Ramzan is usually a time for festivities for the residents of Old Delhi but controversy over a disputed mosque near the historical Jama Masjid has kept the area on edge, with a large number of police personnel attempting to maintain a fragile peace.
For the last four days the area, known as the walled city of Delhi, has seen heavy police deployment and though the situation is calm at present, police are conducting regular flag marches to prevent any further clashes.
The remanants of a mosque, the Akbarabadi mosque, believed to have been built by one of the wives of Mughal emperor Shahjahan, has been a point of contention between local residents and authorities that has led to clashes and at least two people being arrested.
The Akbarabadi mosque is believed to have been built in 1650 and was destroyed by the British in the aftermath of 1857 revolt.
The disputed site is yards away from a new metro station that is being built by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) in central Delhi’s Darya Ganj area. Matia Mahal MLA Shoaib Iqbal has been claiming for some time now that a mosque was present at the site, and three weeks ago a team of local residents led by him began digging near the DMRC construction site.
When the ruins of what locals allege is the Akbarabadi mosque were discovered at the site, a temporary structure was built and residents began offering prayers there.
However, a petition filed in the Delhi High court challenged the construction of a temporary mosque at the site. The high court halted any construction at the site and directed the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and Delhi police to cordon off the area. It also directed the Archaeological Society of India to take charge of the site.
On Saturday, the first day of the holy month of Ramzan, teams from the Delhi police and NDMC, acting in accordance with the High Court order, sealed the site of the temporary shrine and removed religious scriptures kept in it.
Devotees were prevented from offering prayers at the site but people kept trickling into the area throughout the day.
The situation turned ugly on Saturday night at around 11 pm. After the Ishaa prayers (the last prayer of the day), people again gathered near the site and began protesting the closure of the temporary shrine. The protestors stopped traffic, broke the windshields of two DTC buses, torched five motorcycles stationed at a police outpost near Subhash Park and forced many shops to shut.
The protestors then clashed with the police personnel stationed there and also resorted to stone throwing. Ten people were injured.
“Some people tried entering the site on Sunday, but were stopped by the police,” said Devesh Srivastava, Additional Commissioner of Police (Central).
However, one of the protestors who led the team that claims to have dug up the artifacts dating to the Mughal era, said the police had violated the court’s order and would be challenging the action carried out by the authorities.
Shoaib Iqbal, the local legislator who led the digging operation, said, “Police and MCD violated the Court order as it had asked them only to cordon off the site and not to remove religious scriptures. It is our right to offer prayers at the site.”
Iqbal has sought to intervene in the court case and it will be heard by the high court on 25 July.
The Archaeological Society of India (ASI) meanwhile has still to take charge of the site and verify the authenticity of the items found.
Local residents say their opposition is not to the ASI taking over the site but them being allowed to gain access to the shrine they built and being allowed to offer prayers there.
“We have no issues if the site is handed over to the ASI and if the ASI charges a nominal fee for entering the site like it does on other historical monuments. Our only demand is that we should be allowed to offer prayers at the site as it is a mosque. Feroze Shah Kotla is also under ASI. There is a mosque inside the premises of the monument where people have been prayers for decades now. We want a simlar arrangement for Akbarabadi masjid,” Aley Mohammad, the area councilor said.