Story of the Qutub

Print edition : July 16, 2021

The Qutub Minar complex in Delhi. Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

A new documentary film presents a view of the Qutub Minar that goes beyond the Muslim invader-Hindu victim binary.

The documentary Qutub - Ek Adhura Afsana, written and directed by Professor Hilal Ahmed, narrates the story of the discontent around official heritage conservation policies. The 35-minute-long documentary delves deep into the history of official management of the Qutub Minar in post-colonial India. Prof. Ahmed’s book Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation (2014) has dealt with this official narrative and its epistemic blind spots in detail. He deserves commendation for making his academic work accessible to the public through this online documentary.

Its core concern is to understand and critically engage with the majoritarian official narrative around medieval cultural heritage in general, and the epistemic elisions that undermine the Qutub Minar’s status in public memory despite its being a monument of global eminence. The tone of the documentary is conversational. The narrator raises riveting questions and presents a range of historical evidence to help the viewer grapple with them independently. In order to tackle the dilemmas that animate the official history of the state, the documentary makers interview a range of academics, cultural activists, political personalities and people living in the area around the Qutub Minar. These diverse insights from interviewees provide rich cultural education to viewers about the underlying secular debates in the quest for the conservation of historical monuments. It also depicts the struggle of preserving cultural memory in a pluralistic society and accommodating concerns of the minority’s religious rights.

History vs Myth-Making

This documentary is an important contribution to the long-standing dialectic of secular history’s response to the communal myth-making around “Muslim rule” in the Indian subcontinent. It makes this debate accessible to members of the political society through a democratic conversation about the evolving official histories with myths, legends and everyday meanings associated with this historical site of memory.

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The documentary critiques the over-simplification of the story of the monument’s origin. It juxtaposes the Archaeological Society of India version that emphasises the erection of the mosque after the destruction of Hindu and Jain temples with the neglected inscription on the monument that does not identify the religion of the 27 “butkadas”, that is, idol structures. In the spirit of inclusive conservation, it dispassionately presents Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha and right-wing activist Prafull Goradia’s claims about the Qutub complex being a representation of iconoclastic and barbaric “Muhammadan invasion”. It is worth noting that when the first National Democratic Alliance government revised NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) books, for instance, the Qutab Minar was the target of entirely mythological majoritarian claims. This narrow understanding does not recognise any possibility of a shared culture and implies that the establishment of one religious symbol must mean the destruction of another. The documentary scrutinises these claims by asking if the cultural identity of idols, domes, and other elements of heritage can be essentialised as the markers of a monolithic faith.

While critiquing the quest for identifying the religion of built forms, the documentary also presents the claims of secular historians. Professor Najaf Haider, while discussing the medieval-era practice of offering prayers in the complex, posits that medieval Muslim believers’ “way of religiosity was much open and ecumenical”. The presence of idolistic architectural structures around the open spaces where namaz was offered can hardly be a piece of evidence for tolerance. It requires deeper analysis by scholars of social and religious history, or else, the claim of “secular history” to more rigorous historical analysis would become vulnerable.

Religious Monuments

The questions that the documentary raise are very important in the present-day context when the historicity of religious monuments is questioned relentlessly and new public interest litigation (PIL) petitions are filed in the Supreme Court every day to establish a majoritarian view. This documentary explores the process of “Monumentalisation” and its significance in the context of the Qutub Minar. In order to delve deeper into these questions, one must understand the history of monumentlisation of heritage buildings in India.

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As Ahmed has shown in his works, the notion of Indo-Islamic heritage monuments being contested sites was a product of colonial scholarly and administrative analysis and management of Indian heritage sites. There were various reasons behind these notions. One of the most important notions was that Hindu civilisation was an authentic civilisation and “Islamic invasions” polluted it. Hence it had become important for colonial administrators to restore the decaying civilisation. Further, the classification of heritage monuments was interlinked with communal periodisation of Indian history, which was central to colonial historiography and the Indian academic response to colonial historiography. This classification was also a by-product of attempts made by Indian and British scholars to associate monuments with one single community as seen in Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s work Asar-as-sanadid and James Fergusson’s work The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture.

In the documentary, a plethora of interpretations of the Quwwatul Islam Mosque’s origin is represented. These interpretations show continuity and emerging new interpretations regarding the religious monuments as well. As historians like Tapati Guha Thakurta, Vinay Lal, Gyanendra Pandey, and Hilal Ahmed have argued, notions regarding Indian history and Indian heritage in post-independent India have been continuation of colonialism. Ongoing communal interpretations are such examples of continuity. In the documentary one can see Rakesh Sinha and Prafull Goradia marking this differently nuanced albeit relentless communalisation. Rakesh Sinha says that one must present history as objective truth and tell it as it is. If historical facts show that “Islamic invaders” have indeed destroyed some temples then that history must be told. However, he also asserts that Indian people do not want to demolish the existing structures which are situated on the ruins of temples. This is, in Hilal’s words, polemic Hindutva stance which asks people to accept demolition as the historical truth. Prafull Goradia, on the other hand, represents radical intellectual Hindutva which contends that all Islamic religious monuments have been built on ruins of Hindu and Jain temples. Both these trends create a binary of invaders and the pacifists/defenders which overlooks the complex relationship that Turkish, Afghan, and Mughal polities had with people and different cultures.

Najaf Haider and Sohail Hashmi have given newer and emerging interpretations of the Qutub Minar. In contrast to popular belief, early Turkish and Afghan rulers were much more concerned with creating a just state devoid of religious overtones. To achieve this goal, rulers who could wield power by themselves, Alauddin Khilji for instance, were ready to dismiss advice from Ulemas and Qauzis. The documentary quotes Philip Wagoner, who argues that destruction of religious places in order to show one’s victory was a common instance in medieval India. Richard Eaton in his recent work has taken cues from Sheldon Pollock and coined the term “Persianate Age”, replacing the communal classification of Indian history, and offers a more secular framework in order to understand the relationship between state, people, and religion. Mohammed Mujeeb highlights the fact that the Islamic principles and local artistic sensibilities are clearly reflected in the Quwwatul Islam mosque. He argues that medieval architecture represents a social and cultural assimilation process.

Also read: Beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary

Another important aspect of conservation of religious monuments that the documentary highlights is the Ancient Monument and Archaeological Remains Act of 1958. This Act does not take local customs, beliefs and cultures into consideration in evaluating historical monuments. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has made an attempt to rectify this approach by creating the Charter for the Conservation of Unprotected Architectural Heritage and Sites in India, in 2006. This Charter talks about the participation of local communities in conservation practices by recognising their traditional methods of building constructions and the cultural values associated with these buildings. In the documentary Dr Rakhshanda Jalil also speaks about the logistics of opening these mosques for public on the day of Jumma. She argues that traffic congestion caused by Muslims on the day of Jumma can be resolved substantially if the ASI opens up mosques for Friday prayers.

In the final analysis, like Ahmed’s writing, the documentary asks evidence-based and socially relevant pressing questions for our collective conscience. So, the afsana (story) of the Qutub complex makes one bemoan the communal conflicts that have arisen from the mechanical division of India’s past into Hindu and Muslim. These conflicts are manifested in contestations around the status of Islam in the public sphere—whether in monuments or in the offering of prayers on roads and parks. The quest for equal status—and a dignified dialogue of India’s eclectic cultural past—requires a popular imagination that is sensitive to co-living. In times when the majoritarian construction of an exclusive public sphere is on the rise, the noble endeavour of the film raises hope about an enlightened embrace of a common culture.

Prannv Dhawan is a socio-legal researcher at National Law School of India University Bangalore.

Gandhar S. Ashwinikumar is a senior researcher at Past Perfect Heritage Management, a Mumbai-based organisation that specialises in family and business archiving, historical research, and curating applications inspired by history.

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