The recent imbroglio involving a site with archaeological ruins near the Jama Masjid is a warning sign to the Delhi government that it can neglect the city’s heritage at its own peril in future.
It was in April-May 2011 during the site inspection for the proposed Jama Masjid station of the Delhi Metro’s Central Secretariat-Mandi House-ITO-Red Fort-Kashmere Gate line that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had suggested excavation at the site, believed to be the ruins of the Mughal-era Akbarabadi mosque.
The ASI had suggested excavation because it was too close to the Jama Masjid and historic literature has enough references to the presence of the mosque — demolished by the British in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising — somewhere near it. The ASI also said, if needed, the alignment of the tracks should be changed.
Several years before the Akbarabadi issue came to the forefront, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) had recommended to the consultant of the Jama Masjid Redevelopment Project and, in turn, to the then undivided Municipal Corporation of Delhi to carry out excavations at the site. However, neither the MCD nor the Delhi government’s Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation, the nodal agency for development of the walled city area, paid any heed.
So in 2012, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) went ahead with its plans without getting the area excavated even when its proposal for what is being labeled as the ‘heritage line’ is pending with the National Monuments Authority (NMA). In fact, in view of the fact that this line passes through a number of monuments and the possible ruins in the walled city area, the NMA has asked DMRC to get a ‘heritage impact assessment’ report.
When work at the site started in June-July this year, the area’s MLA Shoaib Iqbal approached Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit and the DMRC, again requesting permission for digging at the site for the ruins. The land belonged to North Delhi Municipal Corporation and was transferred to Delhi Metro for the Jama Masjid station. But neither Dikshit nor the metro officials bothered to involve the civic body in any decision regarding this. To the utter surprise of the conservationists, Iqbal was given a carte blanche to go ahead with the digging, perhaps an unprecedented decision wherein a private individual was permitted to carry out digging at a government-owned site.
The ruins of a medieval structure, in the form of a large stonewall, were found about 15-20 feet below the ground. Within days of the discovery, Iqbal mobilised community members to reconstruct a structure on the historic ruins. The area witnessed a communal flare up over the issue of the construction of the structure over the ruins and the conducting of religious rituals. It was only after the Delhi High Court’s intervention that the work was stopped and the site sealed. The high court also asked the ASI to excavate the site.
As on date, scores of man-hours are being spent as part of the police and paramilitary vigil, not to mention the cost of maintaining the troops amid tensions that the situation may spiral out of hand any time. The high court has also stayed the metro’s work, which is likely to result in the delay in the completion of the line and cost escalations.
The situation could have been easily averted if the authorities had paid attention earlier and excavated the site. Similar cases of putting so-called development ahead of heritage have been there in the past and, unfortunately, will continue to take place in future too. Scores of medieval tombs and structures were bulldozed when the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium was built. Recently, the Barapullah elevated road has been built skirting the centuries-old original Barapullah bridge near Nizamuddin railway station.
At a time when Delhi is hoping to get the ‘World Heritage City’ tag, it is imperative for the government to give priority to our valuable heritage. If development work is carried out without giving heritage its due, there is every chance that the tensions over sites like the Akbarabadi ruins could result in communal violence.