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It was the election that changed Lucknow

Lucknow is famed for its secular and cosmopolitan culture. But after the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister, there are fears it might lose its unique character

long reads Updated: Jul 02, 2017 07:35 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
A view of the Bara Imambara and Asfi mosque in Lucknow and the city beyond it. Lucknow has always been known for its civilised and refined culture. But that tradition might now be changing under the shrill political and religious rhetoric being used across the nation.
A view of the Bara Imambara and Asfi mosque in Lucknow and the city beyond it. Lucknow has always been known for its civilised and refined culture. But that tradition might now be changing under the shrill political and religious rhetoric being used across the nation. (Getty Images)

It was late afternoon on the Sunday before Eid. Lucknow, especially the old quarter of the city, was in festive mode. Not only were the Muslims expecting Chaand Raat, as the evening before Eid is known, but the Hindus were celebrating Rathyatra – or the annual chariot festival in which Jagannath, along with his brother and sister, are taken out in a procession. At Lucknow’s Chowk bazaar, as women with mehndi-decorated palms and feet made last-minute Eid purchases, the entrance to the lane was a blur of saffron – flags, kurtas and scarves worn by men. Loudspeakers played songs glorifying the love of Radha and Krishna.

“I was there too, helping the yatra to pass through the lanes and by-lanes,” said 34-year-old Shoaib later that evening, as he manned the cash counter at his family’s restaurant at the Chowk. To a casual onlooker, this would be Lucknow’s famed Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb – that culture born of the fusion of traditions of different communities, which allows these communities to not only live together peacefully, but to also be a part of each other’s lives.

Rooted in history

“Due credit should be given to the nawabs for creating this composite culture,” says writer and social scientist Nadeem Hasnain, who came to Lucknow as a two-year-old and has spent his life here. “The tradition that they established was so strong, that even in those frenzied days of 1947 when the whole of India was burning, Lucknow was totally peaceful.” Some believe the goodwill was also born of necessity – most artisans engaged in the famed Lucknowi chikankari and zardozi work are Muslims, whereas shops selling these handicrafts are often owned by Hindus. “The two communities are like dal-chawal in a khichdi,” says Ashish Tripathi, giving the Ganga-Jamuni culture a homely spin . His grandfather opened the Pandit Raja Thandai shop at the Chowk in 1936 that has hosted celebrities like Sunil Dutt and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But like Urdu – the language of poetry and romance – and a certain refinement in society and people, which old Lucknow residents say are fast disappearing in the city today, the tehzeeb of civilised coexistence might also be falling prey to the shrill political and religious rhetoric being used across the nation. “Lucknow was an extremely polite, civilised society,” says Salman Qureshi*. “A bit of it changed with time anyway. But things have changed too dramatically in recent months.”

It takes a little careful examination to spot the fault lines. Salim Khan* has at his house photographs of old family members with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. He has also preserved a short letter from former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee inviting him to an iftar party. But the old man, who quotes from the Quran and the Gita with equal ease, says he is afraid to talk of the current situation in Lucknow.

The Turning Point

“This election was an anti-Muslim election,” says Qureshi. The selection of Yogi Adityanath – “a serving mahant” and one with a history of anti-minority posturing – as chief minister only intensified the practice of religion based politics, feel many. There is a fear psychosis, says Naseem Iqtidar Ali, who has been in Lucknow for the past 50 years. “Since Yogi Adityanath became chief minister, Muslims, whether they express it or not, are scared.”

It was there in the heart of 23-year-old Naira* even as she sold embroidered shararas in her shop in the old city. “I fear that there might be violence during the Eid prayers in the morning,” she confided. The festival passed off peacefully, but now many are wondering what will happen in the next Eid for which animals are offered as sacrifices. Many Muslims feel that the choice of Yogi as chief minister was made with the intention of instilling fear in the their hearts. “It was messaging. It was messaging loud and clear by the RSS saying watch out,” says Qureshi.

Shoppers at the Chowk bazaar in Lucknow’s old city area on the evening before Eid. The area was in full festive mode with Rathyatra coinciding with Chaand Raa. (Dheeraj Dhawan/HT Photo)

The policies that followed, especially the action against slaughterhouses – supposedly illegal and unlicensed ones – intensified the mood of wariness. The ongoing cow vigilantism across the country and mob violence against those suspected of killing cows or consuming beef has also added to the unease in Lucknow. “Though there have been no such cases in Lucknow, those living in Hindu-dominated areas are scared to be seen with meat. There is always the apprehension of people mistaking it for cow meat and becoming violent,” says Hasnain.

The chief minister’s personal interest in protecting cows was used by vigilantes to further their own discourse. Many feel that supporters of the Hindutva movement interpreted the appointment of Yogi as permission to saffronise the city. “Saffron scarves have disappeared from the market, they are so in demand,” agrees Ridhi Kishore Gour, 44, who is in the catering business. Gour has introduced and institutionalised a system of Gomti arti modelled on the Ganga arti in Benaras, in the hope that it will inspire people to keep the river clean. “The younger generation does get a little carried away. Some are getting aggressive. They don’t understand Hindutva. They are just sloganeering. But in Lucknow there are fortunately mature people from both communities to explain what’s right and what’s not to them.”

Divided By Faith

What Lucknow is witnessing now is an intrusion of religion in public domain and discourse – something that those living in the city feel never existed before. “There’s been an increase in religious manifestation by both communities in the past few years,” says Salma Siddiqui*, principal of a college in Lucknow. “And a section of Hindus, who feel that for centuries they were subdued under Muslim and English rule, believe their time has come now,” she says. Cows too have become more visible on Lucknow roads, she says.

The fact that the chief minister did not host an iftar party this time, has added to the mood of alienation among Muslims. “The community didn’t gain anything out of an iftar party, but it made us feel valued,” says Naseem Iqtidar Ali.

“Secularism has been the most important character of Lucknow society – the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb... But now Muslims are feeling alienated. The khushnuma mahaul (joyous ambience) of the city is gone. People are apprehensive. Not just Muslims, people of all religions are worried,” says Nawab Masood Abdullah , fashion designer and business

From the streets of the old city to cafes in Gomti Nagar, the chief minister and his policies are the hot topics of discussion. But often views are divided depending on which community one belongs to. “The mood in the city is very anti-Muslim. Even the police is hand-in-glove with the Hindutva supporters,” says a young Muslim college student out for a cup of tea with his friends on Eid. At the same café, a group of young Hindu professionals praises the law and order situation under Yogi. They question the basis of the Muslim fear. “Has Yogi Adityanath acted against them?” they ask.

The fact that some Hindus, like photographer Ravi Kapoor, who have many Muslim friends but have never heard them expressing fear of the present government, only shows the widening divide between the communities. “Very often you learn to keep quiet, to not get drawn into any controversy. That reservation has crept in. Every issue now takes a communal colour,” agrees Salma Siddiqui. One Lucknow resident gives the example of the recent Champions Trophy cricket final between Indian and Pakistan. “Our Hindu friends could openly crack jokes about the performance of the Indian team. We couldn’t for fear of being branded Pakistani supporters,” he says. Siddiqui though says the “legacy of mili-juli sanskriti” (fusion culture) can’t end so suddenly. She is hopeful that some balance will remain.

Of course this is not the first time that there’s been communal disharmony in Lucknow. There was tension at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. “But this time it’s more organised,” says Qureshi. He gives the example of hate messages against Muslims in local WhatsApp groups. “It is easy to get carried away when you pitch politics at an emotional level. It is changing the Lucknow society,” he says, adding, “The language of these messages is not Lucknow language.” Some choose to blame the media for it. “When you raise issues like Hindutva, I think these are issues that are being created more for selling something on media. Why highlight these things? The media should focus on the positives,” says businessman Kiran Chopra.

For A Better Tomorrow

But educationist Amrita Dass feels that the discomfort with the right narrative is increasing even among some Hindus who were okay with it as long as it was not an extreme right agenda. “Of late many of them have also expressed concern about the direction the central and the state governments are taking.” She adds: “Sabka sath sabka vikas is a fantastic concept, but sabka saath precedes sabka vikas and that is a big challenge for the chief minister. Particularly at a time when vigilante groups have taken the law in their own hands.”

“The young generation gets a little carried away at times. Some get aggressive. But in Lucknow people of both communities tell them what is right,” says Ridhi Kishore Gour, businessman

In his book The Other Lucknow, Nadeem Hasnain uses an Urdu couplet that translates to “Lucknow is now complaining to me day in and day out and lamenting that it is dying slowly”. The same may be true of its tehzeeb – especially the one of tolerance. If there is hope, it is in the spirit of its people. One of the first things that Yogi Adityanath had initiated after becoming chief minister was the formation of anti-Romeo squads, supposedly to tackle eve-teasing. The force quickly turned into a moral police, and harassment of couples was reported. The squad was checked. But three months later, there is little visible fear in the people of the city. Young couples hold hands as they stroll along the beautified river front – a pet project of the Akhilesh Yadav government. If that same resilience is shown by different religious communities in their interactions with each other, no amount of religious or political posturing will be able to change that. “Lucknow society is very accepting. The number of inter-religious marriages I have seen here... There was huge angst and heartburn when they were about to happen but how quickly things got resolved once the marriages were done,” says Qureshi. The city needs to display that same acceptance in the public domain today.

*Names have been changed to protect identities