Yet again, communal politics has insidiously turned a potentially significant archaeological site into a theatre of violence and vandalism. A complacent government, oblivious to the vulnerability of historical remains in religious zones, failed to prevent it from happening. Early this month, construction of the underground metro rail network in a park in front of the Jama Masjid in Delhi revealed traces of a building and yielded artefacts datable to the Mughal period. Instead of quickly mobilising experts to scientifically evaluate the evidence, assess the archaeological potential of the area and protect the site, the authorities were irresponsibly lax. Vested groups quickly rushed in to capitalise on the situation and claimed that the unravelled structure is a part of the well known, but now lost Akbarabadi Mosque built during the rule of Shahjahan in the 17th century. This claim has to be professionally verified. Whatever be the final conclusion, there is no justification for scheming politicians and self-appointed religious leaders to forcefully occupy the site, construct a ‘mosque’ over it and prevent proper archaeological investigation. In the past, authorities have allowed religious worship in monuments such as Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur without impeding its conservation. But it is possible to do so and limited only to religious structures that are in use. Insisting on offering prayers at newly unearthed historical sites is not permissible and smacks of an agenda that has more to do with land grabbing than God worshipping.
Experiences at Ayodhya and Sidhpur ought to have taught the Indian state that constant vigil and proactive planning are needed to prevent lumpen elements from mindlessly destroying historical structures. Had the lessons been learnt, Delhi could have avoided the recent damage and conflict. As early as 2009, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission reviewing the redevelopment plan for Jama Masjid pointed out that the park in front is a potential archaeological site. It recommended that the open space be excavated before developing the area. The municipal corporation, which owns the property, failed to heed the advice. At least the Archaeological Survey of India, which is headquartered in Delhi, could have assessed the site before the metro rail construction commenced. This too did not happen. The ASI cannot hide behind the excuse that excavations would take time and hurried work would damage potential evidence. It is well aware that less invasive tools such as three-dimensional, multi-offset ground-penetrating radar imaging are available which could safely detect structures below ground without having to dig. It is still not too late. Delhi can quickly adopt Archaeological Prospection to identify its hidden heritage and prepare a comprehensive road map to protect them. As for the ruins at Subhas Park, no quarter must be given to the troublemakers who are hell-bent on destroying what could be a valuable piece of Delhi’s history.