Targeting a monument

Print edition : December 09, 2000

The Sher Shah Suri mausoleum, a protected national monument at Sasaram in Bihar, has been a victim of successive encroachments with the connivance of the local administration, for purposes that include construction of temples.

SHER SHAH SURI was a remarkable ruler of medieval India whose brief reign - which came as an interregnum during the otherwise uninterrupted rule of the early Mughals - is considered to have contributed much to the arts and crafts of administration. Altho ugh his monarchy was short-lived (from 1539 to 1545), Sher Shah (1472-1545) has left a fairly deep imprint in the realm of architecture. His own mausoleum at Sasaram in Bihar is a five-storeyed octagonal masterpiece built on a lofty plinth in the midst o f an excavated lake, approached from the north over a causeway. It is regarded as a classic example of medieval architecture, stylistically occupying a midway house between the austerity of the Tughlaqs and the grandeur of the later Mughals.

The temple built on the premises of the mausoleum, a protected area.-DIVYANSHU KUMAR

Ironically though, the great Afghan warrior of the medieval years is today fighting a losing battle against encroachers intent on ruining a valuable part of India's national heritage. Since 1977, several structures have come up on the premises of the She r Shah mausoleum and sought post facto legitimacy as places of worship. These successive intrusions have made a mockery of the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) mandate, which was extended to the mausoleum in 1938 when it was declared a prote cted monument. Sixteen complaints have been registered since 1977 by the ASI against illegal constructions, but no action has been taken so far. The latest encroachment took place in October, when a concrete roof was cast for one of the illegal structure s in the compound, in the cause of making it a vivah mantap (marriage hall).

According to K.K. Mohammed, the ASI's Superintending Archaeologist in charge of the Patna Circle, "the mastermind" behind all these activities is Jawahir Prasad, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator, who has been threatening and intimidating local ASI personnel in charge of the upkeep of the monument. The local police have been rendered impotent in the face of Prasad's organised enterprise to stamp his writ on the monument. Ironically, Prasad enjoys the patronage of Sushil Kumar Modi, Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, who claims to be fighting Laloo Prasad Yadav's "jungle raj" in Bihar.

The latest structural changes in the vicinity of the monument began on September 30 and were immediately reported to the administration. No action was taken until October 13. Mohammed then sent urgent communications to Governor Vinod Chandra Pandey and C hief Secretary V. S. Dubey. Extensive coverage in the local press also exerted its own pressure on the administration. On October 19, prohibitory orders were clamped in the area as a precautionary measure.

Former BJP legislator Jawahir Prasad.-DIVYANSHU KUMAR

Alleging that the local administration has at the minimum been guilty of connivance, Mohammed states that the construction of the mantap began some months earlier. Work was stopped when the contribution was brought to the notice of the administrat ion, but resumed later. Rohtas District Magistrate Wasimuddin Ahmad Anjum, however, pleads in self-defence that the administration has taken prompt measures to stop any illegal construction that has been brought to its notice. As for clearing the encroac hments, Anjum pleads inability: "It is a matter involving faith and the district administration cannot act without specific directives from the State government."

This argument is rejected by Syed Shahabuddin, who had raised the matter in Parliament as far back as 1982. There is a strong public interest in maintaining the status of a protected monument, he argues. As such, "any encroachment, even if in the name of religion, should be summarily vacated without the benefit of judicial or administrative proceedings." In terms of jurisdiction, he argues that it is for the Central government to initiate the process of clearing up the premises and for the State governm ent to provide all the necessary administrative support.

Jawahir Prasad himself is unmoved by the concerns expressed. "We are building a vivah mantap in the temple, for the poor", he claims and adds, "Anybody who wants to stop us will face the consequences." That he is capable of delivering on this thre at is amply clear. In August 1999 while he was still a member of the State Assembly, he with a group of supporters was alleged to have assaulted ASI Conservation Assistant Sarvan Kumar, his wife and three others, when they sought to remove a saffron flag from the akhara (wrestling ground) situated south of the monument, beside a mosque in the protected area. The police, however, registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the ASI personnel for "provoking communal tension in the town". Pra sad has now publicly put the administration on notice: if permission to build the mantap is not given, he will proceed to do so through kar seva.

Encroachment at the site, especially in the form of temple construction, began in the 1970s. A gazetteer map of the mausoleum, published on June 6, 1964, does not mention the existence of any temple. Encouraged by the establishment of a school in the reg ulated area just north of the monument in 1975, the local land mafia went one step further and built a temple in 1977. This was on the premises of the protected monument itself, in the southeastern corner of the mausoleum. While the school in the regulat ed area was dismantled in 1997, the temple, named the "Sarveshwar Mahadev" temple, still stands.

The matter was immediately reported to the District Magistrate for action under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1958) and the rules framed under the Act in 1959. The law specifies that no construction can be undertaken wit hin a radius of 100 metres of a notified monument, leave alone within the premises of a protected monument. The District Magistrate, however, declined to take any administrative action and instead advised the ASI to initiate legal proceedings.

Construction continued despite the strenuous objections of the ASI. A compound wall was constructed for the temple in 1982, and in the following year a local mobilisation collected a large sum of money to build a new structure within the premises. A conf lict situation was precipitated, which led to simmering tension; in a communal riot that followed, 12 persons were killed.

Over 25 years of unchecked encroachment, temples dedicated to various gods of the Hindu pantheon have been built on the premises. Moreover, a raised platform for performing rituals and a marriage hall have also emerged. Officials of the ASI do not think that the current suspension of construction will last. In the interest of protecting a valuable part of the national heritage and ensuring that there is no serious disruption of communal harmony, they urge an early resolution of the matter.

K.K. Mohammed, Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India, Patna Circle.-DIVYANSHU KUMAR

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), meanwhile, has served notice that it intends to take up the politics of Islamic monuments once again. On November 14, a group of 130 activists belonging to the VHP and the Bajrang Dal attempted to perform a "Dev Mukti Yaj na" at the spot where a Ganesha idol is placed in the Quwat-ul Islam mosque in the Qutab Minar complex in Delhi. The police arrested 78 activists, including the media in charge of the local VHP unit, Ajay Devgun, and members of the All India Margdarshak Mandal, Mahant Naval Kishore Das and Ram Krishna Gaur.

One of medieval India's most distinctive landmarks is also now part of the VHP's programme of rewriting history. The VHP claims that the Quwat-ul Islam mosque, built by the Mumluk (Slave) ruler Qutub-ud-din Aibak in the late 12th century, stands on the s ite of the ancient Vishnudhwaja temple. Under the law, no religious activity is permitted at protected monuments. But the ASI has been rather slack in enforcing this law. If enforcement fails in the early stages of an incipient conflict over a protected monument, the outcome could well be administrative paralysis and a Sasaram kind of fait accompli in the near future.

1975:

1977: Emboldened thus, some people build a temple called "Sarveshwar Mehadev" in the protected area south-east of the monument.

January-February 1978: The Super-intending Archaeologist of the ASI's Patna Circle requests the District Magistrate, Rohtas, to take action. Instead, the Magistrate advises the ASI to file a case in a court of law.

1982: Syed Shahabuddin raises the issue in the Rajya Sabha.

1982: The construction of a compound wall starts around the temple.

1992: Illegal construction extends.

September 1993: Construction starts once again.

March 1995: After a break, construction begins again.

October 2000: Construction work resumes, this time of a "marriage hall".

October 18: Prohibitory orders clamped.

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