`An attempt to mislead and misuse the evidence'

Print edition : September 26, 2003

Interview with Professor Irfan Habib.

The distinguished historian Irfan Habib, former Professor and Head of the Centre for Advanced Study at the Aligarh Muslim University and former Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, has been an astute observer of and commentator on the political abuse of history in the Ayodhya issue. He is one of several leading historians in the country who have consistently defended the ethics and integrity of the historical discipline against the mythification and distortion that History has become victim to in recent times. Excerpts from the interview he gave to Parvathi Menon.

Have the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavations at Ayodhya followed established archaeological procedures?

No, not at all. For the geophysical survey, it chose a Delhi firm with no background of archaeological work, which duly reported "pillars" underground (a supposed mark of a temple) that turned out to be fictitious. Obtaining from the High Court an order for excavation based on this "report" the ASI proceeded to dig up not only the points marked by it but the entire ground of the site. It thus obliterated all the remains of the Babri Masjid, while archaeologists by their profession are obliged to protect as much of historical remains as they can. Even technically, the ASI's work is most slipshod. It has not used the thermoluminescence (TL) method of dating for pottery, an essential requirement, nor has it had the animal bones carbon-dated.

If the procedure itself was flawed, could it have distorted the analysis of evidence?

One might say the reverse: since a pre-determined conclusion was to be given, archaeological procedures could not be followed. Carbon-dated bones and TL-dated pottery would have given the game away. And without tampering of the sort mentioned, the case for a temple could not have been made.

Could you evaluate the ASI report? What are the major errors of analysis and interpretation of the archaeological record?

The ASI report does not appear, even on a casual reading, to be a serious document. Its "Summary of Results" violates the primary principle of strictly going by what has been said in the main text. In Chapter III (`Stratigraphy and Chronology'), Period VI is called "Medieval-Sultanate": but in "Summary of Results" the name is transferred to Period VII, so that one does not know now what material belongs to what period! In Chapter V ("Pottery"), glazed ware is definitely stated to be the common pottery of the whole of Periods VII to IX: in the Summary, it is said to begin only with the "last phase of" of Period VII. In the Summary "animal bones" are referred to as being "recovered from various levels". In the main text there is not a word about animal bones. Floors are formally numbered (Floor Nos. 1-4) in drawings, but the floor numbers are not mentioned in the most crucial places in the text (pages 41-44) where their structural contexts are discussed!

These are not innocent errors, but plain attempts to mislead and to misuse the evidence. No real "analysis" is indeed attempted, and no contrary views are even brought under consideration. Take the "pillar-bases". It is not discussed how thin calcrete stones covering brick-bat heaps could carry stone pillars holding up masonry roofs. Or why no hollows or marks of pillars are found on the calcrete stones, nor any pillars (whole or parts) found near these "pillar bases". (No pillars are found at all, except one in the Masjid debris above the surface). Why do the 50 "pillar bases" supposedly sustaining the grand temple rest on different levels? How exact is the alignment of these bases (no detailed grid-plan is furnished). Even such an astonishing thing as the presence of lime-mortar and surkhi in what ASI alleges to be 11th-12th century temple remains is not considered worth explaining.

What are the factors in the excavation that the ASI team has not taken note of and how significant are they?

Out of a very large number I can mention three here:

Taking into account the complaints that ASI was throwing away animal bones and pieces of glazed ware, the High Court ordered that it keep a full record of these. It was presumably clear to the court that bones with cut marks and chewed bone fragments, attesting to persons cooking, eating and throwing away bones could hardly conform to the presence of a temple at the site. Yet the ASI has simply ignored the bone evidence.

Similarly, it has not tabulated the numerous field-recorded finds of glazed ware, with specifications of levels, though the ware is a characteristic sign of Muslim habitation. (I was amused at the reference made by a supporter of the ASI report to the presence of glazed ware at Multan and Tulamba in the 11th century. Multan was the headquarters of an Arab province since 714, and Tulamba was a Muslim settlement nearby. How does the find of glazed ware here affect the question?) Both animal bones and glazed ware have decisive significance in ruling out the presence of any temple at the levels the ASI has conjured it.

Thirdly, lime mortar and surkhi. Their presence in Floor 4 and still earlier levels again rules out there being any temple at both those levels.

The ASI report says that a temple existed beneath the ruins of the Babri Masjid. Is this borne out by the excavations?

I think I have already shown that the evidence found against the existence of such a temple is overwhelming. The ASI has made an appeal to a very small number of stones and objects coming from either early levels or obviously brought in from other sites during the mosque's construction. They are of Buddhist, Jain and Shaivite provenances. How can these be used together to prove the existence of a temple? Can the ASI produce any such combined Buddhist-Jain-Shaivite-Rama temple from anywhere in India?

As for the so-called "pillar-bases", Dr. Ashok Datta has adequately explained them as brickbats and stones used to fill holes and hollows on the ground and ruined floors. This is why these are found at so many levels and in connection with all the four mosque floors.

What sort of structure then existed beneath the Masjid?

I think it is now clear that the Babri Masjid was built at the ruined site of an open mosque (qanati or idgah), and Floor No.4 belonged to such a mosque. A mihrab (arched recess) was found in its foundation wall on the west (significantly enough, not mentioned in the report). This also explains the large amount of evidence of Muslim habitation at the site both below and above the levels of Floor 4.

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