Bodies in the Way: Delhi’s Dead and the Pressures of Space

In 1930, Delhi’s residents were sorely in need of a new hospital. The city’s population had ballooned by more than 30% over the previous decade, but its infrastructure had failed to keep pace.1 The overburdened Civil Hospital warned that it was struggling to provide care to twice as many patients as it was designed to accommodate. Having recently replaced Calcutta as the capital of British India, Delhi stood on the precipice of a public health crisis. By mid 1930, the city’s own officials described Civil Hospital as a “disgrace to the capital.”2 After a decade of negotiations, in June 1930 the Government of India approved funding for Delhi Province to build a new general hospital on the land just south of the old city between Delhi Gate and the jail.

When crews finally broke ground that summer, progress was lamentably brief. As the workers were leveling the ground for construction to begin, they encountered multiple graves and stone structures within the intended hospital’s footprint. The work sputtered to a halt when disturbing rumors began to circulate among Delhi’s Muslim residents (who, by 1931, represented 40% of the city’s population) that construction workers for the new hospital were disturbing Muslim graves and dismantling mosques found on the site of the new hospital.3 Incensed by claims that local laborers employed by the Public Works Department had disinterred the dead and attempted to incinerate the unearthed remains in secret, Muslim community leaders led massive meetings at nearby Jama Masjid and protests on the construction site itself.

Map of Old Delhi, and area which is identified in green; just below the Old Delhi city limits, there is a small green rectangle representing the site of graves and graveyard
Map of the existing graves and graveyard. (Created by the author)

Rumors of burial desecration via secret incineration were particularly potent in a time and place where British officials regularly categorized Indians as Hindu or Muslim based on their funeral rites. With few exceptions, administrative records noted “disposal of the dead” as a defining characteristic of religious identity: Hindus practiced cremation, while Muslims “always” buried their dead. While officials acknowledged that some Hindus practiced burial (usually for lower caste people or young children), colonial administrators used “death ceremonies, whether burial or cremation” as a yardstick to measure whether a community was fully Hindu yet. Beyond personal and community identities, colonial religious designations had very real legal and political implications for Indians. And in the final decades of colonial rule, Delhi repeatedly witnessed violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims.4 By specifically suggesting the illicit cremation of the Muslim dead, these rumors spoke to broader concerns about community safety and religious boundaries.

Map of Old Delhi, and area which is identified in green; just below the Old Delhi city limits, there is a small green rectangle representing the site of graves and graveyard, but now above that is a big red rectangle, which covers some of the graves, for the new hospital site
Map of the proposed hospital site. (Created by the author)

Local residents and British officials contested the legitimacy of these claims for almost a decade. Throughout the entire process, Delhi’s administrators alternated between dismissive skepticism and reluctant acknowledgment of the existence of graves and old mosques on the future hospital’s grounds. The first official to investigate reported that when he visited the construction site and assessed the dismantled materials, “it was impossible to say whether it was a mosque.”5 He later suggested that even if the pile of rubble had indeed come from a disused mosque, there was no way to tell who had disassembled it or when. When later confronted with documentary evidence, multiple officials insinuated that any mosques or graves at that location had fallen out of community memory. One British administrator irritably complained that no one knew they were there until the construction work unearthed them.6

As mass anticolonial protests increased across India, British officials in Delhi were reticent to accept the testimony of local residents and community leaders at face value. Delhi’s acting chief commissioner, John Nesbitt Gordon Johnson, went so far as to call the accusations of desecration a “trumped-up charge.”7 Officials’ suspicions around the hospital were in part a response to increased civil unrest. Just a few months before construction had led to the discovery of the gravesites, in March and April 1930, Gandhi had led a 240-mile march to the shores of Gujarat in a dramatic demonstration of civil disobedience to protest British taxes on salt.8 At the Salt March’s conclusion, he and his followers picked up fistfuls of salt in defiance of colonial laws controlling salt production. Gandhi and other Indian politicians and activists were rooting powerful acts of resistance in the mundane aspects of daily life.9

Highly suspicious of Indian motives, Delhi’s administrators suggested that anticolonial antagonists were politicizing abandoned and ambiguous ruins with the express purpose of provoking community outrage. If true, the ultimate goal was not the preservation or protection of heritage sites and ancestors, but rather the explicit disruption of orderly colonial governance. Even corroboration from colonial records did little more than force British officials to begrudgingly admit that graves and ruins were indeed present on the site. They remained utterly skeptical of any continued significance to the community.

Bodies of Evidence

Despite the apparent surprise of Delhi’s colonial administrators to the presence of Muslim graves on the construction site, most evidence came from British records. The government’s own investigation revealed an 1880 colonial sketch of the area marking a cemetery in the vicinity. Presuming that these older records proved nothing about current use, officials were dismissive of deeply personal claims to the some of the graves:

These [graves] are claimed by Asaf Ali to be his family graveyard and he says that various graves have been tampered with.10 This is apparently quite untrue and the facts can be verified by those who were previously acquainted with the locality.11
The poet Khwaja Mir Dard. (Courtesy rekhta)

Whether or not Mr. Ali’s relatives were buried on the hospital’s construction site, a government publication confirmed tended graves in the areas as recently as 1919. This description noted that while stone inscriptions marked a few of the burials, most of the graves remained unmarked in keeping with the beliefs of many Muslims.12 And map after map identified graves, tombs, or a mix of both within the boundaries of the eventual construction site. Finally, members of the Indian Legislative Assembly forced the British government to acknowledge on the record that the intended hospital grounds included graves for three significant 18th-century Muslim intellectuals: Shah Wali Allah, his son Shah Abdul Aziz (d. 1824) and the poet Khwaja Mir Dard (d. 1785).13 In fact, the government’s List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments provided detailed descriptions of several of these graves, including their materials and inscriptions. It seemed that plenty of earlier officials had known about the graves.

The Limits of Space

Construction on the new hospital didn’t resume until sometime in late 1934 or early 1935.14 During the interim, officials questioned whether they should even bother proceeding. One agitated administrator contended: “If the people of Delhi do not want a hospital on the only site available for it, they should be taken at their word and should go without.”15 In the context of Delhi’s concurrent promotion by the British as colonial India’s new capital city (and the substantial corresponding construction projects), the claim of such extreme land scarcity was absurd.16 Ultimately, the dispute required British officials to revise a major infrastructure project in order to accomodate the graves and mosques on the site – including modifying the hospital footprint. They had to adjust the physical shape of the new hospital to avoid further disrupting the dead. In the end, persistant advocacy by Delhi’s Muslim leaders forced the new public hospital (today called Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital) to share space with the city’s dead as well as its living.

Now a megacity bursting at the seams, Delhi is extremely short on resources for both the present and future dead. A 2018 report revealed that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 30% of Delhi’s Muslim graveyards within the now vast city limits suffer from encroachment. In other words, private individuals, businesses, and even government agencies are appropriating cemetery spaces for want of available land. Mona Ahmed, an Indian transgender icon, made global headlines for residing in the very same graveyard that disrupted the 1930 construction of Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital. With the majority of Hindus practicing cremation, the city’s religious minorities were already struggling to protect their dead and carve out space for more. Those cemeteries not yet filled to capacity are losing ground to urban encroachment and charging steep fees for burials. Meanwhile, in 2019 Delhi announced plans to more than double the patient beds in the city’s yet again overburdened hospital system by 2023.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these shortcomings. As of early Septembr, Delhi accounts for over 6% of the country’s more than 75,000 official coronavirus deaths, despite the city amounting to less than 1.5% of India’s population. Allegations of suspiciously low fatality numbers have plagued both the city and country all summer. In particular, these accusations stemmed from damning reports on Delhi’s coronavirus frontlines: “overflowing” hospitals, graveyards overwhelmed by a “deluge of bodies,” and cremation grounds in crisis. In June India’s Supreme Court reprimanded Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital’s egregious treatment of both the dead and the living, following reports of dead bodies and patients sharing space – this time within the walls of the hospital itself.

Notes

  1. “Delhi” encompasses both Old Delhi and New Delhi to the south, which was newly established in 1930. Return to text.
  2. National Archives of India, Department of Education, Health, and Land, Health Branch, January 1932, Confidential A Proceedings Nos. 1–10. Return to text.
  3. By comparison, Delhi’s Hindu population was 55% with the remaining 5% comprising Jains, Sikhs, Christians, and other minority religions. Return to text.
  4. Stephen Legg, “ A Pre-Partitioned City? Anti-Colonial and Communal Mohallas in Inter-War Delhi,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 42, no. 1 (2019): 170–187. Return to text.
  5. Delhi State Archives, Deputy Commissioner, 1930, File 30. Return to text.
  6. NAI, EHL, Health, 1932-01, Conf A, 1-10. Return to text.
  7. NAI, EHL, Health, 1932-01, Conf A, 1-10. Return to text.
  8. Suchitra, “What Moves Masses: Dandi March as Communication Strategy,” Economic and Political Weekly 30, no. 14 (1995): 743–46. Return to text.
  9. Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2007). Return to text.
  10. Archival sources are unclear if this Asaf Ali is noted nationalist M. Asaf Ali. While the records indicate that Asaf Ali was a local Muslim resident from a prominent family (given his family graveyard’s proximity to luminaries like Khwaja Mir Dard), the hospital’s construction site lay over three miles north of M Asaf Ali’s family graveyard. Return to text.
  11. DSA, DC, 1930, File 30. Return to text.
  12. Leor Halevi, Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (Columbia University Press, 2007). Return to text.
  13. NAI, EHL, Health, 1932-01, Conf A, 1-10. Return to text.
  14. Annual Administration Report of the Delhi Province, 1934–1935 and 1935–1936. Return to text.
  15. NAI, EHL, Health, 1932-01, Conf A, 1-10. Return to text.
  16. David A. Johnson, “Land Acquisition, Landlessness, and the Building of New Delhi,” Radical History Review 2010, no. 108 (2010): 91–116. Return to text.

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