Interview: Professor Irfan Habib

‘A simple piece of judicial fancy’

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Professor Irfan Habib. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Interview with Professor Irfan Habib.

THE unanimous verdict of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute appears to have raised more questions than provided answers. While the decision to allow the construction of a temple where the Babri Masjid stood is based on a combination of selective historical “evidence” and matters of faith, eminent Indian historians with decades of specialisation in medieval and ancient history have reason to be cynical of the basis and the conclusions of the unanimous verdict. In fact, in 2010 after the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court passed its order on the basis of the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Aligarh Historians Society strongly refuted the conclusions of the ASI report. The Society is a non-profit registered body devoted to the cause of promoting a scientific method in history with a non-chauvinistic lens, and Professor Irfan Habib was its president that year. Professor Habib, who is Professor Emeritus of History at Aligarh Muslim University and former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, is also the author of several books and monographs relating to ancient and medieval India. Notable among them are An Atlas of Ancient Indian History (jointly authored by Faiz Habib); Medieval India: The Study of a Civilisation; Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707; Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception and An Atlas of the Mughal Empire. Frontline spoke to Professor Irfan Habib, who expressed his views on what he felt was wrong about the judgment. Excerpts from the interview:

What do you make of the Supreme Court judgment on the Ayodhya dispute? Even as the illegality of the acts of demolition in 1992 and desecration in 1949 have been acknowledged, the reparation offered by way of a settlement appears not quite fair.

What happened to the edifice of the Babri Masjid was not a crime against Muslims but the entire nation. An edifice of 1528, recognised as a significant example of Sharqi-Mughal architecture, which, in any civilised country would have been a fully protected monument, was wantonly destroyed. The whole process of destruction was allowed to take place over two days, with none likely to be ever punished for it. What seems extremely troubling is that the Supreme Court judges should, with a clear conscience, come to a decision which the 1992 destruction alone made possible. Even the dubious archaeological evidence for a pre-1528 structure became possible only because of that “unlawful act” since no excavation would have been possible had the mosque not been destroyed. There can be no reparations to the nation for such surrender to hooliganism and communalism.

Apart from the settlement of the title issue, what are the larger implications of the judgment from a purely academic perspective? Does it do justice to the disciplines of history and archaeology?

The Supreme Court judges are not historians. From what I have read of their judgment, their weakness in this field is obvious. They appear to have had no realisation that Ayodhya, then called Awadh, was an administrative centre—during the Mughal days, the headquarters of a large province—with a considerable Muslim population. The possibility of the Babri Masjid having had no Muslims to pray in it during Mughal times is a simple piece of judicial fancy. As for archaeology, the Supreme Court should surely have looked into the credentials of the Archaeological Survey officials, who could not distinguish Babri Masjid as a mosque. It is always designated “disputed structure”, while imagining a fifty-pillar temple, without finding a single pillar or a strong enough base on which a pillar could have stood, nor any blocks that must have formed its walls and roof.

The basis of rejecting the titular claim of the Sunni Waqf Board lay in the inability to show evidence that the Babri Masjid was used for namaaz prior to 1856-57 and that there was evidence of longer worship by Hindus. Can this be a basis for settling contesting titular claims especially of medieval religious structures in 21st century India?

As I have said, it is purely the court’s fancy that the Babri Masjid could have had no Muslim prayers offered in it during Mughal times, because actually Awadh—Ayodhya—was a large administrative centre with a considerable Muslim population. Prior to 1856-57, two foreign travellers, Joseph Tieffenthaler between 1740 and 1765, and the famous surveyor Francis Buchanan during 1804-12, described the mosque without any suggestion that it was abandoned by Muslims or that no prayers were offered there.

The addendum to the judgment, also written by one of the five judges, quotes from the “Bala Kanda” of Tulsidas and from “Ain-i-Akbari” regarding the proof of time of birth and birthplace of Lord Rama in the Treta Yuga.

The addendum also says that the “faith and belief of Hindus prior to construction of the mosque and after has always been that Janmasthan of lord Ram is the place where Babri Masjid has been constructed”. What would you say about the future of historical inquiry and archaeological evidence when faith seems to supersede both, and Nostradamus-like pronouncements are quoted as evidence?

The statement in the “addendum”, that even before the construction of the Babri Masjid “the faith and belief of Hindus” had been that the Babri Masjid was the site of Lord Rama’s birth, is just a piece of imagination. Lord Rama was indeed believed to have been born in Ayodhya, but not at any particular site. “Ram-janma” is mentioned only in the Skanda Purana, again without any precise indication of the place, though it was compiled much later than the construction of the Babri Masjid. This was recognised by Professor T.P. Verma, an epigraphist and Sanskritist, when as a witness on behalf of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, he admitted that the Skanda Purana was not over 400 years old, that is, had been compiled only around 1600 CE. There is no suggestion in the Skanda Purana that the Janmasthan was now occupied by a mosque, so it must have been a site other than that of Babri Masjid.

Will the use of carbon dating in history and archaeology become redundant if faith alone and myths are allowed to dictate historical inquiry and research?

I am sure no serious historian or archaeologist will ever go to any court for guidance as to how the respective craft should be pursued. Faith and myth represent the two major threats to scholarly integrity.