Interview

Prof. S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi: Vandalism is rewarded

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Prof. S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Professor S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Chairperson, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University.

In 2003, when the Allahabad High Court ordered the excavation of the site of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, some archaeologists and historians were given permission to visit the excavations as observers. Among them was Professor Nadeem Rezavi, who now heads the Department of History at Aligarh Muslim University. Professor Rezavi shared with Frontline his disquiet as a historian in the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict on November 9. He said that he accepted the judgment even as he was pained by it. Excerpts from the interview:

As a historian, how do you view the unanimous verdict of the Supreme Court on Ayodhya? Was this the best settlement possible in the circumstances?

On December 6, 1992, a historical monument, a national heritage, was destroyed. From 1992 onwards, we have been talking about temples and mosques, and not about constitutional guarantees which demand that heritage sites have to be protected. The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, and the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, categorically state that all monuments of national importance need to be maintained. The Babri Masjid was a 16th century structure, and very few structures of that period survive to this day. It was a very important heritage from the point of view of history. We have vandalised our historical heritage and the Supreme Court has not taken that into account. It was a criminal act. We welcome the judgment. It has many positive points, in that it accepts that what happened in 1949 was illegal that what happened in 1856-57 was not correct, nor the demolition in 1992. The excavations also did not prove that anything was demolished to make anything. In that sense, it is a closure as until now it was believed that Babur broke the temple to make the mosque.

The spirit of the judgment is good but what did the judges deduce ultimately? They accepted everything, all the wrong done, but gave the land to the vandals. The court accepted that the idols had been placed wrongly, that the mosque was demolished and that the demolition led to communal riots. Now we have these very vandals saying gleefully that they have been vindicated. I accept what the court has said but I am also pained by it. [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi said that India is being reborn, but here is an India where vandalism is rewarded and mythology accepted as truth. If everything else is accepted about the faith of Hindus towards what they believed was the birth place of Ram, why was it accepted that Muslims were not praying there? It was a fact that certain incidents took place in the region of Ayodhya where documents were burnt.

The claim to title was judged on the basis of the long and continued possession of the structure and the unimpeded access of Hindus to the outer courtyard.

The judgment was not the settlement of a title. It was incidental. The judgment has rewarded the party that indulged in violence. The affected party has been given a dole. This is panchayati justice. If the land did not belong to the so-called Muslim party, why are they being allotted land elsewhere? Why not give them the original land back? I am sorry to say this, but this was a judgment using mythology to justify the rule of the majority and to suppress the rights of the minorities. It is not a question of Hindus or Muslims but believing in the principle of “might is right”.

Do you think that the settlement arrived at is going to be a form of closure?

This is not a closure; it is a beginning. There will be more such claims in the future. The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, exempted Ayodhya from it. But then there were other safeguards in the Constitution which could have been invoked to protect the monument. And the least the Supreme Court could have done was to condemn the criminality of the act itself. I am not concerned about the mosque or the temple that is to be built but about the heritage of our country. History has been done away with and replaced by myths. Prominence has been given to myths. It is a black day for historians. Things have been presumed, based on hearsay, throughout the judgment. Recorded facts and historical texts have not been considered. The whole episode about Guru Nanak (1469-1539) visiting Ayodhya is from concocted versions. The Sikh source that the judgment cites is supposed to be from the 17th century but that is concocted. Guru Nanak was opposed to pilgrimages or idol worship. It is impossible that he would have offered prayers in Ayodhya. In fact, he was a contemporary of Babur and there is no source from that period that confirms his visit to Ayodhya. For historians, anything that is claimed has to be authenticated with contemporary sources. Why should I carry on research or ask my students to carry on research when myths alone can decide the course of history? Consider this. I have a flat in Aligarh. I bought it at a particular time. How does what happened 500 years ago in that plot relate to my ownership?

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) itself conceded that nothing was known between the 12th and the 16th centuries and that is why it could not prove that a temple existed. How then does the judgment prove that ownership was illegal in one case and legal in the other? As a historian, I feel depressed when I hear such things. The Mughals were more generous. We have documents to show that in Vrindavan, grants were given right from Akbar’s reign until Aurangzeb’s term to maintain temples. These documents, which were in Persian, were given by the mahants of Vrindavan to Professor Tarapada Mukherjee who then got them translated by Professor Irfan Habib. These documents show that the grants to maintain these temples and others in Himachal Pradesh and Multan were given by Akbar and Shah Jahan and were continued by Aurangzeb, who also gave equally generous grants.

Although the judgment has accepted that no temple was demolished to build the mosque, the relevant archaeological evidence showing proof of Islamic habitation and architecture at the demolished site, and submitted to the courts earlier, could have helped settle the title issue but were disregarded. What is your view on this?

When the excavations were carried out in 2003, there was an apprehension that the ASI would not follow rules. The Allahabad High Court appointed observers. I was one of them. I went there a number of times and witnessed the excavation. I am a historian but I teach archaeology. There were accomplished archaeologists as well. All of us had certain observations which we submitted to the court. But all the excavations were pre-determined. Whatever relic did not suit their interpretation was sought to be thrown away. A large number of animal bones were dug out. They were bones that were cooled and broken with knives. Each one of us pleaded with the ASI and the Magistrate that the bones should be catalogued, noted, recorded and analysed. Most of them were thrown away and only some reported in the report. If there was a Bhavya Mandir below the mosque, what were the bones doing there? These bones proved that there was a civic population living there. The finds of chinaware and glazed pottery in the excavations showed that there could not have been a temple beneath or a Hindu religious structure as such material was never used in temples, and bones are used in the making of chinaware and glazed pottery. This material was typical of the Muslim period but it was thrown out. The claim of pillar bases was proved wrong. The brick floors were on different levels and what the ASI did was to selectively pull out one photograph to show that it was a pillar base. There were pillars at various levels and their size and shape kept on changing.

B.R. Mani, the lead author of the ASI report, said he found similar pillar bases at the site of the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, Delhi, which were not load-bearing structures. But in the case of the Babri Masjid, these “brick pillars” were claimed to have been supporting the masjid structure.

The archaeologists Jaya Menon and Supriya Varma wrote that there was another mosque beneath the Babri Masjid. No idols were found in the excavation, which was 30 metres deep. A handful of sculptures were located, which were not attributable to any Vaishnavite tradition. None of the 11 chapters in the ASI report talks about any temple structure. Only in the conclusion there is some oblique reference to a temple. The ASI report itself was not sure whether there was a temple or not.

The judgment relies on the ASI report which does not mention a temple, and yet the judgment refers to a Hindu religious structure.

The early excavations done by B.B. Lal and his team in the mid 1970s on archaeological sites of the Ramayana do not mention any temple or any pillar in Ayodhya in the published reports. In 1980, Lal gave a report which had no mention of any pillar base or Ram temple. It is only when L.K. Advani’s rath yatra started that he wrote an article in Manthan, an RSS journal, referring to pillar bases. All historians not related to the ASI have been puncturing the findings from the excavations. They showed integrity as professionals.

At the moment, there is some disappointment with the judgment and trepidation about the future. Do you feel the implications of this are far-reaching?

The past is full of anomalies. The rosy picture of our past put up by both Hindus and Muslims is not right. There were many warts. None can deny that a large number of temples were broken, including Buddhist and Jain temples, and some were converted into Vaishnavite structures as well. Where does this end? We should not play with history. We should accept our past and learn to live with it. What happened 500 years ago should not be our concern at all. In 1947, two countries chose their paths. We in India were more visionary and decided to be secular, liberal and democratic. The other chose a different trajectory. Today we are trying to ape our neighbour which is a failed state.

Had it been a temple that was demolished, I would have been equally agitated. To me, the Babri Masjid was a structure that should have been conserved and preserved for posterity. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court legitimised the illegality that was conducted. The message is that one will be rewarded for illegal acts.

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