A temple came up last week on the central verge at Chandni Chowk where a Hanuman Mandir was demolished by authorities last month in compliance with orders of the Delhi High Court. The installation of a pre-fabricated structure at the site has led to a fresh conflict between the Delhi government and BJP-ruled North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), with the Public Works Department of the AAP-led dispensation seeking police action in the matter and the civic body planning to grant the structure a legal status.
Since January, political parties have engaged in a blame game over the demolition. But what has their stand been before the court?
The Delhi High Court since 2007 has been hearing a petition filed by Manushi Sangathan. Besides other issues, the court in the case has been monitoring the redevelopment of Chandni Chowk and decongesting of the main arterial roads there. It had taken note of the “abysmal traffic and other prevailing conditions” in the Chandni Chowk main arterial way.
There were five unauthorised religious structures in the pedestrian space in the area. Since none of the authorities before court disputed the position regarding the encroachments, a division bench in April 2015 directed the land-owning agency — the municipal corporation — to remove them by May 2015 and also ordered the Delhi government as well as the police to extend their full cooperation.
In August 2015, the court dismissed an application filed by the NDMC for modification of the order. The corporation had claimed that title in the roads is vested with the Delhi government, but the court said title in all public streets and roads is vested with the municipal body as per Section 298 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act. The order was challenged in Supreme Court by the NDMC but it failed to achieve anything.
Since little progress was made on the direction regarding the removal of the religious structures, the Delhi High Court continued to pass orders reiterating its earlier direction. While the authorities took care of the three structures, two continued to remain in existence.
In December 2015, the court was told by NDMC that there is no resistance in the removal of Bhai Mati Das Smarak, a temporary shed, but the Hanuman temple, located on around a 25 sq km area, has been in existence since 1974 and the priest has agreed to shifting of the temple if space is provided anywhere else. It submitted the “temple will be relocated”.
In August 2018, a fresh plan, a copy of which was shown to the court too, was drawn up for implementation of the redevelopment project. According to the plan, the North MDC was to remove the Hanuman temple “so that (the) width of the non-motorised vehicle lane in the area would be a uniform 5.5 meters”.
In August 2019, the Delhi government asked the Commissioner North DMC to act in accordance with the court directions. However, the order for removal of the encroachments was still not implemented completely.
When faced with repeated non-compliance of its order, the HC in October 2019 requested the Lieutenant Governor, who is chairperson of the committee on the removal of encroachments in the form of religious structures, to examine all the orders, reports of North DMC and other documents, and pass appropriate orders.
The committee in October 2019 took the view that the Hanuman Mandir and Shiv Mandir, two of the five encroachments, should be made an integral part of the redevelopment plan. The committee decided that they may be allowed to exist at the same site after dismantling the platform or ‘chabutra’ existing around the temple.
The committee also decided that Bhai Mati Das Smarak may also be part of the plan “to showcase the heritage of Indian history”. The committee, in the minutes of the meeting, also recorded that the Pujari of the Hanuman Temple had resiled from his earlier statement about shifting the temple to any other place.
In November 2019, the agency handling the project explained to the court that none of the alternatives to accommodating the temple structure seemed feasible. The court was also told that shopkeepers adjoining the temple were of the view that inconvenience was being caused by the presence of temples and they opposed the shifting of the temple on the footpath towards their shops.
What did the court say after hearing about the Religious Committee’s decision?
Observing that the Religious Committee, without examining the feasibility of its proposal, first went ahead with its decision, the HC on November 14, 2019 said such a decision was inconsistent with the court orders and directed the authorities, including the Delhi government, particularly its Additional Chief Secretary (Home), to discharge the constitutional and statutory duties.
It also said the stand of the law enforcement agency, that “it is powerless to ensure law and order, and therefore, cannot implement orders of this court and the Supreme Court”, if accepted, would seriously threaten the legitimacy of the rule of law. The order was challenged by the Delhi government for placing the responsibility on its Home Department.
However, the Supreme Court disposed of the plea in view of a statement made by the government that it would move an application before the High Court instead. The application was never filed before the court.
North DMC on October 31, 2020 issued an order proposing to demolish the temple on November 1. On November 20 last year, the High Court dismissed an application filed by the Manokamna Siddh Shri Hanuman Seva Samiti against the North DMC order and called it an attempt to reagitate the same issue that was considered and rejected in November 2019 by it. On January 3, the temple was demolished, leading to a blame game between AAP and BJP.
What happened in the Supreme Court in the case challenging the demolition?
A petition challenging the demolition came up for hearing before the apex court last week. It also sought directions for re-establishing the Hanuman Temple. However, the petition was withdrawn with a statement by the petitioners that they would instead “move a representation before the competent authority for considering a request for allotment of an alternative site away from the area in question, which does not pose any danger to traffic or the movement of pedestrians”.
The apex court, while allowing the request for withdrawal, said, “No opinion is expressed either on the locus of the petitioners or the maintainability of any such recourse as they may adopt.”
What has happened now and is there a precedent?
A temple — a pre-fabricated structure — was reinstalled at Chandni Chowk last week. While the PWD has called it an obstacle in the theme of the redevelopment project, NDMC Mayor Jai Prakash has said he will discuss with officials how the temple can be given legal status.
In April 2016, the High Court had issued contempt notices to Manjinder Singh Sirsa and Manjeet Singh G.K. after they along with others had allegedly reconstructed a water kiosk or ‘piao’ which had been demolished in accordance with the court order directing the removal of unauthorized constructions.
“This is a plainly unacceptable situation where an open challenge has been posed to the orders of this Court by wilfully flouting it with impunity,” the court had said.
The contempt proceedings against them were dropped later after Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee submitted an alternate proposal regarding the ‘paio’ at Sheesh Ganj Gurdwara at Chandni Chowk. The earlier one was located in the walkway and was later brought in line with the proposal submitted to the government and project consultant.