On 10 August, the Delhi Development Authority, which comes under the ministry of the urban development, demolished a temple of Ravidas—a fifteenth-century saint and poet revered by the Dalit community—located in the national capital’s Tughlakabad area. The move triggered large-scale protests by Dalits and Ravidassias who demanded that the temple be rebuilt at its original spot—this included a bandh in Punjab on 13 August, followed by a demonstration in Delhi, in which tens of thousands participated.
The demolition was the result of a three-decade-long legal battle between the Guru Ravidas Jainti Samaroh Samiti, a society which managed the temple, and the central government. Through the case, the society sought to claim ownership of the land on which the temple was built and thwart the demolition. In April 2019, the society lost the suit in the Supreme Court.
Rishi Pal, the president of the society, was the sole witness in the case for the society. In the evidence affidavit he submitted in the district court, Pal said that his ancestors had owned the land and managed the temple since the early nineteenth century. In an interview with Sagar, a staff writer at The Caravan, Pal explained why the society claims its right over the land, the importance of the temple for the Dalit community and his disappointment with the courts and the government. Pal said he respected the courts but he felt, “they did not look at our case properly.”
Sagar: Could you explain the background to the construction of the Ravidas temple and the society’s claim on the land?
Rishi Pal: Our guru [Ravidas] stayed at this place for three days and gave sermons in the early sixteenth century. Sikandar Lodhi, then the sultan of Delhi, was impressed with his preaching, and so gave him the land. Back then, the land area was huge, but later, we could keep only around twelve thousand and five hundred square yard in our possession. When our guru was here, the patients of leprosy used to visit him to find cure. [On our land] there used to be a pond, which was later known as the Chamarwala Jhor. Our guru would bless the patients and ask them to take a dip in the water of the pond. That tradition has continued.
Even though the DDA later built a boundary wall around the pond [in the 1980s], people still go there, carrying water from their homes, and bathe near the wall. As a part of the tradition, they tie their clothes on a nearby tree after taking bath. Later, [around] 1830, my ancestor, Roopnandji, built a small hut-shaped structure there and offered puja. After he died, his samadhi was built nearby. Shera Singh took over from him and he continued the puja. After him Harihar Baba became the caretaker. Their samadhis were also built near the temple after their deaths.
S: When was the temple built?
RP: If you look at the revenue record [from 1959], which we produced before the court, it shows the existence of Chamarwala Jhor. Back then, there was no urban habitation around the place, all this that you see now—Tughlakabad Extension or Govindpuri—did not exist then. This land belonged to the local gram sabha whose members were from our Chamar community [a Scheduled Caste community, also known as Jatavs]. The community owned the land.