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Saving the devoured monuments of a neglected history

By Firoz Bakht Ahmed

Ignorance reigns supreme in each lane and bylane of the historic city of Delhi that was the hub of Urdu 'tehzeeb' (culture), the glorious memories of the five hundred years of Mughal ambience fading away slowly.

Delhi is like a mistress coveted by all but cared by none! Delhi is my dream city — history is written on each of its stones, like in Rome. What I lament as a Delhi citizen is that more weightage is given to politics than poetry, history or writing.

People at times call me a monuments' activist. They also trace my lineage to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. But what I value more is when I am known for my work rather than as the grandson of Azad, which of course something I'm proud of.

My passion is also to uplift the falling academic levels in my community that has been misled by opportunistic, lip serving and obscurantist so-called Muslim leaders. For this I'm on my mission to modernize Urdu medium schools and madrasas.

Frankly, I am in romance with the poor, decrepit Delhi and its beleaguered monuments. The moment I find some people plotting to defile or engulf a monument, without ado I quickly react by complaining in written to the authorities like the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), MCD (Municipal Corp of Delhi) and other departments of the government.

If there is no response (that there is never), I write to English, Hindi and Urdu newspapers besides alerting the electronic media against the destruction of heritage.

Through my PIL (Public Interest Litigation) cases from the platform of Friends for Education, I've restored and got freed from encroachers many monuments including the 'haveli' (Bungalow) of Ghalib, 'mazaar' (graveyard) of Zauq, 'dargah' (shrine) of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Maulana Azad's 'mazaar', the historic Anglo Arabic School, Jama Masjid and Qaumi School.

I lament that more than the civic apathy, it's the numbness on the part of Delhiites, who have remained mute over the years while the monuments kept on being defiled and illegally occupied and disappearing. I wish Delhiites were custodians of its historicity.

But for the legal help provided totally free of cost by my one-time one-year senior J.D. Tytler School schoolmate, M. Atyab Siddiqui, the PIL expert, and Hindustan Times political editor Pankaj Vohra, I wouldn't have done much.

Being born and brought up in the Shahjahanabadi old Delhi in the walled city, my childhood flavours are imprinted with the humming human activity in the area where days and nights are filled with the aroma of Mughlai cuisine and Nawabi breakfast of 'nahari', pigeon watching, kite flying, chaste Urdu voices and of course character assassinating posters!

In the dust and din of these posters, there's yet another side of old Delhi symbolic of that traditional culture and life style where Mirza Ghalib, Hali and Mir Taqi Mir enthralled the 'mehfils' (congregation) with their musings. Appropriately in the words of Mir – 'Dilli ke kuche na thay auraq-e-musavvir thay/Jo shakl nazr aaye tasveer nazr aayee!'

Apart from the usual civic apathy, I am appalled that Delhiites are numb to the nefarious nexus of land grabbing colonizers with the police and politicians has turned the once beautiful residential city ornamented with beautiful monuments into a colossal 'mandi' (wholesale market).

Many bungalows like 'Ghalib's haveli', 'Namak Haram ki Haveli', metamorphosed into newer structures: petty shops, warehouse and factories catering to the manufacturing units.

Other major problems of the walled city include the chaotic traffic, tonnes of the entangled electric and messed telephone wires besides illegal encroachments. A lot of struggle had to be waged in order to save the monuments mentioned.

It was in 1996 that I implored M.C. Mehta, the environmentalist lawyer, to file a PIL regarding the public lavatories being erected on the graves of emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar's poetry guide Ustad Sheikh Mohammed Ibrahim Zauq and others. It was at the behest of an article 'Poetic Injustice' published on Aug 7, 1996 that the Supreme Court took note. Justice Kuldeep Singh also took gave a landmark ruling that the lavatories be shifted to another place and a memorial 'mazar' be built for Zauq.

It was my heart's utmost felt desire to see Ghalib's house that I used to witness during my childhood while going to school. Many foreigners used to hover around the Ghalib 'haveli' to have a glimpse of the greatest Asian poet but just found a coal store.

A PIL (No. 3953 of 1996) was filed in 1996 to save Ghalib's 'haveli'. It had changed umpteen hands in the claws of colonizers before it finally got restored by my PIL on Aug 8, 1997 after Justice C.M. Naiyar gave a landmark judgment to restore the house of Ghalib, declare it a protected monument and build it in a manner most impressive and impeccable within six months. Even after restoration one can see a Pulsar motorcycle parked, clothes being dried and goats tied in the monument. The same is the case with Maulana Azad's 'mazaar', which too is locked.

Let's hope we all take value saving our heritage city and bringing it back to pristine glory.

(Firoz Bakht Ahmed is the grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, independent India's first education minister, and a commentator on social, cultural and educational issues. He can be reached at [email protected])