Explained: Why are Dalits agitated over demolition of Ravidas temple in Delhi

Thousands of Dalits from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere took to the streets in Delhi on Wednesday to protest against the demolition of a temple dedicated to Sant Ravidas in Delhi’s Tughlakabad area earlier this month. Police resorted to lathicharge, fired teargas shells and used “mild force” to disperse them after the protests turned violent. Several people, including police personnel, were injured, despite heavy police deployment.

Police also arrested Dalit leader and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and detained over 50 others.

The Ravidas temple was demolished by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on August 10 following a Supreme Court order. Since then, a series of protests have been organised by Dalit organisations in many states.

Dalit leaders have accused the central government of disregarding sentiments of Dalits, who are followers of Ravidas. (The central government is being blamed because DDA reports to it).

Besides protests on the streets, the matter has also taken a political turn with various Opposition parties voicing support for the protesters. Delhi goes to poll early next year while elections are due in Haryana later this year.

Dalits from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi marched in Delhi to protest against demolition of Ravidas temple. (Photo: Vimal Varun/IndiaToday)

WHAT HAPPENED ON WEDNESDAY IN DELHI?

Thousands of Dalits from Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and other states reached Delhi to participate in a protest against the demolition of a Ravidas temple. They started their march from Ambedkar Bhawan in Jhandewalan to the Ramlila Maidan.

The protesters marched chanting ‘Jai Bhim’ slogans and demanded that the government hand over the plot of land to the community and rebuild the temple.

The demolition of the temple was an insult to our community and I will go to any extent to fulfil the promise [of installing bust] made by me to my people. No force can stop us.

– Chandrashekhar Azad, President Bhim Army

The protest in Delhi came a week after a similar Dalit protest was organised in Punjab against the temple’s demolition.

Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and Delhi’s Social Justice Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam besides other Dalit spiritual leaders joined the protesters in the march.

At Ramlila Maidan, Azad announced that they would instal a bust of Sant Ravidas at the demolished temple in Tughlakabad. Soon after, Azad started a march with his supporters to the site.

“The demolition of the temple was an insult to our community and I will go to any extent to fulfil the promise [of installing bust] made by me to my people. No force can stop us,” Azad was quoted as saying by PTI.

Dalits marching in Delhi during the protest on Wednesday. (Photo: India Today)

As the protesters headed towards Tughlakabad, police stopped them from marching towards the temple and formed a security ring around them. Police also used lathicharge and fired teargas shells as the protest turned violent. Bhim Army claimed that police also fired at their members.

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Later in the evening, police arrested Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad. An FIR was registered against him under Sections 147 (rioting), 149 (unlawful assembly), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty) and 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at Delhi’s Govindpuri police station.

WHY WAS THE RAVIDAS TEMPLE DEMOLISHED?

On August 10, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) demolished a temple dedicated to Sant Ravidas in Tughlakabad area of New Delhi.

Sant Ravidas was a 16th century spiritual leader who is worshiped by Dalits. Many of his teachings were also included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest book for the Sikhs. This is one of the reasons that Punjab has a large number of Ravidas followers, also known as Ravidasiya. Besides Punjab, followers of Sant Ravidas are also found in Haryana, parts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Dalits say the place in Tughlakabad on which the Ravidas temple was built was visited by Sant Ravidas around 1509 during the reign of Sikander Lodhi. As such, the place and the temple hold special religious and spiritual significance for the community.

The temple was demolished following an April 8, 2019 Supreme Court order. Upholding an order of the Delhi High Court, the apex court ordered that the area shall be vacated within two months. The court asked the authorities concerned to ensure compliance of its order.

“In case it is not vacated within the stipulated time, it will be treated as violation of the order passed by this court,” the Supreme Court had held in April.

On August 2, the Guru Ravidas Jainti Samaroh Samiti, an organisation that oversaw the temple’s management, informed the Supreme Court that it has vacated the area. The court said the claim had to be verified.

Teachings of Sant Ravidas are also mentioned in Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest book of Sikhs. As a result, Punjab has a significant population of Ravidasiya i.e. followers of Ravidas. (Photo: Afzal Alam/India Today)

On August 9, DDA informed the court that the premises had not been vacated and that the samiti had misled the court by giving a “false statement” on August 2. DDA also said the samiti was creating obstructions on the ground.

The court then ordered that the premises should be vacated within a day (by August 10) and the “structure be removed by the DDA with the help of the police”. The court directed Delhi Police to provide adequate help to do the needful and let the structure be removed and compliance be reported.

A day later, the temple of Sant Ravidas in Tughlakabad was demolished.

WHY DID THE MATTER REACH COURT?

The genesis of this controversy rests in a 33-year-old long legal battle, fought between the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Guru Ravidas Jainti Samaroh Samiti.

The legal battle was about the ownership of the land where the temple was built. The samiti contested that it possesses ownership over the land in question while DDA argued that it was essentially a government land that was encroached upon by the samiti.

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According to documents submitted by the samiti, the overall premises consist of an area approximately 12,350 sq yards, having 20 rooms, a hall and two samadhis.

The matter reached the court first in 1986 when the samiti filed a writ petition against DDA and the high court passed a status quo order on any further construction.

On November 5, 1992, the DDA undertook a demolition drive to raze some unauthorised buildings in the premises.

WHAT HAS THE SAMITI ARGUED?

In the courts, the samiti has argued that nearly 160 years ago, one of their ancestors — Roopa Nand — “occupied” the land, now in question. He then dug out a pond which was known as ‘chamar wala johar’ in Khasra No. 123 in Tughlakabad village. It is claimed that Roopa Nand also built a hut in khasra No. 124/1.

However, in the Delhi Land Reforms Act of 1954, this land has been shown as ‘shamlat’ (village common land), which belongs to the local gaon sabha.

In the court, the samiti claimed it was formed in 1959 and it built a Guru Ravidas temple, an ashram and samadhi of Roopa Nand and other saints. In addition to this, four other rooms were also constructed as part of a dharamshala.

The samiti told the courts that the temple was inaugurated on March 1, 1959 by then Union minister Jagjiwan Ram, who was a prominent Dalit leader of his time. A school in the name of Guru Ravidas was also constructed, however, when it was constructed was not mentioned.

While the samiti has told courts that the temple was built in 1959, common Dalits believe that it was built nearly 500 years ago. (IndiaToday.in does not have any evidence to prove or disprove this belief.)

The samiti also argued in the court that though the land was formally taken over by the central government, but it was “only a book entry”.

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“When the possession of the land was taken by the central government, a barbed wire fencing was constructed around the suit land [the land presently in question] and a separate area was provided by the authorities to access the property and the structures therein,” the Delhi High Court verdict states.

Based on these arguments, the samiti argued that it should be given ownership of the land and the DDA should be prevented from issuing demolition orders.

HOW DDA COUNTERED THESE CLAIMS?

DDA summarily rejected the ownership claims made by the samiti. It said the land in question was “acquired” in 1963 under the Land Acquisition Act and due compensation was paid.

It complained that despite this, the samiti had “time and again sought to encroach upon the government land” but it was able to thwart such attempts. On November 5, 1992, DDA undertook a demolition drive against the illegal construction in the premises (khasra No 123 and 124/1).

The DDA also told the court that it had also acquired land on khasra No. 122 in 1986 and compensation for it was awarded.

The same year the samiti reportedly moved the court and filed a writ petition. DDA said despite having acquired the land, it did not carry out any demolition. It alleged that “under the garb of status quo”, the samiti is trying to further encroach upon the government land.

Arguing that the “structures” on the land are “completely unauthorised”, DDA said that there is no entry in the revenue record which shows that samiti is the owner of the land.

The DDA also argued that the constructions were made on “green land” (protected forest area) and are hence illegal.

WHAT THE COURT HELD?

In its November 2018 verdict (which was later held by the Supreme Court), the Delhi High Court held:

The samiti has not been able to prove or show any document that Roopa Nand or the samiti was “ever the owner” of the land in question.
It accepted DDA’s argument that the land was acquired and held that the samiti is clearly not its owner.

After the land was taken over by the central government, it transferred it to DDA and hence DDA is now its rightful owner.

WHAT COURT SUGGESTED

Though the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of DDA, it also suggested a possible way out to resolve the dispute. The court said since September 29, 1986 when the high court passed a status quo order, the DDA has not carried out any demolishment of constructions on the land.

“Whatever structures are existing, are essentially a small temple with a courtyard, two small rooms, and a few samadhis,” the court said.

It suggested that DDA can consider that the temple and the two rooms can be shifted from the existing location to barely about 400 feet at the periphery of this land (which is green area).

The court said there would be an independent access to the small temple with two rooms and there would be no need to use or access any other land of the DDA.

It clarified that the area to which the temple and two rooms may be shifted, will be an identical area to the area where presently the small temple and two rooms are situated.

“As far as samadhis are concerned, they are very small samadhis, and they can continue to exist in the green area, of course without any legal right being granted to the Samiti or its members or anyone else for the said samadhis,” the court said.

Besides this, the court also gave the samiti a month’s time to consider the suggestion and make a representation to the DDA to shift the temple and samadhis.

THE POLITICAL DIMENSION

The demolition of Ravidas temple has taken a political hue in the past couple of weeks with various parties demanding that the temple be reconstructed either at the same spot in Tughlakabad or at an alternative location.

Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati said the demolition reflects a “casteist mentality”. She also distanced her party from the violent Dalit protest in Delhi on Wednesday.

“The incidents of vandalism that have taken place in Delhi, especially in Tughlakabad, are unfair and the BSP has nothing to do with it. The BSP always respects the Constitution and the law. The struggles of the party are carried out well within the ambit of law,” Mayawati said in a tweet.

Dalit organisations have staged protests in many districts in Punjab over this issue demanding justice for the community. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said he will lead a delegation of Ravidasiya and meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to find a solution.

They are asking us to construct the temple at an alternative place. Why don’t they shift the Ram Mandir to some other place? Everything happened in the blink of an eye. We didn’t even get to know of the SC order. Are we not citizens of India?

– Sonu, a Dalit protester

On Wednesday, congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra attacked the BJP government for use of police force to disperse Dalits protesting the demolition of Ravidas Temple in Tughlakabad. She said it is an “insult” of Dalit voices which cannot be tolerated.

“First the BJP government messes around with Ravidas temple — the symbol of cultural heritage of crores of Dalit sisters and brothers, and when thousands of Dalit brothers and sisters raise their voice in the national capital, the BJP lathicharges them, gets teargas fired at them and arrests them,” Priyanka Gandhi said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, Union Housing and Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has said the Centre is determined to find a solution and possibly identify an alternative site to “relocate” the Ravidas temple.

QUESTIONS PROTESTERS ASK

Forty-two-year old Hansraj Raj was in Delhi on Wednesday. He had travelled from Jalandhar in Punjab to take part in the protest against demolition of Ravidas temple. “How is our demand different from that for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya? If that is so important for a particular community, this is important for us,” he was quoted as saying by PTI.

VP Singh, 60, from Ghaziabad said thousands of religious structures have come up on government and forest land. “Why only a temple of Sant Ravidas was razed? The government should answer”.

On the question of shifting the temple elsewhere, Sonu, 30, said, “They are asking us to construct the temple at an alternative place. Why don’t they shift the Ram Mandir to some other place? Everything happened in the blink of an eye. We didn’t even get to know of the SC order. Are we not citizens of India?”

Dhail Singh, 83, argued that being a Dalit himself, President Ram Nath Kovind should have intervened in the issue. “The temple was around 500 years old. Many governments have come and gone, but no one touched it. It is the anti-Dalit BJP that has hurt the sentiments of crores of people in the country,” he alleged.

(With inputs from PTI.)

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