NEW DELHI: A land dispute between a group of Dalits and the Central government has become a serious cause of concern for the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections slated for early next year. The dispute had first reached the Delhi trial court in 1986 before a final judgement in the case was awarded in August 2019, almost 33 years later. The matter has worried the BJP enough to sit up and take note, with Hans Raj Hans, BJP MP from North-West Delhi Lok Sabha constituency and a Dalit leader telling The Sunday Guardian that the Centre is seeking legal counsel and is ready to do whatever possible to restore the temple.
On 10 August, a “temple” of Saint Ravidas in the Tughlakabad area, which was built on “encroached land” belonging to government—as it was adjudged by the trial court, the High Court and finally the Supreme Court—was demolished, after which the followers of Saint Ravidas staged a violent protest in the National Capital Region against the BJP government.
Seeing this as a God-sent opportunity, both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress jumped into the fray. While AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced in the Delhi Assembly that he was going to donate 6 acres of land for rebuilding the temple, two Congress leaders, Ashok Tanwar and Pradeep Jain Arya, who was a Union Minister in the UPA era, approached the Supreme Court seeking directions to rebuild the temple.
In between all this, the BJP has been left to defend itself in the face of allegations of “not doing enough” to save the temple, as it was the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which comes under the Central government, that carried out the demolition drive based on a court order.
Delhi has roughly 25-28 lakh Dalit votes and most of them follow Saint Ravidas. Out of Delhi’s 70 constituencies, 12 are reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. Dalits comprise around 20%-25% of Delhi’s population and thus matter in elections.
The Sunday Guardian visited the “disputed site”—which local Dalit leaders and activists have started equating with the Ram Temple in Ayodhya—that is located in the Jahanpanah forest in the Tughlakabad area of South Delhi.
The approach road to the temple, which is inside the “protected” forest, has been sealed by the DDA and a wall has been erected with a “warning board”. The area is now heavily fortified, with police barricades and a makeshift police camp having come up to protect the site from fresh encroachment.
At this temporary police camp, a group of policemen have been posted to ensure that no untoward incident takes place.
One of the policemen posted at the makeshift camp told The Sunday Guardian that at any given time, at least 12 police personnel were posted at the spot to ensure peace and to see that the Supreme Court’s order was not violated.
Residents of the village at Tughlakabad Extension, which is just opposite the site of the erstwhile Saint Ravidas temple, believe that the demolition of the temple order was an infringement on their right to religion and worship and that the government at the Centre should give them back the “house” of their Guru.
Rani Chopra, a vocal resident and a follower of Saint Ravidas, who claimed that she was at the forefront of the protest when the temple was being demolished by the DDA, told The Sunday Guardian, “Injustice has been done to our community. The house of our Guru was broken down in front on our eyes. It was in this land where our Guru came and stayed during the rule of Sikandar Lodhi; it is a very revered land for us. Even the samadhis of our four Gurus were broken down by the DDA. The idol of Guru Ravidas was taken down and taken away by the DDA. This is an insult to our Guru and our community. How can we tolerate this? If the temple is not built here, we are ready for a hunger strike till death and a massive protest across the country.”
She further claimed that the land on which the temple was built, was donated by Sikandar Lodhi in 1509 to Guru Ravidas when he visited Delhi and ever since, the land has been in the possession of the followers of Guru Ravidas who had formed a society, Guru Ravidas Jayanti Samaroh Samiti, to manage the affairs of the temple and other establishments constructed on the land.
The issue first went to court in 1986 after the DDA demolished the structures and reclaimed the “encroached” land. At the time, the society members, in their application in court, had claimed that their ancestors had got the land about 190 years ago.
However, land records that came up during the case hearing showed that the land was never “legally” in the possession of the Guru Ravidas Jayanti Samaroh Samiti.
As per the records book, the Samiti/society had been in possession of the land since 1959, during which they built a pond, a temple, an ashram, a samadhi of saints, a school and a four-room dharamshala. The temple in question was inaugurated by former Union Minister and Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram in March 1959. The Samiti members also told the courts that they had become the owner of the land by adverse possession as they had been in possession of the suit land for over 30 years.
However, as per the DDA’s claim, which was ultimately upheld by all the three levels of court, it got the possession of the land in April 1963. The DDA also contended that the Samiti members had time and again sought to encroach on the government land.
The suit filed by the Guru Ravidas Jainti Samaroh Samiti, seeking the possession of the land and prohibitory injunction against DDA, was first dismissed by the trial court, after which they filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court, which was dismissed by the single bench of Justice Valmiki Mehta in November 2018. Finally, in April 2019, the petition filed against the Delhi HC judgement was also dismissed by the Supreme Court bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Navin Sinha. The bench granted two months’ time to the society to vacate the premises. However, noting that the society had not vacated the premises that were spread across 12,350 square yards, the bench of Justices Arun Mishra and M.R. Shah issued stern directions on 9 August to the DDA to demolish the structure the next day. On 10 August, the DDA implemented the court’s orders.
However, although the temple was demolished after more than 33 years of litigation and only after the Supreme Court decided that it was built on encroached land, the locals are unhappy.
FOLLOWERS THREATEN MORE PROTESTS
The villagers said that if the Central government did not give them back the land, a massive protest by the followers of Saint Ravidas would be carried out across the country.
Sunil, a follower of Guru Ravidas and a resident of Tughlakabad Extension, told this newspaper that the Samiti members should have acted more diligently while presenting facts to the court. “Does the temple belong only to the committee? No, this temple is the house of our Guru and it belongs to all members of our community. The Samiti members failed to provide adequate evidence and documents to the court. Why they failed, that only they can answer.”
B.K. Singh, a member of the temple committee, is hopeful that the government will give them the land where the temple was present. While speaking to The Sunday Guardian, he said that they had a series of meetings with the Central government and that the Centre assured them that they would decide the case in favour of the temple and would also bring legislation and ensure that the temple was built at the same site.
“We have met Dushyant Gautam, head of BJP’s Scheduled Caste Morcha; we have also spoken to Bhupender Yadav and many other leaders and they have assured us that they will help us rebuild the temple here at the same place. We have also set a deadline of 13 September for the same and if the demands for the temple are not met, then there will be a huge nationwide protest,” Singh added.
A section of followers are also holding an indefinite protest at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. The protest is being spearheaded by Maharaj Sukhdev Waghmare, who claims to represent the “Akhil Bharatiya Ravidasiya Dharma Sangathan”. Waghmare said that he was going to launch a nationwide protest if the land for the reconstruction of the Saint Ravidas Temple was not handed over to them within 15 September.
The “Maharaj” told The Sunday Guardian, “We have no trust with the government anymore. The government was supposed to release hundreds of our children who were arrested on 21 August, by Wednesday, but has failed to do so. If the government does not want to see another nationwide protest from the Dalit community, it should immediately release our boys and give us the land to reconstruct the temple. The government has no right to break any temple and destroy the house of our Guru.”
With attempts being made to turn the temple demolition issue into “another anti-Dalit” action by the Union government, vociferous elements and groups like Bhim Army, too, have involved themselves in this “campaign”.
BJP MP Hans Raj Hans, who was present at the meeting held between the government and Guru Ravidas followers, told The Sunday Guardian that the government was doing legal consultations to solve the matter and was ready to do whatever was possible to restore the temple.
“We have met all the prominent voices, saints among the followers of Guru Ravidas. Our other senior leaders like Dushyant Gautam and Bhupender Yadav were also present as representatives of Home Minister Amit Shah in the meeting. In the meeting, it was decided that whatever the community wanted, the government would try to fulfil their demands. Since it is a legal issue, it is taking some time. I appeal to members of the community that we should not be aggressive and have faith in the government. The government has not taken this lightly and will not take it lightly,” Hans Raj Hans said.
He further said that the government was working towards ensuring granting of bail to all the persons who were arrested during the protest.
Hans Raj Hans said that the Opposition was playing politics over the issue. “The Opposition parties like the AAP and Congress have brought politics into this matter because the Delhi elections are near. Arvind Kejriwal knows that whatever commitment he has given, is not legally tenable, yet he made those fake promises to the people.”