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.