It is a settled principle in law that worship in any form cannot be permitted in notified monuments. But the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, unmindful of the consequences, has made a sinister request to the National Commission for Minorities to allow prayers in 31 Delhi mosques which are protected monuments of national importance and are managed by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Commission appears not to be keen on allowing worship in heritage monuments, but it has also not categorically rejected the Jamiat’s move as untenable. Rather it has suggested to the government that the structures in question be surveyed along with other ancient mosques to evolve guidelines for worship and repair. Religious structures of architectural and historical significance which are more than 100 years old can be notified as monuments of importance under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. If at the time of notification the structure had been in disuse and worship had stopped, the Act does not permit the introduction of religious activities. Whenever fringe groups have attempted to breach these provisions, such as at the Qutub Minar complex in 2009, the government, to its credit, has successfully resisted it.
The courts too have unambiguously objected to any change in the heritage character of monuments. In Satinder Kumar and Ors. Vs Union of India (2007), the Himachal Pradesh High Court pronounced that “once a monument has been declared to be a protected monument and is owned by the Government, then the congregation cannot insist that the place of worship must actually and actively be used for religious services.” This judgment effectively stalled one of the Christian communities in Shimla from performing religious functions in the church located within the Rashtrapati Nivas — a national monument under ASI care. Even in monuments where worship is permitted because religious activities were ongoing at the time of notification, the law prohibits changes to the original arrangement. The Rock Cut Temples at Thirumalpuram, Tamil Nadu, are a case in point. When a Hindu religious group wanted to extend the duration of worship in this protected monument, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court agreed with ASI’s objections and refused permission. Radical groups often put forth specious arguments that monuments could be better protected by introducing religious activities. Conservation of monuments has to be improved where it falls short, but the issue of maintenance cannot be an excuse to appropriate monuments. What is at stake is also communal harmony. The government must protect our ancient monuments from religious zealots.