In early March, just days before the prime minister Narendra Modi arrived in Varanasi to lay the foundation stone for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, a few local residents were caught in an act of subterfuge. The residents were attempting to bury a small statue of Nandi—a bull-form that ancient Hindu scripture proclaims guards the entry to the Hindu deity Shiva’s abode—near the north wall of the Gyanvapi mosque, a centuries-old structure that shares a boundary wall with the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple. The temple, the focal point of the corridor project, is a site of tremendous importance for devotees of its deity, Shiva. The actions of the locals, those in Varanasi were quick to note, were reminiscent of the insidious beginnings of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, when in December 1949, in the dead of night, an idol of the deity Ram was illegally smuggled into the Babri Masjid.
The burying of the Nandi idol is the latest in a long history of attempts to indicate a Hindu historicity to the site at which the Gyanvapi mosque stands—and only one of the many disturbing resemblances to the events that preceded the demolition of Babri Masjid. SM Yaseen, the general secretary of the Anjuman Intizamiya Masjid, or AIM, a committee that oversees the mosque, described this as “nazeba harkat”—an indecent act. “Their mistake was that they did this at 4.30 in the afternoon,” he said. “They were caught red handed.”
On 26 April, the prime minister filed his nomination for the ongoing Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi, or Kashi as it often called. The Kashi Vishwanath corridor is Modi’s pet project in the constituency. It is estimated to cost Rs 600 crore, seeks to create a wide pathway from three prominent ghats of the river Ganga to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, easing access for devotees visiting it.
Since early 2018, when reports first emerged that the Uttar Pradesh government had set the corridor project in motion, the state has cleared 45,000 square feet of land surrounding the temple, demolishing about 300 homes and displacing 600 families in the process. The area was earlier characterised by serpentine lanes lined with older structures that had become fused with new ones, with shops on the lower floors, and homes above. Standing in their place now is a flattened plateau of land and the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Next to it, visible in obvious relief, is the Gyanvapi mosque.