NEW DELHI. In a stricter implementation of a 1958 law that forbids prayer at India’s many protected monuments, the government has stopped Muslims from worshipping at heritage mosques in Delhi, sometimes by force. Amid a continuing stand-off between the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the group that designates sites as protected, and Islamic organisations, the federal government has said that the use of the protected mosques for daily prayers was speeding their decay and disturbing badly needed upkeep of the monuments.
“We have made it very clear that no such prayers in protected monuments will be allowed,” said the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, last month, adding that, as per the 1958 act, there would be a few exceptions. Sohail Hashmi, the conservationist and filmmaker supports the government’s position on the issue and said worshippers often ended up “affecting the shape of the places”.
But Matin Ahmed, the chairman of the Delhi Waqf Board, which oversees the Islamic sites, said the mosques where the government has implemented the ban were also officially under the control of the Waqf, or Islamic trust, and the law was unnecessary. “[Non-Muslim] tourists are entering these mosques wearing shoes … what is the problem with namaazis, who pray there barefoot?” said Mr Ahmed.
The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 stipulates that no religious worship will be allowed at an ASI-protected monument, even if it was originally built for such purposes. When the act was put in to force in 1958, prayer was continuing in 12 of the 25 ASI-protected mosques in Delhi. Today, 33 mosques in Delhi are ASI-protected.
Since the 13 other heritage mosques in the capital were not being used by Muslims for prayer or any other religious activity at that time, the government registered them as “non-living” monuments and banned future prayer in them in order to preserve them. However, in recent years, informally complying with growing Muslim demands, authorities quietly allowed Friday prayers in some of the non-living mosques, in a relaxation of the decades-old ban.
This year, between March and July, Muslim worshippers illegally entered some other non-living heritage mosques in different parts of Delhi and began offering Friday prayers there, defying resistance from the ASI and angering conservationists. Although Muslim worshippers began breaking the law and forcibly occupied the mosques as early as March, the government chose not to use force to stop Muslims from praying in them.
But when conservationists and even some Muslim leaders began protesting against the forcible use of the heritage mosques, the government changed its policy and began forcibly removing the worshippers. In July, Sahmat, the Safdar Hashmir Memorial Trust, a New Delhi-based platform of Muslim and non-Muslim historians, intellectuals and social activists pointed out to prime minister Manmohan Singh that the Muslim worshippers were acting in clear violation of the 1958 Act, and urged him to prevent illegal prayers at the 13 non-living monuments.
In a statement they submitted to the prime minister on July 29, the group said that they were “deeply disturbed” as some people were taking over the sites “on the excuse of offering worship” there. “Many of the monuments are parts of the precious legacy of the country and under the rules framed under the Ancient Monuments Act, there can be no installation of worship wherever it had ceased,” said the statement, which was signed by, among others, the prominent Indian historians Irfan Habib and D N Jha. “[We] call upon the authorities to initiate immediate steps to evict the encroachers and to take all steps to ensure the protection of all listed monuments.”
Two days after Sahmat submitted the statement, police prevented Muslims from holding Friday prayers at Delhi’s 16th-century Jamali Kamali mosque. Later that day, the home minister appealed to Muslims not to try to offer prayers in any of the non-living heritage mosques as they would be violating the law. “Prayer will be allowed in 12 of the protected mosques [as the act permits], but not in any other,” said Mr Chidambaram.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, the president of All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Muslim organisations claimed that the current situation was in violation of an earlier legal agreement. “An agreement had been reached [in 1984] between the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat and [Indian home minister] Mr Narasimha Rao to open all of the protected mosques for prayers, but the government later reneged on its commitment,” Mr Khan said.
“The government cannot hide behind the ASI act to deny Muslims their legal and natural rights to offer prayers in mosques, especially built for the purpose by their forefathers and left behind as endowments in perpetuity.”
Sheikh Azizur Rahman, The national, Sep 8, 2009