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Demolition Politics: In Rajasthan’s Alwar, Even The Sacred Is Not Spared

Successive BJP and Congress governments have been accused of razing temples in Rajgarh, leading to a political slugfest between the parties

Demolition Politics: In Rajasthan’s Alwar, Even The Sacred Is Not Spared
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A fortnight after an anti-encroachment demolition drive reduced nearly 90 shops and houses and three temples in Rajgarh to rubble, the ancient town in Rajasthan’s Alwar district holds a war-ravaged look. The skeletal remains of the buildings lining both sides of Sarai mohalla, turned inside out by the JCBs, brave the scrutiny of the camera flashes and the harsh sun in quiet mutiny. Locals, however, seem more interested in displaying the salmon dome of a temple lying in a nullah amid the rubble of the walls that had once supported it. “The shops with stay orders were left untouched. The temples could have been spared too,” says Hari Shankar Vijay, 80. His family had been the custodian of the Shiva temple for decades before it was demolished. The other two were devoted to Ram and Chauth Mata. Vijay and other locals claim that all three temples demolished were at least 300 years old, though their exact ages are yet to be ascertained.

The razing of the temples in the Hindu-majority Rajgarh, a BJP stronghold in a Congress-ruled state, has led to a predictable blame-game between the two parties. While Congress has held the BJP-led municipal board responsible for the demolit­ion, the latter has accused the ruling party of trampling Hindu sentiments out of vengeance. Protests over the razing of temp­les is not new in Rajasthan, dotted with religious structures across its length and breadth. Incidentally, the BJP was at the rec­eiving end of Hindu ire in 2015 when the Vasundhara Raje government was accused of demolishing over 250 places of worship across Jaipur for the metro construction project. At that time, Raje was called a descendant of Aurangzeb.

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To this day, many in Rajasthan believe that Raje’s political career faced the brunt of the disrespect she caused to the Hindu gods. Sitting Alwar MP Mahant Balaknath, however, tells Outlook that the temples that were razed by the BJP in 2015 had all been relocated. “Development is important, and at times some temples get in the way of development projects and have to be relocated. But there is a way to do it,” the BJP leader says. “The way the temples and idols in Rajgarh were bulldozed was deeply hurtful to the sentiments of Hindus and local residents who grew up praying in these places,” Balak Nath tells Outlook. He adds that the demolition of the homes in Rajgarh was a result of the Congress’ grudge against the residents of Rajgarh who did not vote for the Gehlot government.

Incidentally, the Alwar demolition came at a time when the BJP was facing flak for yet another demolition drive in the national capital. The homes of several residents in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri were razed on the orders of a BJP leader after communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims during a Hanuman Jayanti procession in the area. Delhi BJP President Adesh Gupta, in a letter to the mayor of North Delhi Municipal Corporation, demanded that homes of ‘rioters’ be bulldozed. In Rajasthan, many suspect that the Alwar temple razing issue was amplified by Hindu groups only after April 20 to divert attention from the Jahangirpuri demolition, which critics have claimed was targeted against Muslims and went on despite the Supreme Court deeming it illegal.

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City in ruins Demolished homes and shops. Photographs: Suresh K. Pandey

“The Rajgarh demolitions took place on April 17. National media did not care about it. Then the Jahangirpuri demolition took place on April 20, and the BJP was accused of wilfully breaking homes of Muslims. Only after that did the BJP start politicising the Alwar demolition as ‘anti-Hindu’,” says Deshbandhu Joshi, an activist and former village sarpanch. Joshi, who lost two shops in the demolition, says his beloved town has become “rajniti ka shikar (a victim of politics)”. On April 23, BJP’s IT department head Amit Malviya tweeted that those who were shedding “fake tears” over Jahangirpuri and Karauli were supporting the destruction of Hindu temples in Rajasthan. April 24 onwards, groups such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad along with seers from across the state arrived in Rajg­arh to hold a jan akrosh rally. Several FIRs were lodged against municipal and government offic­ials, and Congress leaders, including CM Ashok Gehlot, were targeted for being “anti-Hindu”.

In a hurry to avoid the ‘curse of Raje’, the Congress leadership responded by quickly suspending three officers—SDM Keshav Kumar Meena, the EO Banwari Lal, and BJP leader and Nagar Palika chairman Satish Duharia. It has also said that the ‘Gaurav Path’ project under which the demolition reportedly took place had initially been introduced by the BJP during the Raje government in 2016 and that the demolition took place on the same road that had been demarcated at the time. Speaking to Outlook, Duharia confirmed that the board officiated over the demolition order. “The demolition was put into motion last year in September in the presence of the board and other officers. It was planned and notices were issued. Everyone was aware of what was happening.” Duharia, however, maintains that the municipal board’s order did not include razing temples. “It was totally the administration’s fault,” Duharia claims. According to reports, Congress MLA Johari Lal Meena was also present at the meeting along with SDM Meena.

The BJP itself has on several occasions faced the heat from the Opposition for its selective outrage against temple demolitions.

While politicians pass the buck, locals in Rajgarh remain divided. Some claim the municipal board is to blame, while others blame the tanashahi (dictatorship) of the state governm­ent for the mishap. Amid demands for mass resignations, there is also sympathy for SDM Mee­na. Meenas are one of the dominant castes of Alwar district. No action has been taken aga­i­nst Johari Lal Meena either. “Why did the SDM allow the demolition in the first place? How did the municipal board agree to it? How come the Congress MLA is not suspended? They want to widen the road to 60 feet. But does Rajgarh have space for a 60ft road? Who is the road going to serve if people have to become homeless for it?” Deshbandhu Joshi asks.

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Demolition and temple politics are both BJP’s calling cards. Be it the Babri demolition of the 1990s or the ‘Bulldozer Baba’ politics of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the party successfully mobilised both religion and identity to its electoral benefit through successive campaigns woven around temples and demolitions. In the 2022 paper titled, The Kashi Vishvanatha, Varanasi city, India: Construction, Destruction, and Resurrection to Heritagisation, academics Rana P.B. Singh and Pravin S. Rana write that the “concept of heritagisation is a process to adopt the use of cultural heritage to promote images favourable for political management”. Heritagisation is one of the ways in which solidarity can be established among various in-groups. “The BJP has always used temples as pawns in their political narratives. The problem now is that they have also desecularised development projects,” says Jaipur-based sociologist and former professor Rajeev Gupta.

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“Development projects need to be secular in nature and benefit everyone. Parties cannot cry foul over the demolition of temples or religious spaces when it suits their political narratives, while practising the same elsewhere,” Gupta points out. In 2015, when the party was facing heat from RSS over the breaking of temples, government officials had defended the move, claiming the BJP had demolished both temples and mazaars (tombs) for development, while the Gehlot government had only broken temples.

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A broken Shiva idol at Rajgarh, Alwar Photographs: Suresh K. Pandey

The BJP itself has on several occasions faced the heat from Opposition parties for its selective outrage against temple demolition. In Delhi for instance, the party, which heads the municipal corporation, was called out by the ruling Aam Aadmi Party over the demolition of a 100-year-old Hanuman temple in Chandni Chowk. In Uttar Pradesh, the party has been criticised for the alleged neglect and even destruction of several older Hindu temple structures and idols, while developing the Ayodhya Ram temple and the Kashi Corridor in Varanasi.

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In his 2001 study of the geographies of religion, sociologist L. Kong talks about the politics and poetics of a religious place. It highlights how perceptions and productions of religious const­r­ucts are directly linked to various dialectics, like the socio-spatial experiences of people and the public-private discourse. In Rajgarh, a city stee­ped in Hindu myth and folkloric mythologies, people live with the living legends of Bagh Nath, a king who was gifted the ability to turn into a tiger at night to protect his kingdom and avenge injustices. They believe their town is of ascetics and freedom fighters. The razing of the temples has left a deep impact on the psyche of the locals. Many have not eaten for days. They want answers, from both Congress and BJP.

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Several locals who lost their shops and homes have been sitting on a dharna for over two weeks opposite the destroyed temples. The Rajgarh Bac­­hao Andolan has been asking for the termination of the officers involved in the demolition and compensation for the houses razed. Vikas Sha­r­ma, who owned a card printing shop in the Sarai mohalla, says that between the politics of develo­pment and demolition between the Con­g­ress and BJP, the common man’s life and livelih­ood has been put at stake. Some like Prakash Di­xit have started the Mandir Sanrakshan Sam­iti, demanding that officials responsible for hur­ting their religious sentiments be terminated. “The gov­e­rn­ment has to restore all the temples they have broken. These include not only three public temples but also the hundreds of temples that were broken inside the homes of people,” Dixit says.

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The broken homes and shops lie deserted as the families that inhabited them have moved to rented rooms and tenements. Some have shif­ted to other cities or gone to live with relatives. Some like Renuka do not care about the temp­les. “I lost everything. My general store was loc­ated at the kerb under my two-room house whe­re my husband, our three children and I, stayed. There is nothing now and we are living on the streets,” says Renuka. She finds it odd that the silent pleas of broken gods ring louder than the wails of the poor. “Temples are made by us. Who will worship gods if humans perish?” she wonders.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Even the Sacred is Not Spared")

Rakhi Bose in Alwar

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