Older Than New Delhi, Sunehri Masjid Is A Living Monument
Prayers are still offered at the 150-year-old mosque that’s listed on an ASI document
In Delhi, there is an outcry by historians, architects and the residents of the city against the manner in which a general ‘public opinion’ has been sought regarding demolition of the 150-year-old Sunehri Masjid, near Udyog Bhawan. The debate started when the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) sought public opinion on its proposed demolition. The mosque is listed as a Grade-III Heritage building as per a 2009 notification of the Delhi Government.
Grades are levels set up by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) that was set up by the Ministry of Urban Development as per provisions of Section 23 in Delhi Building Bylaws.
There are three grades under the bylaws: Grade 1 that comprises Buildings etc. of national or Historic importance; Grade 2 that comprises of building of regional or local importance possessing special architectural or aesthetic merit or historical significance; and Grade 3 that comprises building and precincts of importance for townscape that evoke architectural, aesthetics or sociological interest.
In a notice issued on Sunday, the NDMC invited citizens’ objections and suggestions in the matter by January 1. Officials said the mosque, which is located on a roundabout and is creating traffic issues.
However, intellectuals have asked why instead of discussing it with architects and historians, the people’s opinion is being sought over action intended to remove something that is symbolic to the city, especially at a time when polarisation has led to demolition of various buildings in and around Delhi.
Speaking to The Citizen Historian Swapna Liddle said that the 150-year-old Sunehri Masjid was also listed by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The ASI is the government agency that is responsible for archaeological research and the conservation and preservation of cultural historical monuments in the country, about a 100 years ago.
“The monument was listed in an ASI document a 100 years ago that I have seen, which said that it was a Mughal era structure. A legalistic way of approach is being done here because this is a listed heritage building,” she said.
She said that while there is a provision of demolition regarding heritage buildings, it is only applied in rarest of cases and does not apply to this situation.
“Many of these buildings have been of private ownership and not government owned, according to Delhi building Bylaws. In the same by laws under annexure 2, there is a heritage clause, where these buildings are listed as heritage. They are not protected by ASI or the Delhi state department of Archaeology, these are protected under the municipal laws.
“Now, the provision of demolition exists simply because it is understood. If, for example, there is a 300-year-old house that has become structurally unsafe and we have no other way of conserving it, of saving it, except demolishing it. It is then we may apply for permission so the heritage conservation committee might then call out for a public opinion,” Liddle explained.
She said that the law is to protect the building and is not designed to demolish it, and is just part of one procedure. “Anybody reading that law will understand that its aim is to protect and the provision of demolition is there in rarest of cases,” she said.
Many historians are also pointing out a systematic pattern to demolish or plan to demolish Muslim structures. In April this year, civic authorities in New Delhi demolished a two-century-old dargah, known popularly as the Nanhe Mian Chishti Dargah at Mandi House in the city.
Located near the Mandi House metro station the dargah was symbolic to the city. “There is a visible pattern and it is being done systematically and subtly so that people don’t question it. But when you weave it all together, it is being done to systematically remove these historical buildings,” Umair Shah, an Instagram influencer known as ‘Sikkawala’ who has researched extensively on architectural ruins in India, said.
According to Shah, Delhi has three Sunehri Masjids. “There is one which is next to Red Fort which is a grade 1 level heritage site, there is one in Chandni Chowk, which is also historically important. The third masjid, which is being planned to be demolished, is part of a settlement, is a grade 3 level heritage. It is very old but does not have a ‘kingly relation’. But the fact is that the mosque is very important because the whole area, which we now have in Lutyens Delhi, was not established on barren land, but by relocating people and villages that lived there,” he said.
Explaining the structure, with the help of a 1912 Delhi map, Liddle while pointing out towards some dotted old, ruined, abandoned buildings which were mostly places of worship that were still in use. Sunehri Masjid is also marked in the map.
“The reason this map of 1912 was drawn to show old structures in particular, was because a decision had to be made on which of these buildings would be demolished to make way for the new city, and which saved.
“Many, including tombs and palaces were in fact demolished, but some remained, among which was this Mughal period mosque. The reason was because it was not only of architectural significance, but it was also in use. So, it was decided to incorporate it into the town plan by placing it in one of the many roundabouts in the new city. This mosque, which survived the ravages of time, and major colonial re-ordering of the space, is now threatened with demolition,” Liddle said.
Speaking about the historical importance of the mosque, Shah said that the mosque was not demolished even by the British considering its heritage value.
“Even when they were making a part of British Delhi, they did not demolish all these heritage sites. Though a lot was demolished, the mosques were left. So, Sunehri Masjid is just a pre-British mosque and can be considered one of the oldest structures in that area,” he said.
Speaking about the sentimental value of the mosque, Indian historian Mridula Mukherjee told The Citizen she used to see the building everyday on her way to school. The 73-year-old said that the monument has an emotional quotient attached for the people of Delhi.
“This is no way to decide whether to demolish something or not. There is a whole protocol about heritage, which has proper definitions. You don’t get crowd opinions on something like this as people may or may not know about its historical significance. And these days you can drum up any kind of thing into a campaign. You need to have experts’ opinion on the matter,” Mukherjee said, adding that Delhi has a lot of monuments that have disappeared as they were not protected.
“Rather than preserving our heritage we selectively want to destroy the heritage, especially if it has any Islamic connotation,” she added.
Liddle, meanwhile, said that the issue of traffic due to the roundabout, as per the NDMC Public Notice, will be an unacceptable and unwise modification of an important feature of the street plan of New Delhi.
Meanwhile, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind has approached the Delhi High Court over the, requesting the court to restrict the MDMC’s action against the structure. The Muslim body, while expressing deep concerns over the safety of the mosque, has requested the court protect the historical and religious heritage of the structure.
“This mosque has historical and cultural status and is included in the list of 141 historical places of Delhi. It also has the status of religious importance. The then Imam of Jama Masjid (grandfather of the present Imam) signed an agreement with the then Prime Minister Nehru on behalf of the Muslims of India which guaranteed the security of the mosque,” they said in the petition.
Earlier this month, the Delhi High Court had disposed of a petition by the Delhi Waqf Board seeking protection for the Sunehri Bagh Mosque against demolition.The Waqf Board in its petition had expressed apprehension over the Sunehri Bagh mosque’s demolition and had urged the High Court to protect it from “such arbitrary and illegal action.”
However, the NDMC argued that the Waqf board’s apprehension that the municipal council would act outside the law was baseless.