Government should have stood by ASI

Print edition : October 05, 2007

The affidavit was based on a scientific understanding of history, says Suraj Bhan. - THE HINDU

Interview with Suraj Bhan, former Professor of Archaeology, Kurukshetra University.

The affidavit was

SURAJ Bhan, who taught archaeology at Kurukshetra University, is a member of the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). He is the sectional president, Archaeology, Indian History Congress, and also the president of the Association of the Study of History and Archaeology. Currently a member of the Indian Council for Historical Research, he was part of a team of four scholars who participated in the dialogue convened by the Central government between representatives of the Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The team presented an independent report to the government. Very recently, he was called as a witness in the Allahabad High Court in a case relating to the excavation of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site at Ayodhya.

Disappointed by the Centres decision to withdraw the ASI affidavit, which in his opinion was based on a scientific understanding, Suraj Bhan explained in an interview to Frontline why he thought the ASI had been wronged in this case for reasons of political expediency.

The ASI held that there was no scientific basis or rationale for the assertion that Adams Bridge had any historical significance and that the issue had to be approached in a scientific and rational manner. Do you think there was something wrong with its assertion and assessment?

There is no archaeological or geological evidence to support that there was a man-made bridge between Ceylon [Sri Lanka] and India. Whatever is seen in satellite photographs, [taken] both by NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] and our own satellites, is an underwater ridge. In geological times, Ceylon and India were connected and later, probably as a result of continental drift, they got disconnected. This happened some 7,000 years ago, after which a channel appeared and the land link between the two islands disappeared. The ridge is there, and it is visible, and the colour of the water can be distinguished. At many places at the top of the ridge where it is not very deep, the water is not blue. Because of the effects of wave action, the top of the ridge looks softened and kind of flattish and appears to be a wide kind of a road. There is no historical evidence at all to say that a bridge was constructed between the island and the mainland. The rock below the water appears to a layman as a bridge and therefore the impression that it is Ram Sethu. Valmiki Ramayana was composed only after 400 B.C.; it is not all that early in history. There is no evidence to date any portion of the Ramayana before 400 B.C. Even Ayodhya, which is associated with the Ramayana, is not dated earlier than 700 B.C. Excavations by B.B. Lal have shown that the earliest settlement at Ayodhya was not before the seventh century B.C.

There was nothing wrong in the affidavit. The ASI had clearly stated that the formation known as Ram Sethu or Adams Bridge was not a man-made construction but rather a natural formation made up of shoals and sand bars, which owed their shape to years of wave action and sedimentation. As far as historicity is concerned, they referred to the fact that historically there was no evidence to attach the historicity of Ram with the Sethu, and that is factual.

Archaeological evidence is an important tool for determining the veracity of historical events. Why, then, was the ASI made to retract from its position?

The propaganda against the ASIs affidavit is baseless. The government should not have withdrawn it as it was based on a scientific understanding of history. The ASI has been unnecessarily charged with hurting religious feelings. Archaeology has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with material evidence, which is simply not there in this case. Archaeology does not take positions for or against any religion. The issue has been twisted for political purposes, and it is unfortunate that the government succumbed to the propaganda. It should have taken a stand. The suspension of the two ASI officials is not justified at all. We are a secular state, the archaeologist is a scientist and archaeology a historical science.

How does archaeology strike a fine balance between faith and historical evidence, especially if an issue concerns a majority religious community?

Any science or scientific evidence can be twisted. There can be misuse of archaeology, too. In this case, if some people felt that the ASI was incorrect, then they should have relied on the geological evidence. There have been attempts to play around with archaeological evidence in the past as well. The question of a Ram temple existing at Ayodhya arose simply because some fragments of medieval temples dating to the 8th and 9th century A.D. were found scattered around the Ram Janmabhoomi site. But above these levels were found two monuments of Islamic character, which were between the Babri Masjid and the Rajput levels that showed that these Islamic constructions were made in the Sultanate period. This meant that the Babri Masjid did not lie directly above the Rajput period levels. But a propaganda was initiated, which went on for some time. When the first excavations were made by the ASI, these facts were buried. In fact, myth-making has been going on for some time with a few people going as far as to identify the Indus civilisation with that of the Aryans and viewing the available evidence out of context.

In Gujarat, in the excavations of Lothal, there was found a freshwater tank at the east of the town and the then excavator, in what was pure manipulation, tried to prove that it was the oldest dockyard in the world, and at that time the ASI accepted it. Fortunately, about Ram Sethu there is no such archaeological myth; it is a myth created by vested interests. The problem is that the ASI has allowed itself to be manipulated in the past, that is why it became possible for some sections to doubt its veracity.

Archaeology works as a scientific discipline. Archaeologists are scientists; they are not directly concerned with any religion, but if there are some people who have some faith about some material phenomenon, the archaeologist can verify whether it is man-made or not. But the archaeologist is not supposed to be concerned with religious sentiments when he/she is discussing the concerned material phenomena. They are neither believers nor non-believers. The scientist, historian and the archaeologist have to tell the truth irrespective of religious sentiments involved. The withdrawal of the affidavit by the government is a setback to the ASI. It is the political scene that does not allow scientists to work freely. Historians are not allowed to speak the truth especially if what they say is related to a king of some community or personalities associated with some faiths. This is a fascist approach where we want myths to be accepted by scientists. Everything becomes a sensitive issue; at the same time we desire freedom of expression as well. I really dont know where all of this will lead to; this is like taking us back to the Puranic age.

Do you feel that the ASI is not competent to comment on the historical veracity of Ram Sethu or for that matter any other structure? Also, by withdrawing the affidavit, do you think that the government has questioned the credibility of its own institution and that of archaeology as a discipline?

The ASI is a major government department. It is expected to give authentic evidence, and it is also expected that the government of the day will ask the ASI as far as Ram Sethu is concerned. The ASI was asked its opinion, and it gave it by rightly stating that what is called Ram Sethu is not a man-made construction but an image of the ridge below the water that connects the mainland and the island.

The whole episode of withdrawing the affidavit has been demoralising for the scientific community. I repeat that the government should not have withdrawn the affidavit. It should have stood by the ASI as the latter did not defend or offend any religion. What it stated was borrowed from other scholars, and it is already well established that the characters in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have not been established historically.

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