Why the DDA may not have a legitimate claim on a part of Tughlaqabad’s Ravidas temple land

Courtesy Shoaib Daniyal / Scroll.in
28 September, 2019

In a letter dated 10 February 1959, the Guru Ravidas Jainti Samaroh Samiti invited Jagjivan Ram, the railway minister at the time, to inaugurate a temple of Ravidas, a fifteenth-century saint and poet revered by the Dalit community. The samiti of followers of Ravidas had constructed the temple in Delhi’s Tughlaqabad area. The letter said: “We, the Dalit residents of Tughlaqabad, have built a temple of Guru Ravidas and an ashram. Our village and other neigbouring villages have a large population of Dalits. But they had no temple or an ashram for their use so far. The Dalits showed a great enthusiasm in the construction of the temple, and with everyone’s efforts, the construction has been completed.”

Ram, who was also from the Dalit community, accepted the invitation, and inaugurated the temple on 1 March. Around six months later, the samiti was registered under the Registration of Societies Act, 1860. The samiti was in possession of lands on three khasras, or land parcels, detailed in revenue-department documents—khasra numbers 122, 123 and 124—according to its incumbent president Rishi Pal. Around that time, khasra numbers 123 and 124 contained the temple, an ashram for its priests and samadhis of the caretakers along with a pond, while khasra number 122 was farmland.

The first signs of trouble for the samiti came in August 1986, Pal said, when it received notices under the Land Acquisition Act. The notices mentioned that the central government’s Delhi Development Authority was acquiring their land on khasra number 122, Pal said. The samiti denied that the acquisition had taken place and challenged the DDA’s claim over the land in the Delhi high court that year. Later, the DDA said in the courts that it had also acquired the land on khasra numbers 123 and 124 in April 1963, and had awarded compensation to the samiti.

The legal battle between the samiti and the DDA lasted for more than three decades. It culminated in an April 2019 judgment by the Supreme Court, which granted the DDA ownership of the entire temple premises. On 10 August this year, the DDA demolished the Ravidas temple. The move triggered large-scale protests led by the Ravidassias and Dalits in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, demanding that the central government rebuild the temple on its original location. Since 30 August, Dalit protestors have been on a chain hunger-strike in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar with the same demand.

Pal said that he had documents which showed that the samiti was in possession of the temple land since 1959 till the time the legal dispute began. He submitted these documents in the court as well. But “whatever was in our favour, they didn’t take on record,” he said. “I respect the courts but I feel they did not look at our case properly,” he added. A perusal of the case’s legal history and judgments of the courts indicates that Pal’s statement is not unfounded. In fact, the samiti seems to have had a legitimate claim over a part of the disputed land.

The protestors demand rebuilding the temple on its original premises as, according to folklore, Ravidas had spent three days in the early sixteenth-century on the temple land. Ravidas’s sermons during his stay, the legend goes, impressed Sikandar Lodhi, the sultan of Delhi at the time. “The sultan gave guruji the land,” he said. The pond, known as Chamarwala Jhor, also became a place of faith because of Ravidas’s association with it. Pal said that when patients of leprosy visited Ravidas to find a cure, “our guruji would bless them and tell them to take a dip in the pond. People continued to come in and bathe in the pond.”

Pal said that his forefathers had managed and maintained the properties on the temple land since the early nineteenth-century. Around 1830, his ancestor Roopanand was the caretaker of the land. Roopanand built a hut and started performing puja there. When Roopanand died, he was buried near the hut. Three other caretakers of the land were also buried on the land. On 10 August, the DDA destroyed their samadhis as well.

The DDA said it received physical possession of the vacant land on khasra number 122 in 1986, which contained the farmland. According to Pal, the samiti was not informed of the acquisition till the central government sent it notices asking it to submit its claim for compensation in exchange of the land. The samiti then filed a writ petition against the acquisition in the Delhi high court. In April 1987, the court asked both parties to maintain “status quo” on the land. (In 2004, a division bench of the high court vacated this order.)

By 1992, the samiti had constructed a school and dharmashala on khasra numbers 123 and 124. The DDA demolished both the structures in November that year. Pal said that when the samiti approached the Delhi high court to seek an injunction against the DDA in the same month, its petition was rejected on technical grounds—the court said that the samiti’s valuation of court fee was incorrect and it violated the Code of Civil Procedure as it did not give prior notice to the central government before filing the petition. The samiti rectified the errors, and its petition was admitted in the Delhi high court in 1996, Pal said.

In May next year, the court appointed Anshu Mahajan, an advocate, as a local commissioner to make a report about the ownership of the disputed khasras. “I made specific enquiries about possession of suit property from Prem Singh and Roop Chand”— residents of Tughlakabad village, Mahajan wrote in his report. “They informed me that the suit property had been in possession of the plaintiff Samiti for more than 40 years.” Mahajan also wrote that he was informed that the DDA had demolished “a pillar containing Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Statue.” Pal said that after June 1997, neither the court nor the DDA took the case forward till six years later.

The dispute about ownership of the temple premises continued. In 2003, when the district court’s pecuniary jurisdiction—the monetary limit up to which a court exercises jurisdiction—was extended to suits worth up to Rs 20 lakh, the high court transferred the case to Delhi’s Tis Hazari district court. The samiti lost the case in the court in July 2018. In November that year, it appealed to the Delhi high court to reverse the district court’s judgment, but the court ruled in favour of the DDA as well. The Supreme Court also concurred with the high court. The local commissioner’s report barely found a mention in any of the court judgments.

There was a huge variation between the time that the DDA took to issue a notification announcing the acquisition for the land on khasra number 122 and khasra numbers 123 and 124. Through the proceedings in the three courts, the DDA’s core argument remained that it acquired khasra number 122 in 1986 and khasra numbers 123 and 124 in 1963 by awarding compensation. According to the Delhi high court’s judgment, while the notification declaring the acquisition of khasra number 122 was issued in the same year it was acquired, the notifications for acquiring the two other khasras were issued more than three decades later, in 1996. The DDA had said that in both the cases it had taken vacant possession of the land immediately.

The samiti admitted before the court that the DDA had started the process of acquiring khasra 122 in 1986, but the samiti refused the award compensation for the land. In its judgment, the district court noted that the samiti never challenged the acquisition proceeding while it was being done. But Pal said that the samiti had gone to the court in 1986 only because it received the notice regarding the acquisition of khasra 122.

The samiti contested the DDA’s claim of acquiring the lands on khasra numbers 123 and 124. The DDA had said in the lower court, “It’s a settled proposition of law that if any entry is made in the revenue record subsequent to award, no reliance can be placed on such entries.” But Pal said that the samiti produced revenue records since 1959, four years before the acquisition of the two khasras. Between 1959 and 1969, the revenue records list the gaon sabha—the local village council—as the owner of the land on khasra 123. The gaon sabha had members of the samiti who were involved in building the temple, which proved the samiti’s possession of the khasras, according to Pal. The records listed khasra number 124 as shamlat—common land of the village.

Further, the samiti denied the existence of awards for these khasras. The DDA exhibited the award certificates for both the cases before the courts, which merely said that the owner of the land has been requested to take compensation. But the samiti said that the DDA did not show any evidence of this payment. Moreover, the certificates recognised the samiti as one of the owners of the land.

In the district court, one of the DDA’s witnesses also weakened its claim of acquiring the land. During cross examination in the court, the witness SK Kaushik, a tehsildar appointed the by the DDA in 2010, said that the Land Acquisition Collector used to send the intimation about the kabza karyawahi—acquisition proceedings—to the Halka Patwari, or local revenue officer, to make entries in the revenue record. He said, “I’m not aware whether the LAC had sent the intimation to Halka Patwari for making the entries in the revenue record… after completion of the Kabza Karwayi no written communication was made to the Halka Patwari intimating to him regarding the completion of acquisition proceedings.”

At one point of time while he was being cross examined, Kaushik also supported an argument made by the samiti. In 1983, the DDA had erected boundary walls around the properties it had acquired in the Tughlaqabad area. According to the samiti, it did not put up any such boundary around the khasras that the samiti possessed. Pal termed this as an implicit acknowledgment from the DDA that it did not own the property. In court, Kaushik said, “I have visited the suit property eight–ten times. It is correct that a separate boundary wall has been raised by the DDA leaving the land which is possession of the plaintiff society.” Then, he added, “There is no separate boundary wall which has been raised by the DDA but the boundary wall has been constructed on the entire land which belongs to the DDA.”

The district court stated in its judgment that the samiti could not establish itself as the owner of the land. It quoted the Supreme Court’s January 2014 judgment in Union of India versus Vasavi Cooperative Housing Society: “In a suit, for declaration of title, the burden always lies on the plaintiff to make out and establish a clear case for granting such a declaration and the weakness, if any, of the case set up by the defendants would not be a ground to grant relief to the plaintiff.” The district court’s judgment was adverse to the samiti, but it also held: “Even defendant DDA has admitted that plaintiff is in settled possession of part of suit land.”

After the district court dismissed the petition, the Delhi high court also found no merit in it. The DDA had vehemently opposed the suggestion to retain any of the existing structures on the khasras. But the high court, still, left it at the discretion of the DDA to provide a small area of land to relocate the temple if the samiti makes a representation for it within four weeks. It noted that the four samadhis were very small and could continue to exist where they were if the DDA allowed it. Pal told me that the DDA refused to agree to this suggestion.

When protests against the demolition erupted in August after the temple’s demolition, Arun Mishra, one of the Supreme Court judges in the case, said, “All these acts amount to contempt of court. And we will take actions against everyone.” The Supreme Court has now decided to hear petitions to rebuild the temple. But Pal told me his only hope was that the government passes a law to rebuild the temple. “We want the government to do justice to us,” he said. “Our community, having a population of 30–40 crore, has its faith associated with the place.”