On August 10, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) demolished a Sant Ravidas temple located in the Jahanpanah forest area of Tughlaqabad as mandated by the Supreme Court.
A prolonged court case led to the Supreme Court ordering the demolition of the centuries-old temple. Then, there was a police crackdown on a crowd that gathered in protest against the demolition and the arrest of Dalit leader Chandrasekhar Azad Raavan and 95 of his supporters.
Sant Ravidas is a revered spiritual leader of the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). Born an untouchable, the saint-poet of the medieval north Indian bhakti movement used poetry as a means of social protest in his efforts towards the establishment of a casteless society, according to Ronki Ram, a professor in the Department of Political Science in Panjab University.
The Ravidassia religious order that was born in the Doaba region of Punjab spread throughout north India and later overseas. Today, Ravidassias form a globally networked prominent Dalit subgroup.
The legacy of Sant Ravidas is located in the Ad Dharm movement. “The Ad Dharm movement in Punjab drew its inspiration from the rishi Valmiki and the bhakti movement, especially from Ravidas, Kabir and Namdev. It was the only movement of its kind in the north-western region of the country that aimed at securing a respectable place for the S.Cs through cultural transformation, spiritual regeneration and political assertion, rather than seeking patronage from above,” Ronki Ram says in a Critical Quest publication.
“Although this movement petered out after the first general elections in independent India, its emphasis on social transformation and political assertion against structures of social inequality and oppression continues to attract Ad Dharmis and other S.Cs of Punjab,” he adds.
He also says that the objectives set forth by the Ad Dharm founders and the methods adopted by them showed that they endeavoured to establish a religious identity for the lower castes rather than build a subaltern consciousness.
The Ad Dharmis wanted to remove the stigma of untouchability from their community and secure equal rights and respect for the lower castes, but the Ad Dharm leaders’ approach resulted in another religion.
In a bid to differentiate themselves from other religious communities, the Ad-Dharmis were asked to salute each other in the name of Jai Guru Dev (victory to the divine guru) and to respond with Dhan Guru Dev (blessed be the divine guru).
Sant Ravidas was projected as a spiritual preceptor, and Namdev, Kabir and Valmiki were also included in the theology of Ad Dharm.
The Sanskrit phrase Sohang (I Am That) was adopted as a mantra of the new Ad Dharm religion. The people behind the Ad Dharm movement also strove to provide their new religion with a sacred book, called Ad Prakash, the original light.
Ravidas temples dot the landscape in Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. But many of them suffer from appropriation and encroachment, with Hindu idols being placed inside.
A lesser known case pertains to a Guru Ravidas gurudwara in Jamalpur on Chandigarh Road. After allegations were made against it of encroachment on government land, a demolition notice was served on the management by the Greater Ludhiana Area Development Authority (GLADA) in August. After initial parleys between the parties, the GLADA said that it would not take any action for now.
Denial of land to Dalits is a major issue as they are already a landless community. Punjab, for example, has the highest proportion of Dalits in the country—about 32 per cent as per the 2011 Census and 29 per cent as per the 2001 Census. But fewer than 5 per cent of them are cultivators. They share only 4.82 per cent of the number of operational holdings and 2.34 per cent of the total area under cultivation as per the 1991 Census. A large number of them are pushed to work as farm labour under Jat Sikhs, resulting in a power struggle between the two communities over land and other resources, Ronki Ram says in Ravidass, Dera Sachkhand Ballan and the Question of Dalit Identity in Punjab .
The land under contention between the DDA and the Guru Ravidas Jainti Samaroh Samiti in Tughlakabad village is approximately 12,350 square yards. Of the 20 rooms and halls under contention, one small room painted in white with a dome was the Guru Ravidas Mandir with a small courtyard in front, while two other small rooms were in use by the priest. There were four samadhi s (tombs).
Legend has it that the genesis of the temple dates back to 1509 when Sikandar Lodi, the sultan of Delhi, donated the land to Sant Ravidas. A more recent recounting of the story goes back 160 years when Roopa Nand, a Ravidassia, took possession of it. He dug a pond in what was known as “chamar wala johar”. A hut was built by him. The land was Shamlat (village common land) belonging to the gaon sabha on the commencement of the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954. The possession has been in the revenue records from the year 1959 to date.
The Samiti had built a Ravidas mandir and ashram, apart from samadhi s of Roopa Nand and other saints, and four rooms as part of a dharamshala. The society was registered in 1959, and the temple was inaugurated by Congress leader Jagjivan Ram in 1959. A school in the name of Guru Ravidas was also built.
In terms of the Delhi Land Reforms Act, although the land was formally transferred to the Central government, it was only a book entry. When the Central government took possession of the land, a barbed wire fence was constructed around the land and a separate area was provided by the DDA to access the property and the structures. The Samiti became the owner by adverse possession as they had had possession of the land for over 30 years.
The DDA, which comes under the Union Ministry of Urban Development, stated that the land was acquired under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and its possession was taken by the authority in 1963. The DDA said that it thwarted encroachment attempts by the Samiti. Vacant, physical possession of some more land was taken in 1986. The Samiti filed a writ petition in the trial court in 1986. In 1992, the DDA undertook a programme for demolition of unauthorised construction.
In July 2018, the trial court dismissed the plea by the Samiti, and on November 20 last year, a single bench of Justice Valmiki J. Mehta of the Delhi High Court pronounced a verdict. Dismissing the Samiti’s petition, Justice Mehta ordered the vacating of the land and the shifting of the temple and two rooms 400 feet (120 metres) away at the periphery of the land. He said that the DDA could “liberally” consider doing this and that there would be an independent access to the small temple with two rooms by the Samiti and its members without the need to use or access any other land of the DDA.
With regard to the samadhi s, he said that they could be allowed to exist in the green area without any legal right granted to the Samiti. The Ravidassias rejected the idea of shifting their place of worship.
A special leave petition on the matter was heard in the Supreme Court on August 9 by Justices Arun Mishra and M.R. Shah. When they were told by counsel for the DDA that the premises had not been vacated and the Samiti was causing obstruction, they pulled up the Samiti for its “serious kind of breach” and said “they cannot act in this method and manner in which they have acted”.
The judges passed an order stating that the structure should be removed with the help of the police the very next day. They directed the Commissioner, Delhi Police, to provide adequate force for its removal. They directed the Samiti president, Rishi Pal, and all the committee members and office-bearers to be present in court in case of non-compliance and explain why contempt proceedings should not be undertaken against them.
The next day, the temple was demolished by the DDA, sparking protests across Delhi, Punjab and Haryana.
The protests were led by members of the Bhim Army in many places. The police crackdown that followed was swift and disproportionate to the protests. Behta police in Saharanpur booked Bhim Army national vice president Manjeet Singh Nautiyal on sedition and other charges for allegedly giving an inflammatory speech on social media in which he called for the reconstruction of the temple and reinstallation of a statue of Sant Ravidas in Delhi.
On August 21, a march was organised in South Delhi in the Tughlakabad area. People from across north India assembled at Ramlila Maidan after the police refused them permission to assemble at Jantar Mantar. “It went on peacefully. And then we decided to march towards the temple in Tughlakabad,” said Himanshu Valmiki, chief of the Bhim Army in Delhi.
A heavy posse of policemen accompanied the march, which went on without incident for several kilometres. Trouble began when street lights suddenly went off and unknown elements created a ruckus. Vehicles were burnt and several people got injured in the melee that followed.
According to Valmiki, these were BJP elements who mingled with the crowd and went on the rampage, giving the impression that the protesters were turning violent. The police responded with a severe lathi charge and beat up one and all, including the aged and the disabled, he said. Several people were arrested as they entered the Delhi Metro station. “They were taken to different police stations and beaten black and blue by the police, who hurled casteist abuses,” he added.
Kamal Walia of the Bhim Army told Frontline : “The Sangh Parivar and its forces have begun the process of dismantling the Constitution of India. We stood for the dignity of our people before and will continue to do so.” The community has demanded that the temple be rebuilt and the land returned to them. On August 22, in an unprecedented move, a court was held inside Delhi’s Kalkaji police station to hear the case of the 95 people arrested from the march, Mehmood Paracha, the Bhim Army’s counsel, told the media.
According to the law, a judge can move the court to a school if, say, 5,000 people are accused of a crime because they cannot be accommodated in a small courtroom, but in this case, there were not even 100 people, he said. Chandrasekhar Azad and 95 others were sent on a 14-day judicial remand through this court.
(The Bhim Army recently launched a students’ wing called Bhim Army Students’ Federation. After Uttar Pradesh, it plans to launch the federation in Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The federation is preparing to contest the union elections scheduled to be held later this year in Benaras Vidyapeeth, Jaipur University, Patna University and Magadh University.)
A day after the arrests, Paracha and others were scheduled to hold a press conference at the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC). However, the IWPC president withdrew permission at the last minute on the grounds that the organisation did not allow space to a political or religious organisation, although the Bhim Army is only a social organisation. In its defence, the IWPC said that the decision was taken after the area station house officer inquired about the press conference. This is an indication of the climate of fear that media associations function in.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Assembly adopted a resolution which said that the Centre had mishandled the issue. It resolved to construct a temple at the same site after the Centre allotted land. “Some people say it is forest land. If the DDA gives this four-five acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] of land to the Ravidas samaj, the Delhi government will give the Centre 100 acres of forest land. The solution to this lies only with the Centre,” said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
Congress leaders Ashok Tanwar and Pradeep Jain Aditya approached the Supreme Court for the reconstruction of the temple. They filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution, stating that the demolition had resulted in the infringement of the fundamental right to worship of the followers of Ravidas, which was guaranteed under Article 25.
The plea said that when the DDA demolished the temple, it also took away the idol of Sant Ravidas. The site was protected under the provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, it said. It was a historical structure by all counts that happened to come under the green zone under laws that were framed subsequent to its existence, the plea pointed out.