Harishankar Tiwari: The 'Bahubali' Who Became 'Brahmin Shiromani'

Tiwari, a cabinet minister between 1996 to 2007, passed away on May 16. His death marks the end of a chapter in Purvanchal's politics which was marked by the criminalisation of politics, caste-based gang war and gave rise to Brahmin-Thakur politics.

Former minister and strongman leader of Purvanchal, Pandit Harishankar Tiwari, passed away at the age of 90 on May 16 after a prolonged illness. His death marks the end of a chapter in the region’s politics which was marked by the criminalisation of politics, caste-based gang war and gave rise to Brahmin-Thakur politics in Uttar Pradesh.

The active political innings of Pandit Harishankar Tiwari, a resident of Tanda village of Barhalganj area in Gorakhpur, spanned nearly four decades. His first electoral contest was to become a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) in 1974, which he lost to Congress candidate Shivharsh Upadhyay. Tiwari’s supporters still believe that the polls were rigged. In 1984, he contested the Lok Sabha elections from Maharajganj parliamentary seat while in jail, but lost this election as well. One of his opponents was another strongman, Virendra Pratap Shahi, who also contested from jail. Tiwari came second, Shahi third while Jitendra Singh of the Congress won.

Meanwhile, Harishankar Tiwari received the patronage of Chillupar MLA and senior Congress leader Bhrigunath Chaturvedi. The latter made him the president of the management committee of the National PG College, Barhalganj in 1983 and also handed him the political legacy of Chillupar. Tiwari contested assembly elections from Chillupar in 1985 and became an MLA for the first time. He had contested this election while being lodged in jail. Subsequently, he won five consecutive elections from this seat and remained an MLA. During the phase of unstable governments in UP, which began in 1997, he also became a minister in the cabinets of Kalyan Singh, Ramprakash Gupta, Rajnath Singh, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh. He was also handed a cabinet berth in the one-day Jagdambika Pal government.

Tiwari, who was believed to be unbeatable in Chillupar, lost the next two elections in 2007 and 2012, to journalist-turned-politician ‘Muktipath Wale Baba’ Rajesh Tripathi. After two consecutive defeats, he handed over the seat to his son Vinay Shankar Tiwari and stayed away from electoral politics. However, he maintained his image as an influential Brahmin leader in Purvanchal. His elder son, Bhishma Shankar Tiwari alias Kushal Tiwari, became MP twice from Sant Kabirnagar and his younger son Vinay Shankar Tiwari became MLA from Chillupar once (2017-2022). His nephew Ganesh Shankar Pandey was also elected MLC for four terms (from 1990 to 2016) from Gorakhpur-Maharajganj Local Body and was the chairman of the Legislative Council from 2010 to 2016.

Pandit Harishankar Tiwari’s foray into electoral politics began as an independent candidate contesting the 1974 Legislative Council elections, 1984 Lok Sabha elections and 1985 Legislative Assembly elections. He later joined the Congress and contested from Chillupar in 1989, 1991 and 1993. In 1996, he contested the elections on the All India Indira Congress (Tiwari) ticket. Subsequently, he formed the All India Democratic Congress with the help of many leaders including Shyam Sundar Sharma, and Bacha Pathak and remained associated with it till the end. Both his sons and nephew have been with the Samajwadi Party for about 18 months after brief stints with the BJP and BSP.

Currently, the Tiwari family is desperate for electoral success. Bhishma Shankar Tiwari lost the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, while Vinay Shankar Tiwari lost the 2022 assembly elections from Chillupar. Ganesh Shankar Pandey skipped the MLC polls to contest the assembly elections from Paniyara in 2017 but faced defeat. Since then he has distanced himself from electoral politics. Despite the setbacks, the Tiwari clan and Harishankar’s residential complex, called Hata, cast a significant political influence in the region.

The Tiwari family’s politics is unabashedly pro-Brahmin and has equated ‘Brahmin interest’ with ‘national interest’. After joining the SP, Harishankar Tiwari’s eldest son Bhishma Shankar Tiwari wrote on Facebook, “The Tiwari family has always been fighting for national interest and for the protection of Brahminism and will continue to do so. We are identified by our community. Our respected father, Pt. Harishankar Tiwari has always taught us this lesson. We will never allow disrespect to the community. In the last five years, in view of the neglect faced by our community and the current political scenario, with the approval of the elders in the interest of our community, the Samajwadi Party was found to be more creditable. Brahmin interest is national interest and vice versa.”

Supporters of the clan are condoling the death of Pandit Harishankar Tiwari by hailing him as ‘Brahmin Shiromani’ (the crown jewel of Brahmins).

Photo: By arrangement

Math, Hata and Shakti Sadan

‘Hata’, the house of Harishankar Tiwari located in Dharamshala market, remained a centre of politics in Gorakhpur and Purvanchal since 1965. This is where both his sons and nephew Ganesh Shankar Pandey live.

Many years ago, the complex functioned as a meeting point. Visitors were given milk and whey to drink. Now, it has changed significantly. It has partly been converted into a modern residential complex but the eastern gate has still retained the form of the old compound. It has a big thatched shed and old wooden chairs, benches and tables in the courtyard. This is where the senior Tiwari preferred to meet people. This shanty has remained the same since 1960, when Harishankar Tiwari was active in student politics of Gorakhpur University. After his death, the body was kept here for public viewing.

In UP politics, Harishankar Tiwari was known to be a strongman leader. But people around Hata knew him as a kind, guardian-like figure who used to leave his house every morning donning a tracksuit for his routine walk and enquire about the well-being of people he met on the way.

A shopkeeper of Dharamshala market recalls, “Once Tiwari ji was returning with his convoy when a particular song was playing at my shop. Soon, a person came from inside the Hata and asked me to increase the volume as Tiwari ji liked the song a lot.” 

Tiwari was usually dressed in a dhoti-kurta and sadri but would wear a tracksuit for his morning walks. But there is a picture of him in a safari suit on his Facebook page with the caption, “Sometimes, I also wear safari suits instead of dhoti-kurta.”

Harishankar Tiwari was very polite with the people he met and spoke very gently. He kept a distance from the media and never rushed to give his comments on any matter.

The politics of Gorakhpur has been revolving around three political centres: Math, Hata and Shakti Sadan for a long time. Math (Gorakhnath Temple) became the centre of Hindutva politics, while Hata became the centre of Brahmin politics. Shakti Sadan located in Mohaddipur was the centre of Kshatriya politics, which came to an end in 1997 after the assassination of Virendra Pratap Shahi. Kshatriya politics then completely shifted to the Math.

Caste-based gang war

In the 1980s, Gorakhpur witnessed a period of caste war between the two power centres – Tiwari’s  ‘Hata’ and Shahi’s ‘Shakti Sadan’. In this gang war, more than 50 people – including Janata Party MLA Ravindra Singh and Gorakhpur Student Union vice president Rang Narayan Pandey – were killed. During this period, Gorakhpur earned the sobriquet ‘Chicago of the East’ and ‘Slice of Sicily’.

The seeds of this caste war were sown right when the Gorakhpur University was founded. It not only engulfed student politics but later extended to the politics of the entire Purvanchal region. After the establishment of the university, a rivalry broke out between Surati Narayan Mani Tripathi (the first district magistrate of Gorakhpur and later the treasurer of the university) and Mahant Digvijay Nath of the Gorakhnath temple for control over it. The appointment of teachers and employees in the university was done on the basis of caste. Student leaders were made pawns in this battle for supremacy. Harishankar Tiwari, who was a student here, was made a member of the University Court in 1965 by the Brahmin lobby. In response, Balwant Singh and Ravindra Singh were projected as the face of the Thakur lobby.

Main entrance of the Gorakhnath temple. Photo: Manoj Singh

This battle for caste supremacy soon turned into a bloody struggle with a spate of murders.

The bloody trail of violence and counter-violence between the two groups lasted for almost a decade. First, in 1978, student leader Balwant Singh, who was close to Ravindra Singh, was murdered in Golghar. Before Singh, a person named Mannu had been killed.

When Singh was killed, Virendra Pratap Shahi was in Basti kickstarting his political career. He contested assembly elections from Basti in 1974 and received only 5,740 votes. He was named in a murder there. Soon, he entered an enmity with Rana Krishna Kinkar Singh after Singh lost one eye to Shahi’s bullet. It is claimed that after Balwant Singh’s murder, Ravindra Singh called Shahi from Basti to Gorakhpur after securing his bail as he was in jail then.

Shortly after Shahi arrived in Gorakhpur, one of his supporters, Bechai Pandey, was murdered on August 28, 1978. In retaliation, three people including Rang Narayan Pandey, vice-president of the Gorakhpur University Students’ Union, were killed in Danwarpar the same evening.

A year later, Amol Shukla was murdered. Soon after, Ravindra Singh, the MLA of the Janata Party and President of Gorakhpur University and Lucknow University Students’ Union, was shot at Gorakhpur railway station on August 27, 1979. He was severely injured in the attack and died three days later. One more person was also killed in the firing at the railway station.

With this began a spate of murders as both factions entered a running feud over government contracts for taxi stands, district hospitals, medical colleges and railways. Virendra Pratap Shahi was attacked in the district hospital but survived. Later, there were three more attacks on him. The vengeful murders spread over to Lucknow from Gorakhpur and Basti Mandal. Both the groups would file FIRs against each other citing the incidents as the rationale.

In police records, Tiwari and Shahi had tons of serious charges against them but they were portrayed otherwise in the media. In newspapers, Pandit Harishankar Tiwari was referred to as an ’eminent leader’ and Virendra Pratap Shahi as ‘The Lion of Purvanchal’. The press releases for both of them were measured and printed in the same size. If this equation faltered, local journalists and editors would bear the brunt. Such stories of their notoriety are still popular in the region today.

It was a norm for both the musclemen to travel in convoys of 200 vehicles each brandishing guns and other firearms. Stories about the valour of the two, both real and concocted, circulated on the university campus and the youth aspired to be like them. Getting the chance to sit in those vehicles or hold their guns was a matter of pride for the college boys. Both bahubalis openly interfered in the student union elections during this period.

The statues of Ravindra Singh and Rangnarayan Pandey on the student union building of Gorakhpur University are reminiscent of the period.

In his book Nishane par Samay, Samaj Aur Rajneeti, senior journalist Santosh Bharti compiled several reports documenting events of the period marked with caste-based politics and the criminalisation of politics as well as describing the role of political figures in it.

The politics of the state also stood divided when it came to these two musclemen. Tiwari maintained good relations with former chief ministers of UP Shripati Mishra, Narayan Dutt Tiwari, and Congress stalwarts like Makhan Lal Fotedar, and Motilal Bora. On the other hand, the irrigation minister who later became chief minister, Veer Bahadur Singh, was accused of patronising Virendra Pratap Shahi. While the Thakur leaders of the state rallied in favour of Shahi, the Brahmin leaders supported Tiwari.

In 1984, Virendra Shahi and Harishankar Tiwari were charged with the National Security Act (NSA) after pressure from Veer Bahadur Singh. While Shahi was arrested, Tiwari fled to Nepal. It was speculated that a prominent leader in Nepal had granted him asylum. Tiwari later surrendered and went to jail. It is reported that when he surrendered before the magistrate, he was wearing a turtleneck suit and the police could not recognise him. The picture was published in the newspapers.

When Veer Bahadur Singh became the chief minister of UP in 1985, he tried to rein in both the musclemen. An attempt was also made to end their monopoly over government contracts and leases. As a result, the bloody conflict between Shahi and Tiwari entered a period of lull but the political rivalry continued.

It is also believed that both Shahi and Tiwari had an unwritten pact to let the cases against each other lapse so that they could shed the baggage of their criminal past and build an image of ‘pure politicians’.

When Pandit Harishankar Tiwari contested his last election in 2012, there was not a single criminal case against him. According to the affidavit filed by his son Bhishma Shankar Tiwari alias Kushal Tiwari, there is no case against him either. Vinay Shankar Tiwari has a case under sections 120B, 420, 467 and 451 regarding loans from banks, which is being investigated by the CBI and ED.

The lion of Purvanchal

Virendra Pratap Shahi, who called himself ‘Sher e Purvanchal’ or the lion of Purvanchal, won the 1980 assembly election from Laxmipur in Maharajganj district after defeating Amar Mani Tripathi, who used to be a close aide of Harishankar Tiwari at the time. Later, Tripathi had a tiff with Tiwari and they parted ways. Amar Mani Tripathi carved a niche as an independent political figure. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment along with his wife Madhumani for the murder of poetess Madhumita Shukla. Both are currently serving their sentence in Gorakhpur jail.

Later, in 1985, Virendra Pratap Shahi again contested against Tripathi. This time, Tripathi finished third while Shahi secured a win yet again. 

Meanwhile, Shahi joined the Maneka Gandhi Vichar Manch and later joined V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha. He was a contender for the MP ticket of Maharajganj from Janata Dal. But when he did not get the ticket, he contested the parliamentary election from Maharajganj and the assembly election from Nautanwa as an independent. He got the lion as an election symbol and in the poll campaign, his supporters carried cut-outs of Shahi and a lion behind bars. It was also rumoured that on the final day of the campaign, a lion in a cage would be paraded through the streets of Maharajganj, his parliamentary constituency. However, Shahi lost both elections. After this, he lost every election he contested and his political career dwindled.

In the meantime, one of his close friends, Vivek Singh, was murdered in a railway contract dispute. This led Shahi into a face-off with gangster Shri Prakash Shukla. He was attacked by Shukla’s gang in Golghar, Gorakhpur in 1996 in which the shooter was killed but Shahi survived, despite being shot. But a year later, Shri Prakash Shukla gunned down Shahi, unarmed and alone, in Lucknow.

From ’eminent leader’ to ‘vikas purush’ to ‘Brahmin Shiromani’

Harishankar Tiwari, on the other hand, kept on securing poll wins. In 1993, he faced a tough challenge from Shyamlal Yadav and was on the verge of losing but Mulayam Singh Yadav’s rally in Barhalganj changed the wind in his favour. In his address, Mulayam Singh Yadav is reported to have said, ‘Who is a bigger Yadav than me?’ As a result of his support, the Yadav votes of Chillupar went to Harishankar Tiwari instead of Shyamlal Yadav and he won.

Mulayam Singh Yadav and Harishankar Tiwari. Photo: Facebook//babajiuttarpradesh

Tiwari was appointed cabinet minister continuously from 1996 to 2007, which was the era of unstable governments in UP.

In newspapers, instead of ’eminent leader’, he came to be referred to as ‘vikas purush’ or pro-development leader.

In the Mayawati government, he organised Parshuram Jayanti in a grand manner in Lucknow to establish himself as a Brahmin leader. The preparation for the event went on for months and spread from Gorakhpur to Lucknow. Every day, there was a press conference in Gorakhpur in which the rationale for celebrating Parshuram Jayanti was explained and the work done by Pandit Harishankar Tiwari was praised. Apart from the leaders, scholars and intellectuals in Gorakhpur used to address the press conferences. A journalist from a newspaper, which claims to be the best-selling daily of the state, would prepare the text of the press conference and release it after final approval from Tiwari. The press conference was only a sham.

When Parshuram Jayanti was celebrated, he was hailed as ‘Brahmin Shiromani’ (crown jewel of Brahmins)

‘Will sit in your lap, pluck your beard’

After the assassination of Virendra Pratap Shahi in 1997, Kshatriya politics was in want of a leader. Meanwhile, Yogi Adityanath emerged on the scene as the successor of Mahant Avaidyanath of Gorakhnath temple. After becoming an MP in 1998, his career catapulted quickly. The same group of people who once rallied behind Virendra Pratap Shahi surrounded him. When Yogi Adityanath wanted to gain influence in the BJP, he clashed with the then BJP MLA and minister Shiv Pratap Shukla, who had been winning continuously since 1989. Shukla had a close connection with Tiwari. In the 2002 assembly elections, Yogi Adityanath rebelled against the BJP and fielded Dr Radha Mohan Das Agarwal from the Hindu Mahasabha against Shiv Pratap Shukla and Agarwal won. Shiv Pratap Shukla gradually lost influence and Yogi Adityanath’s dominance increased.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Photo: PTI/File

Along with Shukla, Harishankar Tiwari now became a rival to Yogi Adityanath. He once publicly taunted Yogi Adityanath in a BJP meeting in MP College saying that he “will sit in your lap and pluck your beard,” as Adityanath had turned against the BJP while being in the party. In response, Yogi Adityanath opened a front against Harishankar Tiwari in Chillupar. Harishankar Tiwari won that election but was defeated in the next two. Rajesh Tripathi, who defeated him, had contested the election on a BSP ticket but allegedly had ‘full support’ from Yogi Adityanath.

The Tiwari clan came out in support of the senior Tiwari in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when his younger son Vinay Shankar Tiwari contested against Yogi Adityanath from the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat from the BSP. Bhojpuri film actor Manoj Tiwari contested as an SP candidate in this election. It was rumoured that Amar Singh made Manoj Tiwari contest from SP to divide the Brahmin votes so that there would be no hindrance in the victory of Yogi Adityanath.

‘Hata’ and ‘Math’ have thus been involved in direct and indirect face-offs every now and then.

In its most acute form, the rivalry came to the fore when the police raided ‘Hata’ in search of a robbery accused on April 22, 2017, just a month after Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister. The Tiwari family alleged that it was an action taken at the behest of the CM and protested strongly against it on April 24, 2017. Harishankar Tiwari, who was then 77 years old, also participated in the protest and raised slogans. The presence of a large number of Brahmins in the protest put the BJP in trouble. It was feared that the BJP may lose the support of the Brahmin community which had tremendously backed the party in UP. The BJP top brass immediately took conciliatory steps and did not allow the feud to escalate further.

Since then, no direct confrontation between Yogi Adityanath and the Tiwari family has been reported.

Both the poles of Thakur-Brahmin politics, Harishankar Tiwari and Virendra Pratap Shahi, which emerged in the 70s and reached the peak in the 1980s are now dead but the impact of the politics for which they laid the foundation still runs deep. The successors of this politics exist in different forms. It has been manifesting from time to time and will continue to do so in the future.

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.