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The Ayodhya dig

Print edition : Apr 11, 2003 T+T-

The court-mandated excavations at the Ayodhya site provides the VHP a further opportunity to spread falsehoods about supposed underground structures and temple construction plans.

in Ayodhya

IN dusty, ancient Ayodhya, along the placid Sarayu river, life seemingly goes on as usual, unmindful of the Allahabad High Court-mandated digging operation that is going on in a shrouded area in the heart of the town, at the site of the Babri Masjid that was pulled down by a mob in December 1992. The outcome of the secretive operation could well change the course of politics and history in the country.

The approximately 68 acres of land around the disputed site that the government has acquired, which even otherwise used to be teeming with security personnel, has an added air of mystery about it today. Red curtains all along the path leading up to the makeshift shrine is situated, hide what goes on behind them. But the sound of chiselling, scraping and digging point to the fact that the excavation, conducted under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is in progress. The excavation is meant to ascertain whether a temple existed at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood.

The media are barred from the digging site, and those engaged in the exercise are barred from divulging details. Thus the suspense mounts by the day. The court has allowed representatives of the contending parties to be present during the digging, but they too may not disclose to the media anything with regard to the operation.

But the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), not particularly known for abiding by court orders, hardly cares. It is seeking to create the myth that the excavation is the first step towards the construction of a Ram temple at the site, claiming that an underground survey that was conducted before the court ordered the digging, showed the existence of an ancient Hindu temple there.

The VHP's hype is out of sync with the ground realities. Contrary to what it says, the ground penetration radar (GPR) survey, conducted by Tojo Vikas International on the orders of a special bench of the Allahabad High Court hearing the Ayodhya case, did not find evidence to show that any ancient temple existed where the Babri Masjid stood. The report merely mentioned some "anomaly alignments" across the main platform, north and south of the sanctum sanctorum extending to the Ram Chabutra area, the high amplitude "ringy sequence" towards the south and the "mound" structures to the east.

As per the report, the "anomaly alignments" may correspond to a wall foundation of some sort, belonging to successive construction periods; it is not a contemporary structure. The "ringy sequence" may indicate a flooring structure of some sort, possibly stone slabs if its origin is ancient. The "mound" structures may correspond to pillar alignments, broken up sections of wall foundations or fortuitous patterns of independent objects or natural features.

The report concluded that "the GPR survey reflects in general a variety of anomalies ranging from 0.5 to 5.5 metres in depth that could be associated with ancient and contemporaneous structures such as pillars, foundation walls, slab floorings, extending over a large portion of the site." The report made it clear that "the exact nature of those anomalies has to be confirmed by systematic ground truthing, such as provided by archaeological trenching."

But the VHP would have none of it. Ashok Singhal, its international working president, declared at a press conference on March 7 that a laser-based survey done by Tojo Vikas International had established the existence of an ancient Ram temple. "The report clearly mentions that a temple existed at the disputed site," Singhal said.

As if to give credence to the VHP's claims, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee stated during the recent campaigning for the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh that the government had historical proof that a temple existed where the Babri Masjid stood. The claim was repeated by Bharatiya Janata Party president M. Venkaiah Naidu shortly afterwards at a press conference in Kolkata. "Historically it is clear that there was a temple of Lord Ram. We hope that truth will prevail," he said.

Although both the Prime Minister and the BJP president have reiterated their commitment to the National Democratic Alliance's professed intention of solving the temple issue through either dialogue or judicial process, the synchronised manner of their statements and the VHP's stepped-up campaign on the temple issue create doubts about their motives.

A declaration by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) around the same time is also no less significant in this connection. Declaring its intent to become active in the temple movement again, RSS general secretary Mohan Bhagwat said: "There are enough indications that the Central government is also taking an initiative to ensure that this issue, with which the sentiments of the entire society are attached, can no longer be allowed to remain in uncertainty and a solution should be found keeping the sentiments of crores of Hindus in mind." Mohan Bhagwat said this while presenting his annual report at a three-day all-India general council meeting in Nagpur. RSS chief K S. Sudarshan, Venkaiah Naidu and VHP leaders Singhal and Pravin Togadia were present.

While the excavations may constitute just another attempt by the court to unearth some evidence pertaining to one of the issues that it is currently deliberating on, which is whether a temple existed at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood, organisations such as the VHP and the RSS are touting it as "the beginning of the temple construction programme". The RSS game plan became obvious as early as on the second day of the excavation when a group of Sangh volunteers, sporting saffron bandanas, marched to the makeshift temple shouting slogans. One of the slogans: "Ram Lala, hum aaye hain, mandir yehin banayenge" (Ram Lala, we have arrived; the temple will be built right here).

The site where excavation is being carried out now is right opposite the makeshift temple and it is out of bounds for anyone not directly involved in the work. But anyone can go up to the temple as a devotee and have darshan of the deity. But while a common devotee is not allowed to linger for more than it is necessary to have darshan and take prasad, the RSS activists were able to stay on and shout slogans.

On March 13, Day 2 of the excavation, there was scepticism in the air in Ayodhya on the issue of the excavation. Although the VHP would want everyone to believe otherwise, no one who has anything to do with the original title suits in the Ayodhya case, which is the main issue before the High Court, seems to believe that the exercise would yield anything that will lead to a speedy solution to the issue. Mohammad Hashim Ansari, one of the original litigants, who was required to be present at the site during the digging, has boycotted the exercise. He said: "It is a political drama. Yeh chahtey hain ki phir Ram mandir par rajniti kar ke election jeeten" (They want to play politics with the Ram temple issue to win the next elections). Ansari is under no illusion that the exercise is anything more than a bout of noora kushti (shadow boxing) that would not lead to any solution of the temple issue. "When there was a huge structure above the ground (the Babri Masjid), they could not solve the issue. Now what are they trying to discover underneath?" he asks.

Mahant Bhaskar Das of the Nirmohi Akhara, another litigant in the title suit (the Nirmohi Akhara claims to be the original owner of the disputed site), could not agree more with Ansari. Mahant Das, who was also the priest of the Ram shrine inside it before the mosque was demolished, takes exception to the domineering ways of the VHP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. He says that "as long as outsiders (read VHP activists) are present here, the issue will never get resolved, no matter how much you dig." In his opinion the excavation will not lead to any solution. He thinks it will only make matters worse as it will give the VHP more ammunition to use during an electoral campaign.

THERE are others, though, like Sunni Central Waqf Board counsel Zafaryab Jilani, who are willing to wait before they give their opinion on the exercise. Jilani, who has been present at the excavation site since the beginning, views the exercise as an attempt by the court to get some fresh evidence, which, in his opinion, could lead to some solution. He, however, expressed doubts whether the ASI would be able to withstand political pressure. "There is nothing wrong in the excavations if the idea is to get some more evidence. But the credibility of the ASI is at stake here and it will have to be seen to be impartial in carrying out this assignment."

Jilani points out that the ASI comes under the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which is headed by Murli Manohar Joshi, himself an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case. He apprehends that political influence may come into play. According to him, there are other instances where the ASI's role has come under a cloud. "Why was the Director of ASI changed just a day before the crucial order came? Why was it that among the 14-member ASI team that would carry out the digging, there was only one Muslim? Why is there not a single Muslim labourer engaged in the digging work? These are questions that bother us, and the ASI will have to show us its neutrality by addressing these questions," Jilani said. He filed a petition in the High Court in this connection, on which the court ruled that "transparency should be maintained" in the excavation work.

Jilani does not think this case will open a Pandora's box with regard to other shrines in dispute. "The law of the land has banned the conversion of any other religious shrine to its status prior to August 15, 1947. Ayodhya... was excluded from the ambit of this law, so this is an exception. It can never become a precedent," he says.

What, however, is obvious to anyone watching the developments is the fact that notwithstanding its outcome, the excavation will provide the VHP, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in general an emotive issue once again, which they would try to exploit for electoral gains. The latest developments have put life back into an issue that was fast losing its appeal for the masses. At least this is what the Sangh Parivar would like to believe. According to assessments, the entire excavation work will take a year, and by then it will be time for general elections. Lok Sabha elections are due in October 2004.)

The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court asked the ASI on March 5 to excavate the area to get to the bottom of the issue. It directed the ASI to present a progress report on March 24. ASI officials are expected to seek the help of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, for carbon dating material that is unearthed. The High Court order came after the DPR survey revealed the existence of some structures 10 to 15 feet underground.

The ASI initially intended to engage 50 labourers for the job, but only 25 to 30 have been turning up. At the present pace, it will be next to impossible to complete the excavation work within a month's time as directed by the court.

It is going to be a long haul. But for the Sangh Parivar, the longer it takes, the better it would be. For they can keep talking about it until the next elections.