“My brother, my two sisters, and my father were buried in the graveyard,” said Nasir Ali.

In the last five decades, the 66-year-old gravedigger has been called upon several times to help in the last rites of local residents at the graveyard near the Akhondji mosque in Delhi’s Mehrauli.

The graveyard was also the resting place for the dead lying unclaimed in hospitals or those whose families found it difficult to take them back to their homes in far-off states. “During the Covid-19 [pandemic], we buried so many strangers here,” said Ali, a retired official of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

But today, neither the mosque, nor the Bahrul Uloom madrasa that stood next to it in the forest of Sanjay Van, nor the graveyard remain.

In their place, as videos shot by residents show, is a heap of rubble, blocked off by police barricades.

At dawn on January 30, the Delhi Development Authority ran its bulldozers on the mosque, the madrasa, the graveyard and an unknown number of graves of Sufi saints in the forest. The authority claimed these were illegal structures.

Though it is not certain when the Akhondji mosque was built, historical records show that it existed in 1853-’54 – over a century before the Delhi Development Authority was set up.

The shock demolition has left Muslim residents in Mehrauli, who prayed at the mosque and buried their dead in the graveyard, with a sense of dismay and helplessness.

“I am counting my days,” said Mohammad Rafiq, a 92-year-old. “But now that they have overrun the place with bulldozers, I do not know where I will be buried.”

Mohammad Rafiq (left) said he has offered prayers at the mosque for decades.

Most residents rubbished the DDA’s claims that the mosque was an illegal encroachment. They said, instead, that it was central to their religious life.

Rafiq was born at Sukku Ka Mohallah, a Muslim-dominant neighbourhood in Mehrauli and has lived here most of his life. He told Scroll that he has been offering prayers at the Akhondji mosque for decades.

According to Zakir Hussain, the imam, the daily prayers would mostly be attended by madrasa students and a few local residents, but on Fridays, the mosque would be completely full.

Mohammad Shahid, 43, said he has been pleading with the police personnel at the barricades to let him visit the remains of the graveyard where his 21-month-old daughter was buried. She died in 2009. “I want to see what they did to her small grave,” he said, his eyes welling up.

Shahid’s friend Asrar Ahmad saw the demolition of the old mosque as part of a larger pattern of bulldozer action against Muslim homes, shops, and places of worship. “They [the Modi government] have some problems with Muslims,” he said. “They want to erase our marks and our history.”

For the children who studied at the madrasa, the demolition has not only meant the loss of seminary, but also of a playground.

“I miss my madrasa,” said 12-year-old Mohammad Saad who, like other students, now studies at a nearby monastery. “We had a big field there where we played cricket. Here, the courtyard is small. The ball disappears if someone hits a six.”

Children who studied at the Bahrul Uloom madrasa.

The demolition

At 5.50 am on January 30, 14-year-old Mohammad Faiz had called out the azaan, while standing on the veranda of the mosque. As he finished and looked back, he saw a posse of police forces spread out around the mosque.

One of them asked him to call the imam of the mosque.

As he made his way to the dormitory of the madrasa that abutted the mosque, Faiz saw Hussain emerging from his room. “Police aayi hai,” he told Hussain. The police force is here.

“There were hundreds of them, carrying assault rifles,” recalled Hussain. “Some of them were in plain clothes. They had come along with 10 bulldozers.”

The officials asked Hussain to hand over his mobile phone. “The officials said they had come to demolish the madrasa building,” Hussain said. They did not show him any notice or any documents for demolition, he said.

The students of the madrasa packed their belongings and placed them in the main hall of the mosque.

The earth movers tore down all the structures, beginning with the mosque, within a span of 12 hours. “We were like mute spectators,” Hussain said. “We were angry but helpless. I made a few calls to the locals here, but nobody came.”

Residents said the police had put up barricades on the road leading to the mosque to keep them bound to their homes and lanes while the demolition went on.

“It was a scary scene,” said 22-year-old Mohammad Shariq, who had somehow managed to sneak in while the demolition was underway. “I saw shrouds and bones coming out as the JCBs dug in.”

Gravedigger Nasir Ali.

A week later, the barricades, manned by police personnel, are still intact. Nobody is allowed to go close to the razed mosque. Not even journalists.

The DDA said that the action was taken after the Delhi Ridge management board decided to free the area from “all types of illegal encroachments”.

“A committee was formed under [the] chairmanship of DM [District Magistrate] South Delhi to assess the encroachment in Sanjay Van, which suggested the removal of various illegal structures from the Sanjay Van,” the DDA, which reports to the Union government, said in a statement shared with Scroll.

The removal of structures was approved by the religious committee, a body that oversees matters related to religious sites, the statement said.

Following the demolition, the managing committee of the Delhi Waqf Board filed an urgent application before the Delhi High Court, contending that Hussain and his family were left without a shelter as his home was also razed.

On Monday, the Delhi High Court directed the DDA to maintain the status quo on the land where the mosque was demolished.

The details about the mosque of Akhondji and the idgah nearby are recorded in the list of 3,000 monuments published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1920. The list was prepared by Maulvi Zafar Hasan, the assistant superintendent of the organisation at that time.

The Archaeological Survey of India’s list, under entry no 135, says that while the date of the mosque’s construction is not known, it was repaired around the year 1853, four years before the rebellion of 1857.

“The mosque is covered with an arched roof and entered through three arches supported on double pillars of grey local stone,” the record notes.

“Some people say the mosque was built during the reign of [13th century ruler] Razia Sultana,” Sohail Hashmi, a writer and filmmaker who conducts heritage walks in Delhi, told Scroll. “We are not fully sure.”

Hashmi said that the use of grey stone points to the mosque being from the Delhi Sultanate period, which spanned more than 300 years from the 13th century to the 16th century.

“Grey stone mined from the Aravallis [mountain range] was widely used for construction during the Delhi Sultanate period, but its use gradually ended in the Mughal period and was replaced by sandstone,” he added.

The official website of the DDA also states that the Sanjay Van houses “historic ruins of [the] 12th century.” “It has been notified as a reserved forest under Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927,” the website notes.

But the DDA said that it has reclaimed approximately 5000 square metres during the anti-encroachment drive on January 30.

More damage

Local residents, activists, and historians fear that the DDA might have demolished several historical religious sites in Sanjay Van that date as far back as the 12th century.

Syed Yusuf Shahab, a local heritage activist who runs Sair-e-Hind, an Instagram account dedicated to Delhi, said that a 12th-century grave of Baba Haji Rozbih, believed to be one of the first Sufi saints to have arrived in Delhi, was also razed in the anti-encroachment drive.

The demolished grave of Baba Haji Rozbih, a 12thcentury saint.

The grave is located near the remains of Qila Lal Kot, deep in the forests.

According to the 1922 ASI list, “Baba Haji Rozbih is revered as one of the oldest saints of Delhi. He is said to have come during the time of Rai Pithura [a reference to Prithviraj Chauhan] and took up his abode in a cave near the fort.”

“Many of the Hindus embraced Islam by his advice, and the astrologers regarded this as an ill omen and told the Raja that the coming of Baba Haji foreboded the advent of the Muhammaden rule into Delhi,” the ASI records say.

Scroll visited the spot on Tuesday and found rubble – rocks and bricks painted in green – left at the site of the grave.

All photographs by Zafar Aafaq.