, a dilution of the potentially polarising communal solidarities. As important as this is, more important, in terms of political dynamics of the city, is the heterodoxy of the dominant Hindu community. Hinduism is both very accommodating and very diverse; it has scores of sects, castes, philosophical schools and its believers speak a range of languages and come from a wide geographical area. Varanasi is a magnet for all kinds of Hindus and “Hinduisms”. It is not a monolithic community. There is not, therefore, an overwhelmingly strong sense of a Hindu “Us” to oppose the Muslim “Them”. The binaries and polarisation you find in Jerusalem are not expressed in Varanasi. This means collective and concerted action on a communal basis is less easy to engineer which, again, reduces the number of levers available to politicians to promote activities which may polarise the city.

3. In this context, two further elements are clearly relevant. As has been extensively researched, the main industry of Varanasi is textile production, particularly silk weaving. Traditionally, the Muslim community are the weavers producing the cloths and the Hindu community constitute the middle men and traders. There is, as a result, an economic interdependence which constitutes the backbone of a Varanasi shared identity. Apparently, this division in economic roles is currently being eroded by online marketing and the emergence of a small group of Muslim entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, the economic interdependence of the two main communities still remains, I am told, largely as it was. One important consequence of this is that the appetite for supporting political activities which will damage this trading relationship is not great. There are, to be sure, grievances which have led to violent confrontations between the two communities but these lack central direction and are ad hoc, sporadic and unplanned. Again, channelling economic grievances into political action is not an option easily available for political leaders.

4. Another component of a model might be the predominance of private property ownership. In Jerusalem much of the land property of the city is owned by religious foundations/trusts of the three faiths and by the Israeli state which by its own statutes can only lease land to Israeli Jews. In East Jerusalem, some Palestinian aristocratic families also own large tracts of land and the Israeli state has also confiscated Palestinian land for colonial construction. This form of extensive and communal based landownership provides a platform for influence and control and for consolidating a territorial presence of one community at the exclusion of the other. In Varanasi the dispersed, fragmented and multiple agencies involved in property ownership remove the possibility of ownership being directed towards political ends. In addition, the prevalence of squatting, forcible acquisitions and wildcat occupations of derelict, rundown and neglected properties particularly in the Old City of Varanasi without the prospect of legal interventions, due to the time lag in Indian courts, all suggest an unplanned and opportunistic character to the dispersal of the population.

5. A result, therefore, of this characteristic in property ownership in Varanasi is the lack of rigidly demarcated residential areas. Clearly there are predominantly Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods but, unlike in Jerusalem, they appear to be permeable with the borders between them blurred. They are certainly very different from the semi-fortified hilltop Israeli settlements or the segregation caused by the 1949 “Green Line” that divides Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem. The daily interactions whilst shopping, going to school, hospitals, witnessing festivals and other rituals, recreation etc. are clearly much greater in Varanasi.

6. A final component in the possible Varanasi model is the role of the national and federal state, or rather, the lack of its capacity to deliver resources or allocate them in a politically acceptable way. In order to mobilise its citizens, a state needs to be seen to deliver decent housing, minimal sanitation, roads, electricity, a credible education system2 and accessible healthcare. Without these it will have limited credibility and tools at its disposal to demand adherence to a political programme. Government discrimination in the allocation of resources to one community rather than others may occur in India and Varanasi but, to the government’s credit, it does not appear endemic. Instead it is the paucity of the resources available to all communities which appears to unite both Hindus and Muslims in their struggle against poverty and their search for alternative sources of support.

In conclusion, a Varanasi “model” seems to comprise the following components:

  • Recognition of the legitimacy of the state and its agencies
  • Absence of strong external actors
  • A strong religiosity which neutralises the appeal of political ideologies and parties
  • A heterodoxy which constrains the emergence of polarising communal identities
  • Economic interdependence and residential mobility
  • Fragmented and multiple forms of property ownership
  • A lack of dependence upon the state for the allocation of resources.

Whether this “model” is transferable to other cities is debatable. Some components might be, others not, but it does provide a useful framework to work on as I delve deeper and wider into the phenomenon of conflicts in religious cities and how they have been managed or resolved.

2 Not enough material was collected on the school system to come to any conclusions as its impact on intercommunal conflict. The emergence of private schools and faith schools in Varanasi due to the extremely poor quality of state schools requires further research. State schools, as I understand it, are not segregated along communal lines as in many other divided cities, and the national curriculum eschews privileging one religion over any other.

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