The massive and significant protests over the demolition of a temple dedicated to Saint Ravidas in Delhi is a window to India’s knotted social and political fissures. But the protest is also, despite being occasioned by the demolition of a temple, a testament to the impossibility of a genuine religious sensibility in modern India. Even religions promising liberation are sequestered in bondage by dominant groups; even religions abolishing caste are a daily reminder of caste. It is a condition that Ravidas, with his wry sensibility, would have understood perfectly well.
The formal story is simple. The government in the early Nineties decides to initiate a process to demolish the temple since it falls in a Green Zone. The Supreme Court finally puts its imprimatur on the legality of the demolition, and it is demolished on August 10. Delhi witnesses an unprecedented protest, largely by Dalit groups, who according to some reports, do a clever appropriation of the chant, “Mandir yahin banayenge (the temple shall be built here)”.
But the formal legal story does not capture the subtexts of this movement. There is an immediate political context. After the political decimation of Mayawati, many Dalit groups are looking for a new form of political articulation and leadership. The demolition of the Ravidas temple provides the perfect focal point for a new mobilisation for leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad. But to attribute the movement merely to a jostling for space in Dalit politics would be a mistake. The depth and reach of the Ravidas movement across large swathes of north India has always been impressive and deeply felt.
The identification with Ravidas is not just about the Dalits challenging Brahminical hegemony. One of the lesser known aspects of Dalit politics is this. While the identification as Dalit, or by other caste signifiers, is important for social justice, most Dalits also deeply identify with appellations that are self-chosen. Identifying as a Ravidasi is important to many Dalits, because in doing so they exercise the deepest levels of agency: Self-naming and self-identification. It is a mode of creating an identity that is not compulsory.
Second, contrary to simplistic projections, the alternatives for Dalits are not just Westernisation or Sanskritisation. There is a long intellectual movement creating, if you like, an alternative tradition, in which Valmiki, Kabir and Ravidas figure prominently. Mayawati was hugely criticised for her memorials, but they were attempts, in some senses, to claim the public space for this tradition as an alternative to a “Brahminised” space. The chain of events leading to the demolition of this temple does not start with the BJP. But in some ways, the BJP has intensified the war over public space in UP, in some cases directly appropriating or muting the radicalness of this alternative tradition by simply adding upper caste or OBC idols to the space, as if they all had the same signification. But most importantly, we are in a context where faith-based challenges to even the deepest aspects of our constitutional order are legitimised. So, in this context, it becomes easy to ask the question: Whose faith will be privileged in the public sphere?
Even the Supreme Court has often flirted with faith-based arguments, and might do so again in the Ram Janmabhoomi case. It is a measure of the ignorance of our public culture that we cannot acknowledge how strong the identification is amongst Ravidasis. Both our law and politics are now caught in a trap of their own making: They cannot invoke faith without the charge that it is being applied unequally.
The irony is further compounded in this case. The reason the temple was demolished was that it fell in the “Green Zone.” Just ask yourself the question: How many times have we licensed all kinds of relaxations and exemptions to Green Zone rules, coastal regulation rules, etc, in the name of development, often with catastrophic consequences? In that context, the alacrity with which the Green Zone regulations were applied after the Supreme Court nod to a longstanding harmless structure, is bound to raise questions about whether our environmental pieties are also applied unequally. The rule of law becomes such a signifier of partisanship and inequality.
Ravidas was enormously influential in medieval India. Forty of his sakhis found their way into the Guru Granth Sahib; queens at Chittor followed him, even as he became a potent force for tearing down orthodoxy and oppression. He often gets overshadowed by Kabir. He is classed with the “nirguni” poets, but his precise theological vocabulary, as was common at the time, is quite complicated. Yet the underlying sensibility, the sense of spontaneity, detachment and plenitude and incandescent liberation, is overpowering. (Winand Callewaert and Peter Friedlander, The Life and Works of Raidas, is an authoritative modern collection of Ravidas’s texts).
But there are two ironies in the contemporary debates over Ravidas. His social message was a relentless critique of caste, the abolition of all social distinction to recognise a human oneness. His songs are the mode through which we can imagine an alternative, egalitarian universality. But to avoid confronting his radicalism, dominant groups will sequester him as a sectarian leader. Second, he is a relentless critic of all orthodoxy and conventional religious practice: “A plague on all your houses,” without exception. But the underlying sensibility is that the attainment of liberation and unity with the whole of creation is possible; religion gets in the way of that. What gets in the way of “God” is when we convert our tribes into gods. He wanted to tell religions that they are after the same thing. But the intelligibility of that claim was premised on some sense that experience of that Reality, over and above our falsifying distinctions, was possible. Now all that remains are the distinctions and the tribes — the sense of divinity, and the self possession that comes with it, has gone.
In many biographies, it is said of Ravidas that the Brahmins of Benares wanted to deny him the right to worship a salagrama, since he was an untouchable. Upon being questioned by the king, Ravidas suggested that everyone float their salagrama on the Ganges. The salagrama that would float would be allowed to be worshipped. The salagrama floated by the Brahmins sank; but when Ravidas floated his salagrama, it floated like a “duck on water.”
It is a measure of our times that the only test of which salagrama you will be allowed to worship will be how much political power you have. Brace yourself for more conflict on faith.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 23, 2019 under the title ‘Ravidas, faith, power’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.