On January 30, Imam Zakir Hussain was as usual getting ready to lead the morning prayer at Akhunji Masjid, a 13th-century mosque in Mehrauli, when the serene silence of the morning was broken by the rude roar of bulldozers. Within hours, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) tore down the entire premises, including the Akhunji Masjid and Behrul Uloom madrasa, and several graves in the burial ground.
Situated roughly half a kilometre from Qutub Minar, a UNESCO World Heritage site, locals claim the mosque was built during Razia Sultana’s reign, making the structure 600-700 years old, but it remained an officially unnotified heritage building. This raises questions about the delicate balance between progress and the preservation of cultural sites.
Two days after the demolition, Delhi High Court sought an explanation from DDA about the rationale behind demolishing Akhunji Masjid. The court was addressing an urgent application, part of a petition filed by the Managing Committee of Delhi Waqf Board, which has been pending adjudication since 2022. The Managing Committee contends that the mosque and madrasa were recklessly demolished on January 30.
Hussain recounted the morning’s events. “There were about a dozen bulldozers, all ready to demolish the mosque and even the madrassa, that was home to 25 children, most of them orphans. They were asked to go into the forest till the demolition drive got over, and were left out in the cold,” Hussain told Frontline. Some of the parents came to fetch their children and found the madrasa gone, with a heavy police guard around it.
Hussain further claimed the authorities not only confiscated his phone but also escorted him away from the site, cordoning it off with CISF personnel positioned along the perimeter. The remnants from the demolition were swiftly gathered and disposed of, leaving little trace of the historic site, he said. For the Imam, who has been associated with it for 14 years, it wasn’t just a place of worship but a second home.
Delhi-based historian Rana Safvi describes Mehrauli as the “first city of Delhi”. Situated in southern Delhi, Mehrauli once served as the first capital of the Delhi Sultanate under the rule of Qutb-ud-din Aibak in the 11th century. “This area is full of medieval monuments, and they are important for understanding the history of Delhi,” Safvi told Frontline.
Mehrauli, which has a history of over a thousand years, is a classic example of the blend of medieval ruins and modern living, with quiet historical sites in the middle of buzzing markets. It showcases the enduring legacy of Delhi’s past, attracting history enthusiasts and tourists alike, making it an integral part of the city’s cultural identity. “Mehrauli has been continuously inhabited for 1,200 years and is a palimpsest of Indian history,” Safvi said.
DDA officials, who claim the Masjid and madrassa were illegal encroachments, said they were in Sanjay Van, a reserved forest that is part of the Southern Ridge. The DDA, in a statement, said, “Removal of illegal structures, religious in nature, was approved by the Religious Committee… The Sanjay Van is a reserved forest spread over an area of 780 acres, which is part of the Southern Ridge. As per the Ridge Management Board, the ridge area should be free from all types of illegal encroachment.”
While the DDA has maintained that all due processes were followed, this is not the first time that the DDA, which is responsible for developing commercial land in the national capital, has been accused of demolishing allegedly illegal structures without prior notice. The authority said it was merely complying with orders by the Ridge Management Board, a body constituted in 1995 for the protection of the ridge, to clear illegal encroachments.
As the dust settles in Mehrauli, the echoes of the ancient mosque, now reduced to rubble, speak volumes of a cultural heritage erased. Despite the DDA’s claims of due process, the demolition underscores vulnerabilities in Delhi’s heritage protection, especially of historic structures of Islamic heritage.
There is also a sense of unease among residents. An elderly resident of Mehrauli, Adil Ali, said this has increased the risk of demolition of more mosques on the grounds of their being illegal encroachments. No notice was served before the demolition, as the Imam of the mosque pointed out. The case exposes not only the loopholes in Delhi’s heritage protection, but to the weaponisation of demolitions in recent times.