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The sanctity of the ancient quarter is at risk.
[Text by Sadia Dehlvi; picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]
There is a proposal to construct a swanky mall and a multilayered underground parking fifteen meters away from the steps of Jama Masjid. To create this four-basement structure the ground will have to be dug at least eighty feet. Digging of this scale is known to cause severe stress to surrounding buildings. Jama Masjid is built on a rocky hilltop called Bhojla Pahari.
The plan is a nightmare. It brings traumatic memories of the Babri Masjid demolition that was a direct outcome of Hindu extremism. If the proposed underground mall is constructed, Jama Masjid would probably fall to the violence of Economic extremism.
The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) does not permit any construction within 100 meters of a protected monument. We have a family home near Humayun’s tomb where one cannot even repair a house without the prior permission of ASI. Jama Masjid is a functioning mosque and therefore is not officially protected by the ASI. The mosque belongs to none other than God and so it is the custodian of the Waqf Board as pronounced by the Delhi High Court.
However, does that mean we should strip it off from the heritage status and allow construction near its boundaries that threaten its very existence? With it will collapse the mausoleum of Maulana Azad, the tombs of Sarmad Shaheed and Hare Bhare Shah and the cultural ethos of the old walled city.
Mr. Kapil Sibal, the Chandni Chowk MP, does not see the construction as a threat to the mosque and believes that the mall would generate employment for the residents of the area. Has he taken into account the pollution that would be generated by 10,000 vehicles that could be absorbed in the proposed parking? What about their effect on the monument and the people living in the vicinity? Will the underground drilling not damage the foundations of countless houses constructed in the early nineteenth century?
As for economic benefit, the mall culture is known to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It will displace the vegetable vendors, the kebab sellers and hundreds of those who make a living by selling stuff from their carts.
Mr. Ahmed Bukhari, the Imam of the Jama Masjid too has endorsed this plan as a "historic decision". But Imam Bukhari does not represent the Muslim community. He is only an Imam of the mosque, a paid employee of the Waqf board. Despite an eviction order from the High Court, the Bukharis continue to occupy the house they have built within the premises of the Jama Masjid. The sheer act of illegally occupying a piece of land belonging to the community takes away the moral ground from the Bukhari family to comment on the land issues of the area.
There are bigger questions. Can we place the economic gains of the local residents before the heritage concerns of the people of India? Pandit Nehru wanted to preserve the ambience of this district as it remains an important historic site where the blood of freedom fighters was shed in plenty. Alas, India Shining patrons have conveniently buried the doctrines of our founding fathers. Hopefully some of their pleas would still be heard. Historic and religious sanctity of the area should not be compromised.