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Between collective memory & history, the jinn lives on

Anand Vivek Taneja talks to Nidhi Gupta about Delhi’s huge jinn population — magical beings acting as carriers of a history that the post-Partition state has attempted to vanish.

NIDHI GUPTA  23rd Sep 2012

Firoz Shah Kotla Fort

nand Vivek Taneja, a PhD student of anthropology, is fascinated by the resurgence of a pre-colonial form of veneration among Muslims — the worship of and communication with jinns — in the years since Partition, at the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla. In a recent research paper, he connects this development with the state of Muslims in Indian cities today, citing the deletion from authoritative records of their ways of being and a desire for an alternative governance setup, voiced through missives sent up to these 'magical' beings, hidden under rocks and ruins of a monument proclaimed 'dead' by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Q. What inspired you to pick up this topic?

A. A conversation with the historian Upinder Singh first led me to Firoz Shah Kotla in 2000, when I was still in college. I was immediately fascinated by what I saw — a 14th century palace was now also a dargah of jinns. But nothing more came of it, till I came back a few years later, and someone mentioned in conversation that this "business" of the veneration of jinn had begun at Firoz Shah Kotla immediately after the Emergency. The link between the Emergency (and other times of trauma in the history of the city) and the re-emergence of jinn veneration at this site became a question I became deeply interested in after that. I use 're-emergence' because we have evidence that the veneration of jinn, which has a long history in Delhi, was associated with Firoz Shah Kotla at least since the early twentieth century. But the renewed popularity of practice at this site dates back to the months after the end of the Emergency in 1977.

Q. Can you explain how the veneration of the jinn is different from forms of veneration found in other Muslim places of worship?

A. The rituals and practices at Firoz Shah Kotla are very similar to the rituals and practices associated with other dargah spaces in North India. The crucial difference is that here the venerated saints are jinn. This is completely unprecedented, as far as I can tell.

Q. Can you explain the link between the inter-generational memory of the jinn and the contemporary Muslim experience?

A. The jinn, in Islamic tradition, are much longer lived than human beings. Their lives extend over several generations of human life. So they can, theoretically, serve as eyewitness accounts to long ago events (like the life of the Prophet) which are outside of human memory. There are a few such stories, including those in hadith collections (about Prophet Muhammad's meeting with a jinn who had met both Moses and Jesus), as well as stories current in contemporary Delhi about Shah Waliullah's encounter with a jinn who had met the Prophet. I believe that the jinn, and the possibility of memory far beyond human memory, became popular in Delhi after Partition precisely because of the impossibility of human memory and its institutions, particularly for north-Indian Muslims, after Partition. When human memory becomes fraught and almost impossible, with murder and mass migration, the destruction of records and the abandonment of property, there is a turn to the super-human memory, as it were, made possible by the jinn.

Even if they are “just” urban legends, what do these legends tell us about the urban? What do they tell us about the life of the city that such stories are born and have a life?

Q. Can you give us some details of the "systematic governmental erasure of Muslim sites of memory"?

A. Okay, I might need to rephrase that, as it sounds too stark in isolation from the paper. Take a look at Vazira Zamindar's book, The Long Partition, which documents how the Custodian of Enemy Property had a massive role in the disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims, including those who had not moved to Pakistan. To come back to my work, the threat of Hindu right-wing violence against Muslim religious sites makes the ASI change its colonial policies and stop access to many monuments under its jurisdiction, which were prayed in before Partition and Independence. A striking example is the tomb of Sultan Ghari, where an ASI publication from 1947 records that there is an annual 'urs. A few years later, the ASI denies permission for the 'urs, saying that there has been no worship at the site "for a very long time." I found archival evidence for Maulana Qasimi's story of the Tughlaq mosque being buried to make way for the Lalit Kala Academy. The mosque exists in an empty lot on that very spot in a pre-1947 map of Delhi. While I have not personally verified the details, Oberoi Hotel and Delhi Public School being built on waqf land are very much part of Delhi's urban legend.

Q. Were you able to independently verify claims by Qasimi about Nehru, Jagmohan, the DDA etc?

A. The stories he is telling are not "verifiable" in the sense of having documentary proof easily available to go and look at. These are part of the anecdotal history of the contemporary city, passed down from person to person, generation to generation. I don't think this discredits these stories in any way. I find these stories interesting as stories. Why are these stories told in the city? What kind of anomie do they express? Even if they are "just" urban legends, what do these legends tell us about the urban? What do they tell us about the life of the city that such stories are born and have a life?

Q. When you contacted the ASI, what did you expect to find? What did you eventually discover in your two weeks there?

A. I went into the ASI archives not knowing what to expect. I was certainly expecting things to be in better order! I discovered a lot of evidence related to Firoz Shah Kotla and the evolution of ASI policy towards access of religious structures under their control. But what I found most interesting in the ASI files was what I refer to as "institutional amnesia". In the majority of the files I consulted, it is as if everything that happened before 1947 had vanished. This is particularly striking in the case of the ASI, because it's an institution which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and the monuments it's taking care of are even older. But when it comes to disputes around monuments in Delhi, these files never refer to policies and decisions from before 1947.

Q. Did you find any alternative sources of documentation?

A. I used the Chief Commisioner's Records which give a very detailed picture of what's happening in Delhi between 1911 and 1947. The contrast between these records, and the ASI's post-colonial records, especially with regards to the same monuments is striking. These documents are full of instances of the active religious use of mosques in Delhi protected by the ASI. The post-colonial ASI refuses to acknowledge the existence of these practices, and never refers to its own records.

Q. Can you discuss the tradition of academics relying on oral histories? How relevant is this form to truth-seeking?

A. I can't speak for the whole tradition of academics and oral history, as this is a very vast field. From my own experience, the one things that constantly surprised me was how much oral accounts agreed with my archival research in the colonial archive and older texts, and how much the accounts of the modern state (in this case, the ASI) denigrated and denied the claims of lived experience made by people in Delhi with regards to the religious use of monuments. If anything, my experience has strenghtened my belief in oral narrative.

The stories people tell about their pasts and their communities are often not to be found in the archives anyway. This was the impetus behind oral history becoming a valuable discipline in its own right. But when we are confronted with the amnesia of the state, which chooses to forget lived histories for whatever reason, oral history becomes even more valuable. As for the "truth", the very fact of the emergence of stories, irrespective of their claims to "truth", tell us very uncomfortable truths about what life is like in the cities we live in.

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