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Illegal religious structures spread through India

Mosques and temples encroach on sidewalks, schools and roads, despite court orders to stop them. Devotees help ensure the structures are hard to tear down once they are built.

January 24, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Muslims offer Friday prayers at the site of a mosque demolished by authorities in New Delhi. With land at a premium and donations sizable, activists in India say religion is good business.
Muslims offer Friday prayers at the site of a mosque demolished by authorities… (Adnan Abidi, Reuters )

Reporting from New Delhi — They struck shortly after dawn on a weekday morning this month, taking bulldozers, backhoes and sledgehammers to the Noor Masjid mosque. But the stealth tactics by municipal workers fell short: Well before they finished razing the building, 1,000 Muslim protesters had gathered, and things got ugly.

Across town a few hours later, the city's public works department was busy again, this time leveling the Hindu Pushp Vihar temple. Followers clashed with police, devotees sang to the gods and protesters blocked a main road, sparking massive traffic jams.

Illegal religious structures are mushrooming across India, eating into sidewalks, schools, roads, even prisons, despite numerous court orders to check their spread.

Once built, they're tough to remove in a country with strong religious passions and a history of communal riots.

"Governments find it difficult to touch anything to do with religion," said Gautam Bhatia, an architect and author.

For days after the mosque razing, protests raged. The most intense confrontation came during Friday prayers when thousands of young Muslims sporting skullcaps battered down police barricades, yelling, "God is great!"

"If we don't stand up, they'll walk all over us," Bashir Ahmed said. "They have no right to demolish our mosques."

Faced with protracted opposition, city officials eventually announced that they'd consider rebuilding the mosque.

The exact number of illegal religious structures in India is unknown, but an estimated 60,000 exist in New Delhi, up from 560 in 1980, while a recent survey found 250,000 more in five of India's 28 states. Built on public land without permission, building permits or much thought to traffic safety or crowd control, they range from makeshift to the decidedly elaborate.

Most start small. An illegal shrine may begin its life as a few ornaments and a candle in a tree. Then a bench is added. Then concrete floors, a roof, a sleeping alcove.

New Delhi's "ancient" Shiv Shakti Mochan Temple near Parliament is a case in point. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it started in 1968 as a bird-house-sized structure, said longtime neighbor Tara Singh, pointing out a backlit box wedged into the adjoining banyan tree.

In defiance of a Supreme Court order against expansion, it's now 20 feet by 60 feet with walls, columns, marble floors, twinkling lights, a sink and life-size statues in glass cases, completely blocking the sidewalk. Each time city workers try to raze it, supporters quickly mobilize to fend them off, alerted by a subaltern keeping watch 24/7.

Its keepers say it's only growing as fast as the banyan tree, the manifestation, they say, of a sacred mythical snake that fights evil.

"The power of this blessed tree will defeat any bulldozer," said the priest, identified as Panderji, as several pedestrians handed him donations. "A few months back, they wanted to tear us down and restore the sidewalk. They're always trying something."

Many of the buildings are inspired by strong religious beliefs in a country with the world's third-largest Muslim population and where divinities of the majority Hindu religion are plaintiffs in court cases.

But with land at a premium and religious donations sizable, activists cite another reason. "Religion is good business," said a Hindustan Times editorial condemning encroachments. "Like any other business, there are legit as well as not-so-legit practitioners."

"People in India who are religious-minded see gods in the stones, in flower pots, anywhere," said Bhagwanji Raiyani, whose public-interest filing in a Mumbai court led to the razing of 1,300 illegal structures. "Unscrupulous people who don't want to work hard just put a sign up and people pray and give them money. Sometimes 'temples' then turn into telecom shops."

Although Raiyani achieved a rare victory, the battle to take back the streets is complicated by public apathy, a creaky legal system, corruption, poor land records and politicians who back encroachers for votes.

"People think twice about giving to a beggar," said Nira Punj, founder of Mumbai's Citispace civic group dedicated to protecting public spaces. "They don't to a shrine. This encroachment, it's like terror tactics."

Nor are people above using unorthodox construction to manipulate policy, frustrate rivals or divert projects.

Labor leader Shashi Bhushan Pandit says his neighbor in Jogta, central Bihar state, didn't want a road through his property so he built a temple on it, which worked like a charm. "The government rerouted the road," he said.

Adding to the inertia is a public tendency to believe a building's been there much longer than it has.

"It's been here 50 to 100 years," demonstrator Kamal Hassan said of the razed Noor Masjid mosque, although in fact it was only 11 years old. "They pick on Muslims more than Hindus."

Such misconceptions are easily fueled by politicians and religious leaders making political hay, said Monu Chadha, head of the neighborhood group that sued to raze the mosque.

Even when government bulldozers prevail, there's no guarantee that the land will remain temple- or mosque-free.

In 2003, Mumbai demolished 1,100 illegal shrines, temples, mosques and churches. But a survey last year discovered that 200 had reappeared and 1,500 new ones had been built.

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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