An SSP who worked behind the MCB Tower off II Chundrigar Road would make it a point to go to the police headquarters for Friday prayers even though his office shared a boundary wall with a mosque. “My prayers won’t be answered if I go to an illegally built mosque,” he said referring to the one next door.
But not everyone, least of all perhaps policemen, make such fine moral distinctions in a city like Karachi where it is difficult to tell if your neighbourhood mosque is illegally built on someone else’s land or worse one meant for a park.
The law states that public amenity plots cannot be converted into mosques but “there are a lot of things which can be made ‘legal’ through documentation”, remarked a Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) officer.
The number of mosques built on illegal land has increased recently. According to building and planning experts, one mosque is enough to cater to a residential area but this is not the case in many neighbourhoods. In just one sector (7-D/3) of North Karachi, for example, there are 11 mosques encroaching on the land for community centres, parks and schools. North Karachi’s master plan reserved all 11 sites for amenity plots.
Even Madina Masjid, next to Dolmen Centre on Tariq Road, was built on a park 12 years ago. To this day, the owners refuse to comment. Delhi Colony near Clifton is a congested residential and commercial area. Yet, the narrow streets are lined with mosques, some of whom share boundaries.
“The problem is that every sect wants its own mosque – Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahle Tasheeh, Sunnis, etc – and if you speak against it, you are considered a kafir [non-believer] within seconds,” said religious scholar Abbas Husain. “Illegal occupation of land is not considered going against religion at all.”
Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) Naib Amir Mairajul Huda believes otherwise. “There are far more pressing issues to deal with in Karachi than the number of mosques built on illegal land,” he said. Referring to the religious connotations of offering prayers in an illegal mosque, he said, it depends very much on “the intentions of the person offering the prayer”. “It has nothing to do with the status of the land.”
But his statement can be taken in direct contradiction with the party’s stance. After all, the JI’s Niamatullah Khan, Karachi’s former mayor, went to the Supreme Court against encroachments and illegal occupation of amenity plots in Karachi. The city government was forced to start demolishing the buildings and picked a mosque as its first target.
The JI’s Huda agrees, however, that if a mosque is built on illegal land, it can be demolished “by transferring it to another area”. Former city nazim Mustafa Kamal believes that the issue is more serious and can cause a lot of anger among the people. “[Even though] the intention is not to forcefully bring down a mosque for no reason, people fail to understand that,” he said. Kamal recalled that he faced a similar situation when they were building a flyover on Stadium Road, a few years ago. The mosque was built right next to a footpath and it had to be removed because it was coming in the right of way, he said. Eventually, the structure was brought down but not after a lot of hue and cry.
Illegal encroachments by mosques have been going on for the past many years, said a member of NGO Shehri – Citizens for a Better Environment. “But everyone, including the city government, the KBCA, as well as, the law officers, seem oblivious to their surroundings.”
The KBCA officer defended himself and said that, “we are very serious about pursuing such issues”. He explained that the eviction process is not simple and “in most cases, the police refuse to help us out”.
The tactics used by religious groups and their strong backing is something that cannot be handled by just one department, he said. “It needs a concerted effort to control encroachments in general and by mosques in particular,” he added.
All is not lost, however, as after 10 years, the KBCA has finally been allowed to have its own police, which can help with raids. Apart from that, the officials at the KBCA are waiting to see through amendments to the Sindh Building Control Ordinance, 1979. “We have proposed a few changes where the punishment will be 10 years and the fine will be Rs2 million.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2011.