“Mandir wahin banayenge”: Tens of thousands protest against demolition of Ravidas temple in Delhi

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

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.”

All the protestors we spoke to suggested that that the government was targeting their community by demolishing the temple. Subhash Das, a 60-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur district, told me, “First, they broke Ambedkar’s statue, then Ravidas’s. Do they have any enmity against Dalits? There are other temples as well, why doesn’t the government demolish them?” Vakeel Ahmed, a member of Bhim Army, from Ghaziabad, said, “Our 500 years old temple has been destroyed. This manuvadi government is destroying our temples and mosques illegally.” Another protester, Azad, noted, “Our temple was not on the road, but the government demolished that.” He was a resident of Tughlakabad. “The government wants to suppress Dalits,” Azad added.

The protesters were emboldened by the show of solidarity from across the country. Tarun Kumar, who lived in Delhi’s Lakshmi Nagar area, said that the unity between the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes is like a beehive, and “whoever tries to fidget it will be in grave trouble.” Sandeep Gautam, a 19-year-old from Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district, said, “We are here to construct the temple.” He added that the Ravidas temple is their “motherland” and if the police stopped them, then “we will beat them up.” The protesters claimed that they will make the temple irrespective of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Blood will spill in Delhi, but we will not back off,” an activist from the Hisar district, in Haryana, told us. “We gave the government time till 2 pm, but no one showed up.” Around the time the government’s deadline passed, Azad delivered a rousing speech from atop a dais built on a tempo. “If every person places one brick, then we will be able to rebuild the temple within an hour.” The protestors responded with chants of “Chalo Tughlakabad”—Let’s go to Tughlakabad. As the vehicle moved towards Tughlakabad, the protestors, with flags and sticks in their hands, chanted slogans of “Mandir wahin banayenge” and “Jai Bhim”—Long Live Ambedkar.

The protestors were angry with the media for ignoring issues of their community. “No media house shows news about us,” Sonu Gautam, the secretary of the social-justice group, Shamta Sena Dal, said. When we tried to speak to him, he asked us, “Aap pehle humaare bare mein likh kar dikhaaiye”—I dare you to write about us first. Another protestor added, “Only Dalits can finish the Brahminism of this country. And the media which is not giving attention to such a massive protest, we will bring them on the line too.”

They were aggressive in their disdain for members of parliament from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. When we asked Sonu Gautam about the chants of “SC/ST saansad murdaabad”—Down with SC/ST members of parliament—he said, “They don’t raise our issues but use our votes to reach the parliament.”A protestor standing next to Gautam added that the strength of the protest is also a message for such leaders: “Stand for the community or we will enter your house and turn it into bricks and stones.” Lakshman Das from Bihar noted, “We have the power to make them win, so we have it in us to break them as well.”

Arvind Kumar, the Bhim Army’s Mathura district incharge, also felt the same. Drawing from a dialogue of the Hindi movie Ghatak, he said, “Dalit saansad Kathya ke kutte hai”—Dalit members of parliament are the dogs of Kathya, referring to the film’s antagonist. “They are on Modi’s leash. They are remote controlled by Modi.”

The Bahujan Samaj Party did not participate in the protest in an official capacity, but members of the party were present with blue flags. Rameshwar, a BSP member from Hisar, said that it does not matter that Mayawati, the party chief, was not present at the protest. “This is a fight for a social issue, not political issue,” he said. When asked about Mayawati’s accusation that Chandrashekhar Azad was affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, he said, “We don’t care whose member he is, today he is with us.”

Around one kilometre from the temple, the Delhi Police prevented the protesters from moving further towards the site of the demolished temple. In response, the protesters engaged in stone pelting and broke the windows of some of the nearby vehicles. In the ensuing clash, the police used tear-gas shells against the protesters to disperse them.

Ghanshyam Das, the national in charge of the Ahirvar Samaj Sangh, a social organisation that works for the Jatav community, noted at the protest, “If Modi or Kejriwal have some strength, then they should demolish all temples. Jhandewalan has a Hanuman temple, they should try to demolish that. They have just wrecked our saint’s temple. We will not tolerate this.”