“.. the ground has to be levelled”, said BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the grounds of Aminabad, a day before the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground. Ever since, right-wing forces have been keen to level the grounds in India. The slogan, “Babri to bas jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baki hai”, stands testimony to the yearning that continues to haunt India even today.
Interestingly, the calls from time to time to demolish such structures are not limited to one or two monuments. The demolition urge has a history. There exists a list of such structures and monuments in India that are to be demolished. Reportedly prepared by the Hindu Mahasabha, the list has been in circulation for long and, at present, the tally stands at 880, as mentioned in the book, Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, written by Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Harsh Narain, Jay Dubashi and Ram Swarup.
These 880 monuments, established by Muslims, are not just mosques but include idgahs, imambaras, baradaris, cemeteries, and graves of Sufi saints. The largest chunk of these, roughly 281, are graves and mazars of Sufi saints and common Muslim cemeteries.
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There have been several instances when mazars and graves were either attacked by a mob or demolished on the orders of the government. They include the demolition of seven mazars in UP’s Mathura in 2018, ordered by the Adityanath government, the one in Barabanki in 2021, and the mazar between Chaubepur and Shivajipur, Kanpur, in 2022, by government authorities, and the vandalisation of the mazars of Jalalshah, Bhureshah, and Qutubshah in Bijnor. Similar cases were reported in Gujarat and Uttarakhand as well. The year 2022 alone has reportedly witnessed the demolition of more than 12 mazars.
The idea to erase
In November, Home Minister Amit Shah stated that the “fake mazars” have been cleared out of the demography of Gujarat as part of the BJP-led State government’s “clean-up” policy. He, at different time stamps in his speech, emphasised that the mazars and graves are just illegal encroachments and thus they will be removed.
Mazars, mausoleums and graves of Sufi saints are the sites which are religiously visited by people of all religions and sects, as compared to the mosques and idgahs. The existence of these mazars are an example of India’s multicultural past and a living example of pluralism and co-existence.
It seems that the RSS fears the shared cultural heritage of different religious communities in India, and hence wants to erase the mere thought that Muslims and Hindus can peacefully coexist in the same land. The graves remain as a living mark of Muslims’ existence in India and to actually paint them as intruders and aliens, the Sangh Parivar needs to wipe out the basic proof of their historical existence. Statements and speeches delivered by right-wing leaders suggest that mazars and graves have been prime targets.
History shows that such activities are not limited to India. Since 1948, Israel has been demolishing Palestinian graveyards and mausoleums. Not very long ago, the Jerusalem Municipal Corporation demolished several graves near Masjid Al-Aqsa. Several graves in one of the most significant graveyards of the old city, the Yousefian Cemetery, one of the oldest Muslim graveyards in the city of Jerusalem, were also demolished.
Another important and historical cemetery for Palestinian Muslims, the Mamilla, too was demolished to construct the Museum of Tolerance. Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian, claims that before Israel was founded in 1948, all public religious institutions, such as mosques, churches, cemeteries, and sacred places, were managed by communal authorities.
All Muslim endowment property in the nation was confiscated by Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property after 1948 when more than 400 Palestinian communities were destroyed. The holdings eventually passed into the hands of the Israel Land Authority, government organisations such as the Jewish National Fund or private individuals.
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Just a few weeks ago, in November 2022, while the Eknath Shinde government in Maharashtra was clearing encroachments around the grave of Afzal Khan in Pratapgad (one of the graves in the list of 880 sites for demolition), the president of the Hindu Mahasangh, Anand Dave, gave an open threat for its demolition. He urged the government to destroy the grave of Afzal Khan, failing which the Hindu Mahasangh would do the job.
The situation in many of India’s small towns and suburban areas is similar. The ‘demolition’ list is now easily accessible and available on the Internet, and the attacks on graves, cemeteries, and shrines are rising, according to reports. Many fear that once these monuments are eliminated from India, it would be easier to spew venom at Muslims by painting them as foreigners.
Ali Fraz Rezvi is a theatre artist, activist, and a student of preventive conservation.