Can protected monuments be handed over to claimants? In Delhi, that is precisely what has been done

It is easy to inscribe secular on your constitution, it is easier to profess it and chant it ritually. But to adhere to the basics of secular conduct is no child’s play, more so in countries where the population is overwhelmingly aligned to one denominational category. Pakistan with 95-98 per cent Muslim population chose the easy way out and declared herself an Islamic republic. India, with 85 per cent of its population professing to be Hindus, chose the more difficult path and declared herself a secular democracy. Unfortunately, over the last six decades and more secularism has gradually been reduced to nothing more than a creed that is more professed than practiced.

The past is the arena of the battles being fought in the present for hegemony over the minds of the future generations. If the secularists win the battle of privileging and foregrounding the syncretic in our traditions there is hope for the idea of India as a secular and inclusive society, but if the obscurantists succeed in their efforts then we face a bleak future. A future that would mirror the goings-on in the ‘Islamic republic’ stares us in the face.

One could cite numerous examples to show how the secular is being constantly eroded in the name of secularism and harmony, but for the moment one should suffice to show how we approach our past.

The past we are talking about would perhaps fall between the late 14 to early 15 Century or a little later coinciding with the rule of the Tughlaqs, the Saiyads and the Lodis. A large baoli (step well) was constructed during this period in what is now the heart of New Delhi.

The well in this imposing structure is located to the south and steps descend from the north. The baoli measures approximately 60 metres from north to south. At the head of the steps there is a platform with a mosque on its western side, the entry to the baoli is also from an opening in the western wall, accessed through a staircase built along the western flank of the baoli. The construction is typically Sultanate period, rubble held together with a mortar of crushed bricks and slaked lime-stone with the exposed surfaces given a cladding of dressed stones. The stone used is the locally available Delhi Quartz that was mined from the Arravalis.

The Delhi Quartz could not be carved, because of the large size of its crystals and that is why all structures built during this period were given a thick layer of plaster that was later incised, while still wet, with calligraphic, floral or geometric designs known as stucco. The layers of plaster have peeled off, during the intervening centuries of neglect, revealing the bare walls that are exposed to the vagaries of the elements.

This then is the appearance of most structures built during the Sultanate period; exceptional structures like the Qutub Minar and the mausoleum of Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq make extensive use of sand stone and marble that must have been brought in from Rajasthan at great cost and after much effort.

For some strange reason this large baoli, marked with its typical Central Asian arches and built with rubble held together with lime stone and brick mortar -- a binding material whose extensive use is co-terminus with the Sultanate period -- has come to be associated, in popular perception, with Raja Ugrasen.

This association is despite the fact that there is no mention of a Raja Ugrasen in history text books, certainly not as a ruler or a major noble in the 15 and early 16 Century and despite the fact that monumental Indian architecture predating the arrival of the Central Asians was marked by the use of huge blocks of interlocking dressed stones with minimal use of binding material, those insisting on a Raja Ugrsen connection have persisted.

We are a democracy and we do not stop people from flying their own imaginary kites, but problems begin to crop up when popular perceptions begin to take precedence over established principles. Those who claim that this structure was built by Raja Ugrsen have been demanding that the structure be handed over to them. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has done precisely that, by signing an MOU with the claimants and entrusting them with the responsibility of looking after the monument.

The Aggarwal Samaj that claims descent from Raja Ugrasen has been handed over the monument. They have been given permission to place a guard on the premises and permitted also to keep a Porta Cabin inside the monument, a stack of chairs has been stored inside the mosque, a small room next to the mosque is now occupied by the chowkidar appointed by the Samaj. An ugly water tank has been installed near the entry to the baoli and the laundry of the chowkidar welcomes visitors to the site. All protected monuments open to public at sunrise but this baoli opens only at 9 am. Who is in-charge and who is setting the rules?

The issue was brought to the notice of the ASI and the Aggarwal Samaj was ticked off by the ASI. It wasn’t even a month ago that they had promised that these things will be discontinued, till 6 pm on Friday, Oct 3, 2013, nothing had changed

When a group of worshippers had taken over six mosques in different parts of south Delhi in March April 2009, the ASI was persuaded to move and evict the encroachers. But what do we do when the ASI begins to handover its own protected monuments?

This is a question that raises doubts even about the ‘sarvdharm sambhav’ twist that we have given to secularism. Do you apply the same principles in every case of claims and counter-claims on a heritage structure or do you succumb to those who can create a bigger nuisance and browbeat those who cannot?