“Yeh sheher kiska hai?”
Anurag Pande, member of the BJP state working committee, throws the question in the middle of a heated discussion on the elections, in a group which includes political partisans, a trade union leader, an advocate, a critic of Urdu literature. The venue is the Coffee House in Civil Lines, in the heart of Allahabad.
“Yeh Sufi santon ka sheher hai (it’s the city of Sufi saints),” the critic Ali Ahmad Fatmi picks up the gauntlet on the coffee table. But the conversation has already moved on.
It’s a place not unused to the rise and ebb of fundamental questions.
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The Coffee House in Civil Lines, hub of Lohia-ites and JP-ites during the Emergency, is set in a city that has a strong sense of itself, and of its many selves. A city that prides itself on having been a centre of power and also a nurturing ground of the anti-establishment.
It was in Phulpur in Allahabad district, after all, that Ram Manohar Lohia dared to take on Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. Lohia lost, but the contest was seen to presage the denting of Congress dominance in several north Indian states in 1967. It was in Phulpur again that the unofficial coming together of the SP and BSP sprang a surprise last year, defeating the ruling BJP in a by-poll — this election will tell whether or not Phulpur 2018 was a premonition for India 2019.
Today, the candidates from Allahabad have become relatively non-descript, but the political divisions are far sharper — and that question in the Coffee House has acquired a never-before edge.
Rajendra Kumar, poet and critic, laments the loss of an older salience, and talks of the new “baudhik aatank (intolerance)” stalking the city. It is telling that there should be more talk of Begusarai in this election than of the city that has given prime ministers, he points out. “And public discourse and literature, already under siege, must contend with the new polarisation. You call someone Hindutvavadi, label someone else pro-Muslim. Writers need to talk to each other, not for or against political parties.”
In the past year and more, Allahabad has also been the city that the BJP governments, at the Centre and in the state, have sought to paint over, in saffron.
Quite literally so.
Ahead of the Kumbh, or on its pretext, Allahabad got a new name, Prayagraj. It also got a makeover.
Along with the widening of roads and streamlining of chaurahas, murals were painted on the city walls and building facades, and statues and sculptures installed, including a 30-feet statue of Bharadwaj muni, to commemorate a “Hindu” culture and history. Non-Hindu figures have been conspicuously relegated. Many point to the exclusion, particularly, of Maulvi Liaqat Ali, who prominently led the 1857 revolt in Allahabad.
“Maulvi Liaqat Ali was raising the banner of the Mughal Sultanate, not Bharat Mata,” says Prof Yogeshwar Tiwari, head of department, medieval history, Allahabad University. “Rishi Bharadwaj is of this soil. He taught at a time when there were no universities, gave the first concept of the udan khatola, something that can fly.”
The confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna was always Prayagraj, it was Akbar who changed its name, says Tiwari. “Composite culture? It’s an afterthought. Were Babar and Akbar thinking of composite culture? They were only showing off their strength. Nationalism is in the forefront now,” he says.
“But what will you do about the Allahabad in poetry and in literature?” asks Vivek Nirala, who teaches Hindi in a college and is the great grandson of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, whose poem poignantly framed the toiling woman, her dignity and her exploitation: “Wah todti patthar/dekha maine use Allahabad ke path par/Wah todti patthar.”
The city of Akbar Allahabadi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Sumitra Nandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Harivansh Rai Bachchan was “the political and educational capital of the country and both Hindus and Muslims contributed to it being so. Allahabad University was the first to start a PhD programme in Urdu,” says N R Farooqi, former vice chancellor of Allahabad University and a scholar of medieval history.
He rejects the government’s claim that it was only restoring an older identity. “Prayagraj was a different settlement, a centre of pilgrimage,” he says. “It is wrong to say that he renamed Prayag, Akbar built a new city. It was from this new city of Allahabad that prince Salim rebelled against his father, here that he built Khusro Bagh, which has some of the finest specimens of Mughal architecture.”
Nirala and Farooqi were among those who signed a petition against the city’s renaming — Allahabad High Court rejected the petition.
“Hum kab Hindu, aur kab Musalman, ho gaye (when did we become Hindu, when did we become Muslim)”, wonders Ajay Jaitly, professor at the Department of Visual Arts in Allahabad University, who lives in the old city area, crucible of its unique “mizaj (temperament)”, its “milee julee (mixed)” spirit.
Jaitly, a painter himself, talks of the injury to it caused by the public art newly installed in Allahabad. “There was a saanjhi sanskriti, shared culture, of participation in each other’s lives. Now, Allahabad is being projected as a dharmik (religious) city, and the Kumbh as an event of one religion. In its true form, it is an aastha ka mela (confluence of faiths).”
Jaitly and some other city intellectuals spoke out publicly against the predominantly religious imagery on the walls of the city. A different iconography was possible, he says: “For the logo of the Prayag Mahotsav in 1998, for instance, we used the symbols of the river, the fort, the banyan tree.”
The painting of the city has left its Muslim enclaves untouched. “There is no repainting of walls here, no sewer lines have been relaid. Isn’t this, too, their city?” asks Fardeen Khan, 28 years old, at the Islamia College Chauraha in the old city.
Here, the talk is of the closing of a 200-year-old slaughter house, declared illegal, rendering about 4,000 unemployed. “Now, they come to our mohallas and raise loud slogans. But this is a place where during festivals, Muslims would serve water to Hindu devotees,” says Shoib. And Fardeen asks: “Do we not vote, are we not part of the political currents in this country? Without our participation could there have been a large mandate?”
At the elegant campus of Allahabad University, where the SP and BSP have a strong imprint in the student union elections held regularly, the political divide seems to go right down the middle.
“Ground level issues are absent in this election, the media is being managed,” says Abhishek Maurya, 22. “We need to talk about examination paper leaks, irregularities in appointments, new cities. Yes, the Mahagathbandhan has a leadership problem but ours is not a presidential form of government.”
“This government does not speak to us about jobs, asks for our votes in the name of the soldier. Money spent on the Kumbh could have been used to create jobs”, says Avinash Yadav, 24. “The PM is violating the EC’s code, yet it does nothing. Institutions are being hollowed,” says Bhuvnesh.
Karunanidhi Yadav speaks from the other side: “We have got a feeling of a rashtra (larger entity) ever since Modi came.”
“Mindsets have changed with Swachh Bharat. The army is stronger, our emotional attachment to it greater,” says Sarthak Jaiswal.
In the city of Allahabad, then, ahead of the election, the immense political-ideological force of the Modi campaign can be felt, but also resistance to it from those who oppose its attempts to dominate and to exclude.
Outside the city, in the villages that surround it, however, the opposition to Modi seems to fall back on unembellished back-to-basics calculations of “core” caste support, and a bare-knuckled alliance arithmetic.
In village after village, the Yadavs talk of supporting the SP, the Jatavs profess loyalty to the BSP, and by all accounts, the vote transfer between the two parties in the Mahagathbandhan seems wrinkle-free.
The BJP has made and maintained significant inroads in the non-Yadav OBCs, where resentment of “Yadav raj” in the SP regimes remains high, even though it is somewhat blunted by the transfer of power within the party from Mulayam Singh to Akhilesh. The non-Jatav SCs seem more evenly divided between the BJP and BSP. As for the Congress, it may have a chance next time, is the patronising refrain.
“My name is Yadav, I vote for the SP. Even if I were to vote for the BJP, they will not believe me. But I did vote for Modi in 2014, aakrosh mein (in anger), to oust the Congress,” says Lachman Prasad Yadav, former pradhan, in village Pahadipur.
In this election, he says, “jo unke hain, woh unka gaa rahe hain. Aur hum apna gaa rahe hain (they are singing their tune, we are singing ours)”.