How Partition Impacted Monuments in Newly Formed India

By NAYANJOT LAHIRI | 10 August 2017

In her latest book, Monuments Matter: India’s Archeological Heritage Since Independence, the historian Nayanjot Lahiri discusses the impact that the division of India had on its monuments and on the nature of its archaeological work, as well as the evolution of this work through the decades since then. Lahiri notes how Partition surprisingly spurred the Indian state’s archaeological efforts, and examines the roles played by several government institutions in protecting historical heritage, including the Archaeological Survey of India. Constituted in undivided India, the ASI was responsible for the division of the archaeological heritage such as art and artefacts between India and Pakistan. Presently, under the ministry of culture, it continues to be the apex body for preservation of monuments and archaeological artefacts. Lahiri also discusses how legislation and judicial intervention impacted the efforts to preserve sites that are “dead”—no longer in use—and the living monuments that continue to be important to the culture of those currently residing in the nation.  

In the following excerpt from the book, Lahiri discusses the immediate impact of Partition on the monuments in north India. In several places such as Delhi, mosques and forts became the site of refugee camps, resulting in an intriguing paradox: while their use likely saved them from the threat of demolition, it also led to unthinkable damage.

Pressures on monuments came from looters, from refugee camps, as also from the callous acts of omission and commission of various government departments. Delhi is an example of this. It was in September 1947 that the capital became the site of a particularly vicious campaign in which Muslims were butchered by the thousands, and in its wake, symbols of Muslim culture such as tombs and mosques were attacked. The scale of the damage is vividly documented in the ASI files: the manner in which Mehrauli’s Moti Masjid had its marble minars torn off; the demolishing of four tombs in the crypt of Sultan Ghari and the unsuccessful attempt to convert it into a temple; the same intention at the Chauburji Masjid on the Delhi Ridge where, in fact, a cement Hanuman came to be set up (to be eventually removed with police help); the destruction of the grave of Shah Alam at Wazirabad, and of red sandstone jalis surrounding it; and a great deal else.

If in Delhi, looters targeted mosques and tombs, in some states, it was the administration that oversaw more organised campaigns of destruction. In the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur, in 1947, mosques and tombs were targeted under the orders of the government with specific contracts being given for demolition. The profit to be made by grabbing the land on which these stood was the primary motive of demolition. The quoted confidential report below, by an ASI officer Shankar Das, underlined this in the case of Alwar:

I visited Alwar on 10th December 1947, and studied the demolition of the mosques, graveyards and tombs in and around the city. This demolition campaign was launched by the state during the last disturbance and is still going on at some places. The State Ministers after a conference entrusted the task of demolition to one Sardar Joginder Singh, S.D.O. of the Public Works Department. This S.D.O. summoned various contractors and distributed the mosques and tombs for demolition amongst them on the simple conditions that whatever building material was got out of the debris would be appropriated by the contractor and virgin soil over which such a structure stood would be forfeited to the State. The contractors lost no time in razing both the old and new mosques as well as graveyards to the ground….

Consequently, the singular brackets and balcony chhajjas (projecting eaves) of the Gumbad Fateh Jang in Alwar were pulled down and the mosque situated in its northern enclosure was dismantled. That the Gumbad survived was because refugees from Pakistan persuaded the contractor that they be allowed to stay there till suitable accommodation was found elsewhere.

As the case of Gumbad Fateh Jang reveals, even as Islamic monuments came under attack, they simultaneously provided refugees with much-needed shelter. Initially, it was Muslims seeking a safe haven who occupied such places. In Delhi, camps were set up in monuments like Purana Qila, Feroz Shah Kotla, Humayun’s Tomb and Safdarjung’s Tomb. Later, tens of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees took shelter in such camps, which continued to exist for several years after partition.

Exceptional times evidently required exceptional measures. This is perhaps why the ASI chose to ignore, for humanitarian reasons, what was stipulated in the act governing monuments and archaeological sites—that the monuments protected by it could not be occupied. Instead, it agreed to a more ethical option: while permitting some of the monuments to be used as temporary refugee camps with tents pitched within the compounds, it laid down certain conditions—only allowing minor alterations which could later be removed without in any way damaging the character of the monuments. These conditions, however, could rarely be enforced.

An instance that vividly demonstrates the humanitarian issues and challenges faced in those times is the case of Sher Shah’s Mosque in Purana Qila. In April 1948, the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation wrote to the rehabilitation commissioner about the need to accommodate a primary school for refugee children in the mosque. Some 7,000 people were living in the camp at Purana Qila, with 500 children being taught by the refugees themselves in open-air classes—a situation which, with the summer of 1948 approaching, could not be sustained. When this letter was forwarded to Mortimer Wheeler, Director General of the ASI, he made it clear that while other parts of the historic fort could be used, the unique character of the mosque made it impossible to hand it over for a primary school. As he pleaded,

It is quite impossible for my Department to authorize the use of the Sher Shah Mosque as indicated. This mosque is an architectural gem of the highest value, and occupies a particularly high place in the history of Indo-Muslim culture.

Wheeler’s plea fell on deaf ears. The mosque was occupied and by August that year, Wheeler’s own officer, Shankar Das recorded the defacements he saw there:

…a number of stones inside Sher Shah’s Mosque at Purana Qila have been broken by the refugees intentionally. Out of this damaged lot unique pieces of carved marble in the Mihrab have been mutilated. Attempts were also made to rake out black marble ornaments from the geometrical pattern incised in the splays adjoining the Mihrab. Some of the Refugees have started sleeping on the “Charpois” inside the Prayer Chamber and shoes are freely moved about.

During his inspection, Das also found the prayer chamber of the mosque littered with bricks and pebbles, obviously used for causing injuries to the structure.

The Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation was asked to take steps to prevent the mosque from being the victim of further acts of vandalism but no action appears to have been taken. In December 1949, another Survey officer, KN Puri, wrote to the chief commissioner about what he had observed there:

I was shocked to see some brick marks on the Central Mehrab of Sher Shah’s Mosque. Brickbats were also seen piled at one corner. Somebody appeared to have worked for its mutilation. Fortunately the bricks themselves being of war quality could not achieve the purpose for which they were used, as the injuries inflicted were not very serious. This was obviously the task of school children who could not administer sound blows to the marble ornamentation. The school was on and the students as well as the teachers were moving in the mosque with shoes on. Chairs were found spread up both in the Lawn and the outer court. It is a pity that in spite of various letters having been issued to responsible quarters due sympathy and cooperation should not have been invoked to save this gem in the history of Indian Architecture.

Many other historic monuments were similarly defaced and these episodes, in retrospect, compel us to recognise that, for all practical purposes, protected monuments that had become refugee camps were not in the ASI’s custody. Under these circumstances, all the Survey could do was to inspect monuments and prepare notes of strong protest—which it did—about how its suggestions were being completely disregarded by those in charge of relief and rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, since the primary intention of the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation was to accommodate as many refugees as possible with no concern at all for the historic surroundings that housed them, the damage caused to some of the monuments was appalling.

Such incidents, unsurprisingly, attracted adverse publicity. Enquiries about various Muslim shrines were regularly made by the Pakistan government. On many occasions, photographs appeared to show how the Indian government was treating its Islamic monuments. Ruined gardens, gaps in fortifications made for egress and ingress of refugees, soot-blackened tombs, bulldozer operations levelling mounds that contained the foundations of old habitations inside monument compounds—these figure frequently in the letters and memos of the ASI, and surely they must have figured in media reports as well.

By the early 1950s, as refugees moved out, as always, it was the ASI, the institutional guardian of protected monuments, that immediately got down to the business of repairing and restoring them. Such repairs were carried out with commendable speed and so thoroughly that hardly anyone who visits those monuments today is aware of the tribulations and travails undergone by them more than six decades ago. The rusted incidents recounted here have simply been relegated to the dustheap of forgotten files in the archives of the Survey.

This is an extract from Nayanjot Lahiri’s Monuments Matter, published by The Marg Foundation. 

Nayanjot Lahiri is a professor of history at Ashoka University. She is the author of several books, including Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization Was Discovered (2005), Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories (2012) and Ashoka in Ancient India (2015).

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