First, he instructs a worker to uproot the idol with a crowbar, then he takes a hammer to it five times. “He is no god, he died in 1918,” the middle-aged man declares, looking into the camera. “He was Muslim.”

“Mullah hai,” says another voice in the background, using a pejorative term for Muslims.

A series of videos showing the demolition of an idol of Sai Baba, a spiritual leader revered by Hindus, surfaced on social media last week. In the videos recorded inside a temple, a middle-aged man dressed in a pale-blue shirt could be seen overseeing the demolition.

In another video, the same man, in a white shirt and saffron stole, is seen seated next to Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, a rabble-rousing Hindu priest from Ghaziabad in western Uttar Pradesh. Saraswati congratulates and blesses him for “breaking and throwing away” the idol of “pakhandi Sai” – fraudster Sai. “If I had my way, jihadis like Sai won’t be able to enter temples,” he says.

The man who supervised the demolition was congratulated for his actions by a Hindu hardliner priest, as seen in videos that circulated on social media. traced the idol demolition to a temple in Shahpur Jat in South Delhi. While a member of the temple committee claimed the idol had been removed on March 25 because it was “khandit” or broken, many residents of the neighbourhood, who are devotees of Sai Baba, rejected this explanation and expressed shock and grief at the demolition.

The middle-aged man who supervised the demolition, a real estate businessman, Padam Panwar, distanced himself from it. But Saraswati exulted in it. “Sai Baba was a pindari lootera (lawless raider),” he told over the phone. “His name was Chand Khan. He was a jihadi. It is the madness of our Hindus that he is now in our temples.”

Saraswati is the chief priest of the Dasna Devi Temple in Ghaziabad and the leader of an organisation called Hindu Swabhiman – or Hindu self-respect. Describing him as the “one of the shrillest voices in the Hindutva ecosystem”, a report in the Quint said he has been raising communal temperatures in western Uttar Pradesh by calling for a “final war against Muslims”. In March, a 14-year-old Muslim boy was assaulted by two men for drinking water in the temple.

Attacking members of religious minorities and taking a hammer to an idol in a Hindu temple are acts inspired by the same ideology that promotes a pure, militant version of Hinduism, say sociologists.

The demolition “seeks to produce the ‘others’ of Hindus that may not actually exist in real life,” said Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of sociology at Delhi University. “Those who say that such and such person should not be worshipped within the premises of a temple because he was Muslim (which may or not be true, but that is not important) want a version of Hinduism which has a single origin and a clear history.”

A symbol of unity

Every year, lakhs of devotees from all over India flock to Shirdi, the town in Maharashtra where Sai Baba is believed to have lived in the 19th century. While not much is known about his origins, the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust which runs the temple in Shirdi maintains he preached “the Universal religion of Love” uniting Hindus and Muslims.

But Sai Baba’s religious ambivalence has not been accepted by many Hindu spiritual leaders who have campaigned against his worship by claiming that it “pollutes the flow of the Sanatan Dharam”. Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre in 2014, a Dharam Sansad or a conclave of Hindu priests passed a resolution that he should not be worshipped.

Such attempts to cast a spiritual leader like Sai Baba with ambivalent origins into a singular identity is “something that comes with a state that has been obsessed with enumeration and categories of identity,” said Sarover Zaidi, a social anthropologist and professor at Jindal School of Art and Architecture, referring to the recent citizenship-related moves of the BJP government. “Hence, he is suddenly being read as only Muslim.”

These diktats, however, have rarely translated into actual defacement of Sai Baba idols or temples, which remain immensely popular. But this could be changing – as the recent episode that unfolded in India’s capital shows.

‘There has been no disrespect’

Shahpur Jat was just another village in South Delhi till designer studios and boutiques sprung up in its narrow lanes over a decade ago. They now coexist with a range of small businesses in spaces leased out by its older residents, predominantly Jats from the Panwar clan, who continue to live in the dense neighbourhood.

The temple called Purana Shiv Mandir is located on the edge of a narrow lane. Inside, a phalanx of idols of Hindu gods and goddesses lies neatly arranged in rows alongside the walls.

When visited the temple on March 27, a newly established idol of Ganesh sat in the spot once occupied by the Sai Baba idol. Not only had the idol been removed, even the wall sticker with the saint’s popular preaching ‘Sabka Malik Ek’ or ‘Everyone’s Lord Is One’ had been erased.

An elderly priest in the temple distanced himself from the demolition, claiming he was not present when it took place. “I do not want to get into any fights,” he said, declining to reveal his identity, merely stating that he had worked at the temple for a decade. “Badi musibat aa gayi hai,” he said. We are in big trouble.

Bharat Panwar, a 59-year old resident of the village, showed up at the temple and introduced himself as a member and spokesperson of its management committee. He dismissed allegations that the Sai Baba idol had been demolished, saying it was removed on the afternoon of March 25.

“While bathing the idol, it was found that it was damaged,” he said. “The committee held a meeting and according to our Hindu traditions, we do not keep damaged idols. So it was decided to remove it.”

He claimed the temple was at least 600 years old, while the idol of Sai Baba was established only in 2009. “There is nothing to it,” he insisted. “There has been no disrespect. Everyone agreed to [the removal].”

Bharat Panwar said he runs a garments business and works as an insurance advisor for Life Insurance Corporation. When asked if a new idol of Sai Baba would be installed in the temple, he was evasive: “There is a lot of expense to put an idol. We need funds. It takes at least three to five lakhs.”

What about the denunciation made by the middle-aged man supervising the demolition about Sai Baba being Muslim? Bharat Panwar claimed this was the man’s “personal opinion”. When pressed further, he identified him as Padam Panwar, a real estate businessman.

‘He made up a story’

Padam Panwar lived barely a kilometre from the temple on the ground floor of a double-storeyed building. Several men milled around his house, which was largely bare, except for a portrait of Bharat Mata that hung above a painting on the wall.

The 54-year-old businessman denied having stated anything about Sai Baba’s antecedents and claimed the videos were fabricated. He first said: “It has been incorrectly shown that I am hitting the idol with a hammer.” Then contradicting himself, he explained why he had to hit the idol with a hammer – evidently because the workers were unable to lift it from its place and carry it to the truck because of its weight. “The truck driver said the road was too narrow for him to enter.”

Padam Panwar said he was not associated with any political party or organisation. He claimed he did not know much about Saraswati, the Ghaziabad priest, and said he was introduced to him by a friend on the evening of March 25.

“I had never been there before,” he said. He expressed shock at the board displayed outside the Dasna Devi temple which says Muslims are not allowed.

Turning to a group of the men who were huddled in his house overhearing his conversation with this reporter, Padam Panwar introduced one of them as Mohammad Nadeem, his tenant, and Yaseer, whom he described as an old friend. Yasser, however, distanced himself from Panwar when this reporter requested to click a photograph.

Others present in the house were quick to defend him. “There is no Hindu-Muslim here,” said Padam Panwar’s friend Deepak, a resident of Shahpur Jat. “Muslims live as tenants in every other building here. If that was the case then why would we let them stay.”

Padam Panwar claimed what Saraswati said in the video about the demolition was to “highlight himself”. “He made up the story. He stopped the camera when I spoke,” he said. In the video, however, Saraswati ends his speech with ‘Har Har Mahadev’, an invocation to the Hindu deity Shiva, and Panwar joins him.

Saraswati laughed when asked him to respond to Padam Panwar’s allegation that he cooked up the story about the idol demolition. “I do not know what he is saying,” he said. “Whatever I said was in front of him. If he had any objection he could have said it [on the spot].”

Padam Panwar at his residence.

‘People should know what is true’

The videos recorded inside the temple show an elderly man standing next to Padam Panwar. Shahpur Jat residents identified him as Dharambir Panwar. When contacted him on phone, he claimed he did not know anything about the incident and cut the call.

Another man is seen in the video shooting instructions to the workers. Residents identified him as Jitender Panwar, a 52-year-old who runs a hardware store.

A message forwarded by him on the Shahpur Jat society’s WhatsApp group at 10.53 pm on March 27 claimed that the popularity of Sai Baba “also known as Chand Miyan” was a “conspiracy economically supported by the Islamic world”.

When met him, Jitender Panwar echoed Padam Panwar and claimed that the Sai Baba idol had not been demolished, but merely removed because it was broken. “I do not know who made the video and how it went viral,” he said.

Interestingly, he did not deny sending the message on WhatsApp: “I sent the message so that people do not get agitated. People should understand what is true and what is false.” When pressed further, he said he had watched videos on YouTube which made claims similar to those in the forwarded message.

“But I do not believe it,” he added quickly. “It is not the truth and I do not know what the truth is. Some say that 90% of what is on YouTube is false. I will not comment. I do not know if it is true or not.”

He claimed he was being defamed by other residents, particularly women who were spreading misinformation. “The biggest problem is that the women do not come for the panchayat and they are not a part of the temple committee. The decisions are made by the men,” he said, suggesting that the women did not know any better.

The message sent by Jitender Panwar on a WhatsApp group claims Sai Baba's worship was a conspiracy supported by the Islamic world.

‘So what if Sai Baba is Muslim?’

So far, the police had not received any complaints about an idol demolition, said station house officer Akshay Kumar Rastogi of the Hauz Khas Police Station. “I had spoken to the temple administration, they said they were renovating it [the temple] so it had to be removed,” he said.

But several residents of Shahput Jat told that they did not accept this explanation. “We never saw any damage on the idol,” said a middle-aged woman, who sobbed as she alleged that the temple committee had not held any consultations with the community before removing the idol.

Many residents who spoke to said their families had been living in the village for generations. Yet, none of whom wanted to be identified in this report. They described Padam Panwar and Jitender Panwar as “goons” and said they feared repercussions for speaking out against them.

A woman claimed the priest had warned them against speaking to reporters. “The men you saw in the video are the men who decide the future of the village. We have no standing against them,” she said. “I can only cry and curse them.”

Some residents said they were so devoted to Sai Baba that they made regular trips to his main temple in Shirdi.

“So what if Sai Baba is Muslim?” the middle-aged woman said. “We believe in everything. We have been praying to him for years. How could they do this?”

Another resident said this was interference with their religious beliefs and practices. “My kul devta is Sri Haridas. So now will they also question that?” she asked.

An attack on pluralism

Questioning the fluidity of beliefs within Hinduism and fitting them into a puritanical framework is precisely what Hindu extremists seek to do, say sociologists. They want to impose a unitary view of India’s past. While religious minorities are their obvious targets, even the pluralism within Hinduism is under attack.

“Hinduism has never been a religion of the book and what has constituted religious belief has been produced out of practice – the variety of things that people did,” said Sanjay Srivastava, the Delhi University sociologist. Increasingly, however, he said, “there have been attempts to produce a ‘pure’ version of Hinduism, one that is strictly according to textual ideas of belief and practice”.

Recently, for instance, two municipal corporations in Delhi, both controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, have mandated that restaurants display information about whether the meat they serve is “halal” or “jhatka”, based on how the animal has been slaughtered. While Muslims have traditionally opted for “halal” meat because of religious beliefs, there have been no clear prescriptions for Hindus – until now, when Hindutva groups have decided to impose them.

The Shahpur Jat episode is another attempt to police the boundaries of Hinduism. Shrivastava described the demolition as an attempt to “restrict ways of believing through insisting on a version of Hinduism that is a poor imitation of what has existed in people’s everyday lives”.

Social anthropologist and professor at Jindal School of Art and Architecture Sarover Zaidi said the incident was a performative example of how Hindutva – which has made Hinduism a political weapon – was reaching local spaces and affecting everyday life and the ordinary. “Not to say that these [incidents] did not occur before, but now the state itself is a promoter of one format of Hinduism, that is casteist as much as it is communal,” she said, citing the example of the Ram Temple movement that the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Centre has politically patronised.

“The folk and the mixed up categories of prayer, belief, faith are then smashed, much like the Sai Baba idol of Shahpur Jat,” she said.