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No Voodoo Archaeology, Please
March 26, 2003
By ordering fast-track archaeological excavation at Ayodhya, the Allahabad high court has inadvertently set in motion not so much a scientific investigation as a controversial operation barred to the media and public. This represents one more twist in the unfolding of the Ayodhya controversy since 1949 when Hindu idols were stealthily spirited into the Babri mosque in the dead of night. The excavation is unlikely to lead to a conclusive, clinching, final determination of the question: Did a Hindu temple exist, and was it destroyed, where the Babri mosque was built in 1528? Nor will it settle the Ayodhya title suit before the Lucknow bench of the high court, which originates in a property dispute in the modern period, not in medieval history.
Some of India's eminent archaeologists and historians have sharply criticised the excavation order and its acceptance without legal challenge by the Archaeological Survey of India as well as the appointment of a private company, Tojo-Vikas International Pvt Ltd, as an 'adviser' to the ASI. The operation has attracted other contenders too for the coveted land in Ayodhya, who claim they are 'hurt' by history's 'wrongs' and want to become a party to the title dispute.
For instance, an organisation representing the Jains says a sixth century Jain temple existed at the site before any Hindu monument was built. Also controversial is the award of the labour contract for the digging to Bajrang Dal-VHP activist K K Pandey. The excavation order may promote a new round of bitter contestation over the Ram Janamabhoomi issue in keeping with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's agenda. No wonder the VHP and the RSS are using the excavation activity to revive the local public's all-but-dead interest in the Ayodhya temple issue.
Objections to the excavation project fall into three categories. The first concerns the social morality of the move. Even assuming that the ASI finds that a Hindu structure existed at the site prior to 1528, would that merit or retrospectively justify the razing of the mosque as part of the process of 'getting even with history'? Many monuments were built in ancient and medieval India on top of demolished religious structures, whether animist, Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Jewish or Muslim.
What if it is found that the Taj Mahal, or some of the greatest Hindu temples, belong to that category? Should this country go on a spree of bloodletting and razing of monuments regarded as examples of history's 'wrongs' -- in the way the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas? Can the vandalism of the past justify revenge-driven vandalism today? The ethical answer must be a resounding no.
Most Indian scholars accept this ethical proposition. In 1993, the principal organisation of the country's historians, the Indian History Congress, voted 'by an overwhelming majority' against the egregious view that 'a monument can be destroyed or removed if there are any grounds for assuming that a religious structure of another community had previously stood at its site.' It also said such 'post-facto rationalisation of what was done on December 6, 1992, would place in jeopardy the fate of numerous historical monuments all over the country, an increasing number of which are being targeted for destruction by the communal forces.'
What would be the practical outcome of the archaeological excavation at Ayodhya? If irrefutable evidence is found that a temple did exist at the site before 1528, Muslim organisations say they would give up their claim to the land and allow a Ram temple to be built. But the obverse is not true. Hindu groups have had far more ambivalent positions on the issue. Some, including VHP office-bearers, opposed excavation in the past; and some sadhus still do so. The VHP employs double standards. If the prior existence of a Hindu temple is confirmed, it will vigorously press its demand for building a Ram temple (without a mosque) on the entire acquired land. But it refuses to say it will drop its demand if no such evidence is found! Tomorrow, the BJP-RSS-VHP can turn around and say the Ayodhya issue concerns 'faith,' not 'facts.' This puts a question mark over the utility of the whole effort.
The second set of objections relates to the methods of excavation and the competence and impartiality of the agencies conducting it, in particular Tojo-Vikas and the ASI. According to a document issued by eminent scholars, including medieval historians K M Shrimali and Irfan Habib, and archaeologist Suraj Bhan, Tojo-Vikas is a Kalkaji (Delhi)-based company which has 'no previous experience of archaeological surveying.' Tojo-Vikas was earlier asked by the high court to conduct a 'non-intrusive' geophysical survey at the site. Its results were inconclusive. However, Tojo-Vikas did not use the standard combination of magnetic and resistivity techniques which respectively help locate metals, and filled pits, buried walls, etc. It only used the resistivity technique through ground penetrating radars.
As for the ASI, the scholars quoted above raise questions about its competence to conduct rigorous, scientific and impartial excavations. For about 10 years, this organisation hasn't had a professional archaeologist heading it. It reports to the central government, leading and controlling which are important BJP ministers charged with instigating the razing of the Babri mosque in 1992, including Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani and Human Resources Development Minister M M Joshi. Say the scholars, when such ministers 'themselves stand accused of having participated directly in the Babri Masjid demolition, no agency under their complete control can be held to be above suspicion.'
The excavation period is compressed to just one month under court orders. Serious archaeological excavation cannot be done in a hurry or throughout the year. Professor M K Dhavalikar, former director of the highly regarded Pune-based Deccan College, says: 'An ideal time-frame would be three full seasons of three to four months per year.'
The third set of objections is even more fundamental and relates to the nature of archaeology as a discipline and the quality of evidence from excavations. Archaeology is a social, not a natural, science. Archaeological finds are subject to a wide range of interpretations. Says noted archaeologist Shereen Rutnagar, 'the mere discovery of objects, however, well-preserved or tell-tale they might seem, does not count as archaeological evidence.' Objects and artefacts are mute and do not speak for themselves. Their context -- stratification, physical relationship to the surroundings, and their place in a certain material culture -- is all-important in interpreting them. Proper excavation can only be done layer by layer, establishing each stratum's age and provenance.
Such interpretation needs meticulous record-keeping -- trench notebooks, materials notebooks, dig-house notebooks and photographs. These records must be available for scholarly scrutiny and peer review. But the ASI has in the past refused to share records. Besides, there can be a lot of ambiguity about what constitutes, say, a 'temple relic.' For instance, a carved stone or brick, dating back to the 13th to 15th century, which comes from a domestic dwelling, can be easily confused with a 'temple relic' by misinterpreting or distorting its context or surroundings. The lay public can be easily fooled by the mere display of such 'relics.' The VHP can work up emotions by claiming -- 'Ganesh-drinking-milk'-style -- that the objects are images from the Puranic period or, as [VHP General Secretary] Mr Pravin Togadia says, in total violation of all scientific knowledge of the human past, from 160,000 years ago!
Such 'voodoo archaeology' must be debunked and its abuse prevented. Indian historians have grappled hard with the Ayodhya issue. But, according to Professor Habib, they have found no 'acceptable proof' that the Babri Masjid was built at the site of a Hindu temple: 'None of the 14 inscribed Persian verses of the time of the original construction even remotely mentions this.' Nor does Goswami Tulsi Das, an Ayodhya resident, writing his Ramayana within living memory of the mosque's construction.
The 1991 Historians' Report to the Nation by R S Sharma, M Athar Ali, D N Jha and Suraj Bhan conclusively showed, says Habib, that 'there was no reference, in any document, of the mosque having been built on the site of a temple.' This claim wasn't made until nearly 250 years after the construction!
A reputed American historian of medieval India, Richard M Eaton, in his Essays on Islam and Indian History, (OUP, 2000) carefully documents 'the desecration of each and every Hindu temple between 1192 and 1760.' The total adds up to 80. This figure doesn't include a Ram temple at Ayodhya. The Ayodhya issue couldn't be decided with finality by history. It won't be settled by archaeology either. The excavation may only dig up more confusion.
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