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.
If in Delhi, looters targeted mosques and tombs, in some states, it was the administration that oversaw more organised campaigns of destruction. In the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur, in 1947, mosques and tombs were targeted under the orders of the government with specific contracts being given for demolition. The profit to be made by grabbing the land on which these stood was the primary motive of demolition. The quoted confidential report below, by an ASI officer Shankar Das, underlined this in the case of Alwar:
I visited Alwar on 10th December 1947, and studied the demolition of the mosques, graveyards and tombs in and around the city. This demolition campaign was launched by the state during the last disturbance and is still going on at some places. The State Ministers after a conference entrusted the task of demolition to one Sardar Joginder Singh, S.D.O. of the Public Works Department. This S.D.O. summoned various contractors and distributed the mosques and tombs for demolition amongst them on the simple conditions that whatever building material was got out of the debris would be appropriated by the contractor and virgin soil over which such a structure stood would be forfeited to the State. The contractors lost no time in razing both the old and new mosques as well as graveyards to the ground….