Mosque in UP demolished in violation of HC order; locals maintain construction was legal

On 17 May, local authorities in the Ram Sanehi Ghat tehsil, in Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district, demolished the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz (left), and threw the debris into a river (right). The demolition was carried out despite an Allahabad High Court staying all demolitions till 31 May. Courtesy Syed Farooq Ahmad
20 May, 2021

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.   

According to Ahmad, the 2016 high court order was not relevant in the case of the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz, because it was situated beyond the tehsil boundary wall, making it “at least 100-150 feet away from the road.” The gata sankhya—plot numbers—listed in the notice, too, Ahmad said, were misleading since they suggested that the mosque is somewhere in the area rather than naming its precise plot number—the notice claimed the mosque was located somewhere within plot numbers 776, 777, 841 and 842.

The committee responsible for the management of the mosque had made these arguments in a reply to the notice, which it sent on 1 April to the tehsildar. According to Ahmad, the mosque committee also included annexures of maps issued after the consolidation of land, evidence to argue that the mosque was not encroaching on a public road, and chakbandi documents to indicate that the plot numbers mentioned in the notice did not correspond with that of the mosque.

A land-survey document from 1991 records the presence of a mosque at plot number 558 in Barabanki's Ram Sanehi Ghat tehsil. The demolition was conducted pursuant to a 2016 court order to remove religious structures built on public roads after January 2011.

Plot numbers often get shifted around after “chakbandi,” or consolidation of land following surveys. After the process is complete, a comparison chart is provided with the old and new numbers. Its old plot number was 558 and the new one is 778A and B. However, the digitised land-revenue records of the state, publicly available online, do not reflect a mosque at the plots 778A or 778B—it only records a playing ground and a girls’ school. Pertinently, a land-survey document, chakbandi praroop 2 ka, or form 2A, submitted by the mosque committee in its reply, recorded properties in the area during a chakbandi exercise in 1991. The document recorded the presence of a school, a tehsil and a mosque at plot number 558. Accordingly, Ahmad said, if the notice had mentioned the plot number 778, it would have been easier to trace documents back to the older plot number 558 and therefore easier to demonstrate that the mosque had been present from before 2011.

On 18 March, the mosque committee members had approached the Allahabad High Court with a writ petition challenging the notice issued by the state government. But the court dismissed the petition, concluding that “the notice has been given to the petitioners only for the purpose of seeking documentary evidence, and not for demolition.” The court held that the petitioners’ fear of an imminent demolition was therefore “unfounded,” and directed the mosque committee to file a reply within 15 days. In accordance with the high court’s order, the mosque committee submitted its reply to the tehsil administration. Since then, the mosque committee received no further communication, according to Ahmad, let alone warnings of the impending demolition that took place on 17 May.

In early April, Ahmad filed a right-to-information application to the Ram Sanehi Ghat tehsil asking various questions about the mosque, including what the mosque is numbered as in revenue records, whether there was a ban on offering namaz in the mosque at the time and why, and when namaz would be allowed to resume. He has not yet received a response to the RTI.

Ahmad told me that the day after the demolition of the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz, he joined many others to visit the district magistrate, Adarsh Singh, who was unavailable at the time. The same day, the Waqf Board issued a statement that the board will be filing a petition in the Allahabad High Court demanding a judicial inquiry into the demolition. The board condemned the demolition, terming it a “patently illegal and high-handed action” and demanded the restoration of the mosque.

Tripathi, the tehsildar, refused to answer any questions and said that only the magistrate would speak on the topic. Singh, the Barabanki district magistrate, did not respond to calls or messages about the demolition. He had earlier claimed to a reporter from The Guardian that he did not know of a mosque at the site. “I know there was an illegal structure,” Singh told The Guardian. “The Uttar Pradesh high court declared it illegal. That’s why the regional [SDM] took action. I will not say anything else.” In the wake of news reports about the demolition, on 18 May, Singh released a statement in which he evaded the mention of the existence of a mosque in the area. Instead, he referred to the presence of an illegal residential complex in front of the SDM’s residence. The district magistrate stated that the people living in the residential complex fled from the premises after they received the notice on 15 March, and the construction was taken over by the tehsil administration team on 18 March for  “security reasons.”

Singh did not acknowledge the contents of the mosque committee’s reply to the notice, but stated that after receiving the reply, the administration held the construction to be illegal. He did not mention the Allahabad High Court order of 24 April, or explain why the demolition was carried out in violation of it.

The Guardian referred to the demolition as “one of the most inflammatory actions taken against a Muslim place of worship since the demolition of the Babri Mosque by a mob of Hindu nationalist rioters in 1992.” Besides the Babri Masjid demolition, the state has seen other attempts in recent years to contest the existence of mosques. In April this year, a court in Varanasi directed the Archaeological Survey of India to find out whether the Gyanvapi Mosque is a superimposition or overlapping with another religious structure—referring implicitly to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple nearby.

According to Ahmad, several people protesting the closure of the Masjid Gareeb Nawaz in Ram Sanehi Ghat were arrested on 19 March. The imam Mustafa told me that there was “an atmosphere of fear” in the area now and that many Muslim locals had fled their homes.