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Making the “smart heritage city”: banal Hinduism, beautification and belonging in “New India”

Philippa Williams


In July 2018 Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, stood alongside Yogi Aditya-nath, a Hindu monk and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), to address a public meeting in Varanasi. On stage, the two men were accompanied by the president of the BJP and other dignitaries to announce the launch of Meri Kashi - vikas kepath par ("My Kashi, on the path of development”), a glossy A4-sized book that showcased the development projects undertaken in the city since 2014. Located within India's most populous and electorally significant state, Varanasi had been selected as the constituency from where Modi, the then BJP prime ministerial candidate, should contest the 2014 national elections. In response to the BJP spokesperson's announcement. Modi tweeted: “Grateful to the party for giving me opportunity to contest the election from the holy city of Varanasi!” (@NarendraModi, 12 March 2014). Located on the banks of the River Ganges in North India, Varanasi (or Banaras) has an “ancient reputation as the sacred city of the Hindus” (Eck 1983: 3) and is a place of "pilgrimage to sacred places, bathing in sacred waters, and honouring divine images” (1983: 6). As political commentators at the time observed, Varanasi afforded Modi with a symbolic religious and urban backdrop that would appeal to his Hindu-right supporters - committed to realising India as a Hindu rashtra (nation) - and bolster his campaign, which he had largely fought on an economic platform (for example, see Burke 2014). Indeed, since his election to prime minister. Modi has increasingly mobilised Varanasi as an urban stage for asserting a modern, Hinduised vision of the city and of the nation. Whilst popular narratives portray Varanasi as a timeless and sacred city, Freitag (2006: 242) has documented how the contemporary image of Banaras “is almost entirely a construction (both literally and figuratively) of the eighteenth century” that was mobilised to fulfil religio-political ambitions. In 18th-century Varanasi, the cultural production of its sacred landscape was the product of patronage by Maratha leaders in the pursuit of territorial expansion and legitimation (2006: 242). This "Hindu renaissance” created the potential for "modernising individuals to search for new personal as well as collective meanings” (Freitag 2006: 247, see also Dahnia 1997), which obscured more complex realities of the city. In the early 20th century, Banaras was an important administrative and commercial city within the colonial state of Uttar Pradesh. Administrative and commercial elites played an important role in developing the city’s built heritage and cultural imaginations to attract tourism.

Varanasi’s primordial mythical representation often supersedes its status as an important metropolis in Uttar Pradesh and location of regional and religious diversity. Muslims represent almost a third of the population, and Ansari weavers constitute the backbone of the city’s silk weaving industry (see Williams 2015). Muslims first settled in Varanasi in the 11th century; their long history is materialised through 1366 Muslim shrines and mosques, which also populate the urban landscape beside 3600 Hindu temples (Singh and Rana 2002). Compared with some cities in UP, such as Meerut, Moradabad, Aligarh, Allahabad and Ayodhya, Varanasi has witnessed comparatively few incidents of Hindu-Muslim violence, and when it has witnessed riots, they have been relatively low intensity in terms of fatalities (Parry 1994). Moreover, during moments of local and national communal tension, the bonds of tana-bana (warp and weft) and bhai-bhai/bhaiachara (brotherhood) between Hindus and Muslims who work together in the silk sari industry have underpimied narratives of shanti or "peace talk” in the city, as well as everyday realities of Hindu-Muslim coexistence. However, popular narratives of "everyday peace” can perpetuate structural inequalities and Muslim marginality, as well as occlude the ongoing and uneven labour required to reproduce everyday peace (Williams 2007, 2015; Featherstone et al. 2018).

As Varanasi has arguably acquired a renewed and elevated status within Indian national and international politics in the early 21st century, this chapter examines the persistence (as well as the absence) of religion in contemporary visions of the city’s urban future to raise questions about the politics of religion and utopian urbanism and the implications for imagining future urban citizens. More specifically, the chapter makes three key arguments. First, I argue that Modi's patronage of Varanasi has enabled him to pursue a Hindu nationalist agenda from the city with a national and geopolitical reach. The powerful primordial narrative of Varanasi as an ancient site of Hindu traditions is being quietly harnessed by political and urban actors to articulate the utopian vision of the future "smart heritage city,” coined #Smartkashi. in order to pursue neoliberal ambitions through the growth of tourism and urban development in the city. The progressive intimacy between the state, Hindu religion and business for the extension of power is understood as a normal feature of Indian life, what Nanda (2009) has termed India’s “state-temple-corporate complex.” Second, this vision of the city necessarily entails and reproduces a narrowly constructed Hinduised vision of urban transformation, which, alongside cultural-political shifts in state power with the appointment of the Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), is emboldening supporters of a Hindu rashtra and underpinning a perceived saf-fronisation of the city. Third, against this urban and national backdrop of banal as well as more belligerent Hindu nationalism, Varanasi's Muslims experience the saffronising streets with increasing fear and perceive the growing challenges they face to define a safe and “acceptable vision” (Freitag 2006: 247) of themselves as citizens in the future "smart city.” The chapter draws on interviews carried out in

April 2017, soon after the appointment of Yogi Adityanath to chief minister in UP, with some further interviews conducted by Mukesh Kumar in February 2019.1 These insights build on the author’s fieldwork in Varanasi between 2006 and 2008, 2011, and 2014, as well as on government and city-level documents, political speeches, media and Twitter.

Meri Kashi, #Smai tKashi: smart city visions and banal Hinduism

Since 2014 Modi has visited Varanasi over 15 times, and during this time he cultivated an affective and intimate style of politics with his adopted sacred city, which he increasingly refers to as Kashi. In doing so he privileges the name derived from the Rigveda, one of Hinduism's four sacred canonical texts of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, meaning the "shining one,” and frequently interpreted as the "City of Light" (Eck 1983). In his address to 500 dignitaries and residents of Varanasi who had gathered in an air-conditioned auditorium. Modi declared: "People of Kashi own me. ... I am imprisoned in your love. I am deeply touched how people. from Varanasi, including children and women, write letters to me in Delhi. I feel indebted that Kashi accepted me as their MP. ... In fact, I have myself become a Banarasi now. Some come to Kashi when they die. ... I am lucky to have come here while I am alive. . . . This city has given me so much affection. Our bond is not about government programmes or budgets” (Modi speech, 14 July 2018, Sharma 2018). Modi further detailed his developmental achievements in the city, which are designed to transform Banaras for a "New India,” including road-widening schemes and junction improvements, cleaning the ghats (steps down to the river) by the river Ganga as part of his Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission, rejuvenating its sacred religious water bodies, building new medical facilities at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), repositioning electric cables underground and creating colourful light displays at the city’s ghats and railway station. He amiounced future funding for further projects including improvements to the city’s railway networks, sewage and waste disposal and the widening and beautification of roads leading to key religious sites (Modi, 14 July 2018; Indian Express 2018). Modi's urban vision was underpinned by his drive to augment domestic and international tourism to Varanasi whilst transforming the “spiritual city” into a "smart city” (Modi, July 14, 2018).

The "smart city” status was awarded to Varanasi on 19 September 2016 by the Indian government, along with 26 other cities, in phase three of the government's mission to make India’s 100 smart cities ( As a result, Varanasi received an injection of funding, Rs. 2,500 crore over five years,2 from the central and state government with contributions from the city and the public private partnership model (PPP) to invest in India's "next generation urban infrastructure schemes” and realise its transformation into a smart city. Premised on the integration of digital and urban planning as the solution to the contemporary challenges of urbanisation and sustainable development, smart cities have been increasingly marketed as the urban future of India, designed and built in partnership with corporate actors and investors (Datta 2015, see also Townsend 2013). In Varanasi, Modi, city actors and corporate partners are pursuing the utopian vision of a "heritage smart city,” “a city with a mix of tradition and modernity” (Modi. July 14, 2018), that retains itspauranikswaroop (ancient character) whilst simultaneously undergoing beautification, landscaping and mapping projects to transform and enhance mobility and security in the city. The visions of Varanasi communicated in the "Kashi Vision” (Phase 1) and #SmartKashi (Phases 2 and 3) proposals attempt to position Varanasi as the future model "smart city” for a New India that seamlessly integrates its ancient Hindu heritage with modem innovation. The #SmartKashi proposal centrally encompasses Lord Shiva’s trident in its logo and aims "to rejuvenate the oldest Indian living city of Varanasi as a great place to live and visit by conserving and showcasing its enriched heritage, culture, spirituality and traditions through innovative social and financial inclusion solutions.”3 Accordingly, six pillars for envisioning the future city are promoted, each represented by a Sanskritised term and justified by a logic that connects the traditional with modern attributes: Suramya ("Picturesque,” through religion, culture and heritage), Nirmal ("Pure/clean,” through greening spaces and ecological ordering and reviving the Ganga River as soul), Surakshit ("Safe,” through better transport, pathways and vehicle movement), Sammunat (“Improved,” through citizenship, civility, liveability and viable employment), Ekatrit (“Integrated,” through interfacing and coordination among the various cells for maintaining SDGs) and Sanyojit ("Planned,” through a balance between traditions and modernity in the frame of "lifenology”) (see Singh and Rana 2017).

As Jazeel (2015) has demonstrated, representational work is fundamental to urban futures and the making of city-ness as an imaginative and material geography. “In the context of utopian urbanism, the imagined future is very much part of the real; cities are never complete.” He draws on Henri Lefebvre (2003 [1970]: 45) to argue that for urbanism "the possible is . . . part of the real and gives it a sense of direction, an orientation, a clear path to the horizon ...” (Jazeel 2015: 2). In India, as elsewhere, representations of the smart city have been closely allied to the production of a new national consciousness. Indeed, for Modi," ‘smart city' is not just a campaign to improve the infrastructure of cities, but it is a mission to give a new identity to the country.” As he perceived it, “This is a symbol of Young India, New India” (Modi, 14 July 2018). Soon after Modi's appointment to prime minister, he visited Japan and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to formalise future collaboration in heritage conservation, city modernisation and art and cultural projects between Kashi and Kyoto. As one of Japan's most important centres for Buddhism, and a city which has undergone rapid transformation whilst apparently maintaining its cultural heritage, Modi has spotlighted Kyoto’s approach in his visions for Varanasi as a modern heritage city. In 2018, the Japanese embassy in India showcased its support towards India’s smart city initiatives, including Varanasi, and particularly in relation to the completion of a state-of-the-art convention centre and the construction and rehabilitation of sewage facilities under the "Ganga Action Plan Project.” Through a corporate partnership with Toyota Kirloskar Motor Pvt Ltd, the Japanese government is also delivering sanitation and water purification projects in Varanasi, which saw the installation of 124 toilet units in the city, and implementing behavioural change training for school children.4

The construction of Varanasi’s urban future is predicated on a narrowly constructed idea of the city’s religious and cultural heritage that prioritises the Hindu city, populated by priests, pilgrims and tourists, in the making of this "New India.” Moreover, as Modi intimated in his July 2018 speech, the smart city vision also concerns promoting India’s cultural superiority in order to transform India's geopolitical standing: “Until Varanasi is rashtraguru [the nation's spiritual master], how can India be jagadguru [spiritual master of the entire world]?” (Modi, 14 July 2018). The significance of Varanasi on the geopolitical stage was made evident when Modi invited the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to the city during his four-day visit to India in March 2018. Together with UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Modi hosted Macron to a programme that showcased the city’s cultural heritage, including religious recitals, music and dance. At Assi ghat Macron was welcomed with the beats of the damaru (pellet drum) and chants of har liar mahadev, which was followed by 120 priests chanting Vedic mantras and blowing conch shells, whilst city residents showered the French prime minister and visiting dignitaries with flower petals. Later they embarked on a boat ride along the River Ganges, travelling to Tulsi ghat where they watched a performance of the Ram Lila followed by a recital of Ramcharitmanas couplets and a traditional wrestling match before disembarking at Dashashwamedh ghat.5 The importance afforded to Varanasi and the River Ganges as the backdrop for Modi’s geopolitical negotiations with his "strategic partner” reveal much about the vision of New India that Modi wished to project in this high-level meeting, one that foregrounded a visibly Hindu face of the nation. The geopolitical status of Varanasi was further reinforced through its role as host city for the 2019 Pravasi Bhartiya Divas (Overseas Indian Day) convention with the theme "The role of Indian diaspora in building a New India.” Yogi Adityanath celebrated the event as an opportunity to showcase the "ancient” "Atitlii Devo Bhava” culture of the holy city of Varanasi, thereby drawing on the Sanskrit mantra of welcoming your guest as though they were God.6 Overseas Indian visitors to these celebrations were also encouraged to combine their trip with the Hindu pilgrimage to the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela.7 The overtly Hindu religious presentation of these celebrations by Modi's administration serves to reveal both the exclusionary framing of the overseas Indian population as Hindu and who it seeks to include in “building the New India.”

Modi concluded his July 2018 address on Varanasi’s development with the arousing chant har har mahadev, a war-like motivational call to Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity who, according to tradition, permanently resides in Varanasi and underpins its urban cosmology (Eck 1983). The everyday and banal assimilation of Hindu religious idiom and imaginations by the state in development projects, diplomacy, overseas Indian celebrations and utopian urban visions constitute a form of "banal Hinduism” (Benel 2008; Nanda 2009). As Benei (2008) and Harriss et al. (2017) have argued, the reiterative coupling of Hindu religiosity and state activities produces Hindu nationalist imaginings as normative, which then informs everyday ideas about who is included and excluded in the city and in the nation. The mobilisation of Varanasi as the sacred smart city of New India represents a powerful platform for Modi at the local, national and geopolitical scale as he draws on the ancient traditions of Kashi to promote a Hinduised vision not only of Varanasi's past but also of India’s past in the making of its smart future "new identity.”

Beautification of the “heritage smart city”: towards a clean, pure city

There is immense potential for tourism in Varanasi, and all efforts should be made to keep the city clean.

(Modi, 12 March 2018)

Central to Modi's ambition to transform Varanasi into a "heritage smart city” and project a "New Indian identity” is the drive to clean and beautify Varanasi, and in particular the River Ganges - which is considered sacred to Hindus and personified as the goddess Ganga - as well as its sacred water bodies and the ghats that line the river. This local initiative should be interpreted within the context of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) which was inaugurated in Varanasi in 2014 on the auspicious day of Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. Modi’s Clean India Mission compels Indian citizens to take pride in their nation by coming together as a "team” to clean away the filth and thereby realise a clean, modem, healthy and hygienic India, a purified nation. The River Ganges has been the subject of government proposals to improve the water quality and reduce pollution over the years, particularly since 1986 when the Ganga Action Plan was launched by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Yet the river continues to register toxic levels of pollutants and has been given renewed visibility in Modi's campaigns in the city. In an election campaign speech in Varanasi, Modi highlighted the significance of the river for his constituents and for the nation in terms that emphasised the spiritualmoral obligation to improve its water quality and surrounding environment:

Whenever India is discussed ... the discussion is incomplete without reference to the river Ganga. For others, Ganga can just be a river, but for us, Ganga is not just a river, it is like our mother! Ganga is not just a stream of water; it is a stream of our culture!

(Modi 2013)

He proceeded to equate the treatment of the Ganga with perceived political cormption in the country:

Tell me loudly, those who have messed up and mined Ganga even more, should they be allowed in the Government again? Can we hand over the nation to them? The people who can’t take care of Ganga, how will they take care of the nation? . . . Before we clean Ganga, Delhi needs to be cleaned, Lucknow needs to be cleaned, then only Ganga can be purified. With these people in power Ganga can never be depolluted!

(Modi 2013)

Modi's Cleaner Kashi campaign aligned with the need to "rejuvenate and develop the spiritual capital of India” (Modi, 15 May 2015). As part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launch. Modi was photographed at Assi ghat with a spade in hand, clearing silt off the ghats. The image was circulated on his Twitter account and tagged #cleanlndia, which advanced a moral-political message about the ideal Indian citizen as one who actively participates in the drive to clean and purify the ghats and Ganga Ma, as well as rid India of dirt and corruption (see also Coe 2017). The rhetorical relationship between cleanliness and corruption found further expression in the state government’s scheme to relocate the city’s electricity cables underground and install electricity metres on all houses. This initiative to remove overhead supply lines from the built environment was also framed as a political project to reduce the illegal extraction of electricity direct from the grid, with tripping devices installed to detect incidences of tapping, which is relatively common in India’s urban settlements.

Since 2014 Assi ghat has become a showcase for urban and spiritual transformation in Varanasi aimed at attracting and accommodating an increasing number of pilgrims and tourists in the city. Tourism represents one of Varanasi's biggest industries; in 2017. almost 6.3 million tourists visited the city, bringing valuable income which the state and city offices are eager to grow.8 Towards this end, the ghats have undergone a significant beautification and renovation project, involving the cleaning and installation of new steps (by the NGO Sulabh International), upgrade of stone work, introduction of a designated parking area and urinals, and the installation of performance stages. These aesthetic transformations have been accompanied by the launch of new cultural programmes, such as Subh-e-Banaras, a morning programme of Vedic chanting, music and yoga, initiated by the district magistrate of Varanasi and the chief of the Regional Cultural Centre and supported by the Vishvanath temple as well as the Ministry of Tourism. Illustrating the everyday materialisation of the “state-temple-corporate complex,” the ghat renovation and cultural programmes are sponsored by the Bank of Baroda, which has funded Rs. 2 crore (20 million) of the renovation (Hindustan Times, 29 March 2018) and whose branding is highly visible at the site, along the ghat's railings and above tourist shops.

The transformations have been warmly welcomed by some pilgrims and local priests with whom we spoke. A resident priest of a temple on Assi ghat shared with Mukesh his praise for Modi, stating that "Modi ji had done a lot for this city.” Sitting at his temple under a sign that read "Naya Assi” (“New Assi”), the priest went on to explain that previously there was nothing in the area and people would hardly come to Assi ghat. But since Modi had been elected as the MP in

Varanasi's constituency, huge improvements have taken place, with more events and people participating in the artis held on the ghats. As became clear in the priest’s narrative, the perceived changes in the use of the ghats were underpinned by both his material observations and moral judgements. "Everything was dirty here. As a result of Modi's work, you can see there are new lights, policemen are here all the time, you can go and use toilet anytime. The place is much cleaner than it used to be. ... What is a smart city? Smart means good and beautiful, city means city. Banaras is becoming a smart city. People come here in the morning. They pray and do yoga. This is all good for many people. The place is alive again, whereas before, rickshaw-wallahs, drug addicts, low caste people used to come and spread their dirt. Modi ji has stopped all that.” The priest further elaborated how two doms (Dalits) who used to live in tents on the Assi ghat and had “slowly-slowly taken over the space” were forcibly removed. “They were not clean. Now, everything looks clean and this is a smart city for me. Ek smart city me dharm ka dharm chale aur safai ki safai [In a smart city both religion and cleanliness coexist simultaneously].” The notion of cleanliness and dirt in "new” India was therefore mapped onto caste identities according to ideas of purity and pollution, determining who was included and excluded within public spaces of the new "smart city.” Modi's national ambition to “clean India” demanded the practical and imaginative removal of lower caste bodies from public spaces in Varanasi.

Support for Modi’s "smart city” ambitions was by no means universal, even amongst Varanasi's Hindu residents. Some ridiculed the idea that Kashi could ever be transformed into Kyoto, whilst older residents grieved the loss of their Banaras, known for its galis, ghats and magical beauty. Central to these concerns was a tension between, on the one hand, national party-political visions of religious urban space as that to be witnessed by tourists, politicians and pilgrims and. on the other hand, everyday practices of urban religiosity performed by local residents. Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of Sankat Mochan temple, lamented the damaging impact that development imposed by the BJP was having on the spiritual city of Shiva. Interviewed before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh state elections, Mishra argued that the BJP's “smart city” interventions were undermining rather than enhancing the traditional sacred landscape of Banaras. He takes particular issue with the lane-widening scheme to enhance access to the Vishwa-nath temple,9 which has the political and financial backing of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath (see Lazzaretti in this volume). Mishra explained that

people do not come to Banaras looking for a Smart-City. Why people come to Banaras is not visible to you (BJP leaders in Delhi) but only to those who come here. Why else is Banaras second only to Lucknow in terms of inbound flights? The beauty of this place is in its lanes and galis. You are widening them more than required because you are bent upon destroying these traditions. You are even disturbing the equilibrium of the Vishwanath temple system under the guise of developing it.

(cited in Singh in Outlook 2015)

His grievances are echoed by others in the city, some of whom fear that the visual emphasis now afforded to the Vishvanath temple with the mosque adjacent to it adds greater potency to the site, around which Hindu nationalists can mobilise. In an interview with the Wire magazine Sayid Yasin, general secretary of the Anjuman Intazamiya Masjid, articulated his fears: "Before the Babri masjid was demolished, the area around it was cleared. Everything around it was brought down till the mosque stood alone and exposed. And because the area was cleared, it meant that laklis could gather. They did and eventually demolished the mosque” (cited in Agarwal 2019). For Yasin, the reconfiguration of the urban landscape opened up the potential for contingent moments of religious tension, which triggered a sense of unease and discomfort within a majority Hindu city and nation (see Froystad in this volume).

The drive for tourism growth in the city has also been met with resistance following the approval of luxury cruises on the River Ganges. These have been publicly opposed by both religious organisations, such as the Ganga Mahasabha, who fear that alcohol and meat will be served to foreign tourists on the cruise liners which will pollute the sacred river (Dhillon 2018), as well as local boat men who are concerned that the introduction of large passenger boats present a real threat to their already modest livelihoods (see Doron 2008). A key smart city strategy concerns beautifying the city through practical redevelopments and imaginative lighting schemes, which present the city as religious spectacle both for its pilgrims and tourists and as emblematic of the "new” India - spiritually Hindu yet modern. In practice, realising Kashi's smart city image rests on the figurative absence and practical exclusion of caste and religious minorities in urban space which is disrupting the multicultural fabric of the city. In the final section I consider the lived experiences of Varanasi's Muslim residents in the context of these political and structural transformations.

“The fear is there”: saffronising streets and belonging in the city

Against this backdrop of Hinduised development policies for Varanasi's smart urban future, I turn to explore the shifting everyday realities of the city’s Muslim Ansaris.10 The appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 appeared to align Modi’s ambitions for vikas (development) with religious-political leadership. Now the head priest of Gorakhnath Mutt (monastery), Yogi Adityanath founded his own youth militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), in 2002. and in 2007 its members and Adityanath were implicated in communal violence in Gorakpur that resulted in two deaths and a city curfew. Adi-tyanath's political rhetoric has been unashamedly anti-Muslim in his campaign against “love jihad” (a supposed Islamist conspiracy to seduce Hindu women and to convert them to Islam), and in 2005 he promoted a "purification drive” of India through the conversion of Christians to Hinduism, reportedly saying "I will not stop until I turn the UP and India into a Hindu rashtra [Hindu state]” (cited in

Harriss et al. 2017: 6). His appointment to chief minister sets a new precedent in India, which appears to institutionalise the relationship between the Hindu religion and the state under the BJP government (Harriss et al. 2017; Jaffrelot 2017).

In the first month of his appointment Yogi ordered the closure of unlicensed slaughter houses across Uttar Pradesh in April 2017. The ban was portrayed as a developmental drive to install cleaner, more hygienic slaughter facilities and harnessed the rhetoric of a clean, pure India projected under Modi's Swachh Bharat campaign. The policy move was interpreted as an attack on the economic and cultural rights of Muslim and Dalit communities in the city and wider state, who predominantly work in the industry as waged labourers and are the primary (but not only) consumers of meat. Given that the BJP's manifesto promised a ban on all mechanised slaughter houses and illegal abattoirs, confusion and anxiety proceeded Adityanath's announcement, which led to the further enforced or voluntary closure of other slaughter houses and meat shops across Varanasi.

The policy to close slaughter houses was perceived to be closely allied with the BJP government's strategic and tacit endorsement of the protection of cows to further its Hindu nationalist agenda, evidenced in BJP president Amit Shah's vociferous campaign speeches that tacitly underscored the party’s support for “cow vigilantism” ( 2017a; see also Banaji 2018). But as Muslim Ansaris eagerly highlighted, they consumed buffalo (not cow), a meat that is not revered by Hindus but is nonetheless affected by the slaughter house closures, along with other forms of meat.

Right now, we are struggling with food because of the Chief Minister’s new policies where illegal slaughter houses are being closed down. This action has greatly affected our food habit which is based on meat in our everyday life. We can’t eat chicken because that’s something we get every 3-4 days, it’s really expensive. The meat of sheep and goats is also very expensive. The ban on buffalo meat is causing real difficulty.

(Hussain, small business owner, interviewed in April 2017)

Muslim Ansaris were frustrated that their food preferences were being severely limited by the government's religiously driven political policies, with further negative repercussions for their enjoyment of cultural and economic rights, where the cost of meat readily available was at a greatly inflated price and wedding celebrations were curtailed or sometimes suspended for the lack of a suitable or affordable feast, as Nazir explained:

There's a wedding coming up in my family on 14 May in my brother's family. So, they can't buy and sacrifice the buffalo. They were considering doing this, but now they will sacrifice chicken instead. Many people don't like the taste of chicken, they are used to meat of buffalo, the goat meat is very expensive, so it’s not possible to invite as many guests.

(Nazir, small business owner, April 2017)

The sense of annoyance was further compounded for those Muslims with whom I interacted, given that they took for granted the sanctity of the cow for their Hindu neighbours. As Abdul, a middle-aged sari businessman phrased it bluntly: "The Muslims of this country are bound by the laws of this nation. If the law says no slaughtering of cows, then we stick to that, those are the rules” (April 2017).

As some have observed, the debate provoked and reproduced around “cow protection” served to distract all communities from more germane concerns about Muslim socio-economic rights (see Mahmudabad 2017). In spite of Modi's election victory promise that, "Ma Ganga has called me, and I am here to serve the weavers of this holy city” (Modi cited in Mishra 2016), Muslim Ansaris have felt more, rather than less, socially and economically marginalised in Varanasi under Modi. The investment in a trade facilitation centre and crafts museum has so far failed to boost the domestic and international market activity, as it was promised it would do, and moreover Modi's demonetisation and GST policies have had a damaging impact on the silk sari industry and the livelihoods of those who work in it (Mishra 2016; Chowdhury 2017).

Meanwhile, living-room conversations of middle-class Brahmins in Varanasi reflected strong support for Yogi Adityanath's policy and conveyed the need to protect the nation’s Hindu values, as a Varanasi resident Hindu businessman from Rajkot (Gujarat) asserted: "Hinduism is not just a religion, it’s a culture, so it’s important to live this way of life - in a Hindu nation.” Soon after the Vidhan Sabha elections in 2017, middle-class Brahmins with whom I spoke praised Modi for refusing to appease Muslims in return for votes, like the so-called secular parties did. They drew upon Modi’s narrative in opposition to perceived religious bhedbav (discrimination), saying that "if you create a kabristan [graveyard] in a village, then a shamshan [cremation ground] should also be created. If electricity is given uninterrupted during Ramzan, then it should be given during Diwali without a break as well” (Modi, Fatehpur, 19 February 2017) to evidence the PM's "fair” handling of religious affairs. Such kind of “everyday communalism” (Jeffery and Jeffery 1999) had gained heightened prominence in Varanasi, certainly since the mid-2000s when I conducted fieldwork during the period of the Congress-led national government.

Under Modi, city residents communicated a strong sense of intimacy with their prime minister, which was cultivated in the course of his frequent visits to his "adopted city,” when he rode atop his heavily securitised jeep through the city’s neighbourhoods or awarded graduation certificates at BHU, as well as through his personable and direct style of communication via the Narendra Modi App, Twitter and his monthly broadcasts of Mann ki Baat (“Speaking from the heart”). Young Hindu residents proudly recited the many programmes launched under Modi, including Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Jan Dan Yojana, notebandi (the note ban), toilet and sanitation projects, Housing for All and Digital India, as well as Modi's ambition to transform Kashi into Kyoto. Whilst many freely admitted that the practical outcomes of these projects had not materialised, the level of pride in Modi's ideas for a "New India” was evident and wrapped up in a sense of renewed national confidence.

Given Modi’s involvement in anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, Muslim Ansaris, weavers and businessmen alike were naturally uncomfortable with Modi's ascendancy within the city and national politics. Whilst some sari businessmen tentatively articulated their respect for Modi as prime minister of India, presenting him with a shawl when he passed through their neighbourhood, the appointment of Yogi Adityanath to chief minister had boosted an unwelcome transformation in the mood of the city. This was visibly symbolised by the proliferation of saffron gumchar (cotton material worn around the neck or head) worn by men as they rode motorbikes and bicycles in the city. The coloured gumchar typically worn in Banaras is red, green and sometimes blue, so the increased visibility of saffron - available to buy in Chowk and evident on the streets - was widely noticed. Given the potent symbolism of the saffron flag for Hinduism and the rise of Hindu nationalist sentiment, Muslim Ansaris interpreted this shift as a sign of growing public support for Yogi's Hindu Yuva Vahini. The saffronisation of Varanasi’s streets stimulated great unease amongst Muslim friends and research participants, as well as Hindu friends, who were equally alarmed at the rise of publicly asserted Hindu nationalist sentiments in the city. Muslim residents in particular described how this shift in public religiosity was underpinning their everyday experiences of religious-based harassment in Varanasi, as Nazir explained:

It’s a new thing, but it was the same situation in the 1990s when the communal riots were very frequent, when every second year there was something happening in the name of Durga or Holi, for instance when Muslims got colour on them in Chowk and were beaten badly. Then things calmed down after that for a few years, but now it has started again.... Since the Lok Sabha election there have been some incidents in BHU, but really it’s since the state assembly election. Now the other community think they’re the only ones who are powerful and exist. They think Muslims are on the toe of their shoe [vah sochte hain ki Muslim log unki jutti ki nokpar hain],

Muslim citizens drew attention to the increasingly routine nature of taunts received from passers-by in Varanasi, such as “if you want to live in the country you have to say Yogi Yogi or Modi Modi.’’ Mujtaba, a Muslim Ansari, explained how upon arriving at Fatia to perform a religious ritual at the Muslim shrine there, a man had addressed them and insisted they say “Jai Shri Ram.” Interpreting the man's request as unwelcome verbal harassment, Mujtaba had responded: "You're Hindu. I'm a Muslim, if you say Jai Shri Ram then I will say Allah.” In his defence to me, Mujtaba continued: "The thing is, nowadays people want to convert India into the Hindu rashtra.... More people are wearing more saffron, they're carrying the saffron flag around, they’re applying the tika. That's all fine, but I'm concerned about the behaviour of people. . . . The atmosphere of the neighbourhood has changed. If anyone has to go in a Hindu neighbourhood at night, they are too scared to go” (April 2017).

A series of violent incidents against young Muslim men. allegedly by Hindu nationalist sympathisers in the city, were narrated for having transformed Muslim

Ansari perceptions of their security in the city and sense of belonging. One such event involved Juber, a young Muslim man in Lanka, a mixed and increasingly middle-class neighbourhood near BHU in the south of Varanasi, who was attacked after an altercation with supporters of Hindu Yuva Valiini escalated into violence. The victim circulated news of the attack, including photos of his facial injuries and open wounds, on his WhatsApp group chats, which was subsequently disseminated more widely, inspiring a three-day protest by Muslim residents outside the Bhelupur police station, calling for the perpetrators of the attack to be brought to justice. This failed to happen and instead, police attention turned to the potential for information circulated on WhatsApp to trigger tension and communal division in the city. A joint order was issued by the district magistrate and senior superintendent of police which stated that “any statement made by a group member which is fake, can cause religious disharmony, or rumour, the group admin must deny it on the group and remove the member from the group. ... In the event of inaction from the group admin, he or she will be considered guilty and action will be taken against the group admin” ( 2017b). Muslim Ansaris perceived a blatant case of religious discrimination, where the police had not only failed to deliver justice by failing to pursue Juber’s attackers, but subsequently sought to blame the victim for hurting religious sentiments in the city, threatening him with legal action.

The incident and police response reverberated uncomfortably with residents of Varanasi’s Muslim mohallas and reinforced opinion that young Muslim men in particular were facing new risks in the city. A sari business owner called Jamil described the recent experience of his brother-in-law when travelling by motorbike along a back lane behind a temple one evening. He encountered a group of young Hindu men who called out katua (a derogatory word for Muslim) and asked, "Where are you going? Look here!" When Jamil's brother-in-law didn't respond and kept riding, they became upset and shouted after him: "We are talking to you!” Still he didn't respond and kept travelling. Jamil was relieved that his brother-in-law’s reaction had averted the risk of taunts spiralling into a quarrel, or worse. Jamil articulated the tactics described by a number of Muslim Ansaris when he insisted that "if someone says something bad to you, don't react, just walk back. Head down and come back” (interview in April 2017). Experiences of everyday fear by the city’s Muslims were underpinned by a visible shift towards the "normalisation of discrimination” (Jayal cited in Henghan 2016) by members of the Hindu population and majoritarian police administration. There is widespread concern that Muslims increasingly have no recourse to justice in the city. Under the Congress-led government (2004-2014), even whilst degrees of everyday Hindu nationalism persisted, research participants spoke of their belief in the secular state and exploited the language of secularism in order to realise their citizenship (Williams 2015). In the context of a saffronising city - and nation - this raises questions about the future potential of the city's secular fabric in spite of its Hindu image. Research participants who had previously worked closely with the police to actively maintain everyday urban peace between Hindus and Muslims

Making the “smart heritage city” 173 reported stepping down from these informal roles fearing the increased risk now that the police might turn on them.


Seen in a longer historical time frame, Modi's #SmartKashi vision represents the latest strategy to recast the city’s spiritual heritage for political and economic expediency, both at the local and national as well as geopolitical scale. As I argue here, through the prosaic language of India's smart city policy, #SmartKashi is being mobilised by Modi to project a vision of a New India that is unquestioningly tied to a Hinduised imagination of the nation. This vision is importantly underpinned by the state's neoliberal imperative to expand tourism and urban development in the city and accordingly co-opts the role of not only the state, NGO and religious actors, but also the corporate sector in its delivery of beautification schemes, such as at Assi ghat. If the orientation of Modi's religious politics were in any doubt, the appointment of the Hindu priest and politician Yogi Adityanath as UP's chief minister institutionalises the relationship between the state and religion. Together, the representation of Varanasi’s urban future and state level policies have interacted to bolster Hindu nationalist sentiment and everyday communalism in the city. This is felt most acutely by the city’s Muslim residents, who are increasingly subject to rhetorical and physical discrimination on the city's streets in a way not experienced since the early 1990s when political Hindu nationalism was in ascendance. Banal and belligerent forms of Hindutva are thus working together in the city to (further) undermine both the potential to reproduce everyday peace and the legitimacy of the Indian Muslim citizen.


  • 1 My thanks to Mukesh Kumar for carrying out interviews for this chapter in February 2019 to supplement research I conducted in April 2017.
  • 2 25,000.000.000 INR, which is equal to 314,885,471 EUR(1 EUR = 79.39 INR).
  • 3, accessed 26 August 2019.
  • 4, accessed 26 February2019.
  • 5
  • 6 The mantra is cited in the Hindu scripture, Taittiriya Upanishad.
  • 7 Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj in October 2018 by Yogi Adityanath’s administration. Reverting to the city’s original Sanskrit name is a political act intended to erase the city’s Mughal history.
  • 8 5,947,355 were Indian tourists and 334,708 foreign tourists, in/site/writereaddata/siteContent/Tourist%20Arrival%202013%20to%202017.pdf. accessed 20 March 2019.
  • 9 Plans to open up the complex, which is also home to the Gyanvapi mosque, were originally proposed under a Congress government but shelved by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party governments due to a lack of local support.
  • 10 Descendants of traditional weaving families who comprise the majority of Varanasi’s Muslim population and who continue to be involved in the production and sale of silk fabrics (see Kumar 1988).


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