On 21 August, tens of thousands participated in a protest in Delhi against the demolition of a temple of Ravidas—a fifteenth-century saint and poet revered by the Dalit community—located in the national capital’s Tughlakabad area. Earlier this month, the Delhi Development Authority had demolished the temple following a Supreme Court order. The protesters had asked the government to respond to their demand—the rebuilding of the temple on its original spot—by 2 pm that day. When they did not receive a response, they began marching from Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan to the site of the demolished temple with the aim to rebuild it themselves. “Mandir wahin banaaenge”—We will construct the temple there itself—the protesters chanted as they marched, invoking the slogan popularly used in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Ravidas’s hymns, which opposed social inequality, feature in the sacred Sikh text, the Guru Granth Sahib. SS Gautam, the owner of Delhi’s Gautam Book Center, who was participating in the protest, told us that there are many similarities between Ambedkar and Ravidas’s words. In fact, Ambedkar has illustrated his respect for Ravidas in his writings, and even dedicated a book to him. Ravidas’s opposition to caste-based discrimination made him particularly popular among Punjab’s Dalit Sikh population. The state’s Dalit community comprises around thirty percent of Punjab’s population, which includes a significant number of Ravidassias.
On 13 August, several parts of Punjab came to a standstill as protests were held across the state, which also spread over to parts of Haryana and was followed by the massive protest in Delhi. The rally in the national capital witnessed participation of Dalit groups from different parts of the country, including Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Such a united demonstration by Dalit protesters from across the country has been almost unseen since the time of the veteran Dalit leader Kanshi Ram.
Several protesters termed the rally as “religious” and “social” in nature. “This is not political, as there are barely any politicians here,” Gautam said. But the anger among the protesters was visceral and palpable. “The government should know what we Chamars can do,” one of the protesters told us, referring to another name used for the Jatav community, which is a Dalit sub-caste. Most protestors we met were from the Jatav community. “Look at our history,” the protester said. “We have our weapons and once we pick them up and start skinning everyone, then Modi will understand who we are.”
During the rally, Chandrashekhar Azad, the chief of the Bhim Army, which spearheaded the Delhi protest, told us that the protesters were not against the Supreme Court. “The court is doing its job, and we are doing our job,” he said. Ashok Tanwar, the head of Congress’s Haryana unit, was one of few politicians present at the protest. He said that the protest was not conducted by any particular group, but various outfits and involves people from “sabhi 36 biradri”—all communities. A member of the Ravidas Sangharsh Committee, Krishn, cut him off and said, “There are no 36 communities here, there are only Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” He added, “Chandrashekhar is leading the protest, but our whole community is with him.”