Punjab bandh: Followers of Guru Ravidas up in arms over demolition of shrine

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh urged PM Modi to intervene

ravidas-pti - Copy Members of Guru Ravidas Sabha Punjab during a protest march over demolishment of Guru Ravidas temple in Delhi, in Amritsar, Tuesday | PTI

Guru Ravidas, for those who are not familiar with Sikhism, was not one of the ten Sikh Gurus. Believed to have been born in Varanasi, in a Chamar (traditional lowered caste groups who skinned dead animals into leather) family in the second half of the 14th century, he lived on the banks of the Ganges, in the company of sadhus, and his spirituality evolved such that he was counted among the great bhakti poets who pioneered much of the social reforms of those days.

While his thoughts influence much of the north-western states of modern India, he is revered most in Punjab. Chamars are counted among dalits, and almost all Sikh dalits see Guru Ravidas as their guide and god. That is why protests by followers of Ravidas over the demolition of a shrine dedicated to the bhakti saint, on land belonging to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in the national capital, is the strongest in Punjab. Though not one of the ten Sikh Gurus, the devotional poems of Guru Ravidas are part of the Guru Granth Sahib.

The Supreme Court on August 9 had ordered that the “structure” on DDA land be “removed” the next day with full police protection, and sought compliance report on Tuesday. The court also directed Rishi Pal, president of the Guru Ravidas Jayanti Samaroh Samiti, and all its officebearers to be personally present in the court in case of non-compliance, and said they could face show-cause notice for contempt proceedings in case of non-compliance.

The devotees of Guru Ravidas call themselves Ravidasiyas, build shrines dedicated to him and observe his jayanthi. Over the last few decades, with the dalit movement gathering strength socially and politically, Ravidas gurudwaras and mandirs all over the place also became centres of social and politcal discourse. The shrine that was pulled down on Saturday, they believe, was built at a location where Guru Ravidas had taken rest during the times of Sikander Lodhi, and hence it was sacred to them.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene, pacified the agitated Ravidasiya leaders, and spoke to the Union Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, seeking allotment of that land to the Guru Ravidas Jayanti Samaroh Samiti for the reconstruction of the shrine. The chief minister, while urging the community to call off their protests, promised legal and financial help in rebuilding the temple at the same location. According to a press release, he also set up a five-member panel to meet the representatives of Ravidasiyas and help resolve the matter with the Centre.

The Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president Sunil Jakhar extended the party's support to the Ravidasiyas. Shiromani Akali Dal likewise extended full support to the Ravidasiyas and said the party would help them materially, and through kar seva, in rebuilding the shrine that was pulled down.

Dalits form about 32 per cent of Punjab's population, and Chamars, who are the followers of Ravidas, constitute 10 per cent. On Tuesday, the bandh in Punjab threatened to turn violent in many places. The railways terminated all Punjab-bound trains at Ambala. Schools and colleges, and many public offices, were closed. Ram Dayal Ahirwar, associated with the Ravidasia ideological movement, and a first generation learner in his family, does not see the demolition of the shrine in the capital in isolation. In an online article, he says the teachings of Ravidas were against the idea of Hindu rashtra. “This is one of the main reasons for the demolition of the 500-year-old structure in the DDA land at the Tughlaqabad Extension in New Delhi," he writes. A second reason he mentions is that the cultural revolution within the marginal communitites, aimed at countering brahminical thoughts, actually happens at places like Guru Ravidas temple, Ambedkar Bhawan and Bhagwan Valmiki Mandir, where dalit icons, “posing a threat to Hindutva”, are worshipped. The fact that the young generation of dalits visit these places and participate in the activities, is also a reason why these are threatened, he says. His piece appears in a website called Velivada, which means 'dalit ghetto'—the same name used by Rohith Vemula and his friends in their protests against the University of Hyderabad administration.