The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) received a letter from the Jamiat-ul Ulama-e-Hind. The letter wanted 31 protected mosques to be opened for prayers. “Although the commission was not very keen that heritage monuments should be opened for prayers, it decided to suggest a joint survey for ascertaining the condition of these mosques.” Officials from the NCM, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Wakf Board will carry out the joint inspection according to the suggestion made by the commission in its letter sent to the Ministry of Culture towards the end of July.
This reference made by the NCM needs to be looked at a little carefully, because the issue is not likely to remain restricted to these 31 mosques nor will it remain confined to Delhi. The reference impinges on questions of law and will eventually inform our attitude to the wider question of heritage protection.
In 1958, Parliament enacted The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 in order to protect and preserve monuments, archaeological sites and remains that had historical or architectural value and were more than a 100 years old.
Among the provisions of the Act, it was stated that any place of worship which was considered worthy of protection but was being used for worship/prayers at the time of enactment of the law would continue to be so used. But if a place of worship, considered fit for protection, which was not being used for prayers/worship when the act came into force, will be taken over and preserved as a protected monument.
The implication of this understanding was that such monuments will not subsequently be used for worship but would be preserved as national heritage.
It is under this law that the temples of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) Khajuraho and Konark, the caves at Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta, the Stupa at Sanchi and hundreds of other structures and sites have been taken over and preserved as historical monuments where no worship is permitted.
The mosque built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak — the first mosque built in Delhi — falls under the same category as do all the 31 mosques including the Jamali Kamali mosque, the Sher Shahi mosque at Old Fort, the Mohammadi mosque near Siri Fort, the Neeli mosque near Hauz Khas Market, the Begumpur mosque near Vijay Mandal Enclave, the Khirkee mosque at Khirki Village, the Khair-ul-Manazil mosque near the Sher Shah Gate, the mosque at the Mausoleum of Isa Khan and the Afsarwala mosque, etc.
The question of law that is involved is rather basic — can the 1958 Act of protection of monuments be relaxed in the case of mosques? Will it not open up the floodgates for similar relaxations for a whole lot of other protected monuments? Having once made an exception in the case of one community, can the state afford to refuse it to others?
And what would happen in cases where there is a dispute with two or more communities claiming the right to pray at the same site.
The only solution to this issue is to follow the law uniformly for all and not to make any exception. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, the strange creatures that crawl out will be impossible to put back.
There is another dimension that you need to consider. What would happen to these monuments if they were ever to be handed over to those who are currently wanting to use them as places of worship or to those who might raise similar demands for other protected monuments in the future?
There are enough examples to demonstrate the excesses that would be visited upon these protected monuments once they were opened for prayer/worship. Look at the 14th century Kalan Masjid in the Turkman Gate area. Considered to be one of the most remarkable mosques to be built in Delhi, it has been painted and repainted so many times that it now looks more like a multi layered cake than a mosque. Go and see the arches of the Jama Masjid at Firozshah Kotla that have been painted a horrible shade of green. The arches at the Nizam-ud-Din Jama Masjid have met a fate which is not less heartbreaking — aluminium frames and glass panes have been fixed into the arches of this 14th century mosque.
Do not for a moment think that this strange rush to renovate and recast structures, to an extent that they become unrecognisable from what they were, is confined to the buildings mentioned. Far from it.
Go and see what has been done to Kalkaji Mandir and the temple of Yog Maya and you will see what I am talking about.
Our heritage is too precious to be handed over to those who claim to speak for entire faiths and entire communities. The protection of our heritage is a secular act and should be left under the care of secular institutions created for this purpose.
(First published in The Hindu.)