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Sunehri Bagh Masjid: Biosphere of a Mosque Set for Slaughter

Taking a closer, personal look at the ramifications of the possible demolition of the Sunehri Bagh Masjid, a commune of Khushboo, Salim and Gupta ji elaborate on what is at stake.

Sunehri Bagh

Image credit: The Leaflet

As the aroma of freshly prepared meals wafts through the air, Daya Kishan Gupta can often be found personally serving the workers who regularly visit his dhaba (restaurant) which is right behind the iconic Sunehri Bagh Masjid.

In the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the Sunehri Bagh Masjid, which is one of the 123 properties of the Waqf Board in Delhi, finds itself at the center of a heated controversy that has captured the attention of citizens, historians, lawyers and communities alike.

Sunehri Bagh Masjid under the threat of demolition

The mosque, with its historical significance and as a place of worship for many, is under the looming threat of demolition, allegedly due to concerns over traffic congestion in the area, according to the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC)’s notice.

With the court hearing on the decision now postponed to February 21, 2024, (a decision that came on January 29, 2024), the uncertainty in the lives of these people continues.

Behind the ancient walls of the mosque, several lives are intricately woven with a delicate balance of coexistence. In the vicinity of the mosque, a Muslim family living in a room calls it a home, while a Hindu man operates a restaurant.

Just below the mosque, a scrap dealer conducts his work in a small room, making a living from the same. The potential demolition threatens not only the existence of the mosque but also the homes, employment and businesses of those in its vicinity.

Behind the mosque’s shadow, a family’s haven

Residing in the modest confines of a room behind the mosque, 38-year-old Khushboo, along with her husband and four children, faces the threat of displacement due to the NDMC’s demolition Order for the masjid.

Dhaba owner D.K. Gupta with worker Satish

In response, she utters with unwavering faith, “Allah ki cheez hai, allah hi hifaazat karega” (This is Allah’s belonging; Allah will protect it). The potential demolition would not only uproot Khushboo and her family from their ancestral home but also disrupt a century-long legacy.

Shakeel Ahmad, Khushboo’s husband, employed as a peon at Udyog Mantralaya, and their four school-going children would all be affected. Yet, Khushboo expresses a sentiment deeply rooted in her faith and heritage, stating, “Hum rahe ya na rahe, masjid salaamat rehni chahiye” (Whether we remain or not, the mosque should remain unharmed).

This encapsulates the profound connection between the people and the mosque, transcending the immediate concerns of displacement.

Contradicting the government’s assertion that the mosque’s location contributes to traffic issues, Khushboo’s brother, Faheem, aged 57, dismisses it as a mere excuse, declaring, “Traffic toh bahana hai” (Traffic is just an excuse).

He points out the government’s selective demolition decisions, emphasising that a nearby metro station structure, which also affects traffic, is spared due to its revenue-generating role.

Workers having their afternoon meal at Gupta’s dhaba on a regular day

Reflecting on the recent removal of two nearby dargahs (shrines), Faheem expresses a sense of living under the shadow of fear, uncertain about what the future holds.

Recognising the mosque not only as a religious sanctuary but also as a repository of immense historical value, Khushboo actively participated, along with many others, when the NDMC sought public input on the matter.

With a touch of irony, she adds, “Kaafi email toh unhone kaat bhi diye honge” (They must have ignored quite a few emails). For Khushboo, this home near the mosque is not just a residence; it symbolises a longstanding connection, a shared history with neighbors like Gupta ji, the adjacent dhaba owner.

This bond, she notes, transcends religious boundaries, representing a tapestry of human connections that should endure beyond the threat of demolition.

A room amidst rubbish, a life of dignity

In the mosque’s vicinity also resides Salim, a 38-year-old scrap dealer whose family has leased the space for over 80 years, serving as the locus from which he conducts his livelihood.

This modest venture is the backbone of his survival, enabling him to send his three children— two daughters and a son— to a government school.

Despite harboring aspirations for a private education for his children, the constraints of his meagre income shackle that dream. Salim poignantly remarks, “Mere paas toh kuch aur nahi hai” (I don’t have anything else).

This neighbourhood is not just a locale for Salim; it is a lifeline. His livelihood, his family and his spiritual sanctuary are all woven into the fabric of this community.

Expressing the potential devastation wrought by the demolition, he astutely encapsulates his reality, where the mosque isn’t merely a religious space but an integral part of his daily existence.

The dhaba owned by Gupta ji serves as a communal dining table, where Salim takes his daily meals.

Salim’s life revolves around this sacred vicinity, where every corner echoes the struggles, dreams and resilience of his family’s legacy. Despite the challenges, he persists, managing his shop, occasionally staying overnight, and making the journey back to his family in Hari Kothi, Jamia Nagar, on weekends.

In his words, Salim paints a vivid picture of a man tethered to his roots, finding strength and identity in a place that represents not just a location but the essence of his being.

Employment in a communal melting pot

Started in 1954, the dhaba, which exists in the vicinity of the mosque has become a home for not just its owner, D.K. Gupta, but also for the four workers who live there.

Satish, 22, has been working and living at the Dhaba for 12 years now. He is originally from Etah, Uttar Pradesh.

The entrance to Khushboo’s home

If this shop goes, my home goes, my work goes. I will go back to my village if our restaurant is demolished,” he says.

Their lives, intricately linked to the survival of the restaurant, hang in limbo as the spectre of demolition looms over Sunehri Bagh Masjid.

The Prime Minister’s house is being built, I think that is why all this disruption is happening. Even our sale is affected as offices are being shifted. The metro structure which is in the same vicinity is taking up more space than the mosque. Will they remove that too?” D.K. Gupta asks.

The dhaba serves at least 150–200 people every day including police officials, office workers, and people who come to offer prayers at the mosque, among others.

Hum sab ek parivar hai. Molvi ji, Khushboo sabse hamara bhaichara hai,” (We are all one family. We have a brotherhood with the Islamic teacher, Khushboo and others), he adds.

However, the threat to the Sunehri Bagh Masjid and, consequently, Gupta ji’s restaurant, is not merely about economic consequences. It is about a way of life that has weathered the storms of time, providing more than just meals— it is about the family he found and the bonds he made there.

According to Gupta ji, it is not just a restaurant; it is his legacy. His father, Bal Kishan Gupta, started the dhaba over seven decades ago, with assistance from Khushboo’s brother-in-law in setting up the shop alongside their home.

He says, “Hamara koi doosra kaam nahi hai, yahi mera rozgaar hai. Hum 70 saal se yahi hai. Ye band hogaya toh kahin aur kiraye pe dukaan aur naya kaam dekhna padhega.” (This is my only work. We have been here for 70 years. If this place is demolished, I will have to rent a shop and look for other work).

In Gupta ji’s own words, “Ekta mein bal hai” (Strength lies in unity). The mosaic of coexistence extends beyond the restaurant walls, highlighting the diverse fabric of the country where Hindus and Muslims thrive together, their homes and shops coexisting like a harmonious melody in a symphony of shared existence.

He goes on to say, “Bohot masjide hain jahan Hinduon ki dukaane hain [aur] sab mil jul ke rehte hain.” (There are many mosques in which Hindus own businesses, everyone lives in harmony with each other).

Scrapdealer Salim in his working room

In recent years, this is the first time these acts like the demolition of mosques are happening. Even two dargahs were removed overnight when the workers were sleeping here at the dhaba,” he adds.

The Sunehri Bagh Masjid demolition controversy gained momentum when the NDMC issued a public notice on January 1, 2024, seeking objections and suggestions from the public regarding the proposed demolition ordered on December 24, 2023.

The Order was met with strong opposition from citizens who argued that the mosque holds not only religious importance but also historical significance.

When petitioner Abdul Aziz, who is also the Imam (prayer leader) of the mosque, challenged the decision in the Delhi High Court, the NDMC confirmed that no immediate action would be taken.

The court has issued a stay Order, placing a temporary halt on any potential demolition, but a threat looms over these lives that have flourished around it for generations.

The demolition of Sunehri Bagh Masjid could result in the upheaval of these lives intertwined with it. As a symbol of inter-faith harmony, the mosque’s potential loss is not merely about bricks and mortar but also about the diverse community that calls it a focal point of its existence.

The legal tussle has temporarily halted the impending demolition. However, the uncertainty continues to haunt the lives of those connected to the mosque. The human impact of this controversy is a tale of intertwined fates and the potential unraveling of a tightly-knit community.

Sunehri Bagh Masjid is not merely a structure made of stones; it is a lifeline for those who call it home. The threat of demolition poses not only a risk to the physical structure but also endangers the homes of the people who have lived in its shadows for generations.

Devanshi Batra is a Delhi-based freelance journalist. She writes on gender, human rights and minority issues. Shriya Sharma is a freelance journalist and master's student pursuing convergent journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia. She covers issues of public policy and international relations.

Courtesy: The Leaflet

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