The court relied on the DDA’s facts, ours were ignored: Petitioner in the Ravidas temple case

Rishi Kochhar for The Caravan
07 September, 2019

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.

The temple construction had started in 1954 and was completed by 1959. Our community built it. Members of the society then invited Jagjivan Ram, then the railway minister, who was also a Dalit, to inaugurate the temple. On 1 March 1959, the temple was inaugurated by him. Soon after that, our society was also registered in 1959.

S: But the lower court’s judgment said that the society did not place any documents to prove ownership of the land on record?
RP: We showed them the revenue record but they did not accept it on record. Whatever was in our favour, they didn’t take on record. They only took things that were adverse to our case.

S: Why does the DDA stake its claim over the land?
RP: In [1962], the DDA [announced] a master plan for the development of common areas in Delhi. The [DDA] says they acquired our temple land, too, during [this time]. I feel they did so while sitting in their office. They did not bother to [find out] which khasra [land parcel detailed in a revenue department document] was located at which place. For instance, the khasras that contain our temple premises were acquired by them on paper only. They did not go to the place and see themselves that there was a temple, samadhis and a pond existing there for centuries.

We continued to be in possession and management of the land even after 1963 and never faced any problem. We then built a school and a dharmashala there too.

Rishi Kochhar for The Caravan

S: When did the DDA first ask you to vacate the premises?
RP: In 1983, the DDA started building a boundary wall around its land holdings. But, they left out our entire land, which in itself was an acknowledgment that the land belonged to the society. They even provided an entry pathway to the temple from the main road.

In 1986, they first sent us a notice to inform that they were acquiring the khasra number 122, which contained a small farmland tilled by the society members. Our society approached the [Delhi] high court, seeking relief against the DDA’s notice. The court asked both parties to maintain a status quo on the land—it said we shall not pursue any activity on it either. In 1992, they demolished our school and the dharmshala. We again went to a lower court in 1992 seeking injunction. The case then continued and reached the high court in 1997.

The high court appointed a local commissioner to prepare a report on the land’s status. The commissioner’s report clearly acknowledged existence of the temple and the Chamarwala Jhor on the land. [The commissioner] also wrote in the report that local villagers told him that the society has been in the possession of the land for 30–40 years. After that report, there was no further action from the DDA. We also didn’t pursue it.

In 2010 again, we [were asked to] appear before the lower court. We again produced all the facts before the court. But the court relied on the DDA’s facts while ours were ignored, and the judgment was delivered in [July] 2018 that went against us. We appealed against the order before the high court. They didn’t listen to us either. It appeared as if we were being asked to bargain—that [we should] agree to take 100 yards land for the temple and leave the rest. I did not feel a due legal process was adopted. The high court [said that] the DDA can consider keeping the samadhis as they were and relocate the temple. But the DDA refused to give even that small area of land.

We appealed before the Supreme Court, but they dismissed our petition too. I respect the courts but I feel they did not look at our case properly.

S: But the DDA had said they acquired the land—khasra numbers 122, 123 and 124—by awarding compensation to the actual owners?
RP: They did this kabja karwayi [acquisition proceedings] only for the khasra number 122, which contained our farm land and school too. They declared it gaiir mumkin [uncultivable waste land] while acquiring it. We had refused the award [compensation] for it. But the court rejected our argument since we didn’t have any document to back our claim. Our committee members did not have the tax receipts, which they paid to the government, for the land. The kabja karwayi, though, was not done on khasra numbers 123 and 124.

S: What is your demand from the central government?
RP: We want the government to do justice to us. Our community, having a population of 30–40 crore, has its faith associated with the place. Our gurus are buried there. The government should give us the land back so that we can rebuild it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.