New Delhi: Dalits across a vast swathe of north India, including Punjab, are up in arms against the demolition of a temple at Tughlakabad in Delhi dedicated to the 15th-century spiritual leader Sant Ravidas.
The temple, located in a protected forest area, was demolished earlier this month after the Supreme Court upheld a Delhi High Court order in this regard, bringing a 27-year-old legal wrangle to a close.
The Delhi Development Authority, overseen by the Centre, claimed in court that the land belonged to the government. On the other side was the Ravidas Jayanti Samaroh Samiti, which claimed ownership of the land and said the plot held deep significance for followers of Ravidas.
According to members of the samiti, which is now at the forefront of the protests, asking them to seek an alternative plot was akin to suggesting that Hindus build the Ram temple at a site other than Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya, where Lord Ram is believed to have been born.
ThePrint spoke to followers of Sant Ravidas to understand why the demolition has evoked protests.
Born on Magh Purnima
Ravidas, a mystic poet-saint, is believed to have been born to a Harijan family of cobblers in present-day Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
He is said to have been born on the day of Magh Purnima, the full moon day of the Hindu calendar’s “Magh” month, which corresponds to the months of January and February.
Over his life time, Ravidas emerged as a luminary of the Bhakti Movement, which called for complete devotion to god and challenged the caste hierarchy. With his message of equality, he came to be seen as a divine figure by people of the lower castes.
His followers revere him for his welfare work and calls to boycott social and religious pageantry.
Meerabai, the legendary devotee of Lord Krishna, also considered Sant Ravidas her guru. Some of his creations were edited by Sikh guru Arjun Dev and included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.
This is why the demolition of the Tughlakabad temple has stoked considerable resentment among Dalits in Punjab.
The temple is believed to be located at a site where Ravidas spent three days.
Social scientist Badri Narayan, who has authored biographies of Dalit leaders Mayawati and Kanshiram, said that, “for Dalits in north India, God means Ravidas… and the road to reaching Ram is through their saint Ravidas”.
“Ravidas is the most revered saint of the Jatav and Chamar community of Dalits. They are upset because the abode of their God has been demolished,” he added.
A gift from the sultan?
According to documents submitted before the court, the Ravidas temple complex located in Tughlakabad was spread across 12,350 square yards, with 20 rooms and a big hall on its premises.
The DDA had first attempted to demolish it in 1992 — arguing that there could be no permanent construction in a protected forest area — and that’s when the samiti moved court.
Satvinder Singh, the head of All India Adi Dharm Mission, a Punjab-based organisation working to preserve sites associated with Ravidas, told ThePrint that the land in question was recognised as the site of the temple in revenue records (a claim disputed by the DDA in court).
According to him, in the 15th century, Ravidas had visited the place and delivered sermons. Sikandar Lodi, the then sultan of Delhi, was so impressed by his preaching that he decided to donate the land to him.
The temple itself is believed to date back to a few decades before Independence.
The mandir samiti has claimed that when the DDA demolished the temple, bricks dating back to 1905 were found at the place.
According to the mission, there are only 10 other temples in the entire country that are as important as the one demolished in Tughlakabad.
Sources in the Archaeological Survey of India, however, said they would have known if the temple had historical significance.
“In this locality, only the Tughlakabad Fort is under the ASI’s purview,” an ASI official said.
Issue gains political angle
Hundreds of Dalits organised a protest Wednesday at Jantar Mantar against the demolition of the temple. Members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has expressed support for the cause, joined in as well.
With elections to the Delhi assembly just months away, the protests have taken on political significance as well, as at least 17 per cent of the national capital’s population is comprised of Dalits, according to a report in Firstpost.
A delegation of BJP leaders met Union Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on the issue, even as the AAP questioned why the Centre cannot even allocate a small piece of land for Ravidas Mandir.
BJP MP Vijay Goel, the former Delhi chief of the party, has been quoted as saying that the temple should not have been demolished, and that it should be reconstructed.
संत रविदास मंदिर को नहीं तोड़ा जाना चाहिए था। pic.twitter.com/Tg1rqsWOiP
— VijayGoelOffice (@VijayGoelOffice) August 20, 2019
Dalit leader Udit Raj, a Congress member who was in the BJP until earlier this year, said the demolition amounted to the undermining of Ravidas.
“There are so many illegal temples that have not been demolished. This temple has been there since before Independence,” he added. “In 1959, former deputy PM Jagjivan Ram re-inaugurated it. Despite this, it was demolished and saint Ravidas has been undermined. It has caused anger against the court and Modi sarkar,” said Raj.
“Sant Ravidas is important for the Dalit community,” said Chandrashekhar Azad, the chief of Dalit organisation Bhim Army. “The demolition of the temple is an insult to 25 crore people. If the government doesn’t agree to our demands, we will make it a people’s movement.”
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court weighed in on the protests, saying its judgments should not be politicised. The bench also threatened contempt action against anyone who incites demonstrations against the order.