The plaintiff's objections

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

A demonstration by Muslims in Delhi demanding the reconstruction of the Babri Masjid at its original site. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

A demonstration by Muslims in Delhi demanding the reconstruction of the Babri Masjid at its original site. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

The Central Board of Waqfs, in a submission to the court, has pointed to the biases and inaccuracies in the Archaeological Survey of India report.

AS a fact of history and archaeology, the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya had an undeniable physical presence. That the custodians of the country's archaeological heritage proved inattentive to this fact is part of the tragedy of India's troubled engagement with its history over the past decade and more. But certain terminological preferences betray unstated biases. In its report on the excavation of the site of the dispute in Ayodhya, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) persistently refers to the Babri Masjid as the "disputed structure". This overlooks the fact that the dispute if at all, remained in the realm of politics, not archaeology.

In a detailed legal memorandum submitted to the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court on October 8, one of the main plaintiffs in the Babri Masjid case, the Sunni Central Board of Waqfs, focusses on this terminological preference as a symptom of ideological bias. The ASI, it notes, shows no such reticence about referring to the platform that stood in the outer courtyard of the mosque as Ram Chabutra. The ASI reports on earlier excavations at Ayodhya had not hesitated to identify the structures in the area by their common names. The newly acquired terminological scruples, the Waqf Board has contended, indicates that the ASI has all too readily acquiesced in the political designs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

With this introductory focus on the symbolism inherent in the ASI report, the Waqf Board proceeds to make a series of contentions on its substantive findings. The ASI's inference that the Babri Masjid stood on the remains of a medieval religious structure of Hindu provenance, rested in large part on its excavation of 17 rows of what it described as "pillar bases". The Waqf Board memorandum contends that these are in fact, "one or more calcrete stones resting upon brickbats, just heaped up". Not one of these supposed "pillar bases", it argues, "has been found in association with any pillar or even a fragment of it". Actual measurements and distances recorded at the excavation do not bear out the ASI's conclusion that the "pillar bases" were in alignment and conformed to a coherent construction plan.

Observers during the excavation had on various occasions, complained to the High Court that the ASI was "ignoring calcrete-topped brickbat heaps where these were not found in appropriate positions" and only recording those that were "not too far-off from its imaginary grids". The slate was then swept clean of evidence that could conceivably controvert the inference that the random piles of brickbats were pillar bases. The Waqf Board memorandum mentions five complaints that were lodged with the High Court about the ASI's rather questionable procedures, between May and August.

Yet with all the expedients adopted, the ASI was not quite able to provide a credible account of the archaeological strata at which the "pillar bases" were discovered. Several of the 50 bases discovered were situated on floors that the ASI has recognised as belonging to the Babri Masjid. Some were recorded to be cutting through the floor of the mosque. The 50 features, the Waqf Board memorandum asserts, "belong to different floors and therefore could not all have been functional at the same time" (emphases in original). Lacking coherence as "architectural features", the 50 so-called pillar bases could only be construed as "some kind of loosely-bonded brickbat deposits", which continued to be laid through successive phases of occupation of the Babri Masjid mound.

The "pillar bases" uncovered by the ASI do not exhibit the required properties of resting on "hard and resistant surfaces". With all its known attributes factored in - rather than the ones that the ASI has chosen selectively to highlight - a number of interpretations for the 50 features discovered at the Babri Masjid site suggest themselves. The Waqf Board memorandum argues that these "may have been used to fill hollows or to raise the level of the mound". Since repairs to the floor of the structures that successively occupied the mound were required at various points of time, "these brickbat deposits are widely dispersed" though not in any kind of coherent order. Had it not been completely committed to the "pillar bases" theory, then the ASI would surely have considered various other credible explanations for the features that it discovered in the course of excavation, argues the Waqf Board memorandum.

The ASI again stands accused of pre-determined conclusions in its haste to characterise a "structure of burnt bricks" as a "circular shrine". The point is established through, what the Waqf Board memorandum implies, a tendentious comparison with certain temple construction plans. No structures of any other cultural provenance are considered for the purpose of identifying and situating the discoveries. The inferences are just too fanciful, argues the Waqf Board memorandum, since "no object of Hindu worship was found" on the layer in question. In its dimensions, the structure reveals a great modesty that ill equips it for the role of a shrine. And the material found in association with the structure was mixed and assorted, "preventing any chronological determination".

THE ASI has allegedly also failed to take into account the basic fact that any medieval temple in the classical style would be expected to have a "central portion with thick internal walls to support a high superstructure like a shikhara". The plan it presents for its reconstructed medieval structure, however, represents "two lengths of a narrow wall or two walls, each less than a metre long, with a gap of about 70 centimetres between them".

No data or comparisons are given by the ASI to benchmark the construction materials used in the alleged structure. A basic requirement would seemingly be to identify a temple from pre-Mughal times with a lime-surkhi floor. Since this material was characteristic to Islamic structures of the period, the ASI's exertions in effect amount to an "appropriation" of a "purely Muslim structure" to a quite different culture.

The terracotta figurines unearthed by the ASI have often been wrongly identified and assigned to historical periods to which they could not conceivably belong. Another serious anomaly is the pervasive presence of "glazed ware" in the site. These fragments, which testify to an Islamic presence, occur even below the floor level that was identified as belonging to a medieval Hindu structure. The ASI seeks to circumvent this difficulty by assigning the origins of Muslim glazed ware to the last phase of the existence of the medieval temple. But in the context of the overall stratigraphy of the site, this is exposed as a desperate expedient to retain the fiction of a "massive temple".

Another gross omission in the ASI report is the persistent evidence that was uncovered of animal bones with cut marks. During the excavations, observers representing the plaintiffs had brought these discoveries to the notice of the High Court and obtained a judicial injunction that the ASI should diligently and accurately record all such evidence. In its final report though, the ASI merely passes over these discoveries with a casual mention. The reasons are evident. The bone fragments recovered speak of animal flesh being consumed at the site. They do not in their structure suggest a temple where animal sacrifices could have been carried out. And a recording of the bone finds reveals that these have been found at practically all levels of the mound, including those that allegedly pertain to the medieval temple of the ASI's imagination.

The Waqf Board memorandum points to numerous other anomalies and omissions of convenience in the ASI's report, including in the interpretation of inscriptional evidence. Summing up, it affirms that it has not made an exhaustive listing of all the problem areas in the report, but only an illustrative one, which points to the "shortcomings, lacunae, partisan attitude, bias and unprofessional style and method" of the exercise. The plea follows inexorably: that the High Court should reject the findings of the ASI and issue orders as may be appropriate in the light of the requirements of justice. The weeks to come could well witness a rapid unravelling of the ASI's self-imposed tragedy of the last decade and more.

The implications for the practice of history and archaeology in the country, could well be far-reaching.

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