While there is hardly any region of India that is completely free of it, feudalism has a special place in the politics of Awadh in central Uttar Pradesh.
It seems every political party operating in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh is deeply entrenched in feudalistic structures. This fact can be easily verified by looking into the social profiles and professional lives of powerful politicians in the region.
The consequences of this tendency are yet to be fully explored, but this article aims at providing a descriptive analysis of the feudalism prevalent in the region. In addition to this, it also tries to explore the causes of the sustainability of feudalism in this region.
To begin with, we need to visualise the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh. It can be done geographically as well as culturally. Geographic identification can be based on the flow of the Ganga river and its tributaries namely Gomati and Ghaghra, whereas cultural identification can be based on the spread of the Awadhi language. Since Ayodhya is the best-known place of the region, hence, it can be taken as the epicentre of Awadh.
Feudal in Politics
Beginning with Ayodhya district, the name of the parliamentary constituency of this district is Faizabad. There is hardly any prominent politician belonging to erstwhile feudal estates who is currently active in politics here, but back in the 2009 general election, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had fielded Vimlendra Mohan Mishra, the erstwhile king of Ayodhya as its candidate, who lost to Mitrasen Yadav of the Samajwadi Party headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav.
In the north-west direction of Ayodhya are Gonda and Bahraich districts. In Gonda, there is Manikapur estate whose Kirti Vardhan Singh is an incumbent MP of the BJP from Kaisharganj parliamentary constituency. This constituency had been carved out in the last delimitation exercise from Gonda and Bahraich districts.
To the west of Ayodhya, there is Shahjahanpur district, which used to be a bastion of Jitendra Prasad whose son Jitin Prasada was a minister in the UPA government. Jitin Prasada, too, has a feudal lineage since his grandmother was from the Kapurthala estate.
Likewise, in the south-west direction of Ayodhya, there is Amethi and Pratapgrah districts, adjacent to which are Rae Barelli and Sultanpur. This whole region has been a stronghold of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The sad truth, however, is that for all the social justice rhetoric of the Congress party, this region is still in the grip of feudalism.
Nehru-Gandhi Family and Feudalism in Amethi-Pratapgarh
The Nehru-Gandhi family has always won Rae Barelli and Amethi parliamentary constituencies, except on a few occasions. Besides Amethi, there is the Pratapgarh constituency, the feudalism of which became well known in the country when the Mayawati administration booked Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiya, heir of the erstwhile Kunda estate. Raghuraj Pratap Singh has been winning the Kunda Assembly seat independently, whereas his cousin Akshay Pratap Singh was MP from Pratapgarh on an SP ticket.
The Pratapgarh parliamentary constituency also has the Kalankar estate. The erstwhile king of this estate, Dinesh Singh, served as union minister in various departments including External Affairs, in Congress governments. His daughter, Ratna Singh, won the parliamentary election from Pratapgarh in 2009 on a Congress ticket.
Despite being a strong bastion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the politics of Amethi has been managed by heirs of Amethi and Tiloi estates. Sanjay Singh, who is currently Rajya Sabha MP of the Congress party from Assam, is heir of the erstwhile Amethi estate and this time, he is contesting from Sultanpur constituency.
His second wife, Amita Singh, had been Chairperson of the Zilla Panchayat of Sultanpur district and has also been an MLA from Amethi. In the 2017 Assembly election, Amita Singh lost to BJP candidate Garima Singh. Garima Singh is the first wife of Sanjay Singh and also a relative of the ex-prime minister VP Singh.
Amethi has been a stronghold of Sanjay Singh since the days of his friendship with Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. His popularity remained high even after the sensational murder of former national badminton champion Syed Modi.
Sanjay Singh, along with Akhilesh Singh and Amita Singh, was charge-sheeted by the CBI for conspiring in the murder of Syed Modi, but later, all three were acquitted. At the time of the murder, Amita Singh, then Amita Modi, was wife of Syed Modi. After the acquittal, she got married to Sanjay Singh.
The defeat of Amita Singh in the last Assembly election indicates that BJP has undermined Sanjay Singh in the Amethi Assembly constituency. Similarly, BJP has been successful in incorporating Mayankeshwar Saran Singh, the heir of the erstwhile Tiloi estate. In the 2017 Assembly election, Mayankeshwar Saran Singh won from the Tiloi assembly constituency on a BJP ticket. Before joining BJP, Singh was an MLA from SP.
Neo-feudalism: Reproduction of Feudalism
The Awadh region has not only been witnessing old feudalism but it is also witness to the rise of neo-feudalism. The old feudalism has been primarily based on monopoly over the ownership of land and other natural resources whereas neo-feudalism is based on domination, subordination and appropriation of new avenues of power.
New avenues of power include schools, colleges, public shops, private transportations. petrol pumps, gas agencies, public works et cetera. For capturing these avenues of power, old social elites of this region, primarily from the upper castes, have been adamant in capturing political power first.
This whole process can be understood by looking into the career trajectories of neo-feudal social elites.
Rae Barelli is known as much for the Gandhis as it is known for Akhilesh Pratap Singh. Akhilesh Singh’s daughter, Aditi Singh, is presently the Congress MLA from Rae Barelli Assembly constituency. Akhilesh Pratap Singh inherited the legacy of his father, Dhunni Singh, who was a local politician of the Congress but very close to Indira Gandhi.
His closeness with Indira Gandhi helped him in acquiring huge property. Though Akhilesh Singh inherited the legacy of his father, after his name figured the Syed Modi murder case as one of the accused, the Congress distanced itself from him.
Despite this, Akhilesh Singh always won the Rae Barelli Assembly seat, before handing the baton to his US-returned daughter, Aditi.
The SP-BSP alliance has fielded Chandrabhadra Singh alias Sonu Singh from Sultanpur. Chandrabhadra Singh’s brother, Yashbhadra Singh, alias Monu Singh, is an accused in a series of criminal offences such as murder, dacoity, kidnapping et cetera. Both brothers are accused of preventing people from contesting panchayat elections in the Ishauli area. It is alleged that they got at least a dozen pradhans (heads of village panchayats) elected unopposed in the Dhanpatganj block of Sultanpur district.
When a woman named Kamala Yadav sought to contest the panchayat election, she was escorted to her nomination by the district magistrate himself, owing to the death threats that she had been receiving.
Some days later, Kamala Yadav’s husband, Ram Kumar Yadav, was kidnapped and murdered. This time, Kamala Yadav is contesting from Sultanpur on the ticket of Shivpal Singh Yadav’s Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party.
Faizabad constituency has also witnessed the rise of neo-feudalism. Here, SP-BSP alliance has fielded Anand Sen Yadav, son of former MP Mitrasen Yadav. Anand Sen Yadav’s name figured as an accused in the kidnapping and murder of Shashi, a Dalit community law graduate from the Saket PG College, Ayodhya.
Shashi was a young social activist associated with BSP, and at the time of her murder, Anand Sen Yadav was minister in the BSP government. Though Anand Sen Yadav has been acquitted by the Allahabad High Court, a final appeal is still pending before the Supreme Court. It is alleged that Anand Sen Yadav was grooming Shashi for fielding him from the Milkipur Assembly constituency in place of him since the constituency was going to be reserved in delimitation.
Adjacent to Ayodhya is the Gonda parliamentary constituency, which is a stronghold of Brij Bhushan Saran Singh. Brij Bhushan Saran Singh is an incumbent MP of the BJP and the party has re-nominated him from the same constituency. Before switching to the BJP in 2014, Singh had won parliamentary elections as an SP candidate.
He runs more than 45 schools and colleges in the area. It is alleged that Singh enlists the support of students, teachers and employees of his educational institutes during elections.
The Politics of ‘Unfreedom’
Given the strong roots of feudalism and its reproduction in Awadh region, the question about its implications on the day-to-day life of ordinary people arises. The simple and straightforward answer to this question is “unfreedom”.
The unfreedom can be understood with how people of these areas identify themselves. Even today, the ordinary people in Gonda and Kaisharganj constituencies are hesitant in identifying themselves with their own name or community. Instead of this, they identify themselves with the name of their ‘master’ i.e. erstwhile feudal lord. The identity of the ordinary people has been reduced to merely an appendage of their landlords, who still dominate the social and economic structures in the region.
This is a new kind of serfdom and, in fact, is the reproduction of feudalism in a new avatar. Feudal elites of the region not only run schools and colleges but also enter into management committees of government-aided schools and colleges to control them. Due to such control, teachers and employees and sometimes students as well are asked to campaign for them during elections. They might not vote for them, but cannot refuse to campaign.
This is an example of erosion of individual autonomy. Not only schools and colleges, but also universities have been paying a heavy price in terms of erosion of academic environments due to feudalism of the region. The feudal elites try to control universities by occupying membership in senates/courts of universities.
Often, hostels of universities get occupied by upper-caste students affiliated with such feudal elites. Providing shelter to students with a criminal nature was recently witnessed when the murder accused of one Dilip Saroj, a law student of Allahabad University, was arrested from the home of Chandrabhadra Singh of Sultanpur.
Dilip Saroj was from the Dalit community and his brutal murder sparked a huge protest, but the saddest part of this incident was that the BSP, which claims to be protecting the interests of the Dalit community, has made Chandrabhadra Singh its candidate form Sultanpur.
The ‘unfreedom’ has heavily prevented the uplift of the people, especially marginalised communities living in these areas. They have to live under constant threat. And it is the threat perception which prevents marginalised communities from taking good social, political and economic decisions in their own benefit. This seems to be one of the reasons why the eastern Awadh belt is still so poor, despite giving four prime ministers to the country.
This is further evident in Amethi and Rae Barelli, where poverty and backwardness among marginalised communities remains extremely high and the districts are among the most poor despite occasional infrastructural projects. In a nutshell, the backwardness of a region can’t be solved simply by economic development. It needs social change as well, since the absence of social change imposes a limit on economic transformation itself.
What made feudalism sustain and even reproduce itself in a new avatar in this region? The main answer is the “patronage politics” and the “command economy”. In the post-Independence era of command economy, the Indian state (government) controlled power, opportunities and resources which basically meant the control of land and resources by the feudal lords at the local level as it were they who controlled the state apparatus.
The apparatus of the Indian state was captured by the social elites because of their connections with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Therefore, to access power, opportunities and resources, the marginalised communities had to accept dictates and commands of these elites affiliated with the Congress.
The Congress sustained itself by nurturing such social elites who used to mobilise masses during the elections, and feudal lords were one such elites. Such elites used to mobilise votes for national leaders in return for which political leaders gave them protection and never challenged their hegemony. The region of Awadh is a stark example of this arrangement even today.