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Clinching Archaeological Evidence

Ayodhya: Archaeology after Excavation by D Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar

principle of excavations: stratigraphical

Clinching Archaeological Evidence

rigour in classifying the finds so that one can make sense of the material that is excavated is also apparent in the book.

Uma Chakravarti The authors argue that archaeology was

he tabling of the Report of the Liberhan Commission in Parliament on the destruction of the Babri Masjid, though delayed by 17 years, made for no surprises. There had been ample evidence of the presence of the top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, with the media carrying graphic images of the leaders celebrating the completion of the destruction, smiling in glee, much like the recent image of Rathore grinning from ear to ear after the outrageous judgment in the Ruchika case. Unforgettable images that are proof enough of the rot in our political system. All the hoo-ha over the Liberhan Report only adds to the acknow ledgement of the degeneration of our i nstitutions, where every single one of them is complicit in completing the steady collapse of values, including the values enshrined in our Constitution.

Political Game

Ayodhya: Archaeology after Excavation by D Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar is a telling account of how archaeology played the political game in the years after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. (I will not call it the disputed structure because that term was forced upon us by the institutional collapse that I am referring to: a mosque there was d estroyed, and that is all we know for sure.) It did so not frontally or directly but by innuendo and sleight of hand, sufficient to suggest the possibilities of “conclusions” going in any direction, depending on who was in power when the report had to be submitted.

This is a good moment to read the book, if you have not already done so, as it painstakingly goes over the evidence collected at the time of the excavation, and recounts for us how a supposedly autonomous institution like the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took on a political hue at a critical moment in India’s history. That the ASI can, and had functioned differently, is also brought to light by a discussion on the

Economic & Political Weekly

January 30, 2010

book review

Ayodhya: Archaeology after Excavation

by D Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar (Delhi: Tulika Books), 2007; pp 136+ xi, Rs 250.

excavations at Somnath in the early 1950s, making for a fascinating comparison.

Apart from the differences in the functioning of the director general of the ASI in those early years following independence, there were dissenting voices from civil society at the height of the discussions around “restoring”, “reconstructing” and “conserving” the temple at Somnath, to going on to build something new and grand. People objected to pulling down something that was already there and was several centuries old. The “ruins” were magnifi cent according to a professor from Bengal, and the new vandalism would not be very d ifferent from the vandalism of the past, apart from being a violation of the country’s laws on preservation of ancient monuments.

But with K M Munshi and Vallabhbhai P atel in positions of power, what is also evident is that even then the discipline of archaeology and the ASI could be “commandeered” for a revivalist political project. Both in the 1950s and in the 1990s and after, Ratnagar holds that the ASI has not been able to prove its professional i ndependence, and the Indian state is yet to show that it will not look the other way when acts of vandalism “are staged” to seek “revenge” for past events.

Compelling Account

The book itself is arranged in three parts: Section 1 is written by Ratnagar, Section 2 by Mandal, and Section 3 again by Ratnagar to take account of the context, a reading of the ASI report, and comments on the report.

Together they make for a compelling account of the excavations and the a ttempts to make them slant in a particular direction, when there were no solid grounds to do so. The shoddiness, or more likely the wilful sloppiness, in maintaining a foundational

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made central to the conflict over “sacred space” in Ayodhya when the Supreme Court of India clubbed together a number of civil suits in 1987 to be heard by the High Court of Allahabad. That court, in its wisdom, ordered the ASI to carry out excavations in Ayodhya, which it did from March 2003, since the court believed that the excavations would “help ascertain whether any temple foundations existed at the site” where the demolished masjid had stood until 1992.

Interpretations of Excavations

The book shows how archaeologists were drawn into “adversarial positions” during the course of the excavations and the authors are clear that the whole controversy that followed the excavation was no “innocent academic debate” about details of this or that artefact, or stratigraphic sequence, but was deeply political.

Ratnagar also argues that, however, much the practitioners of archaeology may claim to be scientific with measurements, statistics, and laboratory investigations, it is actually very much a social science, “researching the cultures of past societies through residues of their material culture”. Its aim, as Ratnagar puts it pithily is “to understand past peoples and their actions” not the chemical content of their pottery.

Thus, archaeological interpretation is as much prone to controversy as any other social science and cannot really settle the political disputes of our day or make claims about the “undisputedness” of our heritage.

Even worse, the court order has made the archaeological excavations in Ayodhya to be further subjected to interpretation, this time round by the court so that the “true factual position” will now be d ecided by them, not by professional academics or experts: “the past will be rewritten by the court, under the sanction of the law” as Ratnagar puts it.

British Contribution

The book begins with a brief analysis of the manner in which the dispute around the mosque arose, and the British contribution to


the creation of the controversy. The transformation of oral accounts, frozen into historical facts through writing rather dramatically, created the basis of a controversy which probably had politically motivated origins.

In the years after the British takeover of Awadh and the 1857 mutiny, it became apparent that the Hindus and Muslims had put up a joint resistance to British rule with Lucknow being a major storm centre. Perhaps, it was the acknowledgement that 1857 was one occasion when the British could not set off the two communities against each other that led them to create the basis of a dispute in Awadh.

Thus, while there are no medieval accounts of the destruction of a temple on the site on which the Babri Masjid was built, the British claimed to have come across oral versions of such beliefs. In the years after the mutiny, the British fed local disputes by selectively demonising the Muslims as fanatics and rewarding certain Hindu sects in Ayodhya for the shelter they gave to the British during the uprising. The “constructedness” of tradition, thus, is a factor that needs to be kept in mind in any discussion of religious disputes, wherever they might occur, and is a point worth bearing in mind at all times.

Site Visit after Excavation

Mandal and Ratnagar ably show the pitfalls of not maintaining accepted archaeological practices in excavations. Both a uthors had sought, and got permission from the court to visit the site after excavation work had ceased and the ASI report submitted. Their conclusions in this v olume are based on what they found on their site visit in relation to the offi cial r eport of the excavations.

A general problem was the total absence of trust between the parties involved in examining the material coming up during the excavations and simple measurements being taken by Mandal and Ratnagar were objected to, leading to the inevitableconclusion that non-academic partisan i nterests were paramount.

While the finds were “meticulously tabulated”, strangely there was no mention of the strata in which they were found. The authors point out that the reporting of antiquities found without reference to stratum or layer in which they are found is not in keeping with basic archaeological norms; it is, in fact, “a subversion” of the norm since stratigraphy is “depositional history” and critical to making sense of the data.

An interesting element in the excavations was the pieces of glazed pottery, glazed tiles, and animal bones that were found in the site, datable to the Sultanate period but this information was suppressed (p 79). On the flip side none of this would be associated with a Hindu temple and this, according to Mandal, is “clinching archaeological evidence”, that there was no temple under the mosque there.

In sum, a careful reading of all the data, ably presented in the book, leads to the conclusion that the site bears evidence not of destruction that took place in the 16th century, but of vandalism in the 20th century. A sad conclusion indeed: not only was a protected monument destroyed, hundreds of lives were lost, leaving behind a bitter trail in its wake with disastrous long-term consequences for India.

Uma Chakravarti ( is a historian who taught at Miranda House, Delhi University and is now retired.

VISITING STUDENTS PROGRAMME – 2010 As part of its outreach activities, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) is seeking applications for the Visiting Students Programme 2010. Visiting Students Programme is meant to provide a taste of economics research for Masters (M.A., M.B.A., M.Com., M.Sc. and M.Stat.) and ſnal year engineering (B.E., B.Tech.) students of other Colleges/Institutes/Universities. Eligibility: For those pursuing their Master’s in Economics, eligibility for this programme is at least at Second Division at their Bachelor’s level. For students of other disciplines, eligibility is a First Division in their previous degree obtained (For B.E./B.Tech. students, the performance in the ſrst three years or whatever is available will also be taken into consideration). Selection would be based on a statement of purpose of one page (about 300 words curriculum vitae and recommendation letter from their College/Institute/University with communication details of the concerned authority. Emoluments: Selected participants will be paid Rs.4000/- per month, to and fro second-class train fare and allowed to stay at IGIDR for a period of four-to-eight weeks at a stretch, any time during the year. During their stay they would be provided free accommodation at IGIDR. Faculty guidance and visit time: Selected students would be assigned a faculty member for guidance although they are free to interact with all the faculty members and students. The time of visit to be decided by the participant in consultation with the faculty s/he is assigned with, but this has to be done within the calendar year of 2010. Requirement: At the end of the stay, the participant is required to submit a report (self-study or survey of issues among others). The report will be archived at IGIDR. Further academic outcomes from the stay should be duly acknowledged and the same intimated to IGIDR. Foreign students are also encouraged to apply. However, in such cases there would be no ſnancial commitment by the institute. The institute may provide local hospitality. Applications can be sent electronically (supporting documents should be scanned) or by post (only self-attested copies of supporting documents be sent now) to reach IGIDR by 12 March 2010. The subject head for email and top of the envelope for post should indicate “APPLICATION FOR VISITING STUDENTS PROGRAMME 2010”. Selected participants would be intimated about the decision by end April. Communication details: Visiting Students Programme 2010 Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) General A. K. Vaidya Marg, Goregaon (E) Mumbai 400 065, INDIA Email: Tel: +91-22-28416200 Fax +91-22-28402752

January 30, 2010 vol xlv no 5

Economic & Political Weekly

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