Heritage, freedom struggle, practical solutions: What NDMC’s Sunehri Masjid plan has overlooked

The NDMC had sought suggestions and objections to its plan.

WrittenBy:Fahad Zuberi
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The New Delhi Municipal Council’s plan to demolish Delhi’s Sunehri Bagh Masjid has triggered an uproar. While the Delhi High Court is hearing another petition challenging the status quo, a section of the media has already begun linking objections – especially those by political leaders such as AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi – to an attempt to either “appease” or “provoke” Muslims.

But architects understand that buildings are not just material; they are not just a pile of brick, mortar, and concrete. Just as a humble house has meaning for the person who builds it and lives in it, historic public structures such as the Sunehri Bagh Masjid hold even deeper meanings.

In its public notice inviting suggestions, the NDMC had pointed to an alleged need to ease up traffic congestion. And this writer wrote to the civic body on December 29 last year with the following objections and suggestions.

Recognised heritage 

Sunehri Bagh Masjid is recognised heritage – it belongs to the Mughal Era and is a Grade III heritage building. India has prided itself on its heritage conservation and has reaped great economic and cultural benefits from its heritage sites. UNESCO has recognised 42 world heritage sites in India, 34 of which are cultural and three of which – Qutub Minar Complex, Red Fort and the Humayun’s Tomb – are in Delhi.  

Moreover, India is a signatory to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972 and demolishing a Mughal Era Mosque that shares its period and construction with our world heritage sites would be a matter of great shame for India in the international forum. It will be a significant and adverse deviation from our culture of preservation and promotion of heritage – both built and unbuilt. 

Colonised usually don’t demolish what even coloniser saved 

The Sunehri Bagh Masjid is a living site of medieval history that even the British recognised. Much before its official recognition as a Grade III heritage building in 2009, the mosque has lived through histories of colonial occupation, the building of the imperial city of New Delhi by Edwin Lutyens and has been a site of history in India’s anti-colonial struggle. 

Sir Edwin Lutyens was far from appreciative of the architecture of the Indian subcontinent. His objections to the inclusion of ‘Indian elements’ in the designing of New Delhi are well documented in the archives of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London and in books like Making of a Capital by Malvika Singh and Indian Summer: Lutyens Baker & Imperial Delhi by Robert Grant Irving. 

But even his colonial eye did not miss the importance of Sunehri Bagh Masjid. 

Despite his disdain for the architecture of the Indian subcontinent, the mosque’s heritage value was not lost on Lutyens, and he incorporated the mosque in his geometric plan for the new capital. Had it not been for this inclusion, we would have lost the mosque through the building of the new imperial centre in 1912. Several monuments of the subcontinents met the fate of demolition during the building of colonial towns and cities. Sunehri Bagh Masjid is an exception. 

To demolish a structure that even our colonial occupiers recognised as valuable would be a huge betrayal to our own history. Our discourses on decolonisation and our repetition of the story of our anti-colonial struggle will lose moral currency and meaning if we demolish what even the British had saved. I cannot think of many examples where the colonised demolished what the coloniser saved. India should not be the first example of this nature.

Role in freedom struggle  

The mosque is of immense importance for the history of our anti-colonial struggle. Maulana Hasrat Mohani, the freedom fighter who gave us the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (long live revolution) and who was central to the 1930 resolution of Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule), lived in the mosque and attended Parliament from there. He denied government accommodation and travel allowance and used a bicycle and public transport to commute to work at the Parliament complex from the mosque.

The mosque is material evidence to this history and must be celebrated as such. It imbibes within its material, the history of India’s independence and the values and ethics of a frugal Parliamentarian. When one walks on the streets of London, for example, it is very common to come across plaques that mark small houses and cafes where influential states-people, writers and thinkers stayed, visited or lived. These sites are markers in the built environment that remind us of those great human beings and generate awareness and appreciation for their work.

Demolishing the Sunehri Bagh Masjid will desecrate this important history, it will rob us of a significant detail and history of a great personality from our recent past. As a post-colonial nation state, this abandonment of our own struggle will be a grave injustice for the generations to come. It is in material and objects of history that we preserve that which words cannot fully describe. Instead of demolition, the NDMC should consider placing a plaque at the mosque that reminds visitors of Maulana Hasrat Mohani.

Constant use, living heritage  

Sunehri Bagh Masjid is a living heritage. One of the reasons that Edwin Lutyens conserved the mosque in his plan for New Delhi was that the mosque was in constant use. It is in active use today as well.  

Living heritage carries added values of memory, sanctity, and religious sentiments. Estimates suggest that around a thousand people use the mosque every week. It is a site of prayer and an integral part of Delhi’s urbanity and urban landscape. 

It is a constitutional duty under Articles 18, 25, and 26 to safeguard the religious freedom of all Indians and protect their sentiments in the secular republic that India is. Any political onslaught on such spaces in India must be resisted.  

Traffic solutions 

There is no need to demolish Sunehri Bagh Masjid. As per the NDMC notice and several media reports, the stated need to demolish Sunehri Bagh Masjid is ease of traffic movement. That it creates a blind spot for moving traffic, and pedestrian movement to and from the mosque creates obstruction and a potential threat. 

As a trained architect who has worked on several large-scale urban design projects, I can confirm that demolishing the mosque at the roundabout is not just needless, it diminishes the history and character of the street that it crowns. However, the concerns of the traffic police must be addressed. 

Monuments at roundabouts are a common feature across the world. Many countries such as France, the UK, Vietnam, Russia, Mexico and India have monuments on important roundabouts. Some roundabouts are important for being monumental. 

For example, Paris’ famous monument Arc de Triomphe is a roundabout. It is much bigger than the Sunehri Bagh Masjid and is an intersection of 12 major roads of the metropolis. The Arc receives more than 1.7 million visitors every year – a number much higher than the humble 1000 people using the Sunehri Bagh Masjid weekly. 

This simple comparison and many other examples that you can find, tell us two things – one, that heavy traffic around a monumental roundabout is not a threat and traffic can flow with the right design of streets and two, that pedestrian access can also be managed safely around such monuments. These monuments can form the basis for a solution to the problem that the mosque apparently poses. 

Very practical, and implementable solutions are present in close vicinity to the Masjid as well. 

Lutyen’s Delhi has many underpasses – the most recent ones built at the Janpath and India Gate crossings. Underpasses are a safe and convenient solution for pedestrians to cross the busiest of roads and streets and the footpaths of Lutyen’s Delhi provide plenty of space to build underpasses at this site. Another option can be footover bridges. But since footover bridges can interfere with the aesthetics of the surrounding, underpasses seem to be a good viable alternative for pedestrians to access the Masjid without hindering the movement of traffic. Pedestrian crossings operated through traffic lights are also an option. 

All of these solutions will not only facilitate safe movement of people visiting the mosque but will make for an overall safer environment for the commuters of the Delhi Metro station at Udyog Bhavan as well. 

The writer is an Architect and Indira Gandhi Radhakrishnan Graduate Scholar studying South Asia at University of Oxford. The article has excerpts from his letter sent to the NDMC on December 29, 2023, in response to a public notice.


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