2006 Varanasi Bombings
Hindus torn by bomb attacks
5:00AM Friday Mar 10, 2006
By Justin Huggler, The New Zealand Herald
VARANASI – Surender Agarwal had just got married when the Varanasi bombs went off. He and his wife were coming to the end of their ceremony in the courtyard of one of the city’s Hindu temples when a bomb exploded metres away.
The priest who was officiating was killed, as were two of the family members. Now Agarwal and his new wife, Manju, are lying side by side in hospital beds.
The bride, in her twenties, has bad shrapnel injuries in her legs, and is spending her honeymoon in agony.
“Whoever did this is a traitor,” says Agarwal. The newlyweds are a long way from home. Agarwal’s wife is a Nepali, from Kathmandu; she met her husband on a visit to his home city of Bombay. They agreed to marry in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi on the recommendation of a priest who was an old family friend, who said it would bring blessings – but he is now dead, killed in the bomb blast.
Their story is typical of a city that is close to the hearts of every Hindu.
At least 20 people are believed to have been killed in bombings at a temple and a railway station on Tuesday. But it is being seen as an attack on all Hindus in the same way September 11 in New York was seen as an attack on all Americans.
Down at the ghats, the banks of the holy river of the Ganges, where pilgrims come to immerse themselves and the dead are cremated over pyres of sandalwood, the people are in shock.
The Western backpackers are still there: young men with John Lennon haircuts and glasses wearing lungis, the Indian version of a sarong; alongside women in striped ethnic trousers.
But it is uncomfortably quiet. Usually, this is a place where a foreigner cannot move 10 paces without being offered a neck massage and a boat ride, and acquiring a new guide who can’t be shaken off. Yesterday, the locals seemed to have lost heart.
Dinesh Chaubey ran away from his village as a child to come and work for the poor in Varanasi. Everybody knows him on the ghats. But now he was grieving.
“When I heard about the bomb, I rushed to the temple to help,” he says. “But when I got there I saw bodies that were just pieces of meat. They had no arms or legs, their heads were lying on the other side of the courtyard.
I picked up one young girl and carried her out. She had lost her legs, she was so far gone she couldn’t feel any pain, and she looked right into my eyes. Today, I keep seeing her in my arms again, and I am in pain.”
People come to Varanasi from all over the world because it is seen as a spiritual city. Mirabai Nicholson-McKellan, an Australian, has felt impelled to return to India every year since her first visit, to come back to Varanasi. Elderly Hindus come here to live out their last days, because it’s believed to be auspicious to die here. But Varanasi is now a city of conflict.
“The Muslims have done this. Always the Muslims kill Hindus,” said Ashok Patel, one of an angry crowd at the Shankar Mochan temple that was hit in the bombings.
“We have had it up to here. It’s time we Hindus did the same to them.”
Behind Varanasi’s spiritual facade is a city seething with religious tensions. Everybody blames Islamic militants for the bombings. In a city with a mixed Hindu and Muslim population and a history of violent clashes, it’s a dangerous atmosphere.
“Yes, I’m scared something may happen,” said Naseem Ahmed, an elderly Muslim. “Some bad people have done this to create trouble between the Hindus and the Muslims.”
Last week, four people were killed when Muslims protesting against a visit by US President George W. Bush clashed with Hindus in the nearby state capital, Lucknow.
A Muslim minister in the state Government recently offered a multimillion-dollar reward to anyone who beheaded the Danish cartoonist who drew the Prophet Muhammad.
Hindu extremists riposted by offering the same sum for the head of MF Hussain, a Muslim painter, after he painted Hindu goddesses as nudes.
Varanasi is rife with rumour. Everyone here believes far more than 20 people died in the bombs. They believe an explosion some six months ago on the ghats, in which several people died, was not caused by a faulty gas cylinder as the police said.
Meanwhile police yesterday killed two alleged Islamic militants from the group Lashkar-e Toiba in Delhi, and a third in a separate raid in Lucknow.
Although police did not link the raids to the Varanasi bombings, everyone here believes they were.
“It’s time for us Hindus to stop being defensive, we should attack our enemies,” said Kaushan Kishor Choudhry, who was injured in the temple blast, from his hospital bed. “I mean we should attack Pakistan.”
Lashkar-e Toiba was once backed by Pakistani intelligence. Many people here insist the group still is.
They say Pakistan was not happy after Bush offered India a strategic alliance in last week’s visit.
The US is increasingly talking of India not in the same breath as Pakistan, but as a counterweight to China.
But it seems many here are not ready to give up old ways of thinking.