It was with some irony that the kirtan singers at the base of Delhi’s Tughlaqabad fort broke out into one of the most famous verses of Ravidas, a medieval Dalit sage, on June 20. They were singing about Begumpura – a Persian pun used by Ravidas to describe an idyll where there is no sorrow.

The temple at which they were singing was wrapped up in an air of uncertainty: it was slated for demolition any day now. In response, angry members of the Ravidas sect – which almost exclusively consists of members of the Dalit Chamar caste – were mobilising across North India to hit the streets in protest.

This was most definitely not a Begumpura.

“Begampura seher ko naau
dukhu aidohu nahi tihi thau

kahi Ravidas khalasa Chamar
jo hama seheri so mitu hamara”

The name of my city is the “place of no sorrow”
It has no distress, nor no unhappiness

Thus speaks Ravidas, the free Chamar
There every citizen is my friend

The now-demolished Ravidas temple in Tughlaqabad. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

For decades, the Delhi Development Authority, the Union government-controlled organisation responsible for urban planning and development in the Capital, had been fighting to demolish this Ravidas temple. Thirty-three years ago, the temple management filed court cases in a bid to stop the demolition. However, the DDA argued that there were no records to show that the temple management owned the land.

The Ravidasis lost the case. On August 9, the Supreme Court instructed the DDA to clear out the grounds with “the help of the police” and demolish the temple. The shrine was razed the next day.

In many ways, this was a foregone conclusion. Hemmed in by poverty and caste, the case for the Ravidas temple did not stand a chance once the Indian state had marshalled its forces.

However, ensnared by the modern state and its institutions, Dalits have deployed another strategy as a counter weight: history.

While the temple management argued in court that the temple had been built in 1959, Dalits mobilised by telling of a much longer past, stretching back six centuries. “This land was given to us by Sultan Sikandar Lodi,” claimed Rishi Pal, a member of the temple management. “How can it simply be demolished like that?”

Political reaction

The August 10 demolition shocked the Ravidasi community across North India. On August 13, a hartal was held in Punjab (where nearly 10% of the population is Ravidasi). A week later, a protest was held at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds.

The August 21 protests in Delhi saw a remarkable turnout, with members of the Ravidasi community pouring in from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The demonstration was simultaneously religious and political – a fight to restore a temple as well as claim Dalit rights.

Ramesh Kumar from Haryana at the August 21 protest in Delhi. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

The matter did not end at Ramlila maidan. Later in the day, many Dalits moved towards the site of the demolished temple. The police used force to stop them. Protestors were lathi-charged and faced tear gas.

In Tughlaqabad village, some protestors alleged that they had been shot at with rubber bullets. Scores of people were arrested, including Chandrashekhar Azad, the fiery head of the Bhim Army, a Dalit rights organisation from Uttar Pradesh. As a reaction, the Aam Aadmi Party-controlled Delhi Assembly passed a resolution asking the Union government to return the temple land to the community.

Police barricades at the spot where the temple once stood. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

This political reaction was not unexpected. The Chamar community is North India’s largest Dalit group and the most aware about their political rights. Much of their political consciousness runs parallel to the development of the Ravidasi religious identity.

In spite of its power today, the Ravidasi sect is not very old. “It’s clear that there were Ravidasis in the medieval age, but they weren’t very organised,” said Peter Friedlander, one of the foremost researchers of the Ravidasi sect. “It’s only in the late 19th century that people start creating histories of the Ravidasi community, really.”

The Ravidasi identity became political in the 20th century and was used to press Dalit rights alongside other streams such as the Ambedkarite movement. “In the 1950s, for example, there was a big movement by the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh to assert their right to occupy public space,” said Friedlander. “And the way they did it is to publicly celebrate Ravidas Jayanti”, the birth anniversary of Ravidas.

Jagjivan Ram, the Hindi belt’s most powerful Dalit leader from the late 1940s to the 1970s, belonged to the Chamar caste. He was responsible for creating the Ravidas Mahasabha, an organisation for people of the sect. He also built a Ravidas temple in Benaras, the birthplace of the saint.

The Tughlaqabad temple management claimed as part of its legal submissions that the temple had been inaugurated by Jagjivan Ram.

Jagjivan Ram with the first President of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka, 1972. Ram was the defence minister of India during the 1971 Bangladesh War. Credit: Babu Jagjivan Ram National Foundation

In the popular sphere, however, claims to the Tughlaqabad plot are more frequently justified by invoking Sikandar Lodi, the Pathan ruler of Delhi from 1489 to 1517. “Sant Ravidas was jailed here on this land when he came to Delhi by the then Sultan, Sikandar Lodi,” said Rishi Pal, a member of the temple committee. “But when he did so, the locks themselves disappeared. That’s when the sultan knew he had a sant-mahatma on his hands. He became a bhakt of Ravidas and gave this land for the temple.”

This story, with small variations, was repeated by several participants at the Ramlila Maidan gathering on August 21. “Ai sada haq ai, sultan ne ditta e sanu,” said Gurpreet Singh from Samana in Punjab. This [land] is our right since the sultan gave us this land.

Friedlander recognises the tale as being part of the Ravidas Ramayana, a modern hagiography of Ravidas’ life, first written down about 1900, but based on older oral traditions. According to one version of the text, a holy man complained to Sikandar Lodi about Ravidas in an attempt to prevent the saint from practising his faith. This eventually led to Ravidas being jailed. Soon however, Ravidas harnessed his powers and miraculously escaped from prison. Suitably impressed – and chastened by the limits of his temporal power in the face of the saint’s spiritual merit – the sultan becomes a devotee of Ravidas.

A holy man complains about Ravidas to Sikandar Lodi as illustrated in the first known published Ravidas Ramayana. Credit: Peter Friedlander

To this, activists fighting for the Tughlaqabad temple add another detail: Ravidas was jailed on the very grounds where the demolished temple stood. Once the sultan became a disciple of Ravidas, he gifted the land to the sect.

Ravidas jailed by Sikandar Lodi as illustrated in the first known published Ravidas Ramayana. Credit: Peter Friedlander

In the fight over land rights, this helps give the legitimacy of history. “Dalits see they are living in a time of records,” explained Badri Narayan, a historian and anthropologist at the GB Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. “Given that Dalits rarely have any documentation of their own, they search for space in the re-invention of the past. This gives them more leverage.”

Dalits involved in the movement to restore the Tughlaqabad temple are acutely aware of this and are using this claim to a rational history to challenge what they characterise as an upper-caste controlled Indian state that has abdicated rationality.

At the August 21 agitation, while Dalits presented their own claim to history with the story of Sikandar Lodi, this was frequently contrasted with India’s most famous temple dispute: the demand to build a Ram mandir at the site of the now-demolished Babri masjid.

“Because they consider that place the birthplace of their god, the administration and the courts have been listening to their case for 70 years now,” said Sushil Gautam, one of the organisers of the August 21 protest and head of a Dalit rights organisation from Meerut. “However, in spite of the fact that a historical king gave us this land, they demolished our temple in 70 days. Look at the double standards.”