Thousands of Dalits, people belonging to oppressed castes who were formerly deemed “untouchables” within the caste system, from across India, marched on the streets of the capital city of New Delhi on August 21. The demonstration was held to oppose the Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA), controlled by the central government led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), move to demolish a temple dedicated to Guru Ravidas as an “encroachment” on land designated for forest conservation.
The protest was organized under the banner of a union of different political and social groups, including the Bhim Army, the Dalit Soshan Mukti Manch (DSMM), the Dalit Sant Samaj (DSS) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), besides members of the Ravidassia community, a faith-based movement widespread in northern India.
Guru Ravidas or Sant Ravidas (1450-1520) was among the Bhakti-era saints, hailing from a supposedly ‘lower caste’ community, and is known to have struggled against the caste system in India. He advocated for greater equality during the Bhakti movement, a socio-religious reformation movement that swept most of the south Asian subcontinent in the medieval and early modern period. Today, Ravidas is a revered saint for millions of Dalits belonging to Hindu and Sikh religious groups in north India, especially in the region covering the provinces of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, and also the capital territory of Delhi.
Despite the fact that the temple has stood in the spot for nearly seven decades, the BJP government has cited a Supreme Court order in its defense, according to which all structures built on illegal land in the city need to be cleared. But critics have pointed out double standards and a deeper motive behind the action.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Brinda Karat has, in her letter to the government, stated that “the entire approach of the government is based on double standards. On the one hand, the government is in court in defense of the ‘faith of people’, on the demand to build a temple in Ayodhya, on the exact spot where the Babri Masjid stood. On the other hand, a spot which has been for decades a pilgrimage center for the devotees of Guru Ravidas, and on which a small temple structure was erected in the decade of the fifties, has been demolished by the same government.”
“Does it not display a discriminatory attitude because the devotees belong mainly to the Scheduled Castes*?,” she added. The communist parties in India extended their support to the protesters’ demands to rebuild the temple at the same place where it stood.
Activists belonging to the DSMM and other organizations have also questioned the claims regarding the illegality of the temple. According to a report published in Newsclick, the temple was built prior to the establishment of the DDA. The real motive behind the demolition is also under suspicion. According to Yashpal, leader of the DSMM, “There are several temples and religious places made on illegal sites as encroachments and have become a hurdle for the public, including the ashram of Asaram Bapu near Ridge Road [in Delhi], but the DDA cannot see such sites.”
“The reality behind the demolition of the Ravidas temple is that upper-caste people living in the [neighboring] posh Greater Kailash area had a problem with a Dalit temple,” Yashapal added.
Embedded in a Hindu supremacist political movement, led by its parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP has historically advocated for the maintenance of the status quo and what it deems to be “Hindu traditions”. In that vein it has always, often violently, opposed movements that advocated social justice, political assertion of the oppressed castes, and/or the annihilation of caste altogether.
Wednesday’s protests affected most of north India, including the capital city, where a few clashes and police violence were reported late in the night. There was a complete shutdown in Punjab, where Dalits constitute nearly 30% of the population.
Meanwhile, cracking down on the activists, the government has filed several cases against the leaders of the radical youth group, the Bhim Army (inspired by and named after the architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar). Its vice-president, Manjeet Singh Nautiyal, was booked on charges of sedition and its president, Chandrashekar Azad, has been arrested today, along with 50 others.
[*Scheduled Castes is the officially sanctioned term used in government and bureaucratic parlance to refer to Dalits]
With inputs from Newsclick