A small Hindu temple constructed by the side of and abutting one of the four minarets of the 420-year-old Charminar has been at the root of recent troubles in Hyderabad. What started as objections to erecting a temporary structure over the shrine has now grown into a violent protest that questions the legality of the temple. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) — responsible for protecting this national monument since 1951 — is blamed for failing to protect Hyderabad’s Islamicate heritage.
Over the past 10 days, vehicles have been burnt, people have been attacked, and shops in this busy hub have been shutdown. The Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), the political party that is at the forefront of the protest, has withdrawn its support to Congress both in the State and at the Centre over this issue.
The fight in the name of Charminar is not a warning flare about the condition of just one heritage structure. It is a reflection of persisting state apathy, dismal performance of institutions that manage the city’s heritage and the misuse of history for political gains.
Contrary to the claims by Hindu groups, an old photograph available with The Hindu shows that the contentious temple dedicated to goddess Bhagyalakshmi is not as old as the Charminar. There is no date stamp on the photograph, but from the presence of the cars, it can be inferred that the photograph was taken about 60 years ago. No temple structure is visible in the picture.
This lends credence to reports that the temple is only a few decades old and that what started as a tiny structure surreptitiously expanded into a shrine of significant size. There may not have been any serious protest against the presence of the Bhagylakshmi temple in the past, but the fact remains that the ASI failed to check the construction of the temple and its subsequent expansion.
This is the case even in Golconda fort, another centrally protected monument located at the outskirts of the city. This fort along with the Charminar is vying for World Heritage Site status. Despite being a protected monument, more than 2000 illegal constructions have come up within this complex and the ASI has not been able to prevent them.
“Though ASI is empowered by an Act, we can only issue legal notice, but enforcing and removing encroachments cannot be done without State government support. We neither have the manpower nor the force,” an official explained.
The State department of archaeology does not fare any better. Of the 42 protected structures listed by the department, five are missing. Anuradha Reddy, convenor of INTACH Hyderabad chapter who inspected these sites as a member of the technical committee, points to the case of Malkajgiri fort as a classic example of state apathy. “This ancient structure has been leased to a brewery company. Not only have they added many new buildings inside, even public access has been blocked,” she explained.
Even the 16th century Badshahi Ashurkhana, which is a revered sacred space in the city and world renowned for its mosaic tile work, was not easy to protect. The Ashurkhana is a state protected monument, but shops and others structures steadily encroached the site. Following public interest litigation, in 2009, the High Court ordered the removal of unauthorised constructions. But the shop owners and MIM party members tried to resist it. Till date, for want of police protection, the state authorities could not fence the cleared area and erect a board declaring that the structure is a protected monument.
The authorities have remained indifferent to many insensitive and unauthorised expansions of beautiful old mosques which are also in the protected list. The three storied concrete construction in front of the Musheerabad mosque is a case in point.
The condition of another 150 historic structures in the city declared as heritage buildings by the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority is even more precarious. Theoretically these structures are regulated by special building rules and any plans to modify them have to be scrutinised by the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC). But in reality these rules have been selectively applied and largely overlooked.
The Hyderabad Corporation, citing ASI rules, rejected an application to build in a private property near Charminar. But in another case, when a shopping complex was built within the prohibited zone of Charminar, the Corporation regularised it without referring to the HCC. It has also de-notified a few heritage structures despite the HCC opposing it. The pedestrianisation of the Charminar area which was first planned in 2000 is yet to be implemented in full.
MIM, which is demanding better protection for Charminar, has not been consistent in its position on heritage structures either. Asaduddin Owaisi, MIM president and a Member of Parliament said that “a general answer cannot be given” regarding conservation of the city’s Islamicate heritage. “Each building has to be separately looked at,” he told The Hindu in an interview “We welcome road widening projects and do not agree with some of the objections made by heritage groups. But in the case of the proposed metro, we have recently submitted a letter asking one of the alignments be changed to save a large number of Islamic historical structures from being affected,” he added.
The situation was neatly summed up by Sajjad Shahid, heritage activist and a member of the HCC: “Hyderabad was the second city in the country after Mumbai to bring in legislation to protect heritage structures. But all that enthusiasm and benefits of an early start were lost. A general apathy has set in and planning has failed. The government has no political will and had not upheld the law. The Charminar incident is an instructive example.”