Excavating truth

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

Irfan Habib. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Irfan Habib. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

TOO strenuous an effort to make a point is usually a dead give-away. And if somebody shows an absolute lack of scruple about the methods used in making a point, there is likely to be very little substance in the argument. Part of the unseemly rush that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its affiliates are showing in urging the case for legislation on Ayodhya, reflects the disarray within their ranks after the archaeological excavations at the site turned up empty.

In February, Tojo Vikas International Ltd, a company assisting with ultrasonic underground mapping of Delhi to facilitate the metro-railway construction, claimed to have deployed some of its devices in Ayodhya and discovered underground "structural anomalies" at the disputed site. These, they said, pointed to the existence of the remains of an edifice preceding the Babri Masjid. The Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, which is nearing the end of its hearings on the title to the site, ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to excavate and report back on the veracity of the Tojo findings. Although superfluous to the main questions before the Bench, it was expected that the excavation would afford the least politically damaging outcome to the case.

After initial reticence, the VHP welcomed the excavation work as the beginning of the process of temple construction. Ashok Singhal, the top functionary of the body, declared that the Tojo findings were unequivocal: "The report clearly mentions that a temple existed at the disputed site." After the thorough excavation of 52 trenches in the area - each four metres square - the ASI filed a preliminary report before the Lucknow Bench on April 24. With inputs from this and other sources on the ground, a team of historians put forward the conclusion that every significant find recorded, either pertained to the Babri Masjid or to the many preceding years of Muslim settlement. These findings, announced at a press conference organised by the Safdar Hashmir Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) in Delhi on May 6, have so far remained uncontested.

Following the excavation of another 30 trenches, the ASI submitted a second progress report to the Lucknow Bench. Archaeologists Suraj Bhan, Jaya Menon and Supriya Verma, who are familiar with the excavation work and the contents of the ASI report, have inferred that "no structural remains below the floor level of the mosque have been found". "Structural bases" had been mentioned in the first progress report, but on further examination these were found to be made of brickbats, incapable of supporting any significant structure and not associated with any known canon of temple architecture.

Eminent historian Irfan Habib has been extremely critical of the ASI procedure, which, he has - borrowing a term from an international academic journal - termed "crisis archaeology". The crisis, he has ironically added, is of the profession of archaeology itself. Some of the "pillar bases" for instance, have been found in extremely dubious circumstances. "A series of complaints have been submitted to the judicial observers appointed by the court on May 21 and subsequently," he states, "showing how brickbats that lay scattered under the lime-surkhi floor of the Masjid, along with sandstone blocks, obviously to provide a stable base for the floor, have been rearranged by ASI excavators to provide evidence for `pillar bases'."

The final word on the Ayodhya excavations remains to be said. Early in the 1990s, when the Babri Masjid still stood, an activist in the Muslim cause, Syed Shahabuddin, put out a rather bold challenge: if it could be proved that the edifice stood on the ruins of a preceding religious structure, the Muslim community would itself take the responsibility of razing it to the ground, before yielding possession to any body that could establish its historical claims to the site. The VHP scoffed, not least because it believed that the sole prerogative of razing the offending monument belonged to it.

But during the brief tenure of the Chandra Shekhar government at the Centre, history was actually conceived of as an instrument of problem solving. Teams of historians and archaeologists were constituted by both the contending parties, to establish the historical provenance of their claims.

By this time, the VHP had added a new weapon to its arsenal in the shape of a belated find from a mid-1970s excavation at Ayodhya by senior archeologist B.B. Lal. Lal's findings as reported in professional journals shortly after his excavations were concluded, indicated a continuous occupation of the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya between the 7th century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D. After this, there was a break of a few centuries. Although certain finds were reported from more recent times, Lal concluded that the "entire late period was devoid of any special interest". As late as 1990, Lal found little reason to review these formulations. But when tensions over Ayodhya were running high and L.K. Advani's infamous rath yatra was cutting a swath through northern India, he chose to impart a fresh twist to the controversy. Writing in Manthan, a journal of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Lal claimed that his excavations had, in fact, uncovered a series of brickpillar bases just beyond the southern wall of the Babri Masjid. It seemed reasonable to suppose, he said, that these were the remains of a pillared temple that had stood at the site prior to the mosque. The professional community of historians and archaeologists was appalled at the veteran archaeologist's apostasy.

For reasons that any layman can understand, archaeological excavation involves an elaborate procedure of recording and reporting finds as they are made. To be properly assessed in the scale of historical time, archaeological material has to be viewed in the context of its discovery. Once the material is disturbed or removed from its context, fancy or bias could potentially play havoc with the job of interpretation.

As the VHP went about trumpeting these finds, the ASI proved curiously reticent about yielding up the records that could clear the confusion. Repeated requests from concerned professionals to be shown the sketches, photographs and site notebooks pertaining to the excavation met with refusal. It was only in October 1992, two years after the Manthan article, that a photograph of the trench where the "pillar bases" were discovered, was grudgingly produced for public view. At the same time, the plea was advanced on behalf of the ASI that the site notebooks could not be located since they had been prepared many years before. Concerned professionals were quick to point out that if this alibi were to be admitted as extenuation, then archaeology as a profession would become the province of untrammelled fantasy - the first to excavate a site being given the right of interpretation irrespective of any process of peer review.

The archaeologist D. Mandal, after a careful dissection of all available evidence, offered the most plausible explanation for Lal's supposed finds. "Constructed as they are of brickbats laid haphazardly," he writes in a revised 2003 edition of his book Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition, (Orient Longman, first edition, 1993), "the so-called pillar bases were certainly not capable of bearing the vertical load of large-sized stone pillars." "The contention that a `pillared building' was raised in the 11th century A.D. is absolute baseless. No structural feature or artefactual find points even in a circumstantial manner to a date approaching the 11th century. Instead, what is firmly suggested for the poorly built structure unearthed in the trench, is a date between the 13th and the 15th centuries A.D."

While the ASI was enacting its own shoddy drama, the VHP was embellishing its own dubious claims with supposed archaeological finds made in the vicinity of the Babri Masjid during uncoordinated and randomly planned earth-moving work done in mid-1992. Another set of quite outrageous finds was reported after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, when idols, inscriptions and other remnants of a grand temple supposedly came tumbling out of the walls of the destroyed edifice.

With the ASI's ongoing excavations, the entire archaeological record has been destroyed. If the documentation remains slipshod and motivated as with earlier excavations, then the controversy is only likely to spiral out of control. Indications, however, are that the relentless vigil exercised by observers on both sides has induced a degree of discipline amongst the ASI excavators. And disdaining the new talk of a compromise formula on Ayodhya, historian Irfan Habib poses the only reasonable course in rather blunt terms: "Now that everything has been destroyed and dug up, why not just wait for the court verdict and obey the law?"

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