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Not the last word yet

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST



Competent experts scrutinise the ASI's report on Ayodhya and raise the pertinent question, in the light of the persistent abuse of archaeology by VHP camp followers, whether its conclusions are consistent with what has been discovered at the site.

EXPECTATIONS that partisan passions over Ayodhya would somehow be cooled by the court-mandated excavation at the site of the dispute have proved misplaced. The report of the Archaeological Survey of India, submitted to the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court on August 22, was transmitted to the litigants for their observations and comments soon afterwards. The polemics surrounding the report have so far been relatively low-key. But further rounds of furious contestation are foretold when arguments resume in the court.

The headline news from the ASI report was that remains bearing the "distinctive features" of northern Indian temples from the late medieval period had been found at the site. This revelation came as part of a disturbing triple conjunction of events. Two devastating bomb explosions went off in Mumbai, resurrecting horrifying visions of the worst days of discord and violence over Ayodhya. And in Lucknow, the Bharatiya Janata Party's uneasy cohabitation with the Bahujan Samaj Party was drawing abruptly to a close, with Chief Minister Mayawati seeking the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly.

Linkages of various kinds were drawn between the three events, most of them appearing on more serious consideration to be spurious. But for a while, there was the disturbing prospect that a further inflaming of communal passions could be a consequence of the judicial attempt to deploy archaeology as a problem-solving tool.

In the first instance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) responded with nonchalance. The project to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya was a commitment born out of faith, the VHP spokesmen said. The findings of the archaeological excavation were not quite relevant to this mission. Vinay Katiyar, the Bajrang Dal battering ram and the BJP's Uttar Pradesh unit president, ascribed the collapse of the State government to the panic that had seized other parties at the findings of the ASI.

A few days later, the VHP's most public and disquieting face, Praveen Togadia, arrived in Ranchi to a boisterous reception from his flock. His utterances there had all the usual menace and a hint of severe retribution for anybody who dared stand in the way. "Muslims", he declared, now had to "decide whether they want to live with Hindus as brothers or not".

For his part, Syed Rabe Hasan Nadvi, chairman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), questioned the findings recorded in the ASI's final report. Neither of the two interim reports submitted to the court had mentioned the existence of a temple, he pointed out. This meant that there was abundant reason to be sceptical about the final report.

Syed Shahabuddin, a member of the AIMPLB and former Member of Parliament, characterised the ASI report as a "jungle of confusion". It was "self-contradictory" and its laboured conclusions suggested a clear political motivation.

There have been numerous occasions in the last decade when the ASI has had the resources and the competence to clarify a state of public confusion over the site in Ayodhya, but has chosen not to. Having now ostensibly said the last word on the archaeological status of the site, the ASI owes it to the public to explain why its interim reports pointed to a few of the possibilities that are now advanced as confirmed historical fact.

On June 9, the ASI submitted a report to the Lucknow Bench detailing its main findings until then. The VHP, expectedly, talked up the evidence and proclaimed its final vindication. After reading the entire report, all that Zafaryab Jilani, counsel for the Sunni Central Waqf Board, felt was a sense of bemusement: "I fail to understand how some VHP leaders drew their own conclusions claiming sufficient evidence about the existence of an ancient temple, when the ASI report does not speak about any such thing. "Judicial deadlines for the submission of the final report were extended three times. But when it was finally through with the job, the ASI was obviously well pleased with its effort. The excavation of "ninety trenches in a limited time of five months" and the submission of a report within a few days, was "an unprecedented event in the history of one hundred and forty-two years of the existence of the Survey", it records.

As with earlier arguments advanced by the VHP and its affiliates, the "pillar bases" that were ostensibly discovered at the site during an excavation dating back to the 1970s constitute an important plank on which the ASI constructs its argument. The first mention of these "pillar bases" was made in 1990 by former ASI Director-General B.B. Lal in the rather implausible forum of Manthan, a journal of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The article making the announcement was identical in every other respect to one that Lal had presented at a conference on the "new archaeology", organised by the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in 1988. The motivated revision of the article in a context of growing public controversy over the site in Ayodhya led to great consternation within the community of historians and archaeologists. But the ASI did little then to clear the air, though the excavations at Ayodhya had been conducted under its authority and it retained the records and documentation.

Lal proposed then that the best way to settle the dispute would be to excavate the mound on which the Babri Masjid stood. This seemed a rather outlandish suggestion then since it is accepted practice to spare existing monuments from damage, even when excavation could potentially yield information of great archaeological interest.

With the demolition of the Babri Masjid, this one constraint was removed. Armed with a judicial mandate, the ASI proceeded to execute the Lal strategy and uncover still further configurations that it has chosen to characterise as "pillar bases". By its own recorded evidence, the 50 such specimens unearthed belong to different phases of habitation and stand on plinths at markedly varying levels. This, as historian Irfan Habib and archaeologist Suraj Bhan have argued, point to quite a different function for these clusters of brickbats: far from being "pillar bases", they could have been used as filling material to close holes in existing floors when one structure was built over another.

Since the ASI has shown a rather uncritical tendency to accept the new finds of brickbat clusters in the light of an existing and rather tendentious interpretation advanced by the associates of the VHP, it is curious that it has stayed clear of other supposed finds made while the site was under the effective control of the Hindutva body. In April 1992 for instance, the land surrounding the Babri Masjid was taken over by the U.P. government and handed over to a VHP-affiliate, ostensibly for the promotion of tourism. Certain finds were allegedly made in the course of unsupervised earth-moving work in the area, which the VHP-affiliated "Historians' Forum" described with appropriate drama in a lavishly illustrated brochure: "At a depth of about 12 feet from the ground level near the Ramjanmabhoomi temple, towards the south and beyond the fencing, a big hoard of beautifully carved buff sandstone pieces was located in a large pit, dug down below the old top level.... A careful study by a group of eight eminent archaeologists and historians found that all these objects are architectural members of a Hindu temple-complex of the 11th century A.D."

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the VHP claimed to have found "clinching archaeological evidence" of the prior existence of a temple at the site. As S.P. Gupta, a former Director of Allahabad Museum and the leading light of kar sevak archaeology, wrote in the RSS weekly Organiser: "This most clinching archaeological evidence is a 12th century inscription discovered at the disputed site on the 6th of December 1992. The text of this contemporary vital document, which was evidently fixed on the wall of the temple on the day of its inaugural function, was composed in verses in classical Sanskrit and written in old Nagari script".

Gupta claimed to have obtained an authoritative interpretation of the inscription, which was supposedly written during the reign of King Govind Chandra of the Gahadval dynasty, "who ruled over Ayodhya, Varanasi and Kannauj from A.D.1114 to A.D.1154". And the text was explicit about the provenance of the inscription. It spoke of the construction of "a beautiful temple of Vishnu-Hari, built with heaps of stone and beautified with a golden spire unparalleled by any other temple built by earlier kings... This wonderful temple was built in the temple-city of Ayodhya situated in the Saketamandala".

The ASI report on Ayodhya is only now beginning to be put through the scrutiny of competent experts, who will duly file their observations before the court. But in the light of a decade of persistent abuse of the discipline of archaeology by VHP camp-followers, it is surely relevant to ask how far the most recent conclusions of the ASI are consistent with what has purportedly been discovered at the site or in its vicinity in that period. If large-scale tampering of evidence and misrepresentation exists, there are surely questions of public accountability involved. The ASI defaulted on its obligations at Ayodhya in the years of discord and violence on the thin pretext that the site had not been notified for protection. Apart from explaining the basis on which it has arrived at its most recent findings, the body would also have to account for its quiescence and inaction in those years of challenge.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 26, 2003.)



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