Tughlakabad: A cocktail of anguish and anger is brewing in Delhi’s Tughlakabad area. “This act is a devious plan by the central government to further marginalise the Dalits,” said a resident of the neighbourhood who, like many others from the locality, did not wish to disclose his name.
Men and women rushed out of their homes in Tughlakabad when a mason, on orders of the police, began sealing shut the main entrance to the historic Shri Guru Ravidas temple on August 9. The Delhi Development Authority, a central government agency, was carrying out the action following orders from the Supreme Court to pull down the structure on a petition against alleged encroachment.
A volunteer at the shrine recalled that fateful evening with marked distress. “The police began sealing the main gate of the temple at around 4pm. Male and female officers were present in large numbers; all were equipped with firepower. Some of us women who worked in the temple entered through another route at around 4.30pm. Unaware of what was to come, we began preparations for the langar (communal meal) and even got together for a satsang (sacred gathering),” she told News18.
“Brick by brick the structure was demolished while a sea of worshippers witnessed it. But, before they (central government and police) did it, they shattered our sense of belief.”
According to folklore, poet-saint, social reformer and spiritual figure Guru Ravidas visited the sacred place around 1509 during the reign of Sikandar Lodhi. His followers formed the Ravidassia religion, a spin-off from Sikhism, in the 21st century.
By dawn on August 10, the entire temple area was sealed shut. Authorities had even arrested 10 protesting women who, locals said, had never been near a police station before.
“We were shouting, we were crying, but they heard none of our voices,” said another volunteer. “We saw our temple being reduced to ruins in front of our eyes. And then they pushed us out of the compound,” she added.
According to the women who were arrested, the police “snuck us out of a back route and dumped us inside a bus”. One of them said the bus was strategically parked in such a way that in the event of arrests it remained sequestered from the place of action and went unnoticed by all. Another volunteer said they were forced to sit in the bus for two hours.
“After the demolition of the temple, the police slipped us out quietly. All of us went to jail that night – for the first time – protecting our belief,” she added.
The Supreme Court order for demolition of the temple came after a long-drawn legal battle between the Guru Ravidas Jayanti Samaroh Samiti and the Delhi Development Authority. The DDA argued that the holy site was unlawfully built inside forestland which falls under the ‘green belt’ (a government designation aimed at retaining wild or agricultural land adjoining urban areas), while the Samiti cried foul over historical negligence and documentation.
However, when the top court directed that the temple be razed on August 9, nowhere was ‘green belt’ mentioned, said a top member of the temple committee. “The matter then is about how law has failed its people and history has become irrelevant,” he told News18.
According to him, the temple was inaugurated by the-then railways minister, Jagjivan Ram, under the Congress government on March 1, 1959, four years before the DDA was officially formed in 1963 (it was created in 1957). “Even if, for arguments sake, we say the DDA has every right over the property, then why did it in 1983 construct a wall circling the forestland and leave out the temple area? It left a 15-foot wall as the main entrance to the temple. In the 1990s, the DDA decided out of nowhere that it wanted this land back,” he said.
After the demolition turned into a political row, and protests erupted in parts of Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, union minister of housing and urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri said the Centre would possibly identify an alternative site to “relocate” the temple.
“We, along with the vice-chairman of DDA, are determined to find a solution and possibly identify an alternative site where the temple can be relocated. We have also suggested to the affected parties to appeal to the hon’ble court to issue the necessary directions in this regard,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Since the 1990s, the DDA had demolished multiple prayer rooms and places of accommodation in the temple compound, saying this was government ground. It was in the run-up to these events that the Samiti had filed a case in a local court. At the turn of the century, this case was moved to the Delhi High Court. A local commissioner was also appointed to investigate the land dispute.
The official in her report to the high court dated May 25, 1997, which News18 has access to, stated that on both sides of the wall “an iron grill (raised by the DDA in 1983) enclosing the entire suit property and separating it from the Forest Land/Green Area” was found. It also goes on to confirm the existence of the temple and the legal possession of land by the Samiti for more than 40 years.
After a substantial lull, the Delhi High Court in 2010 summoned the Samiti again for a hearing after the DDA brought up the matter. They had been fighting the case ever since.
However, the temple committee member said the case requires some legal revision as orders from different courts had not been properly followed.
“The lower court ruled against us. The high court did not pay attention to the legal gaps in the previous verdict. And the Supreme Court rejected our plea completely. But, the high court did offer us some relief which the apex court missed out on,” he said.
The high court had granted a separate land for the temple and had ordered that the existing tombs on the land remain untouched, he added. “The Supreme Court in its order of demolition had taken the high court order into cognisance and asked us to vacate the property within two months. But, when they ran the bulldozers that morning, everything turned to dust.”
The temple authority’s follow-up plea, to keep the land until a separate plot was allotted, was rejected by the Supreme Court. They were not given any notice of demolition, which was set to take place the very next day of the apex court’s order.
The nostalgia that the Guru Ravidas temple harboured for years had now been reduced to rubble, say followers. A devotee from Mathura recalled that he was struck by surprise, and a deep sense of angst after his recent visit to the shrine turned out to be his last. His family had been visiting the holy site for decades now.
“The demolition of this temple has deeply hurt my sentiments. The central government wants to destroy the Dalit community. They are unable to construct their own temple in Uttar Pradesh, but want to destroy ours,” he said.
The August 9 order by the apex court and the forthcoming demolition of the temple was met with widespread opposition. On Monday, the Ravidas community of Punjab called for a bandh which led to a near-complete shutdown in Jalandhar, Patiala, Barnala, Fazilka, Samana, Ferozepur and Moga. Traffic movement on the Jalandhar-Delhi national highway was disrupted as protesters gathered on the road.
Political ripples of the move were felt across India and even more so in Delhi with the Aam Aadmi Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal criticising the BJP-led central government and the top court.
Paramjeet Singh, president of the Delhi unit of SAD, told News18 that he condemned the action taken. “We welcome all orders of the Supreme Court. But we also ask them to review the order in light of the religious sentiments. The temple wasn’t built on encroached land,” he said.
Hoshiarpur MP and union minister Som Prakash called the demolition an “unfortunate” incident.
However, sentiments in Tughlakabad are more wounded than elsewhere. “There are other Hindu temples and mosques on the same forestland. They have not been touched at all. The temple area used to comprise the tombs of our Gurus and ancestors. The government destroyed everything,” said a local.
“There was no DDA 600-700 years ago. The entire area has belonged to the Dalit community since the era of the Lodhis. If the DDA earlier respected and recognised the sanctity of this place, why did they demolish it?” he asked.
Locals say they are angrier and more resolute in their demands. Having served prison time now, one of the temple voluntweers said she is “ready to go to jail for the sake of her deity”.
“There is a Lord Hanuman temple not far from here. Will the BJP government dare to act against it?” she added.
While protests are raging across the country, the Supreme Court is firm on its order. “We are not influenced by all this," said Justice Arun Mishra, heading the bench in the top court. “All these acts amount to contempt of court. And we will take action against everyone.”