Wednesday, February 8, 2023
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Plot to build temple at Kolkata Fine Arts Academy foiled, but mosque inside airport stays

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There has been a sustained attempt to relocate the mosque facing the second runway of the international airport in Kolkata.

Sometime back two large rocks were suddenly discovered under a tree in the Academy of Fine Arts compound in Kolkata. The rocks were marked with sindoor and there were garlands and flowers and other offerings strewn about. The implication was that these were no longer mere rocks, they were deities.

This, of course, meant that no one wanted to move the rocks, afraid as they were that the pious would go up in arms in rage if the god-rock was to be displaced. Apparently someone suggested kicking the rocks away and came under immediate fire from one such group – presumably the rocks were none other than Shiva.

Rumour has it that this is nothing but a sly plot to build a temple and communalise what is essentially a space of dialogue and cultural exchange for progressive and liberal groups. Progressive people launched a protest against this plot. It was a successful one too since the police removed the contentious rocks.

No untoward incidents of violence happened because of it, regardless of whether a few people had begun considering the spot holy. It was the right decision since the interests of the public must always supersede narrow religious machinations.

The compound is meant for the fine arts and not religion. There is nothing that binds the two together decisively to merit such a forced union. One can expect a hospital attached to a medical college, or a drama academy next to a stage, just as one might expect a Sankskrit school in a temple compound or a madrassa in a mosque.

Everything has its own place. Will it be possible to construct a building on a runway or a market on a highway? The answer will be fairly obvious to most.

There is, however, an entire mosque that stands facing the second runway of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata. There has been a long and sustained attempt to remove the mosque; not to remove and throw it away but to re-establish it somewhere else. Expectedly, the thing has forever been in a deadlock with no easy resolution in sight.

If this had been a house or a commercial property, the debate would perhaps have not arisen. Politicians did meet the heads of the Muslim organisation Darul Uloom over the matter and there was even talk of a meeting between the mosque committee and representatives of the Central and state governments. I cannot tell if the meeting happened; even if it did it clearly did not make much of a difference.

It’s common knowledge that the best course of action for reasons of safety would be to simply shift the mosque elsewhere but many Muslims do not want that and the politicians in question have not really made an effort to dig deeper into the matter either. Many fear losing out on Muslim votes during elections if they do anything to the mosque, a common enough occurrence when it comes to electoral politics in the Indian subcontinent.

I can boldly call them out as liars – those who wish to claim they do not want the mosque shifted because they care about Muslims. Those who consider Muslims as human beings, who wish to see them educated and self-reliant, who want Muslims to be progressive, secular and tolerant towards free thought and the freedom of expression, are the ones who truly care about Muslims.

The mosque has been there right from the time of the inception of the airport. Many people use Gate 8 to enter the mosque for their prayers on a daily basis. The number swells during Friday prayers. It is fairly easy for an outsider to enter a secured zone because of the mosque. When this concern was raised, the path leading up to the mosque from the gate was lined with barbed wire to prevent security breaches, not that it really solves anything since the layout of the runway still remains compromised.

The two parallel runways of the Kolkata airport stretch from the north to the south. The primary runway is 3,627-metre long while the second, at the northern end of which sits the mosque, is only 2839-metre long. When planes land on the second, they have to factor in the length of runway they need to leave out to avert accidents. When the primary highway is closed, planes generally use the second one. Due to its shorter length, huge aircrafts like Airbus 330, Boeing 747 cannot use this runway.

According to airport authorities, if the mosque is removed, not only can the runway be extended at its northern end, but the taxi-way too can be extended, allowing the airport to handle more flights. In the near future, the number of passengers flying and the number of planes taking off are both going to increase. A new terminal is being built at the Kolkata airport for that purpose. What use will a new terminal be if the lengths of the runways remain the same? The authorities are obviously aware of this but there is little they can do.

If the authorities do not wish to tamper with the mosque because they fear it will spark communal violence or displease the mullahs then I believe it rests on Muslim leaders to come forward and resolve the issue of shifting the mosque. This will do nothing but create a positive image of Muslim society in the minds of the people.

It might help them question the notion that the Muslim minority does not care about the good of the common populace. It might also help people realise that not all Muslims are completely and absolutely immersed in religion and their own interests. And, that Muslims can be equal partners in the work to be done for the good of the country and the people. It cannot but be good for Muslim society in India if the non-Muslim can learn to respect them. Besides, if one has to be proud of one’s community, one also needs tales of greatness to be proud of.

Taslima Nasreen is a celebrated author and commentator.

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  1. I really like the way you have ended the piece. In Delhi, we are also struggling with the shiva statue and 3rd runway. I am doing research on the topic. It will be great if you could provide background study materials to go through with this case and to compare with Delhi scenario.

  2. It was a relief to see the plot to build a place of worship inside Academy of Fine Arts get foiled. Similarly, it is high time to relocate the airport mosque. Kolkata airport is among the fastest growing airport in Asia. Soon it will run out of space. A fully functional 2nd runway is in the interest of the region and religion has to sidestep here.

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