The number of monuments being used as public conveniences is too large to enumerate. Masjid Moth is one such

The question of how do we in India relate to our heritage is very easy to answer. By and large we do not relate to our heritage in any way, unless what we do to them can be construed to mean that we treat them as our own. This is especially true of the built heritage scattered all around us whether in metropolitan agglomerates, million plus cities, small towns or in remote villages. Our attitude is the same - - supreme disdain and callousness.

Whether this attitude is the product of a people who have become inured to heritage because they have had a surfeit of it or because they only have a distorted sense of a Hindu past and a Muslim past is difficult to say. Unless we can turn a building either into a mosque or a temple we do not seem to care much for it, the moment we can convert a heritage structure into a place of worship we begin to repair and refurbish it and keep at it till we remove all vestiges of history and antiquity from it.

Those structures that cannot be so converted into places of worship seem to leave us cold and untouched and we treat them as a ‘no man’s land’ and therefore easy pickings for all comers. Some of the uses that we put heritage monuments to include driving nails in the walls to hang kitschy calendars, to attach wires to dry our daily wash and to stretch cables to our houses. We use the courtyards for playing cricket, for sleeping in, for drying our grains. We paint the walls in hideous shades of green or saffron to erect shrines along the periphery. We encroach upon entire structures and convert them into extensions of our houses, or to conduct our businesses from. Using the niches under monumental structures for starting bicycle or auto repair shops, for storing construction material or using them for rearing poultry or pigs etc are all part of our daily routine. The number of monuments that have been used as public conveniences is too large to be enumerated.

Except for downright encroachment, one can witness many of these activities in and around Masjid Moth, located inside the Masjid Moth village that derives its name from the sultanate period mosque that is now a protected monument. One corner next to the exterior of the west wall of the mosque has been converted into a reserved parking lot for some elected representative, there are two cars with the Delhi Assembly stickers parked in this reserved lot, the sticker on one of them at least expired on December 31, 2011. The owner must be someone powerful with scant respect for the law, considering the expired sticker and the land grabbed for parking.

The mosque has been in the news recently ( To be or not to be, Metroplus, The Hindu, September 22, 2012) because the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is building a hostel for its staff within the prohibited 100 metre limit for construction next to a protected monument. One wonders how were the builders given the NOC by the competent authority appointed by the National Monuments Authority.

Vikramjeet Singh, an IT professional and enthusiastic photographer of historical monuments, and I went to Masjid Moth to do our own investigation. The hostel under dispute is certainly within the 100 metre prohibited limit. We measured it through Vikramjeet’s Tablet that has GPS on it. Measuring distances has never been easier, you do not even have to be on site, open Google Map, identify the two points, tap them and the actual linear distance between them is displayed.

Open and shut case, one would be inclined to say, but things are not so easy on the ground, the hostel is coming up behind another AIIMS hostel built earlier than the mid 1990s. This structure is five storey high and is less than 50 meters from Masjid Moth. A Sai Mandir has come up between the monument and the older hostel building. The temple was certainly not there, not in its present dimensions in any case, when I used to work with BiTV that operated from Uday Park close by.

Now even if this new hostel comes up and even if it is a couple of floors higher than the earlier hostel, it will not be a visual hindrance because the line of vision is already obstructed by the earlier structure. To my mind, the AIIMS hostel issue is actually a red herring that is being dragged through the debate of violation of the 100 metre prohibition in order to divert attention from the large scale constructions going on within 10 to 15 meters of the monument and it is these that the ASI has to do something about.

One learns that complaints have been lodged about recently concluded or ongoing construction in house nos. 108, 137 and 139 aside from two dozen others. MCD staff did arrive for a survey but they were obstructed by those involved in breaking the law and their supporters. We were also told that the local MCD councilor arrived and convinced the MCD staff to go back. Work goes on at frantic speed and would be a fait accompli before anyone can take cognizance of the offence.

We need to accept that heritage preservation cannot be done without involving and educating the population that lives in the neighbourhood, it cannot be done through laws that are sought to be applied mechanically and it cannot be done if we continue to treat the people as adversaries and enemies.

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