It was once a stately building abuzz with political and cultural activity. It hosted eminent leaders and writers from undivided India and became a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the political sphere. Today, the Rifa-e-Aam Club in Lucknow is on the verge of collapse. And if its desperate pleas for attention remain unheeded, it will not be too long before its existence is limited to the history books.
In December 1916, the Rifa-e-Aam Club hosted a joint session of the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. The historic Lucknow Pact was signed at this session, marking an understanding between the parties to collectively pressurise the British government for greater autonomy and the transfer of power to India.
The Congress agreed to the Muslim League’s demand for separate electorates for the community in provincial elections. The meeting also marked the reunion of the Congress’ moderate and radical wings.
The venue, which hosted historic figures such as Sarojini Naidu, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lokmanya Tilak, is today crumbling under the onslaught of time, weather, vandals and government apathy.
The Rifa-e-Aam Club is now a garbage dump and a ragpickers delight. The building is deteriorating and the structure has developed ever-widening cracks. Vandals have etched their names on the walls and even cart away material. Weeds stick out of the walls from which the plaster is crumbling. There are two families who have occupied a few rooms and the terrace.
Cloaked in neglect
“The club was built during the 1860s by the Nawabs of Awadh as a spot for holding events to bring ‘rifa’ [happiness] to all, including ‘aam’ [the common man],” said Roshan Taqi, a historian from Lucknow. “The club challenged British rule on several occasions. It became the insignia of insolence when it gained the patronage of the Raja of Mehmudabad. He established it as a club for union of common Indians at a time when the placard of ‘dogs and Indians not allowed’ hung outside the other British-owned clubs of Lucknow.”
The building is also historically significant because of its association with the Progressive Writers Association, which was patronised by Munshi Premchand. In an address at the club in 1936, he gave a call to speak and write about different types of oppression prevalent in British India.
Taqi said that there is currently no club committee, which is supposed to be presided over by Mohammed Amir Mohammad Khan, the son of the Raja of Mehmudabad. Khan did not respond to a series of emails and phone calls.
The historical site does not appear to be on the radar of the municipal corporation or any government agency.
An official from the Lucknow circle of the Archaeological Survey of India said it is not his mandate to look after the building as it is not listed as a protected monument.
Despite the links to its iconic leaders, the Congress party has also made no attempts to preserve the structure.
Several cultural organisations and heritage activists have staged demonstrations and written letters to the authorities on the issue, appealing that the structure be restored.
“The club was a hub of cultural and political activities for people from all walks of life, and it should be revived,” said Madhavi Kukreja, a cultural activist.