Pooja Mishra is anxious. She is a single parent in her mid-thirties, having left her husband after a decade of an abusive marriage. Her job as a security guard at a shop in Lucknow’s LuLu Mall, which earns her Rs 13,000, ensures she can take care of her children.

“I do not want to lose this job,” she said as she kept an eye on customers streaming in and out of the store. “I want to make more money for my children and myself.”

LuLu Mall is under heavy security, plastered with posters that say “no religious prayers will be permitted”. Days after it was opened to the public, the glittering mall, spread over three floors and 11 acres, has been plunged into controversy.

The mall was inaugurated by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 4 as MA Yusuff Ali, who runs LuLu Group International, looked on. A Padmashree awardee, Ali has opened LuLu malls in over 20 countries. The Lucknow edition, built at a cost of Rs 2,000 crore, houses several popular brands. The city’s new star attraction, it also held the promise of livelihood for hundreds of workers. Now, that promise is under threat.

Trouble started on July 14, even before the mall was fully functional. A video of eight men who appeared to be offering namaaz at the mall went viral. A first information report was filed against unknown people the same day, listing offences such as “promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion”, making “statements conducive to public mischief” and intending to “outrage religious feelings”. As tensions spread, the local administration imposed Section 144, which meant curbs on movement and public gatherings.

A day later, as Hindutva supremacists arrived to chant the Sundar Kand – a chapter from the Ramayana often recited in Hindu religious rituals – a Muslim man also turned up outside the mall to read namaz. He was detained, along with three of the Hindu men, for violating Section 144.

Soon, word spread that the men in the video were employees of LuLu Mall, whose staff, social media rumours claimed, were 70% Muslim. Hindutva groups put up posters asking would-be shoppers to boycott the mall. As #BoycottLuLuMall went viral on social media, the management felt compelled to issue a clarification: 80% of the mall’s employees were Hindu, and no one was hired on the basis of caste, creed or religion.

Such warnings are found across the three floors of the sprawling Lulu Mall in Lucknow. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

Sebtain Husain, public relations officer at LuLu Mall, was distressed that television channels had carried reports saying the men in the video were staff. “They should have verified with us before running the news,” he said. “Also, we were the ones who registered the FIR against these men.”

Husain said the mall had also handed over CCTV footage of the incident to the police. The footage shows the men entering the mall through the main entrance. They try to pray on the first floor but are interrupted by mall security. They then move to the second floor, where they pray again briefly, while someone takes a video on the phone.

“They pray for 52 seconds and 18 seconds, respectively,” said a person helping with the police investigation who did not want to be identified. “No namaz is done that fast. You need at least seven minutes and generally it takes about 15 minutes. So this looks like a planned act. After recording the video, the men walked out of the mall without stopping at any shop.”

On July 19, the Lucknow police said they had arrested four Muslim men who were allegedly in the video. Over 20 people have been detained for breach of peace so far.

As a communally charged controversy rages around the mall, its employees believe the matter has been blown out of proportion by some constituencies, including the media.

Shivani Mishra, a 25-year-old fashion consultant who works at the mall, dismissed reports of communal tension. “All this Hindu-Muslim stuff is just rumour,” she said. “All this has become a problem because this mall is owned by a Muslim. Even Yogi ji is being trolled because he was present for the opening.”

She is sceptical of the video. “Something is off,” she said. “We are not investigating the matter – one should let the police do their job.”

Over the weekend, so many people had entered the mall that security guards were posted to stop more visitors, a LuLu employee said. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

‘A true Indian’

The suspicion that the mall is being targeted because it is owned by a Muslim is shared by many others, including 30-year-old Srishti Tomar, a sales specialist who is originally from Gonda district.

“Yes he is a Muslim – he moved outside, made money and is coming back to India to invest,” she said. Originally from Kerala, Ali had made his millions when he moved to the United Arab Emirates. Five of the 20 LuLu Malls are in India. “Why not see that? Is he not a true Indian then? So many people are getting jobs because of him.”

Shivani Mishra added that the claim that 70% of the mall’s employees were Muslim was incorrect. “We work here, we know this is not right,” she said. The controversy, she felt, was being created by those who did not read any religious scriptures, whether Hindu or Muslim.

“Instead of celebrating where Lucknow was and where it is going, people are fighting for baseless things,” said Shivani Mishra. “This mall is on the Kanpur bypass highway and is grabbing so many eyeballs now. Earlier, no one would stop here.”

Both women lamented the fact that the mall was providing employment in a job-starved economy but the boycott calls could jeopardise that.

As 24-year-old Ayush Bajpai, who works in one of the stores, observed, apart from the staff it directly employed, LuLu Mall had created a buzz of economic activity. There were construction workers building car parks around the mall and street vendors hoping to catch a few customers outside. “How many lives this mall has been able to change,” he said.

Apart from employing people directly, the mall has generated a buzz of economic activity. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

The road to Lucknow

The mall itself has drawn employees from towns and villages around Lucknow. For many, a job at LuLu Mall offered the hope of a better life.

Take 19-year-old Abhishek Singh from Rae Bareilly, a second-year college student who also earns Rs 13,000 as a security guard. This is his first job. He was forced to take it up after his father, who had also worked as a security guard, died last year. Part of his earnings are sent home.

Singh’s extended family are agricultural labourers. He is one of the first of his generation to leave home for a big city.

“Ever since this incident, I have got calls from home and my mother keeps telling me to stay safe,” he said. “People are worried, but I want to contribute to the household so I will keep working.”

Besides, he said, matters were really not as charged as television channels suggested. Twenty one-year-old Neha Tiwari who moved from Ayodhya to Lucknow 10 months ago, agreed with him.

“The environment outside the mall is heated, inside the mall everything is fine. I will not go anywhere,” she said. July 18 was her first day at work and she was excited.

In Lucknow, she lives with a friend and earns Rs 16,000 from her job. Like Singh, she is also doing a graduation degree on the side. “I’ve always wanted to live independently and earn a living. In Lucknow, there are good opportunities,” said Tiwari.

Inside the crowded LuLu Hypermarket, employees said that the company gave them many benefits that did not get elsewhere. (Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer)

Business and politics

Mohammad Samad Khan, who is from Lucknow and works as a sales supervisor in one of the stores, said he was the only Muslim among its 22 employees. Khan as well as his Hindu colleagues agreed media reports were misleading.

“Inside this mall, no one cares about what they are howling in news stations,” said 46-year-old Bhanu Pratap, who also works at the store. “Footfall is not affected. People are buying things, enjoying the sales and enjoying the air conditioning in this heat.” Hindu and Muslim employees ate together in the mall, he added.

Shiraj-ul-Islam, who has worked at the Lulu Mall in Kerala and had gone to Lucknow to help set up operations, also said crowds were thronging the mall despite the controversy. On July 16 and 17, he said, there were so many visitors, guards had to be posted outside to stop more people from entering.

Like others, he was also getting anxious calls from home, asking him to stay safe. “Yes, people from home are calling, but we know we are in UP so we know what we are dealing with,” he said.

Khan felt the controversy of the last few days had been created by vested interests. “This is all being done for politics or maybe there are competitors involved,” he said.