How BJP’s Kashi Tamil Sangamam ripped apart the real Kashi-Tamil sangam

How BJP’s Kashi Tamil Sangamam ripped apart the real Kashi-Tamil sangam

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At the Dashashwamedh Ghat that dots the river Ganga in Varanasi, priests hold brightly lit lamps under glittering parasols every evening. Hundreds throng the spot each day and witness the Ganga arti in peace, some standing on the ghat’s stairs and some enjoying a ride on dinghies in the river. But from November 16 to December 16, the believers jostled to catch a glimpse of the arti from...

At the Dashashwamedh Ghat that dots the river Ganga in Varanasi, priests hold brightly lit lamps under glittering parasols every evening. Hundreds throng the spot each day and witness the Ganga arti in peace, some standing on the ghat’s stairs and some enjoying a ride on dinghies in the river. But from November 16 to December 16, the believers jostled to catch a glimpse of the arti from close quarters after their numbers grew by thousands as the government made a bid to bring ‘Kashi and Kanchi’ together. Many had to be content seeing the lamps glow and hearing the prayer bells ring from a distance.

With artistes from Tamil Nadu, including Padma Vibhushan Ilaiyaraaja, holding the audience captive during cultural performances in Varanasi, the BJP claimed success for the 30-day Kashi Tamil Sangamam, touted by the party as a project to unite India under the framework of Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat (One India, Great India), which ostensibly seeks to enhance interactions between people of different states and Union Territories.

But beyond the veneer of promoting cultural exchange between India’s geographical diversities, lies a deeper project of the BJP to homogenise cultures for political expansion.

“Kashi Tamil Sangamam was a high-profile affair which cannot be dismissed as a trivial bureaucratic show. It wasn’t designed as a local affair. It was planned for an ideological-cultural resonance in Tamil Nadu. Through the event, the Modi government was trying to expand its appeal in Tamil Nadu. How else do you explain the Prime Minister himself inaugurating the event and the second most powerful man in the Union Cabinet, Amit Shah, presiding over the concluding ceremony, with at least 12 Union ministers, including finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and external affairs minister S Jaishankar, landing in Varanasi to participate in the event through the month,” Pratap Singh, a journalist who covers eastern Uttar Pradesh, told The Federal.

“It is the beginning of a strategic initiative by the Sangh Parivar to deepen its forays into Tamil Nadu where the RSS-BJP combine has started growing incrementally in recent years. They want to give their expansion an ideological-cultural thrust,” Singh added.

The Kashi connect

Many Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) insiders agree with the assessment.

They share that the Sangh wants to see Kashi, the spiritual Mecca of Hinduism, as the cultural capital of India, on a par with commercial capital Mumbai, tech capital Bengaluru and political capital New Delhi. Instead of restricting the city to being a pilgrimage centre and a spiritual headquarters of the deeply religious Hindu sants, the Sangh wants to see Kashi upgraded to the stature of the cultural heartland for all Indians, signifying the oneness of the Indian civilisation.

“Kashi would emerge as the civilisational nerve centre of India,” RSS insiders said.

To realise the plan, the BJP is reportedly working on a massive infrastructural push for Varanasi. Under the plan, similar to Rajdhanis running from all state capitals to New Delhi, all capital cities would be linked to Kashi by trains, and travel by these trains would be highly subsidised by the concerned state governments. Kashi would also be connected by freeways with Ayodhya, Prayagraj and Mathura. G20 leaders would also be taken to Kashi for one of the events in 2023 to add the international appeal of Varanasi.

It is difficult to say what these efforts of the BJP-RSS would translate into for the extremely backward and underdeveloped city of Varanasi and whether the city can actually emerge as a bridge between the ‘glorious ancient past’ and a digitally modern India. But it can be said with certainty that trans-cultural confluences cannot be forced upon. They are rather formed spontaneously.

A deeper look at the Kashi Tamil Sangamam, beyond the light and sound, proves the point that cultural connections and bonds build organically and cannot be constructed overnight, or even through a month of dancing and singing together.

An assortment of diyas at the Kashi Tamil Sangamam.

While the Union Ministry of Education was the nodal organiser of the event, the Union Ministry of Culture also helped in putting up the month-long show. Various departments of the Uttar Pradesh government too extended support. But despite the Ministry of Education leading the event, it did not include any high-profile academic event and no noteworthy research paper by any outstanding academician was presented.

“Scholars from many universities of India and abroad had gathered at the international conference at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), including some scholars engaged in Tamil studies, but none of them had any inkling about what was going on in Kashi Tamil Sangamam, taking place in the same city. The academia should have had a broader role in exploring this important facet of Tamil Nadu’s historical linkages with Kashi. Unfortunately, this did not happen,” said Jenni Balasubramaniam, a post-doctoral researcher in Francophone studies who attended the BHU conference.

The BJP’s attempt at homogenisation reflected in the fact that it pushed through the idea of India being a monolithic culture rather than explore the layers of our associations.

“The history of Dravidian-Aryan interface is a highly contentious area and fascinating research into this is currently on in many international research centres. The Aryan-Dravidian divide reflects in the work of the academia too including in the area of genetic as well as linguistic studies. A scientific and democratic approach would be to offer due space for all points of view and encourage debates and discussions on all related contentious issues. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Only the idea of one India with a monolithic one culture was being stressed instead of a multi-ethnic, pluri-cultural India,” Jaleshwar Upadhyaya, a Varanasi-based journalist, told The Federal.

Tamil Nadu unmoved

Even though the event facilitated the arrival and stay of over 2,500 Tamil delegates in Varanasi, the gala barely found a resonance back in Tamil Nadu.

“There is no doubt Kashi has an important place in Indian history. Any initiative to reminisce about the historical linkages of Tamil Nadu with Kashi is also a welcome one. But thanks to its blinkered political sectarianism, the Centre totally ignored the Tamil Nadu government and the Chief Minister [MK Stalin] was not even invited. It is not just a case of high-handedness. Rather, it is self-defeating. What is the point in invoking the past while ignoring the genuine representatives of the present,” asked professor A Marx, a reputed Tamil scholar.

Had the central government made the effort of involving the elected Tamil Nadu government and the Tamil mainstream intelligentsia, they could have succeeded in getting a broader outreach.

It isn’t just the government of Tamil Nadu which was ignored. In its attempt of creating a uniform identity, it event ignored the contribution of Mughal rulers in forging the ‘Kashi-Kanchi’ bond.

Professor Marx cited an important episode in the history of Tamil Nadu’s interface with Kashi which was covered up and did not find any mention at Kashi Tamil Sangamam because of the communal bias of the central government.

When Kumaraguruparar visited Kashi

Kumaraguruparar (1615–1688), a Tamil scholar-saint who hailed from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, was one of the leading exponents of Shaivite philosophy. He had also authored 12 Tamil bhakti classics, including Kalambagam, Pillaith Thamizh, and Mummanik Kovai.

On the insistence of Masilamani Desikar, the head of Dharmapuram Aadeenam, Kumaraguruparar visited Kashi in the 1650s. At that time, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had nominated his eldest son Dara Shikoh as the governor of Illahabad region, under which Kashi was being administered. Dara Shikoh was a philosopher prince who had authored the famous book The Confluence of the Two Seas on the harmony between Sufi philosophy in Islam and Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism.

Dara Shikoh had convened an inter-religious conference in Kashi around the same time Kumaraguruparar was visiting. Kumaraguruparar participated in the event and explained in Indo-Persian, the merits of Shaivite philosophy. An impressed Dara Shikoh donated land and the necessary funds to Kumaraguruparar to set up the famous Kumaraswamy Mutt in downtown Varanasi. Dara Shikoh also renovated the decaying Kedarnath Temple on the banks of the Ganga and handed it over to Kumaraguruparar to conduct daily rituals.

“In 1720 AD, Thillainatha Swamigal, a Hindu saint, who received religious and spiritual teaching in Kashi Kumaraswamy Mutt, established its branch in Tiruppananthal near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. Because these bonds between Tamil Nadu and Kashi were nurtured by a Muslim prince, the organisers hailing from the saffron brigade chose to give it a miss at the event,” Marx said.

“Since Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin has been projecting a Dravidian model based on the development of subaltern castes, the RSS-BJP combine is reviving the Kashi-centric Aryanised upper caste monochrome model,” he added.

Kashi: a mosaic of composite culture

The BJP has even brushed aside the fact that Kashi was not just a Hindu spiritual centre. It was, in fact, a melting pot of many cultural identities. Bharatanatyam exponents used to go and stay in Kashi to learn Kathak and Kathak artistes used to come down south to Tanjavur to learn Bharatanatyam.

Carnatic music exponents used to go to Kashi to learn Hindustani music from the Banarasi Gharana exponents and perform at Assi Ghat on the banks of Ganga and Hindustani pundits from Kashi used to go and perform in Nagore Dargah at the Cauvery estuary. One of the members of Carnatic trinity, Muthuswamy Dikshithar, had visited Kashi.

People at the Kashi Tamil Sangamam in Varanasi.

Craftspersons from Kancheepuram and Banaras used exchange visits to learn from skills and designs in weaving silk saris from each other. Not only did Hindu aadeenams (mutts) in Tamil Nadu send their students to Kashi, even Buddhist monasteries in Kumbakonam and Kanchi used to send their disciples to the holy city.

After all, Kashi itself is a confluence of Hinduism and Buddhism what with Sarnath lying right on its outskirts. It was also the land of Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and Indo-Persian composite culture, popularly known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.

Interestingly, Kashi not only represented life for Hindus, it simultaneously symbolised renunciation of life as well.

In the face of emerging Dravidian assertion in early 20th century, RSS founder KB Hedgewar interpreted Aryan-Dravidian difference as merely spatial and not ethnic or cultural. Drawing inspiration from him, Tamil Nadu governor RN Ravi, who played a key role along in conceptualising Kashi Tamil Sanghamam, along with RSS leader Swaminathan Gurumurthy, has also been telling his audience in Tamil Nadu of late that the Aryan-Dravidian divide was only a geographic divide and no indigenous communities existed outside the fold of Hinduism in South India.

There seems to be a concerted effort to stress India’s oneness to the exclusion of its diversity.

Tamil artistes performed in Varanasi during the government event.

This excessive stress on uniformity during the freedom movement led to the tragedy of Partition and also gave birth to counter-currents among Dravidians, Sikhs and Dalits. The BJP and its larger Sangh Parivar seem to be repeating history in the name of reviving historical cultural ties.

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