‘When a Colonial Road took a Godly Roundabout:
Revisiting the Machhli Bazaar Episode,
Dr. Saumya Gupta,
Janki Devi Memorial College,
University of Delhi,
The making of a central city road in Kanpur in early twentieth century became a site of long drawn contestations between the municipality and the inhabitants of that area. The Meston Road, as it came to be called, referenced colonial medical and sanitary discourses, emergent communitarian identities and the power of the press to escalate a local issue into a national one. This contestation between the claims of religious spaces versus those of public ‘improvement’ referenced many questions that continue to affect our contemporary urban lives: Who held the rights over city spaces? Were public or private sacred spaces to be counted as integral part of municipal space or as ideological spaces of the community, inherently outside the preview of the municipality? Who and what defined the degree of sacredness? Were there any markers of inviolability that Indian religious spaces had to adhere to, so as to be understood as sacrosanct, and hence immune to the operations of municipal improvement? The Machhli Bazar episode also famously demonstrated the manner in which the new commercial press could successfully ratchet a municipal issue to national attention. Occurring as it did just when there was intense anxiety about the many sacred spaces being demolished for the creation of New Delhi, this confrontation in Kanpur possibly showed the way for the many forked roads and roundabouts of the national capital. The paper traces the various shifting alignments of the road and looks at the manner in which attempts to save a temple and a mosque from municipal demolition used the same culturally coded vocabulary that denied the colonial state the right to subsume the sacred within the parameters of the municipal; a vocabulary that could not however prevent Meston Road from becoming a regular site for communal violence in subsequent years.
Dr. Saumya Gupta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi. She has worked on ‘A Social History of a Colonial Town: Kanpur, c.1850-1950’ for her doctoral dissertation. Her areas of interest are urban social history, partition studies and histories of newsprint. She has also recently started working on food cultures in modern India.