This is a tale of urban chaos, growing religiosity, the skewed development of the Muslim community and human excreta among ancient monuments.
I am fortunate to live in a modern apartment in the heart of one of the most historic parts of Delhi. It is a short distance from the Qutub Minar and I often take my morning walk in the Mehrauli Archaoelogical Park, past the Jamali Kamali tomb, the Raja ki Baoli, the tomb of Balban, all amazing remnants of the Delhi sultanate period. On the odd winter day I have also walked the distance to the historic Jahaj Mahal Phool bazaar, still the main wholesale flower market of Delhi. I have often told friends I would much rather negotiate the messy lanes of an area like Mehrauli then live in a gated community with neat lawns and hedges.
In spite of the romance with the past, I try not to live in an ivory tower and my frequent walks make it impossible to ignore the reality of contemporary Mehrauli. It is basically a Muslim-dominated ghetto, an urban slum. Buildings like the one I live in make arrangements for water and electricity but most residents have no sanitation or plumbing facilities and large families are cramped into tiny rooms. As migrants keep moving into the ghetto, there is a constant pressure on limited land, resources and tiny homes. That is why many crumbling ruins have been taken over and tiny mazaars have, over the years, become "living" monuments, which technically means they are used for worship, but I am playing on the term and specifically mean that people get a chance to live there with their ever expanding families.
For the past few weeks, there has been a troubling attempt to claim that even the few monuments protected by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) are "living" shrines, and hence can be used for the weekly congregational prayers. Every Friday, the Mehrauli area is now blockaded by Delhi police, BSF and ITBP who are there to stop a group of men who collect there with prayer mats and try to enter the protected monuments. Last Friday, there was a clash between police and the namazees who subsequently blockaded the MG road that links Delhi to Gurgaon . Home Minister P. Chidambaram said the sternest measures would be taken to protect the monuments. He was true to his word and a virtual army arrived in Mehrauli the next Friday, August 7. The day was tense but the huge troop deployment ensured that the problem was contained.
It not just the monuments that are at stake. Mehrauli is a relatively sensitive locality. On September 27 last year a bomb exploded in the flower market killing three people. On June 8 this year an alleged member of the LeT, Mohammad Madani, was arrested from the neighbourhood. A well connected local shopkeeper says that the VHP also arrived with some young men after the namazees began making their claims. The namazees were brought to Mehrauli by a Congress MLA and the VHP cadres came from other parts of Delhi. Again, the potent mix of religion and politics.
The tragic irony is that Mehrauli still hosts the phool walon ki sair, a tradition that celebrates a composite Hindu-Muslim culture. It involves a chadar of flowers being offered at the dargah of Sufi saint Bakhtiar Kaki and the Yogmayaji temple. It began during the Mughal period, was discontinued by the British during the Quit India movement in 1942 and kept in abeyance during the Partition and resumed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. It continues to date now as a government sponsored show of inter-religious harmony with many states of India also sending their offerings. But the reality today is that the density of shrines also makes administrators nervous and on festivals police and security forces are visible although there has been no communal flare up.
A two minute walk from my house, the prominent Dadabadi Jain mandir stands opposite a protected mosque. While the mosque has been badly neglected, the temple is prospering. So far the wealthy shrine has not given back to the locality in any way. Jain devotees arrive in huge cars and air-conditioned buses, completely block the narrow winding road, and drive away presumably having made their peace with their god. Many do walk the few steps to the entrance of the lovely little park maintained by the DDA. For some strange reason they have taken to feeding the local monkeys perched on the gate of the park. Many regular walkers including yours truly have been attacked by the monkeys fattened by devotees. Neither the namazees nor the temple devotees have any respect for public spaces, a highly developed concept in the West, China and some other countries of south-east Asia. In India, many believe the right to pray supersedes any other right.
I asked a well known cleric why some members of the community were bent on disturbing peace and taking over shrines. He said there is a genuine shortage of mosques. I made two points to him: Can’t a Muslim pray anywhere as long as he turns in the direction of Mecca? And wouldn’t it be more productive for the community to demand the right to education, food, jobs? He smiled pleasantly and told me that I would not understand as I clearly did not appear to be a believer. An editor of an Urdu publication told me that the reason why "irrelevant issues" are raised is because Muslims now have a siege mentality and it is easy to get them charged up on any "Islam in danger" theme. In this instance, the local Urdu press has, by and large, supported the right to pray even in protected shrines.
The "victim-hood syndrome" has been so carefully nurtured by the political class hand-in-glove with clerics that it is now deeply ingrained in the Muslim ghetto. As with other social groups, there is no doubt that Muslims face prejudice in many walks of life. While l'affaire Emraan Hashmi may have been a genuine case of miscommunication, I personally have been told bluntly by brokers that in some areas in Delhi they don’t want to rent to Muslims and some landlords are very explicit about it. House-hunting in India can be a reality check but I’ve refused to ever felt like a victim. What does depress me, however, is a world where people don’t have basic necessities but raise a hue and cry over the slightest of religious issues.
What Mehrauli needs is not an infusion of the devout but a master-plan for the residents of the urban ghetto that threatens to swamp the monuments. It is a fascinating neighbourhood, through which Delhi Tourism and independent groups organize walks, where archaeologists still dig and find remnants of the past. But it is metaphorically and literally being overrun by human excreta. The lanes linking Mehrauli village to the archaeological park are now an open toilet and the open land near the Jain mandir a huge garbage dump through which pigs loiter. The semi-literate residents of the ghetto defecate in the open because they are cramped into tenements without plumbing and often without toilets. They are the poor migrants who have no choice but to wander around looking for a corner to relieve themselves. When basic needs can barely be met, who cares for preserving the past?