At 3 am on August 20, Wajahat Ali was fast asleep when his phone rang. “The police force and bulldozers have arrived,” said the caller, an imam of a mosque.

Ali rushed to the Mamu-Bhanja mazar on Rani Jhansi Road in Delhi’s Jhandewalan. He is the caretaker of the mazar – the mosque whose imam had telephoned him is located within its premises.

A mazar, often also colloquially known as a dargah, refers to a shrine built over the grave of a revered Muslim figure, such as a saint, whose name it usually bears. According to Mustafa Mansoori, a Muslim activist who has been raising his voice against the demolition of mazars in Delhi, the Mamu-Bhanja shrine is around 250 years old. “My family has been taking care of this shrine for the last six generations,” said Ali, who is 20 years old.

He recounted that police had blocked off both sides of the road. “The bulldozers were ready to approach the shrine,” he said.

Ali said that he asked officials of the Delhi government’s Public Works Department who were present at the site to stop the demolition, but that they did not listen. “They came at night because they thought they might encounter resistance from people during the day,” Ali said.

This was a Sunday morning. Two days earlier, on August 18, Ali had received a notice claiming that parts of the shrine were encroaching on PWD land. The notice asked the mazar management to submit relevant records by 3 pm on August 19 to show that the “property is legitimately constructed”. But it also “requested” them to “remove the unauthorised encroachment” by the same day, failing which it would be removed “without further notice”.

Ali said he rushed to the PWD office the next day, August 19, to submit the documents pertaining to the shrine. The office accepted the documents, but that did not prevent the bulldozers from setting out early the next morning. “We thought they would consider the documents and wait for some days before taking any action,” Ali told Scroll. Instead, as he watched the bulldozers demolished a wall of the shrine. Then, he recounted, they lifted the debris and loaded it onto a truck, which transported it away.

Activists say that authorities’ recent demolitions of mazars in Delhi are blatantly illegal. The front wall of the dargah of Hazrat Sheikh Imadudin Firdousi at Nizamuddin was demolished on April 27. Photo: Zafar Aafaq

Erasing history

The action at the shrine is part of a series of demolitions that have been underway in the national capital in the last six months, targeting roadside shrines and places of worship in the name of clearing encroachments. According to an official of the Delhi Waqf Board, these include 13 Muslim religious sites. Some caretakers explained to Scroll that the shrines were welcoming of people from all communities. “Devotees from all religions – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs – come here and pay their obeisance,” said Khalid Firdousi, the caretaker of Dargah Imaddidun Firdousi in Nizamuddin. “We also organise langar where people are served without any discrimination.”

These demolitions have occurred even as a campaign unfolds by Hindutva groups against mazars and mosques in states like Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

According to media reports, in April and May the Uttarakhand government bulldozed more than 300 mazars in the state. Vigilantes associated with Hindutva groups, like Dev Bhoomi Raksha Ahbyan, continue vandalising and destroying Muslim religious sites.

On June 17, the Bhopal Municipal Corporation removed eight mazars in the vicinity of Pt Khushilal Sharma Government Ayurveda College. BJP leaders justify such actions in the name of fighting against “land jihad”, a conspiracy theory peddled by Hindutva groups who claim without evidence that Muslims are encroaching on public land to build religious structures.

In Delhi, a part of a temple on Rani Jhansi road was also demolished the same night as the Mamu-Bhanja mazar. Scroll phoned and emailed Kulvinder Singh, a deputy secretary of the Delhi government who oversees “religious matters’’ to ask how many non-Muslim sites of worship had been demolished in the last six months – as of publication, he had not responded.

In some instances, authorities have served demolition notices to mosques that stand on land that the Delhi Waqf Board claims to own – the board has even gone to the High Court to challenge two such notices, citing an agreement dating back to 1945.

The actions against Muslim sites coincided with other actions, including the alleged demolition of the homes of slum dwellers, ahead of the G-20 summit held in Delhi on September 9 and 10.

“There was no organised attempt in Delhi to attack mazars in previous years,” sai Zafarul Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission. “I think this is a new development, rather a plan, started only very recently – during 2023. I think it is a thought-out plan to wipe off traces of Muslim history.” He added that those who sought the destruction of these sites were particularly keen on erasing the fact “that Hindus too revered the mazars, which should be anathema to the Hindutva forces”.

Narayani Gupta, author of Delhi Between Two Empires, said that civic bodies have little regard for the historical significance of these sites. These bodies “are not concerned with history but with straight lines drawn often over the lines of history,” said Gupta.

Sohail Hashmi, a writer and filmmaker who conducts heritage walks in the city, noted that many of these shrines “do not have any recorded history”. Rather, he said, after the British shifted their capital to Delhi in 1912, they displaced villages in the area, and “in the process graveyards were also levelled”. Some graves survived, “a few belonging to known personages, others unmarked”, and they began to be venerated as religious sites, he explained.

Gupta bemoaned the fact that such shrines are being considered “illegal” while new roads are seen as “legal”. But in fact “the latter is the encroachment on older sacred spaces,” she said. The demolition amounts to “wiping out history, the journeys of pilgrims over centuries, the sacred spaces”, she added.

Legal disputes

There have also been legal efforts against these sites. In February, five Delhi residents filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court seeking an order for the removal of “unauthorised religious structures” in public places. The petition specifically mentions only mazars and mosques, naming 16 such sites. It claimed that these structures have come up recently to grab land and alleged that the sites jeopardise “national integrity and national interest”.

On August 7, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the Centre and the Delhi government seeking a response to the petition. The next hearing is scheduled for October. Asad Khan Falahi, custodian of Shahi Masjid Zabta Ganj near India Gate, said that he was preparing an impleadment application, seeking to be made party in the case.

But Scroll visited six of these 16 sites in the heart of the national capital and found that five of them have already been demolished completely. These include two mazars at Sunehri Bagh Road – Dargah Sunehri Baba and Dargah Mamu Baya – which the petition refers to as a single site. It also includes two, Dargah Jinnati Baba and Dargah Bhure Mia, at Subramaniam Bharti Marg in Kaka Nagar. The Dargah Hazrat Qutb Shah Chisti outside the headquarters of Election Commission of India on Ashoka Road was also demolished.

In Kaka Nagar, some rubble and the remnants of a tree that was cut at the time of the demolition remained on the pavement. But the other sites had been completely refurbished – saplings were planted over the area in Sunehri Bagh Road, and a new pavement had been laid outside the Election Commission headquarters.

Of Muslim sites that have been demolished in the last six months, two – Mamu Bhanja mazar and a mosque near Bengali market – are also mentioned in a list of 123 Muslim religious sites in Delhi that are the subject a legal dispute between the Central government and the Delhi Waqf Board. The Central ministry of housing and urban affairs took over these properties in February following an order from a two-member commission and “absolved” the Waqf Board from all matters related to these them.

The board, however, approached the High Court challenging the commission’s mandate. It argued that the properties are Muslim places of worship and fall under the jurisdiction of the Waqf Board. In the last hearing in the matter, in April, the Centre told the court that the properties “were the subject matter of land acquisition proceedings between 1911 and 1914” after which “mutation was carried out in favour of the Government”.

The Dargah Hazrat Qutb Shah Chisti outside the headquarters of Election Commission of India on Ashoka Road was demolished and the site was refurbished. Photo: Zafar Aafaq.

Caretakers and volunteers at these sites named several agencies as responsible for the different demolitions: specifically, the Public Works Department of the Delhi government; and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Land and Development Office, both under the union housing and urban ministry.

A report published by The Hindu on April 5 quotes an unidentified NDMC official saying that the civic body has been conducting demolitions to “liberate all footpaths and pedestal surfaces from unauthorised encroachment”.

But to Scroll, the corporation denied taking action against religious sites, including roadside mazars that fall in the area under its jurisdiction. “Other agencies might have done it, but NDMC did not demolish any mazars,” said Radha Krishnan, the civic body’s public relations officer.

Scroll also contacted the Public Works Department and the Land and Development Office to confirm their involvement, but as of publication, they had not responded.

In some places, confusion over responsibility for demolitions appears to be linked to the tussle between the Centre and the Delhi government for control over the state’s administration.

For instance, on July 2 when the NDMC demolished a temple and a mazar – a Hanuman temple at Bhajanpura Chowk and Syed Chand Mazar in Dayalpur – in North East Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party posted a letter on Twitter that PWD minister Aatishi had written to Lieutenant Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena in June, urging him to revoke the decision to demolish religious structures.

But a report in The Hindu cited unnamed officials at the lieutenant governor’s office who said that the approval for the demolition was given by PWD and the Delhi Government’s “religious committee”, a body that oversees matters related to religious sites. Scroll emailed the PWD minister to ask whether the department had indeed approved the demolition – as of publication, no response had been received.

The Shahi Masjid Zabta Ganj near India Gate is among the 16 sites against which a PIL has been filed in the Delhi High Court, seeking the sites’ removal. Photo: Zafar Aafaq

Bhoore Shah Baba dargah

The Bhoore Shah Baba dargah is located on the Delhi-Mathura road near the Sabz Burj roundabout in Nizamuddin, an affluent neighbourhood in South Delhi. A 1976 Delhi Administration gazette notification, which Scroll has seen, lists the dargah as Waqf Board property, measuring 1,000 square yards.

On April 1, officials of the Public Works Department bulldozed the front boundary of the shrine and two small structures on the two corners facing the road, according to Yousuf Baigh, the caretaker of the mazar. “It was heartbreaking for me to see bulldozers running over a mazar,” said 48-year-old Shoaib Khan, a devotee who has dedicated himself to cleaning service at the mazar since 2021.

Baigh alleged that the Public Works Department officials had not served him any notice before the demolition. But two weeks before the bulldozing, the sub-divisional magistrate of South East Delhi had asked Baigh to shift the front boundary by six feet. “We agreed and pulled it in,” he said. “But even then they ran bulldozers.”

Waqf Board officials say that no part of the dargah was an encroachment and that the demolitions carried out are “unlawful”.

After the demolition, cement tiles were laid to widen the footpath running along the road. But seven graves, which now lie along the expanded footpath, were left untouched.

Four weeks later, on April 27, authorities demolished another nearby religious site – the dargah of Hazrat Sheikh Imadudin Firdousi, a 14th-century Sufi saint, situated on the road opposite The Oberoi hotel in the Nizamuddin area. According to Abdul Khalid Firdosi, the caretaker of the dargah, officials from the Public Works Department and New Delhi Municipal Corporation were involved in the demolition.

Firdosi, who is 45, said that the front walls made of bamboo, and the wall of a mosque adjacent to the dargah were demolished. He added that makeshift washrooms at the dargah were also demolished.

Chaand Bi, 47, Firdosi’s sister, said the officials also intended to bulldoze the main dargah building, which houses the grave of the saint, but stopped “after we showed them the papers”. She added, “They were even planning to remove and transfer the graves.”

This was the second time that the dargah faced bulldozers. In 2017, bulldozers demolished concrete walls and a few other structures on the premises, said Firdosi and Bi.

Meanwhile, a graveyard less than a kilometre away, the Qabrustan Panj Peeran, has become the site of dumping for debris from the Kaka Nagar mazars, which drew objections from the graveyard management. “We express our disappointment at lack of consultation and transparency in the matter,” stated an email written by Mujeeb Ahmad, a lawyer and the general secretary of the graveyard committee, to several officials and departments, including the Delhi Police, revenue department and the lieutenant governor. The only response they received was from the Delhi Police, merely acknowledging receipt of the email.

Rubble and the remnants of a tree at the site of the now demolished dargah at Subramaniam Bharti Marg in Kaka Nagar. Photo: Zafar Aafaq

Sunehri Bagh Road

Sunehri Bagh Road lies in the heart of Delhi, amidst the power corridors of the government, just around a kilometre from the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

On the morning of April 2, New Delhi Municipal Corporation officials demolished two small mazars situated beside the road, according to Mohammad Shahbaz, 35, caretaker of one of the mazars. Shahbaz said civic officials arrived at the spot with bulldozers at 3 am to carry out the demolitions. He added that they then transported all the debris away.

According to Shahbaz, the mazar was more than 100 years old and is listed in the Delhi Waqf Board Gazette of 1976 as “Mazar near Sunehri Bagh mosque behind 8 Moti Lal Nehru Marg”. According to Wajeeh Shafiq, the counsel for Delhi Waqf Board, “That shows the existence of such property at least on the date of notification, and also the fact that the property is recognised.”

Events at this site are also revealing of the lack of clear accountability for these demolitions.

Shahbaz said that no agency had served anyone associated with the mazar any notices before bulldozing the structure. Rather, for months before the demolition, Delhi civic officials had frequented the mazar and conducted surveys of it. “They never disclosed the purpose of the surveys,” said Shahbaz. “But an environment was building up that indicated they wanted to remove the mazar.”

Mosques also targeted

It isn’t only mazars that have been targeted – in some cases, mosques have also faced action from authorities. On the morning of April 11, officials of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation demolished the boundary wall and room of a madrasa on the premises of a 250-year-old mosque in Bengali Market. According to a report, the corporation carried out the demolition on the orders of the Land and Development Office.

While the Waqf Board says the mosque and land are its property, the officials claimed that the parts of the mosque that it took down encroached on the LDO’s land.

A boundary wall and room of a madrasa on the premises of a 250-year-old mosque in Bengali Market was demolished on April 11. Credit: Zafar Aafaq

For a few months, there was no further action at the site. Three months later, however, the Indian Railways became involved in the dispute around the site, which is adjacent to a railway line. On July 19, railway officials accompanied by the police visited the mosque and pasted an undated, unsigned notice on the gate, claiming that the mosque was an unauthorised structure. The notice ordered the mosque management to vacate the land within 15 days.

On July 19, Hafiz Matloob Kareem, the secretary of the madrasa at the mosque, wrote to the Divisional Railway Manager, requesting him to look into the matter. The next day, a similar notice was affixed to the Masjid Takia Babr Shah in the ITO area.

On July 24, the Delhi Waqf Board moved the High Court claiming that the mosques have been in existence for centuries – they also cited a 1945 agreement between the Sunni Majlis Auqaf (as the Waqf Board was then known) and the British administration, under which control of the mosque at Bengali Market was handed over to the Waqf Board for the use of Muslims.

The petition adds that both the mosques are notified as Waqf properties in the Delhi Administration’s official gazette of April 1970, and that their existence has been recognised by the Central government through a notification issued in March 2014.

On July 26, the High Court issued an order restraining the railways from taking any action against the mosques.

The Centre now has its eyes on a 150-year-old mosque, a white, two-storey structure at a roundabout on Sunehri Bagh Road. On June 26, the Delhi Traffic Police, which the Central home ministry oversees, wrote a letter to the NDMC proposing that it examine the roundabout “for smooth and safe flow of traffic in the area”. The next day, the NDMC forwarded the letter to different departments, including the Delhi Police, stating that a joint inspection had been fixed for June 28.

The Centre now has its eyes on a 150-year-old mosque, a white, two-storey structure at a roundabout on Sunehri Bagh Road. Photo: Zafar Aafaq

When the mosque management got a whiff of the planned inspection, it alerted Muslim community leaders in Delhi. On the morning of July 2, Navaid Hamid, the former president of All India Majlis Mushawarat, made an emergency visit to the mosque along with a journalist “to take stock of the situation”. Hamid said, “We ran a livestream on YouTube, exposing the plans of the government.” That afternoon, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Delhi also paid a visit to the mosque, lending even more visibility to the matter.

The Delhi Waqf Board also approached the High Court, challenging the NDMC’s proposal to demolish the mosque. The board argued that the mosque was protected property under the 1991 Religious Places Act, because it existed on August 15, 1947, the day India obtained independence from British rule. The act, passed in 1991 at the height of the Babri Masjid dispute, states that the religious character of a place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, cannot be changed.

The Waqf Board counsel Wajeeh Shafiq also told the court that it had not been able to attend the inspection on June 28 because the board only received the communication about it after the inspection was over.

On July 7, the court ordered that the status quo be maintained, while allowing a “joint inspection” by police, the NDMC and the Waqf Board on July 12.

The inspection was carried out, after which, on August 14, the NDMC told the court that the mosque was “required to be removed to redesign” the roundabout, so as to “solve traffic congestion”. A Waqf Board official, however, told Scroll that the mosque occupied less than 10% of the total area of the roundabout.

Hamid described the demolition of Muslim religious sites an “Islamophobic act” of the government “to wipe out Muslim culture and the Muslim past of Delhi.” He added, “This government is hell-bent on removing the signs that point to the Muslim history and Muslim culture of the national capital.” Mehmood Pracha, a lawyer who has been assisting caretakers of some of these mazars in legal work, called the demolition of the religious sites “a patently illegal and criminal offense”.