Kautilya Society, Varanasi: a boon or menace?
In October 2011, Kautilya Society helped us set up our first base in Varanasi. They gave us 50% discount on accommodation and food in return for organizing cultural activities on the rooftop cafe. This helped Espirito Kashi sustain itself. There have been controversies against the existence of this civil society, providing accommodation services in Varanasi and also advocating for the protection of the heritage sites in the times when beautiful traditional spaces are being transformed into hotels or are being demolished to make way for fancy looking buildings. The society fights for the implementation of the already existing laws that prohibits any new constructions on the Ghats of Varanasi. At the same, Kautilya Society runs like a homely guest house, which provides accomodation and other services to it’s guests (once you become members). They hope to promote cultural dialogue through this. And there is a rooftop cafe, where members can enjoy coffee and snacks.
It is important to understand why such a civil society is being hated by the public in Varanasi. As far as the traders, politicians and shiv sena is concerned, it is obvious that they have no interest or knowledge about the heritage of Varanasi and are in it for the immense profitable possibilities. But the local people in the neighborhood of the Kautilya Society, also disapprove of the activities performed by the society. Upon interactions with the locals, we found that their concerns are about the hookah cafe that runs on the rooftop and the manager (also the society’s Treasurer) who has been accused time and again for allowing and participating in gambling in the cafe during off seasons. The management is usually out of Varanasi for their other projects. During our documentary screening sessions, we noticed signs of such shady activities over card games, but that stopped when management returned back to Ram Bhawan (Kautilya Society’s residence in Varanasi). The management of the society was completely oblivious to it and preferred keeping silent about it, even when we informed them about the same. The local people were worried about their children who often visited the place and were developing gambling habits. We all know how word of mouth flies within the narrow lanes of Varanasi, much faster, when it’s about such cases. And why not? A certain disconnect was felt in the vichaar dhaara and eventually, we moved out.
These people in the locality are also unaware of the real objectives of the Kautilya Society: Heritage Protection and Awareness. To them, it is a guest house in the corner, competing with other small guest houses in the area. A few who know about the society’s intentions are unsure if it possible to protect these structures. Since, these structures are not museums like in Europe but they are homes, people live in these buildings. Some of these structures are in need of immediate renovation. People are in a constant state of risk in these buildings and to refurbish these structures according to the existing law can be an expensive affair. In order to earn easy money, and by capitalizing on the number of tourists visiting Varanasi, they prefer transforming their traditional structure into a guest house. Therefore, we will need a civil society in Varanasi which has the potential to reach the root cause of the problem and find a balanced solution. Kautilya Society could also collaborate with an organization who works with Heritage Architecture and provide alternative and effective solutions.
In response to the procession (organized by Shiv Sena and found support from local traders, politicians and people) that took place a few days back against the society near the ghats of Varanasi, Kautilya Society published an interview with Vrinda Dar as a response to the procession (attached below). Here, we have a case of a civil society fighting for heritage and culture protection and it has no support at all, neither from the from the local public or from the state and let’s forget about the private players. This is rather strange.
Referring to Vrinda’s interview, “We must change with time, understand the role of ngo in a society”. Similarly, an ambitious NGO like Kautilya Society must also change its way rather innovatively, that corresponds with the current needs of the people who live in these structures, who cannot afford to refurbish according to these existing laws. Unless, the society’s aspirations are not only limited to making sure the state is following the laws or to maintain it’s status quo in Varanasi, I reckon, the team should have much more interaction with the local people, who are really facing the burden of this situation from both sides. Because, in these hard times, society’s members who are mostly tourists, will not come to the rescue. The locals would have the solutions. Like you said, we need a participatory approach to this. In this case participation must be from these people, to whom, the heritage belongs.
Vrinda Dar, the director of the society, is an encouraging personality, who loves Varanasi, for the same reasons we all do. I have always enjoyed her insight about heritage protection and about other issues that affect the society. In this video, we see Vrinda criticizing the state and the local community for not being able to understand the role of an NGO in a society and for the subtle violence that she faces in the Indian society for being a strong woman who would like to bring influential changes. She speaks from the heart all throughout, no doubt.
[Update: a facebook conversation about the same topic]