Forgetting facts

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

MARCH 12, 2003: Labourers proceeding to start excavation work at the disputed site. The excavation was ordered by the Allahabad High Court.-PTI

MARCH 12, 2003: Labourers proceeding to start excavation work at the disputed site. The excavation was ordered by the Allahabad High Court.-PTI

The judgment apparently has not taken into account the evidence presented by leading historians on the disputed site.

THE compromise judgment of the Allahabad High Court, for all its merits and attempts to achieve communal amity, is perceived as a setback for the basic tenets of historical inquiry and precision. Social scientists of all hues have reacted with dismay to the dominance of faith and belief over scientific fact and historicity.

While a section of the political class and the intelligentsia genuinely believes that it is time to move on and let the higher judiciary take up the matter if need be, historians and students of history wonder what happened to all the evidence painstakingly collected in the national interest by leading historians and archaeologists of the country. One of them, the archaeologist Suraj Bhan, who is no more, had noted the strain the dispute had created, before the demolition, and attempted, purely voluntarily, to set the record straight, not only to maintain communal amity but to protect academic integrity.

In 1991, two significant reports, one in March and the other in May, were written with the sole objective of presenting to the nation information relating to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. The May report, titled Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue: A preliminary study of the archaeological evidence, was by Suraj Bhan, who was Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology at Kurukshetra University in Haryana. This was an interim report, which was submitted to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). The Home Ministry had assigned it the task of authenticating the documents submitted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC).

Suraj Bhan made these observations on the basis of the excavations done by Professor B.B. Lal during 1975-80, his own study of the archaeological remains at Ayodhya, and evidence collected in 1969-70:

There is nothing wrong in looking for a kernel of truth in the literary tradition of the Ramayana. But what is necessary for a scientific methodology is to build a reasonable hypothesis about the structured entity which must have been objectively in existence in the past. The metaphor of kernel would not encourage the scientist to critically examine either the evidence buried in the texts or the material evidence collected through excavations in order to identify the structure of relationship embodied in the evidence. Merely locating the names of personages and places in the time frame does not suffice for this purpose. It will only confirm the vague understanding of history we have unconsciously imbibed through what is called common sense.... What has limited the significance of B.B. Lal's attempt is the vague notion of history that is implicit in his approach.... On account of the limitations of Professor B.B. Lal's approach mentioned above, we cannot accept his view that archaeological evidence proved the historicity of Ram as a personage who lived at the site where the present day Ayodhya is located during the period of early NBP [northern black polished] ware (circa 700 B.C.) or that he was born at the place where Babri Masjid today stands.

The second report, titled Ramjanmabhumi Baburi Masjid - A Historians' Report to the Nation, was authored by historians R.S. Sharma, M. Athar Ali, D.N. Jha and Suraj Bhan. R.S. Sharma and D.N. Jha were professors of History at the University of Delhi (Sharma was also the first Chairman of the ICHR) and Athar Ali was Professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University. That the dispute whether a Ram temple existed at the site of the Babri Masjid was being left entirely to the litigants and had not involved historians of any standing worried the four historians. They approached the government to consider the views of independent historians and also requested that archaeological and textual evidence in possession with government organisations such as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) be made available to them.

While the AIBMAC agreed to abide by the findings of an independent group of historians, the VHP did not accept it. The government maintained a tactical silence all along. Undeterred, the four historians embarked on the project on their own in the national interest as they felt that people had a right to know the historical facts.

The very first thing they noted was that the VHP had been unable to cite any ancient Sanskrit text in support of its claim that there was an ancient Hindu belief that a particular spot in Ayodhya was the Ram Janmasthan (birthplace of Ram). The report concluded, after looking at various pieces of textual and archaeological evidence, including Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas, that no evidence existed in the texts of any veneration being attached to any spot in Ayodhya before the 16th century (and indeed before the 18th century) for being the birthplace of Ram and that there were no grounds for supposing that a Ram temple or any temple existed at the site where the Babri Masjid was built in 1528-29.

Their conclusion rested on an examination of the archaeological evidence as well as the contemporary inscriptions on the mosque. They concluded that the legend that the Babri Masjid occupied the site of Ram's birth did not arise until the 18th century and that a temple was destroyed to build the mosque was not asserted until the beginning of the 19th century. They held that the full-blown legend of the destruction of a temple that stood at the site of Ram's birth and at Sita ki Rasoi came as late as the 1850s. Since then, what we get is merely the progressive reconstruction of imagined history' based on faith, noted the four historians in their report to the nation.

After examining the inconsistencies in the VHP claim based on the Ayodhya Mahatmya (the merits of visiting Ayodhya) given in the Skanda Purana, the core of which was not compiled earlier than the 16th century, the historians noted: In spite of these various inconsistencies, even if we accept the location of the birthplace of Rama as given in the Ayodhya Mahatmya, it does not tally with the site of the Babri Masjid... according to Hindu belief as given in the Ayodhya Mahatmya of the Skanda Purana, the birthplace of Rama cannot be located on the site where the Babri Masjid stands. It is argued by the experts of the VHP that the location of the Ram Janmabhumi is given on the basis of solar directions and cannot be determined through the use of the compass. But even if we take solar directions into account, the Janmabhumi of the Skanda Purana cannot be located on the site of the Babri Masjid. The various versions of Ayodhya Mahatmya seem to have been prepared towards the end of the 18th century or in the beginning of the 19th; even as late as that the birthplace was not considered to be important. It is significant that the Janmasthan is not mentioned even once in any itinerary of pilgrimage given in the Mahatmya.

The historians also relied on the most primary source of recorded historical evidence, the Persian inscriptions on the mosque. Presenting a full translation of the inscriptions, the historians observed that the contemporaneity of the inscriptions was shown by their text and date, and their accuracy was established by the fact that Mir Baqi finds mention in Babur's memoirs as the governor of Awadh or Ayodhya at exactly the same time.

The report noted: These fairly long inscriptions show that the construction of the Babri Masjid was completed in 1528-29. But nowhere is any hint given in them that the edifice was built after destroying a temple or upon the site of a temple. If one accepts for the purpose of argument that there was a temple at the site, and the builder of the mosque (Mir Baqi) destroyed it to build a mosque, one has to answer why at all should all reference to this fact be omitted in the foundation inscriptions. Surely, had Mir Baqi destroyed a temple, he would have deemed it a meritorious deed; and what would have been more natural than that he should get this act recorded along with that of the building of the mosque to add to his religious reputation. That he did not get any such act recorded surely means that he had in fact not destroyed any temple, and so found no reason to record something that had not happened.

Expressing surprise at Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas also not mentioning the desecration of a temple at the site of the mosque, the historians wrote: Within fifty years or so of the construction of the Babri Masjid, Tulsidas composed in 1575-76 his celebrated Ramcharitamanas, the most fervent exposition of the Ramayana story in Avadhi. Is it possible to believe that Tulsidas would not have given vent to heart-rending grief had the very birth site of his Lord been ravaged, its temple razed to the ground and a mosque erected at that place? His silence can only mean that he knew of no such scandal; and given his attachment to Rama and Ayodhya, this must mean that no such event had in fact taken place. Tulsidas, on the contrary, suggests that it was not Ayodhya but Prayag that was to him the principal place of pilgrimage ( tirath raj); and so no tradition of the veneration of any spot as that of Rama's birth at Ayodhya had yet taken shape.

The historians added that even Abul Fazl, in his A'in-i-Akbari, completed in 1598, wrote about Ayodhya being the residence of Ramachandra, who in the Treta age combined in his own person both the spiritual supremacy and the kingly office but did not confine Ram's place of birth to the existing town of Ayodhya, let alone the site occupied by the Babri Masjid. Had such tradition existed, Abul Fazl would surely have mentioned it, because he does mention the tradition that two Jewish prophets lie buried at Ayodhya, they noted in their report.

As for the black pillar bases that were used to vouch for the existence of a temple, the historians noted, after examining many records, including those of art historians, that there was nothing to show that the pillar bases were remains of a local temple of which they formed an integral part in the beginning and the mosque was erected over them.

In his own report to the ICHR, Suraj Bhan wrote of the pillars: This is a wild hypothesis not backed by any material evidence and is actually negated by the factual position easily verifiable from the existing structure of the Babri Masjid. The stone pillars are, in fact, embedded at the arched entrances in the massive walls of the mosque and stand at the floor level on the foundation walls constructed for the big building. Only those who have failed to understand the architectural plan of the building and wilfully ignore the indisputable factual position will insist on seeing these stone pillars as in situ. Since black stone pillars are relatively short and slender, they cannot be load bearing. In fact, their placement at the arched entrances and the colour contrast they offer as also the carvings on them suggest that they have been used only as decorative pieces and are not architecturally functional beyond this decorative purpose. Furthermore, the placement of the pillars fits in the plan of the mosque and not that of a Hindu temple.

The September 30 judgment has evinced strong reactions from a cross-section of historians and archaeologists. On behalf of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, 62 academics, including Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, D.N. Jha, K.M. Shrimali, K.N. Panikkar, Utsa Patnaik, Shireen Moosvi, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Suvira Jaiswal and Arjun Dev, have demanded that the notebooks, artefacts and other material evidence relating to the ASI's excavation at the site be made available for scrutiny by scholars, historians and archaeologists.

First of all, the view that the Babri Masjid was built on the site of a Hindu temple which has been maintained by two of the three judges who gave the verdict does not take into account all the evidence turned up by the ASI's own excavations. The presence of animal bones throughout and the use of surkhi (made from powdered burnt bricks) and lime mortar (all characteristics of Muslim presence) rule out the possibility of a Hindu temple having been there beneath the mosque. The judgment, the academics said, had raised serious concerns about the way history, reason and secular values, which much of rational India shared, had been treated.

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