Jama Masjid in New Delhi. (HT file photo) PREMIUM
Jama Masjid in New Delhi. (HT file photo)

Ownership patterns prevent intervention to repair monuments

Some of the sites are under the control of the Waqf Board, which is in charge of Muslim endowments, or privately owned. While ASI officials say the body is bound by jurisdictions, heritage experts argue it should not shirk the responsibility of heritage protection on account of ownership patterns
By Sadia Akhtar
UPDATED ON JUN 16, 2021 12:41 PM IST

Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the imam of Delhi’s iconic Jama Masjid, has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to direct the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to inspect the monument and carry out necessary repairs after a squall damaged a minaret of the 17th-century mosque. Owned by the Delhi Waqf Board, the monument is not protected by ASI, which has over the years undertaken repairs at the mosque but only through a special arrangement. The masjid committee makes requests for the repairs as part of the arrangement. The ASI on its own does not undertake repairs

Besides Jama Masjid, there are multiple such heritage structures in the city, and beyond in need of repairs. But they do not often get timely support from ASI due to ownership patterns. Some of the sites are under the control of the Waqf Board, which is in charge of Muslim endowments, or privately owned. While ASI officials say the body is bound by jurisdictions, heritage experts argue it should not shirk the responsibility of heritage protection on account of ownership patterns.

Experts have called for a wider approach so that conservation does not suffer from the ASI washing its hands off monuments that need critical intervention.

Fatehpuri Masjid is among the monuments that have fallen into disrepair over the years in the absence of conservation support.

Mufti Mukarram Ahmed, the imam of Fatehpuri Masjid, said the 371-year-old mosque has not been repaired in over 50 years. “The minarets and the red stonework have never been assessed for repairs. Earlier this month, a lattice piece from the mosque fell off due to the impact of rain and wind. The corridors need urgent attention. One can even see the minarets bending,” said Ahmed, highlighting the condition of the mosque that dates back to the 1650s.

Some years back, Ahmed wrote to the Union minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi highlighting the dire need for repairs but to no avail. Ahmed said repairs were last undertaken by the ASI on the directions of local Parliament member Kapil Sibal in 2012-13. “ASI undertook some work, but the process was mired with obstacles. The work was abandoned before completion,” said Ahmed.

Seeking urgent intervention, he said that ASI, Waqf Board, Central Waqf Council, or the tourism ministry could intervene to stop the deterioration of the mosque. “One should not shirk the responsibility of conservation simply because the mosque is a place of worship. The mosque is historically crucial and a monument of national importance. Its significance should not be reduced because the Waqf is the custodian,” said Ahmed.

Mehfooz Mohammad, section officer of Delhi Waqf Board, cited the established mechanism and added stakeholders of heritage mosques and places should approach them if there is a need for repairs. “We are the nodal agency and will either rope in experts or route requests to the ASI,” said Mohammad.

The Waqf Board does not have the wherewithal, or the expertise needed for undertaking conservation efforts.

“As a special case, Jama Masjid has been repaired by the ASI over the years. The Waqf Board is also responsible but has not paid much attention to the concern. The board does not always have funds to undertake such exercises,” said Bukhari.

He added despite the immense potential for tourism, monuments did not always get the attention they deserved due to a cumbersome conservation process. “The greater the attention that we give to our heritage, the better potential it will have. The country will benefit if we are able to salvage our heritage. The government should pay attention to the concerns,” said Bukhari.

Holistic conservation needed

Historian Swapna Liddle said it is crucial for bodies such as the ASI to undertake a more nuanced and wider conservation approach. Liddle added it did not make sense for the ASI to restrict itself to only places that were under its protection. “I do not see why the ASI is only interested in buildings it owns. If there is a building of national importance, it does not matter who owns it. If we continue to follow this approach, it gives out a message that any building owned by an institution or trust is not worth saving. This should not be the case. Even if it is a religious building in use, we need to protect and preserve it.”

She said there was a policy lacuna that needed to be filled for timely conservation efforts. “A proper policy is needed for heritage that is privately or institutionally owned... Bodies like the ASI need to take responsibility in partnership with the owner,” said Liddle.

DN Dimri, former ASI joint director-general, said that while the ASI was bound by restrictions, a committee could be constituted for addressing conservation needs at Jama Masjid and other monuments that were not centrally protected by ASI. He said that since conservation was an ongoing process, it needed to be prioritised. He advocated a comprehensive management plan that could be put in place for timely intervention. “It could help to have a committee comprising members of the Waqf Board, ministry of culture, ASI, and other domain experts who can work towards a holistic conservation approach for Jama Masjid and other such places. Work can be undertaken in a phased manner under the purview of this committee,” said Dimri.

He said at times, one could not determine the damage that structures sustained without undertaking proper assessments. Such issues could be addressed by timely checks. “It is true that a holistic conservation management plan is required to chart the current status of monuments and areas facing threat. One needs to determine the nature of short-term and long-term threats that the structure might face so that adequate steps can be taken before deterioration,” said Dimri.

Conservation is key

Dimri called for a need to examine waqf properties from the conservation point of view and suggested that all monuments under the body be assessed to find out their condition. “All major monuments that are with the waqf board can at least be assessed as part of a preliminary survey so that a detailed management plan can be created for vulnerable monuments. This can help us to determine which place needs immediate support and which needs a long-term approach,” said Dimri.

Liddle said the fear that ASI might take over buildings needed to be stemmed. “Since the ASI only protects places it owns, people end up believing that any intervention from the ASI would mean that it will manage and take over the premises. Institutions start seeing ASI’s role as interference when it is conservation.”

An ASI official, who did not wish to be named, said that the agency did not have jurisdiction over heritage properties that were under the custodianship of the Waqf Board. “ASI does not take cognisance unless a request is placed through proper channels. When monuments or places that are not under our jurisdiction write to us, it takes time to get necessary approvals. A lot of paperwork is involved. Funds are also an important component. Our priority remains to take care of centrally-protected monuments,” said the ASI official.

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