People's historian

Print edition : August 27, 2010

Suraj Bhan (1931-2010) was not only an eminent archaeologist but also a man dedicated to rationality and causes that affected the common man.

THERE are many reasons why we should particularly mourn the passing away of Professor Suraj Bhan on July 14, in Rohtak, Haryana. He was not only an eminent archaeologist but also a man uncompromisingly dedicated to rationality and willing to spend time and attention to causes that affected the common people.

Suraj Bhan was born in March 1931 to a peasant family of Haryana; his initial interests in higher studies lay in Sanskrit, which he studied for his M.A. degree from the Delhi University. He was then drawn to archaeology, in which he took his second master's degree from M.S. University, Baroda. Taking a teaching career, he held appointments in the Punjab and Kurukshetra Universities, being ultimately appointed professor at the latter.

Suraj Bhan made his mark as a field archaeologist in the 1960s. He explored prehistoric sites along the old river channels of Sarsuti-Ghaggar and Chautang rivers in Haryana and in 1968 excavated the significant Indus culture site of Mitathal. In 1972, he received a PhD degree from M.S. University for a thesis on the Prehistoric Archaeology of Haryana.

In 1975, he published his major report, Excavations at Mitathal and Other Explorations in the Sutlej-Yamuna Divide. His work was throughout marked by scientific rigour so that his report became a fundamental work of reference for the study of Indus and post-Indus cultures in the Punjab-Haryana region.In his presidential address to the Archaeology Section of the Indian History Congress' 47th session (Srinagar), 1987, Suraj Bhan expressed discomfort with some archaeologists' concerns with the racial affinities of the Indus Civilisation. When in the subsequent decade, B.B. Lal, a former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), S.P. Gupta and others began to claim that the Indus culture was Aryan and Vedic, Suraj Bhan was among the few archaeologists who spoke up strongly against this chauvinistic approach.

Equally forthright was Suraj Bhan's rejection of the misuse of archaeology for the purpose of securing, and then justifying, the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. In 1991, he was one of the team of four historians, headed by Professor R.S. Sharma, who in their Report to the Nation refuted the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) claims that the Babri Masjid was built on the site of a Ram temple. He felt strongly enough to argue the case as an expert before the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court. Finally, when the ASI in 2003 dug up the masjid site and submitted a report to the High Court endorsing the VHP's claims of the existence of a temple underneath the mosque, Suraj Bhan was aghast at the ASI officials' unprofessional methods and conclusions. His response was published in Frontline (September 26, 2003.)

Suraj Bhan was a man of impeccable personal ethics, which matched well with his professional probity. In 1996, he was awarded a Senior Fellowship by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), for a period of three years. Hardly one year was over when in 1997 the Government of India appointed him a Member of the ICHR's Council. He immediately resigned his Fellowship, holding that the two positions could not be held simultaneously.

Common friends told me of how much time and attention Suraj Bhan devoted to causes outside of an archaeologist's immediate concerns. He was often to be found wherever there was an agitation for women's rights in Haryana or a movement for the spread of literacy and science education among ordinary people.

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