Nizamuddin Shrine’s Built Heritage and Delhi’s Urban Face-lift

 The larger insecurities of the Muslim community

India’s mosques and other Muslim religious shrines are supposed to be maintained by a government-controlled charity organization called Wakf Board,16 which has an amazing volume of real estate spread all over the country. But a lot of Wakf property is also encroached upon or rented out for non-religious purposes, with several hundred court cases running over disputes.17 A large number of Sufi shrines are definitely disputed since the hereditary families claim to own such properties, never allowing the Wakf board to take over its maintenance, the shrine of Nizamuddin in Delhi being one such example. Delhi Wakf Board has been trying to get its ownership since long and has only recently got the court to order its take over, obviously not without some resistance from the locals.18

Besides the anxiety of local priests about the possible “take-over” of the shrine and heritage buildings by government agencies, there is also a larger apprehension of local Muslims community itself about a possible demolition of their homes and livelihood by the authorities, since most of the unplanned homes are built on land that was entirely a cemetery until 1940s. This apprehension also arises out of a general sense of victimisation of the community through past incidents of communal violence and biases against it prevalent in India. The 1992 incident of the demolition of Babri mosque in Ayodhya (UP) in the hands of extremist Hindus and a further threat to other mosques has also made the Muslims bitter and suspicious of the Hindutva organizations and government authorities. There is now a greater sense of insecurity among Muslims about their own homes and mosques. A very recent incident of a demolition of a small mosque in Jangpura (near the Nizamuddin shrine) by the government authorities by terming it an illegal construction (at the order of High court) created much tension and violence in the area,19 bringing many local politicians and the Shahi imam of Jama mosque to lead a crowd of Muslims to regain it.20 Under political pressure, even the Chief Minister of Delhi finally declared that the mosque may be rebuilt if it was on a legal land, which the Wakf Board claims it was. But many have also commented that India’s bourgeois class (such as the Hindu residents of Jangpura colony who were against such a mosque) are turning highly Islamophobic in the recent times.21

Obviously, the tug of war for such a property has a purely religious and communal connotation and there is generally no concern for heritage conservation. In fact in many of such disputes, it is the politicians who try to gain mileage by inciting the crowds to fight for a property like a mosque in the name of religion, indirectly benefiting what is called the vote-bank for political parties. Naturally then, they used many provoking posters, banners, advertisements (in Urdu newspapers) and other mass media devices to instigate people in Delhi’s neighbourhoods “to come to the streets and protest for the mosque.” Although these posters, many put up in the Nizamuddin area too, did not use any images of the demolished mosque or any religious icon, some did use the portraits of the politicians or Imam Ahmed Bukhari himself to symbolically reach out to the community.

Even in the case of Nizamuddin shrine, the priests not only have their personal interests (of continuing to occupy the disputed heritage buildings) but also make it a larger issue of the community to garner support of the local residents and politicians in their favour. But it should be noted that garnering the larger (Muslim) public support for a Sufi shrine (or even a heritage building) is not as straightforward a matter as in the case of a regular mosque (such as the Jangpura mosque discussed above). This because a growing section of neo-orthodox Muslims are somewhat sceptical about Sufi shrines as spaces that promote hybrid culture and “innovations,” and would not bother if the existence of such a place is threatened. Similarly, a majority of north India’s Muslims are too poor and underprivileged to worry about the survival of an Islamic heritage building that they don’t “use” for religious purposes. One should note here that such an issue is not restricted to the shrine of Nizamuddin alone – several other heritage sites in Delhi and all over India are caught between the questions of religious sacrality and conservation.22 But a large number of Indian Muslims (or Muslim politicians) may like to believe that their places of worship are targeted especially because of a communal bias.

Fig. 12

In any case, common issues like cleanliness and upkeep of the shrine could not be wished away simply by political gimmicks, which some of the priests at Nizamuddin were trying. Thus, after repeated efforts of the conservation authorities, the local caretakers finally allowed the clean-up of at least some parts of the shrine. The government and restoration agencies went through a lot of negotiations and dialogue for a couple of year with the local residents and shrine keepers, besides running legal cases (since most residential settlements in the area are illegal or disputed). But in this tug of war between the restorers and local residents, many interesting narratives were created. Even though tourists or people interested in heritage have been visiting the shrine since ages, but local residents recently turned hostile to a couple of tourists and students of history/heritage who were taking pictures of heritage buildings encroached by new constructions, assuming they were part of the restoration agency. [Figure 12]

In their effort to assert the ownership and control over buildings and spaces, they employed all means, especially to mark out the territories they want to keep. The most common claim, of belonging to the “original” family tree of the saint, can be seen written in many places within the shrine outside the offices or shops that provide spiritual healing to pilgrims. Often, even unknown older graves in the vicinity of homes were appropriated as belonging to “our ancestors” by people as an excuse to encroach spaces. And the hotels or food joints outside the shrine were claimed by their owners as providing sacred langar (or community meal with spiritual importance) in order to keep their illegal occupation of spaces.23

16. Delhi Wakf board is responsible for maintenance of the mosques, dargahs, graveyards, khankahs, or any property which is pious, religious, or charitable. But a large number of its property all over India is encroached upon and disputed. See

17. Naqvi, Saba, “Wakf Scam: Allah’s Left The Building,” Outlook, Delhi, Sept. 21, 2009. Also see in the same issue: “On a Wink and a Prayer” (about Delhi Wakf Board chairman).

18. Times News Network, “Black flags, shut shops greet court receiver at Nizamuddin dargah,” The Times of India, 2009, New Delhi.

19. Mehmood, Zafar, “Jangpura Masjid: Factual Position,” Two Circles, 13 January, 2011.

20. Siddiqui, Sohail Ahmed, Selective Justice for Muslim Religious Places in Delhi, 23 January, 2011.

21. Gayer, Laurent, “Delhi’s Noor Masjid: Tales of a Martyred Mosque,” Economic & Political Weekly, New Delhi, March 5, 2011 vol xlvi No.10, p 12-15.

22. Singh, Rana B.P., “Heritage Contestation and Context of Religion: Political Scenario from Southern Asia,” Politics and Religion No.1/2008, Vol. II, p. 79-99.

23. Revealed by Hasan Sani Nizami, an important Sufi scholar, during an informal conversation in 2009.

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