Encroachment in the Name of Religion

There is blatant grabbing and conversion of public property into a place of worship – a tendency not unique to any particular faith or sect.

This is the third piece on encroachments. In the first one, the focus was on the land grabbing being done by agencies whose very job is to prevent this. In the second part, we talked about rampant encroachments by traders on the corridors and pavements meant for pedestrians, concluding that this too could not have happened without the complicity of the agencies whose brief is to prevent such acts.

In the current piece, we will put the focus on encroachments on public land in the name of religion.

There are broadly two kinds of encroachments being done in the name of religion, one is the conversion of historical monuments into places of worship or the grabbing of land abutting historical monuments. The other is the blatant grabbing and conversion of public property into a place of worship, a shrine or something similar. In this piece, we will address the second category.

Also read | When Authorities Aid Encroachers

This kind of encroachment on public land in the name of religion is most commonly found on pavements. The procedure is rather simple: find a peepal tree (Ficus Religiosa) growing close to pavement and begin by tying strings of kalawa – also known as mauli, a string of red, yellow and white cotton threads – around it.

Once the peepal tree has kalawa strings around it, and some vermillion has been sprinkled on the trunk, the process of making a temple has begun. Some days later, you can nail an old calendar to the tree with an image of a god or goddesses, or you can place a framed image at the base of the tree. A clay idol, which can easily be found lying around after Diwali or Durga Puja, can then be installed at the base of the tree.

All you need now is a signboard saying it is an ancient temple.

This author has come across a temple claiming origins 50 years prior. Soon, more zeros were added, taking the temple’s origin date to during the time of the Pandavas. Close scrutiny of municipal records of the Chanakyapuri area would, however, show that the structure did not exist till the 1960s.

Such recently-constructed ancient temples can be found all over the city. One of the author’s favourite is a temple on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg atop an elaborate signboard. The board is placed on a pedestal with the name of the road carved on a large granite slab polished to a mirror finish. The metallic frame that encloses the temple, in fact, rests on the signboard and one can clearly see that it is not older than the sign.

The signboard was unveiled by the then chief minister Shiela Dixit at a time that cannot by any stretch of imagination be described as anything other than contemporary. The temple, however, claims antiquity.

There is a temple close to Samachar Apartments that came up when construction began around the Yamuna river in an area that came to be known as Mayur Vihar. This temple, however, does not rely on a peepal tree. It has come up without any external crutch. In fact, it is so organically rooted in the environs that it seems to have sprouted from one of the natural drains that used to carry rainwater into the Yamuna before DDA ‘developed’ the area, and now ‘post-progress,’ the channel has become a conduit of untreated sewage to the same receptacle.

All these temples occupy land meant for pedestrians, and since the pedestrian has no voice, no one cares.

Also read | Rampant Encroachment in Markets Is Pushing out Pedestrians

Aside from the peepal tree supported temples, there are many that have been erected to commemorate sadhus, babas and mendicants of various hues. Their antiquity, the miracles they performed and the good deeds associated with them are all part of an orally transmitted mythology, though the shrines associated with them are a material reality. Most of these are to be found in forested tracts of land and continue to flourish and grow under the watchful eyes of the DDA and the forest department.

This ‘grab as much as you can’ tendency is not unique to any particular faith or sect, this is a lucrative business, and business is a secular activity.

The DDA is yet to get down to giving shape to their idea of building a park in resettlement colonies, where the poor of the city were most unceremoniously relocated in the 1970s. However, those who wish to assist these hapless people in acquiring better accommodation in the hereafter have already built the structures that will facilitate this transition.

The only people who can and should intervene to stop this flagrant violation of laws are those charged with the responsibility of guarding public property. In the case of Delhi, these are the DDA, the MCD and the NDMC, who have failed to act on this front.

Meanwhile, a BJP MP, Parvesh Verma in his campaign against ‘encroachments,’ has chosen only to target what he calls ‘illegal mosques’ – a clear case of selective targeting. The disease is all-pervasive. In fact, there are many more temples that are encroaching on public land than there are mosques, churches and gurudwaras. This selective targeting will only vitiate the atmosphere and allow the actual encroachers to escape scot-free.

Sohail Hashmi is a filmmaker, writer and heritage buff.