History has taken a back seat'

Print edition : October 22, 2010

D.N. Jha, formerly Professor of History, Delhi University.-

Interview with Professor D.N. Jha.

PROFESSOR D.N. Jha, who is one of the four professional and independent historians who submitted A Historians' Report to the Nation, is perplexed at the order of the three-judge Bench of the Allahabad High Court. Jha feels it is a compromise judgment, probably arrived at to maintain peace between communities, and not one based on historical facts. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Should not a distinction have been made by the honourable judges between faith and historical fact?

Faith should never be allowed to supersede historical evidence. What seems to have happened is that faith has won over reason, which, I think, is unfortunate. Faith negates history.

Do you think that certain aspects of the order may have the potential to be used to question the veracity of several existing historical monuments? Also, would that not lead to a rewriting of history?

Yes, this is what is likely to happen. It is disrespect to fact, to historical evidence and to the tradition of history writing. I am not suggesting that historians are always objective, but serious historians are.

As a historian how would you interpret the judgment?

I do not think the contesting parties made a prayer for partition of land. They asked for a decision on the title. If the communities want to live together in peace, well, that is good for the country, but there is something called justice. My only apprehension is that as far as compromise is concerned, the political parties, who are backing some of the litigants, are not going to allow it to happen.

You were part of the team of independent historians that submitted a report to the nation on the Babri Masjid. Do you feel history or historical fact has had little role in the present context? What has been the verdict of history?

(a) I cannot understand how the courts have gone into the issues of faith. They have asserted that the site where the idols were placed was actually the birthplace of Ram. The judgment, therefore, is based on faith and theology, and certainly not on history. Historical evidence does not support the assertion that Ram was born where the idols were kept. I don't know what kind of evidence the court has relied on. Someone should have pointed out in court that the belief that the place was the birthplace of Ram was first clearly mentioned by a French Jesuit priest, Tiffenthaler, in 1788. Subsequently, many people propagated the opinion that Ram was born where the mosque stood and the mosque itself was built after destroying the temple.

But a Scottish physician, Francis Buchanan, who served in the Bengal Medical Service, visited Ayodhya in 1810, and wrote clearly that the temple destruction theory was ill-founded. The first conflict that took place between Hindus and Muslims over this was in 1855, and Wajid Ali Shah set up a three-member committee to defuse the situation. After the 1857 uprising [war of independence], in 1889, a Hindu priest went to the local court, staking his claim to the place and his plea was dismissed. After that, from 1889 to 1949, both Hindus and Muslims continued to offer worship at the Ram Chabutra peacefully except in 1934 when there was a conflict between them.

The saga of the conflict over Ayodhya began in 1949, when the idols of Ram were surreptitiously placed in the central dome of the Babri mosque with the connivance of the Deputy Commissioner of Faizabad, K.K.K. Nayar, who is said to have been a member of the RSS.

(b) I did not participate in the excavation. I was part of the group of historians who scrutinised evidence, before the demolition of the mosque. The then Prime Minister, Chandra Shekhar, wanted the disputing parties to negotiate and come to an agreement. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had two or three historians and archaeologists with it, while the Babri Masjid Action Committee did not have any. We felt that it was an issue that concerned the nation, and four of us, Suraj Bhan, Athar Ali, R.S. Sharma and I, decided to attend their meetings as independent historians.

It was in that capacity that we wrote our report and submitted it to the Government of India, and later published it as Ramjanmabhumi-Baburi Masjid: A Historians' Report to the Nation. During the entire period of the abortive negotiations, the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] played fast and loose with us and withheld important material, including the site notebook connected with the Ayodhya excavations of the Ramayana project of 1975-80. We wrote several letters to the government asking for the evidence, which were never acknowledged. The ASI's attitude on the Ayodhya issue has always been ambivalent. The ASI has remained a government department, having no autonomy. Also, it has been remained packed with Hindu fundamentalists.

(c) As far as the verdict of history is concerned, if you go back in time, before 1528, there is evidence of several religious groups who had a claim on Ayodhya. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang wrote that there were 3,000 Buddhist monks and hundred monasteries and only 10 devas or temples belonging to the brahmanical religion. Buddhism was dominant in Ayodhya in the seventh century. The first and fourth Jain Tirthankaras were born in Ayodhya. Even now Ayodhya remains a holy place for Jainas. There is strong evidence of Muslim presence since the 12th century onwards. Sufi saints visited Ayodhya from the 12th century one of them was Qazi Qidwatuddin Awadhi, who came from Central Asia and is said to have been a disciple of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer. There are many Sufi shrines in Ayodhya. Thus, there is evidence of Buddhist presence, Jain presence and a Muslim past dating to the 12th century. I don't understand how can all this evidence be dismissed and the assertion made that this place was the birthplace of Ram.

Ayodhya was not even a pilgrimage centre before the 17th and 18th centuries. There is a reference to Ayodhya in Skanda Puranas called Ayodhya Mahatmya'. The composition of this text stretches over 300-400 years with lots of interpolations and contradictions. There are at least a hundred verses devoted to the place where Ram ascended to heaven, the swargadwaar, located on the banks of the river Sarayu and only 10 verses referring to his birthplace, but not the site of his birth.

The three historically attested Ram temples are in Madhya Pradesh, belonging to the 12th century. Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas does not specify the locale of Ram's birth; neither does he refer to the destruction of a temple to build a mosque. If we travel further back in time, in the 11th century, there was a minister of the Garhwal king [who ruled over the Awadh region] called Bhatt Lakshmidhara. He wrote a book called Krityakalpataru, which has one section on the Tirthas, called Tirthavivechankanda. This does not mention Ayodhya as a centre of pilgrimage.

If the Garhwal kings did not mention it in the 11th century, how can it be said to be a pilgrimage centre or the birthplace of Ram? In fact, Prayag was a more important centre of pilgrimage. There was no Ram temple in the whole of Uttar Pradesh before the 17th century, to which period belongs Kanakabhavan, or Kanakamandapa, but if one goes to north Bihar and the Nepal Terai, in Janakpur, there is a temple dedicated to Sita, constructed in 1898.

Do you feel that the Bench did not go into the details of the historical and archaeological evidence?

I wish they had taken historical evidence into consideration. Several archaeologists and historians like the late Suraj Bhan, Shireen Ratnagar, R.C. Thakran and Suvira Jaiswal were called to depose before the court. What happened to all the evidence presented by them? History should have played a role. When something is decided on the basis of faith, then history takes a back seat.

The VHP maintains that Muslims destroyed 30,000 temples to build mosques. Richard Eaton, an American historian who has written on the desecration of temples, says that the total number does not exceed 80. History is full of examples to show that religious structures were constantly destroyed by the ruling classes of various hues and religions.

The findings of the ASI, which were perhaps relied on by the court, are not conclusive. In the excavation report (2003), it was claimed that a massive structure was found under the mosque and this was held up by pillars. It further said that brickbats were found at the pillar bases. Several archaeologists who were watching the digging complained to the court that the scattered brickbats were assembled together to look like pillar bases. It is also interesting that the chapters of the main text of the report (2003) have the names of the authors, but no one is mentioned as the author of the conclusion called Summary of Results.

Moreover, in the main text of the report, there is no mention of any temple, but it suddenly pops up in the Summary of Results. The report was obviously a doctored document.

How is this issue linked to the communalisation of society? One of the reasons why you and a few others offered to give evidence was that you were concerned about the implications of the dispute.

The first conflict around this was in the late 19th century. Both communities continued offering prayers. It was in the 1970s that the VHP communalised the issue in order to drive a wedge between the two communities. This finally led to the destruction of the mosque. Naturally, Muslims felt hurt and so were many Hindus. But the fundamentalists went on with their divisive agenda, and the Bharatiya Janata Party used the Ayodhya issue to catapult itself into power.

Can courts adjudicate on issues of historicity or faith?

There is a spurt in the number of Hanuman temples in the capital. In the coming years, the government and the courts will not only be required to solve the problem of one Ram, but of numerous Hanumans, whose temples have been mostly constructed on unauthorised land.

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