Demolition of Mosque in Delhi: How did news agencies cover it?

In the morning of 12 January, 2010, a mosque, Noor Masjid, located in south Delhi’s Jangpura area was demolished by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) claiming to be it an ‘illegal’ construction on their land. The demolition sparked protests arguing that the mosque was not on illegal land. English news agencies, India Abroad News Services (IANS) and Press Trust of India (PTI), filed stories.

The IANS wrote, “The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) demolished an illegal mosque in south Delhi’s Jangpura area today morning, sparking protests against which police used force and tear gas shells, an official said,” This appeared on different news portals with the headings, “Delhi: Protest over demolition of illegal mosque” and “Protest over demolition of illegal religious structure.”

PTI, India’s largest subscribed news agency and backed and partly funded by the government of India, reported: “Six persons, including four policemen, were injured here today when police used batons to disperse a group of people who indulged in stone-pelting to protest the demolition of a religious structure illegally built on government land.” It had the heading, “Protest over demolition of illegal religious structure, 6 hurt”. However, later in few follow-up reports, PTI used the word illegal in quotes to question the claim made by DDA, but it was hardly used by its subscribers including The Hindu daily.

“Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit on Saturday reviewed the situation in South Delhi’s Jangpura area where an illegal mosque was demolished by civic bodies, leading to tension,” was reported on 15th January. Earlier on 13th, the daily reported, “Several people were injured when the police lathi-charged and tear-gassed residents who were protesting against the demolition of a religious structure by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) at Nizamuddin here on Wednesday.” It had the heading “Demolition of religious structure by DDA in Delhi sparks tension.” It was also reported that the demolition was ordered by the Delhi High Court.

But the question is: was the mosque really built on illegal land? Or were there some other sides of the story as well? Did news agencies bother to enquire while covering the entire episode, verifying, at least, the claims made by the protestors or the community? The fact is that, the news agencies did not bother to crosscheck the claims and fully relied on the official version. If one goes through the papers available with the parties, it proves there was another side of the story.

Zafar Mahmood, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) of Sachar committee who heads Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI), said months before the demolition that his organisation had approached the office of Lt Governor, DDA and Delhi Government’s Home Dept. seeking details about the “Religious Committee” and its members who attended its 16th June 2009 meeting, a copy of the said minutes of the meeting and a copy of the paper on which Lt. Governor approved these minutes. But these offices haven’t yet provided the information sought by ZFI.

“… (T)he High Court did not order the demolition of the Masjid. The Lt. Governor, DDA and the Delhi Government Home Department have not yet divulged the minutes of the meeting of the Religious Committee held on 16 June 2009 nor the names and contact details of those who attended the meeting. On the other hand, the Delhi Wakf Board had informed DDA on 26 Oct 2010 that the 30-year-old Masjid is located at a land owned by Delhi Wakf Board as per 35-year-old Delhi Gazette notification and the Jamabandi of 1947-48,” he wrote in an article explaining the factual position and legality of the land used for the mosque. And he has copies of all the documents such as Delhi Gazette notification and Jamabandi to support his claim.

He further informed that, “The demolition has occurred under the pretext of Delhi High Court order dated 9 July 2008 in WPC No. 9358 of 2006. This writ was filed in 2006 by the Jangpura Residents Association so that the unauthorized construction and encroachment on the adjoining Nala and the public land could be removed and it could be restored as a green area. Since then MCD has been intermittently submitting status reports to the High Court. The court order observes that the status report dated 30 July 2007 shows that the de-silting of the Nala was completed in June 2007. Encroachments had been removed and the land had been developed. Later, on 7 July 2008, Jangpura Residents Association filed a fresh application before the High Court for issue of directions to the respondents to remove all other structures including the Masjid.”

“However, having examined the photographs filed by the Association it appeared to the Court that most of the unauthorized structures have been removed and there is a boundary wall constructed to ensure that no further encroachments take place. It is stated by the counsels for the Petitioners that any further grievance that the Petitioner may have, including those made in the present application, will be promptly looked into and appropriate action taken thereon. In view of this statement, this Court does not consider it necessary to continue to monitor the progress of the implementation of its directions’,” Zafar Mahmood added.

An investigation by Seema Mustafa in The Sunday Guardian confirmed the claims made by Zafar Mahmood. “Documents with The Sunday Guardian show that it was not the Delhi High Court as is being propagated, but the Lt Governor’s office, supported by the Delhi government, that pushed for the demolition. On 28 October 2009, Joint Secretary (Home) in the Delhi government, R.N. Sharma wrote to the vice chairman saying, “The Religious Committee in its meeting held on 16.06.2009 ... recommended for the removal of Masjid. As regards the Balmiki mandir it has been recommended that DDA should consider the request for re-allotment of land.” He goes on to add that the Lt Governor has approved these recommendations and that immediate action should be taken.”

But the most uproarious part of the episode is that, the ‘illegal mosque site’ has become a ‘tourist’ site. This writer has been told by a resident who lives near the site, “People are coming from different areas to see the site. And at the same time most of the people of “Jangpura” believe that all this is happening near Nizamuddin! And this reminds this writer the situation after the ‘encounter’ in September 2008 at Batla House locality of Jamia Nagar. It was if Batla House is a locality where you could see how terrorists look like because of the way the entire episode was reported by the media. In fact, people outside the area started to view the area as Encounter/Aatank Nagar.

The simple fact is that, with such kind of reporting it is bound to create a situation like this and for which, no one but the journalists and mediahouses alone are responsible. But the question is will journalists and mediahouses stop such casual behaviour, which on the one hand continues to terrorise general masses and on the other maligns the Muslim community and makes them believe that media is anti-Muslim. The first step could be to start cross-checking the claims and stop relying on the official version before it is too late.

The writer is a civil rights’ activist and journalist currently based at Ranchi