On 17 May, the administration of the Ram Sanehi Ghat tehsil, in Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district, demolished the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz, a local mosque, in violation of a high court order and despite objections by locals that it was not an illegal construction. Exactly two months earlier, “zuhr ki namaz”—afternoon prayers—“were read there for the last time,” Syed Farooq Ahmad, a local social activist and law student, told me. That day, police officials barricaded the entrance to the mosque, closing it for public entry. Earlier that month, the Uttar Pradesh government had announced that religious structures built after January 2011 on public roads would be removed within six months. But government documents indicate that the mosque has stood at the site since at least 1991, and residents said that it was decades older.
On 24 April, the Allahabad High Court issued a stay order on “any orders of eviction, dispossession or demolition, already passed by the High Court, District Court or Civil Court,” if they had not already been executed, until 31 May. The court had issued the order “in the wake of recent upsurge of pandemic Covid-19,” as a general instruction for all such demolitions, in a suo moto case concerning pending cases before the court affected by the pandemic. The order also stated that “State Government, Municipal Authorities, other Local Bodies and agencies and instrumentalities of the State Government shall be slow in taking action of demolition and eviction of persons” till 31 May. The district administration demolished the mosque in spite of this order.
The decision to demolish the mosque appears to have been taken to comply with another high court order, from 2016, which directed the state government to remove religious structures encroaching on public roads. The order stated that any such constructions that were built after January 2011 would be demolished, and in the event that a structure was built prior to 2011, it would be moved elsewhere. On 11 March this year, the Uttar Pradesh government announced its decision to implement the order. Four days later, Dayashankar Tripathi, the Ram Sanehi Ghat tehsildar, issued a notice referring to the order and demanding the provision of archival evidence for the “unauthorised construction” within three days.
The Masjid Gareeb Nawaz is located in the tehsil building complex in Ram Sanehi Ghat, and stands in front of the office of the sub-divisional magistrate’s residence. The mosque is registered with the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board. Precisely how old the mosque was is unclear, but documentary and anecdotal evidence indicates that it was constructed before 2011. The electricity bill of the mosque records the “Supply Release Date”—the date on which a new electricity connection is installed—as 1 April 1959, which could suggest that the mosque is over six decades old. A land survey document from 1991 also records the existence of the mosque.
The local activist Ahmad, too, said that people from the area fondly recall their grandfathers and great-grandfathers frequenting it. An imam from the area, Maulana Abdul Mustafa, said the mosque was “over a hundred years old” and that he had been seeing it himself for over half a century. Zufar Ahmad Faruqi, the chairperson of the Waqf Board, has also told the media that the mosque is a hundred years old.