It seems that the British rulers deliberately chose to overlook the historic haveli of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s wife Zeenat Mahal at Lal Kuan in the Walled City of Delhi. The monument is yet not Centrally protected.
As a result, today the ruined haveli has become a free-for-all ground for encroachment. It is hard to imagine that it was once the abode of Mallika-e-Hindustan and while entering or coming out of the haveli she used to be the cynosure of all eyes. A danka (announcement) was made to alert the residents who would congregate near the haveli togreet her.
The monument has a historical significance as Bahadur Shah Zafar had himself stayed briefly at the haveli of his favourite wife after surrendering to the British. According to local residents, some of the sepoy rebels, who had switched over their loyalty towards the British, attacked the haveli but the solid wooden gates could not be breached. Driven by their dislike of the Begum, the English harmed the haveli when they recaptured Delhi.
Unfortunately, it has been ignored even after the country gained Independence from the imperialist regime. Today it stands heavily encroached. On the premises now stand an all-girls’ school for the residents of the Walled City and some residential quarters.
According to a former Archaeological Survey of India official, after Partition a number of migrant families from East Punjab, Sindh and North-West Frontier Province settled down in monuments like the Humayun’s Tomb, Purana Qila and prominent ones located in the Walled City area. “Unfortunately, Zeenat Mahal also fell prey to the relentless migration. Partition was a national calamity and accommodation was a serious concern for thousands of families as they had left behind their ancestral properties to settle down in a new land and new country.”
The notification of monuments was done in 1915 by the then colonial masters and inexplicably the rulers had not deemed Zeenat Mahal fit enough to be of national significance, said the former ASI official.
The school has an interesting history. It was the British rulers who built Zeenat Mahal Girls’ Senior Secondary School for the benefit of the locals. “Those days, most of the girl students were from Hindu families. After Partition the school closed down but was reopened as Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya,” says heritage activist Firoz Bakht Ahmed.
For the local residents, the school is a blessing as it is bringing education right at their doorstep. “The school is the only educational institution in this area. My wife was an employee there and now my granddaughter is studying there. But the families of washermen are illegal occupants,” says Kaleemuddin, a senior citizen of Farashkhana.
He is perturbed that dhobis have encroached Zeenat Mahal haveli. “They were given their due. They were relocated to Shahzada Bagh in Inderlok by the then councillor Sidiq Ali in 1971-72. But gradually they started coming back to their original habitation. Last December, they even let loose their dog on Firoz Bakht Ahmed when he had gone to see the illegal encroachment for inspection and to file a public interest litigation. He had filed a complaint at the local police station.”
The washermen allegedly blocked the entrance from Farashkhana side. As a result, girl students have to walk extra distance to enter from Lal Kuan.
When contacted, school Principal Chitra Gupta said she does not know when the school was set up. “I cannot comment on the illegal settlement of dhobis. It is the Public Work Department’s job to evict them.”
Right in the heart of the haveli is a factory for grinding red chilly powder. “The fumes from this unauthorised factory have been responsible for making the residents and the school-going children asthmatic,” complained a local resident.