Aishbagh, a small locality in the backyard of old Lucknow – known for its lush green forest cover and a beautiful lake known as Motijheel – will have the distinction of hosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of the festival of Dussehra at its sprawling Ramlila Maidan on Tuesday. In choosing to celebrate the festival at the low-profile destination, Modi has become the first prime minister to step out of New Delhi for Dussehra.
But why Aishbagh? Though speculations are rife about his motive, there is no denying that Aishbagh serves a combination of rich syncretic tradition of Oudh and a unique history of social harmony. Old timers in Lucknow would recall a saying deeply buried in their memory, that goes like, “jisko na de maula use de Asaf-ud-Daula (those denied by God, are rewarded by Asaf-ud-Daula instead).” The munificence of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, the eighteenth century wazir of Oudh, was legendary.
More than a century before economist John Maynard Keynes was born, and later discovered pump priming as a tool to revive a sluggish economy, Asaf-ud-Daula deployed massive state expenditure to overcome a famine-like situation in the region in the 1780s. The architectural grandeur of old Lucknow bears testimony to the Nawab’s sagacity and perspicacity.
The story of Asaf-ud-Daula assumes significance in the current context for many reasons. For instance, in Aishbagh, the Nawab donated lands for the purpose of celebrating Ramlila and Idgah, which exist cheek by jowl even today.
Despite the combustible combination of the population that draws from Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the locality, Aishbagh has always remained an epitome of Oudh’s syncretic culture, even in the worst of times. In this context, Modi’s presence at one of India’s oldest Ramlila grounds would serve as a powerful symbolism that goes beyond politics.
Modi might have chosen Aishbagh randomly or for political reasons, but the place is certainly out of the ordinary. Barely a few yards away from the Ramlila Maidan exists a Gurudwara in the Rakabganj area which is adjacent to a Karbala ground, where Shias mourn the sacrifice of Imam Hussain on the occasion of Muharram. This small locality in Lucknow is a multi-cultural cauldron that contains various strands of all faiths, co-existing together in perfect harmony for centuries on end.
Apart from the historical context, Aishbagh was once upon a time an industrial area modelled on the Soviet Union’s planned economy. And, as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reposed faith in the ‘Soviet-style planned economy’, Aishbagh was chosen as a place to give fillip to industrial development. The government constructed two sprawling colonies to provide cheap but good accommodation to those who worked for private industries.
In the post liberalisation phase, however, the small, medium and large industrial units set up in the locality found it difficult to cope with the changing times. The once smoke-billowing chimneys have now fallen silent.
On first glance, there is a graveyard like silence in the industrial estate which once used to be hyper-active with labour activities and manufacturing. Over the past three decades, however, the locality has witnessed a transition of its blue-collared workers into the powerful middle-class by adapting to the changing economic realities and joining the service sector. Aishbagh is also symbolic of a rising neo-middle class that is rootless, nimble-footed and guided more by self-interests than political ideology.
In essence, the transition of Aishbagh from a lush green forest to an industrial estate and subsequently to a neo-middle class colony is coterminous with the historical journey of rest of India. What is certainly outstanding about Aishbagh though is the fact that it has managed to retain its distinctive feature of cultural syncretism, inherited from the rich history of Oudh.