From Illahabas to Allahabad to Prayagraj - who cares and why
At the Allahabad Government Public Library , Gopal Mohan Shukla is poring over every line of the official documents passing through his office. As the librarian, he has to make sure they bear the city’s new name, Prayagraj, in the dateline. The traffic signal can’t show red when the order is for green. He says he has nothing to say about Allahabad turning into Prayagraj. In a library, he says, the books should do the talking.
Avinash Kumar, a student, is browsing through certain chapters of an old colonial-era gazette of Allahabad in preparation for an exam. It shows the Mughal emperor Akbar had made Allahabad into a province around 1575 by joining three subahs, and named it Ilahabas. (Ilhabas is the place where Divinity lives; Ilah is a general word for God, any god.) In Ilahabas, Akbar maintained the social, political and religious status quo. Of the 11 forts he built in and around the province to control the economic largesse from the heartland, seven were controlled by the Brahmins; Rajputs, Kayasths and Muslim landholders controlled the rest of them.
“So whom did the Mughals deprive or disempower?”, wonders Kumar in the context of statements by politicians of renaming Allahabad to reclaim a ‘Hindu city’ lost to the Mughals. “The British, in fact, razed villages and built a British town. They hung people from the trees, killed pregnant women….”
As for Prayag, the name was and is in currency for the confluence of three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. “Prayagraj,” says Saurabh Basu, an advocate practising at the Allahabad High Court, “is the name of the train that goes to Delhi.”
Skand Shukla, a state government officer, says Prayagraj evokes “only one aspect of the city’s spirit that is mythical and religious. Allahabad brings forth a picture of the area’s political, historical, legal, literary and religious vastness.”
Like many residents of Allahabad stunned by the name change, Basu looks as if he has been hit by the classic lawyer’s dilemma; having to defend a case when he has been told half the story.
“Didn’t get what the name change will achieve,” he says. Growing up he always knew Prayag as “the city limit and never the entire city. And besides, few people here liked to cross the Ganga. People came from all over the Presidency towns in the late 19th century, but they went back too. It’s a city for migrants but not anyone with a big bank balance or the stomach to make it big in business.” And that’s the way, he suggests, Allahabadis, have so far wanted it: a small town with the cosmopolitanism of a big city but never fully convinced that it had to be one.
The real deal, as its people have always known, was in being the underground. The Kumbh melas get Allahabad into the headlines once every six (Ardh-Kumbh) and 12 years; after the melas are over, the residents of Allahabad move on. Allahabad is the quintessential city of Nehruvian liberal modernity but it also yielded space to Lohiaiite socialism and then its offshoots, Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party. It has also been a centre of RSS politics; Rajendra Singh or Rajju Bhaiyya, the fourth RSS head, and its first north Indian sarsanghchalak, was a professor of physics at Allahabad University.
As many branches as many trees
“Political success and political dissent, this is a city, that has not let congeal any orthodoxy,” says Pranay Krishna, professor, Allahabad University. This is perhaps why the city has until now not shifted entirely to the Hindutva highway. Or for that matter, any one highway. Allahabad has two Lok Sabha constituencies, currently split between the BJP and the SP. Of the 12 assembly seats, the BJP has the majority, eight.
“Even those who voted for the BJP in the last assembly elections, I doubt they would have voted for it had they known about the name change,” says Anugraha Singh, a Congressman and a former MLA. Locals have always used both names -- Prayag and Allahabad -- interchangeably. For the first time, it seems one has been privileged over the other. “Allahabadis take their liberalism very seriously.” adds Singh.
In Allahabad, liberalism is almost a religion. Even the man or the woman on the Right will say he or she is one. “What you call Nehruvian liberalism, we call social harmony,” says Narendra Gaur of the BJP.
The city’s artistic world has also been a ground for battles. Debates among conservatives and liberals but also among the romantics, realists, progressives and modernists, has shaped its public sphere; these debates have had a bearing not only on the realm of Hindi and Urdu literature but also on national politics. A new Hindi-Hindu reality was sought to be constructed in a way that eventually generated the tide of Hindu nationalism, says noted Urdu critic and novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. This involved artificially dividing a language into Hindi and Urdu on the basis of two scripts – Nagari and Perso-Arabic – and two vocabularies , suggesting that one was exclusive to the Hindus and the other to the Muslims.
“In 1895, in Varanasi, was started the Nagari Pracharani Sabha. It had a strong role in promoting Hindi/Hindu nationalism. It was also among the sponsors of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan formed 15 years later in Allahabad. The latter became the site for the forging of the slogan Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani,” he adds.
This strand and sentiment still find a cachet in today’s times, says Allahabad’s most well-known public intellectual Alok Rai. Rai is the grandson of Premchand, who fathered realism and progressivism in Hindi literature. It was only after he had settled in Allahabad that Premchand made seminal contributions in shaping the modern Hindi literary discourse through Hans, a journal he edited.
“The Prayag of rivers, Sangam, funeral rites, I can understand. But Prayagraj is a Brahminising move. The whole sound and spectacle of a ‘teertharaj’ somewhere pleases the Braminical Hindu who has been in a state of assertion for a long time. This is a Panditji who thinks well of himself but he finds people wealthier than him, so in Allahabad becoming Prayagraj there is a kind of symbolic gratification. He has also felt excluded in the Anglophonic environment of Allahabad and so the only vengeance he can have now is symbolic because real change in the social balance of power will require more than a change of signage.”
Rai, however, also feels that this breeding ground of resentment eventually fed into the politics of the RSS-BJP. “But it has been prepared precisely by the self-centred and myopic Nehruvian elite --the Kashmiri Pandits, Kayasths, the Muslim aristocracy and the upper-caste Bengalis -- which didn’t understand that there would be costs of its dominance,” he says. The Prayagraj project is evidently the assertion of a second-rung elite, mainly Brahmins, Khatris, Baniyas and Rajputs, against this first-rung liberal elite.
Due to this tussle at the top, the popular history of Allahabad has been pushed to the margins. The Pasi people (a Scheduled Caste) of the city have, for example, been rendered invisible by dominant discourses generated and shaped by this competition among its various elite groups.
Ram Bahadur, a retired IAS officer from Allahabad and a member of the Pasi community, points out how even the numerical strength of his community (10% of the population of the city) has remained denied in most of Allahabad’s official histories so as to underplay and undermine their potential for power.
“The British paid the Pasis, a warrior class, for their unrelenting resistance during the 1857 rebellion, by the Criminal Tribe Act, 1871, and classified them as habitual criminals. It took 12 years after Independence for this act to be repealed,” says Bahadur, who contested the 2017 Assembly elections after retirement from Lucknow on a BSP ticket.
Allahabad remained a colonial city even after the British left, right until the heyday of Nehruvian liberalism, adds retired academic Manas Mukul Das, who also traces the alienation and displacement of the traditional elite by the particular nature of Allahabad’s modernity, something that was determined by how English you could be. It also helped to be plugged into the usual networks.
The last bungalow
Chintamoni Ghosh’s Indian Press was the publisher of all mainstream litterateurs and literary currents in the late 19th century when Allahabad was a boomtown. His work in the “cause of Hindi literature” was lauded by Subhash Chandra Bose at a gathering in Calcutta. Ramananda Chatterjee, the principal of the Kayastha Vidyala in Allahabad, and the editor of two top-line journals, Prabasi and Modern Review, introduced Ghosh to Rabindranath Tagore.
“Besides 87 titles of Tagore from 1908-22, The Indian Press printed the first Hindi literary magazine, Saraswati; Premchand’s first Hindi novel and Nirala’s translation of Tagore,” says Kalyan Ghosh, Chinatamoni’s grandson, who lives in a palatial bungalow in Georgetown, a posh colony. However, a dumpster now sits outside his house and the road outside is full of potholes. Sangam is a half hour drive from his home.
“I have seen at least 60 Kumbhs, it was never a problem before, suddenly all roads need to be dug up to widen roads for this Kumbh (due to start in January). As for the new name, what’s in a name? A lot of Bengalis still call Calcutta, Calcutta, don’t they? But things change, our entire neighbourhood has. I don’t know half my neighbours, where they are from….” He is, however, quick to point out that the dateline in many of his books has also used Prayag as its publishing address.
Dhiraj Kumar, his security guard, suffers from no such anxiety. He is Team Prayagraj. A resident of a village from outside Allahabad, he has moved into a rented home near Jagataran Vidyalaya. His is a mixed neighbourhood, he says of “old-time Allahabadis and people like us from the village. We do not visit each other’s homes but there is no quarrel either.” He says he dreams of moving into one of the big bungalows that a decrepit Allahabad is still known for one day. And that day, he feels he may understand why it’s such a big deal for some people that Allahabad should stay Allahabad.