Early morning on February 18, Chandni Chowk resident Banke Bihari Mittal received a phone call from a neighbour telling him to be present at the central verge of the historic stretch in Old Delhi that has the Red Fort at one end and Fatehpuri Masjid on the other.
A structure, coated with stickers of Jindal stainless steel, in the design of a temple, containing a Hanuman idol, had been established on the central verge that morning. The temple had been demolished on January 3 following orders from the Delhi High Court for the implementation of the Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan.
“It was a miracle,” claimed Mittal, 65, who sat at the temple, substituting for the priest who was absent, on the afternoon of February 22. He claimed to not know how the stainless steel structure was drilled into spot, which was supposed to be a green patch.
The new establishment has created a political battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party that controls the municipalities in the capital, the Aam Aadmi Party that runs the Delhi government and the Congress. All three parties accepted the new establishment, and its members flocked to the Walled City to visit the temple.
But the question over the legitimacy of the new structure still remains.
A day after the new temple was established, the Public Works Department, that falls under the Delhi government, called the structure an “obstacle” and wrote a complaint to the Kotwali Police Station in Chandni Chowk requesting it to take action.
“This structure is basically an obstacle in the theme of the project and placed without intimation and permission from project executing authorities,” states the letter dated February 19, referring to the Chandni Chowk redevelopment project.
Nearly a week after the incident, PWD officials still remain clueless over the status of the structure. “I am getting the communication through the media because we had sent that letter,” said an official in the department who did not wish to be identified. “We came to know through the newspapers that the North MCD has initiated a process of regularisation and the police has not probably filed an FIR till Sunday.”
The station house officer Rituraj of the Kotwali Police Station told Scroll.in that an FIR had been filed. But he refused to disclose the sections and the charges made. “It is confidential, we cannot tell you, we have responded to PWD...because it is a religious matter,” said SHO Rituraj.
Efforts to legalise the structure had already begun. The BJP-led North Delhi Municipal Corporation passed a unanimous resolution on Thursday to retain the temple.
“People from all parties are going there to pray,” North MCD Mayor Jai Prakash told Scroll.in.
“That means that there is no political difference,” he said. “So if there is no difference, and if both parties are welcoming it, then we should give it a legal status.”
The authorisation of the new structure would only be questioned if the matter were taken to court, Prakash claimed. “If the court questions us then we can say the MCD house has passed a resolution,” he said.
In 2018, the AAP-led Delhi government began working on a new plan as part of the Chandni Chowk redevelopment project. The 1.5 km stretch from Red Fort till Fatehpuri Masjid was subject to much digging and construction to create a central verge that today houses green patches, park benches and transformers.
But the issue of the Hanuman temple, that was situated under a tree, had been in the Delhi High Court since 2015. That year, the court had ordered the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, the agency that owns the land, to clear the structure that was among five unauthorised religious encroachments on the stretch. Despite the orders, the municipality did not act and in 2019, the court asked the religious committee, headed by the Centre-appointed Lieutenant Governor, to look into the matter, according to Indian Express.
The committee decided that the temple should be made an integral part of the project. But the court observed that the committee’s decision was inconsistent with its orders and the structure was demolished in January. A petition that sought to re-establish the temple reached the Supreme Court but was dismissed on February 16.
When the project began in 2018, heritage experts said Chandni Chowk needed more regularisation rather than design and questioned how authorities would stop encroachments on the pedestrian space. These questions have cropped up yet again as historians said the temple did not feature in the history of the area.
“The primary problem is of regulation, of how these spaces are going to be managed,” said Swapna Liddle, convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Delhi. “These are public spaces. What structures are going to be allowed? Who is going to build on these places? These have to be looked at.”
Since its establishment, the new temple, decorated with saffron flags, has been receiving a number of visitors, mostly passerbys strolling around the area.
But apart from them, a number of local politicians from ruling as well as rival parties have come to offer their prayers at the temple. Most of them, however, claimed that the pre-fabricated structure in the central verge did not go against the court’s orders or the original design of the stretch for that matter.
“The new temple does not come in the carriageway,” said Praveen Shankar Kapoor, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi unit. “It is behind a transformer,” he said. “There are benches for people to sit, greenery and beautification bang in the centre so why not a temple?”
Kapoor further claimed that “if the law is hurting sentiments then it was not good”.
“Law is for people, not above people,” he said, flipping the interpretation of the rights enshrined by the Indian Constitution that no one is above the rule of law.
Even members of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party visited the temple and dodged questions about the structure as an obstruction in the area’s redevelopment plan and the PWD’s complaint. “The people who live there started it,” claimed Durgesh Pathak, an AAP leader in charge of municipality affairs.
Pathak dodged questions over the legality of the new structure and claimed the temple was “ancient”. He alleged that the complaint letter from the public works department to the police was sent at the behest of the BJP.
“The services are not under us,” he said referring to the Delhi government’s power over postings and transfers in administrative services. “And the BJP pressured through the LG’s office and phoned the lower officials to issue the notice,” he claimed.
While some residents welcomed the temple, others in the area questioned how the new structure came on the central verge, especially since motor vehicles are not allowed to ply on the stretch.
“When the court has ordered [for demolition], how did it come up again?” asked Bhupinder Gujjar who has been working at a jewellery shop for 20 years in Chandni Chowk.
Gujjar said the old temple, which came in the middle of the road had become an obstruction for vehicles, and that most traders in the area did not object to its demolition. Politicians that stormed the area to visit the temple, were absent where work was needed, he said.
“The interest was among those people who want to establish themselves politically,” he said. “Otherwise, it was not a big thing. No one said anything. Now each person is taking credit for it. They are doing politics with god.”