Digging Up the Past: A Historian’s View

[The excavations ordered by the Allahabad High Court have been the subject of heated debate and controversy. Kavita Krishnan interviewed eminent historian Prof. D N Jha for Liberation to get a historian’s perspective on the issue. --Ed.]

Q. The Allahabad High Court has ordered excavations in the Ayodhya case. VHP leader Pravin Togadia has claimed there are 30,000 more sites in India where,

according to him, Masjids have been built on demolished mandirs. What do you feel will be the implications of the High Court’s order, for all those historical monuments targetted by the Sangh Parivar?

DNJ: With due respect to the Honourable Court, I must say that the order to carry out excavations at the disputed site is unfortunate and has set a dangerous precedent. The Sangh Parivar, as we know, has staked claims to thousands of Mosques which it believes to have been built after the destruction of temples, though the destruction of not more than 80 temples are documented. Going by the media reports the Sangh Parivar has already begun talking of excavating other mosque sites. If they have their way, there will be a civil war in the country.

Q. You were part of the team of historians who, in 1991 had presented the Historians’ Report to the Nation on Ayodhya. Prior to the demolition of the Masjid, Prof. B. B. Lal claimed to have found ‘evidence’ of a mandir beneath the Babri Masjid. Did you find any basis for such claim?

DNJ: I was one of the four independent scholars who examined the Ayodhya antiquities before the mosque was demolished. In our Report to the Nation it has been clearly stated that the excavations carried out at Ayodhya by B. B. Lal does not prove that a temple existed there before the construction of the mosque. In this context it should be interesting to know that Lal’s own position on the existence or non-existence of the temple beneath the Babri Masjid has been shifting from time to time. In 1976-77 he stated that in the Janmasthan area “several later medieval brick-and-kankar lime floors have been met with, but the entire late period was devoid of any special interest” and maintained silence about the brick “pillar-bases” which later became the main basis of the VHP’s claim that a Rama temple preceded the Babri mosque. In 1988 he presented a paper at an ICHR seminar, which also is totally silent about the “pillar bases”. In course of a lecture delivered in 1989 at Patna Museum, he tried to establish the historicity of the Ramayana episode without success, lamented that the archaeological evidence does not push back the antiquity of Ayodhya beyond the seventh century BC, made no reference to the “pillar bases” and found “no option but to submit to the judgement of the Mother earth” (Shri Rama in Art, Archaeology and Literature, Patna, 1989, p.9). When, however, the Ayodhya dispute started after the shilanyas, Lal also began to change his tune and in an article published in the Manthan (October,1990), a propaganda journal of the Deen Dayal Research Institute (a front organization of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangha) mischievously spoke of the “pillar bases” as supporting a structure which preceded the Babri Masjid; he did not find it worthwhile to publish this in a respectable academic journal. No wonder, Lal’s reference to a “structure” preceding the mosque was seized upon and trumpeted by the VHP as an evidence of the existence of a temple beneath the Babri Masjid. In February 1991 he anticipated—or should one say, extended an ideological support to the idea of – the demolition of the Babri Masjid when, in course of a lecture at Vijayawada, he suggested a fresh large-scale excavation at Ayodhya by “relocating” the Babri Masjid. Given this background, the court order to excavate the disputed site may appear to be helping the VHP find proofs of “a pre-existing temple”. It appears to me very unusual that the court helps one of the contending parties in litigation to unearth evidence in support of its claims. Moreover, I have never heard of a title suit being decided on the basis of what is found underground instead of the evidence presented before the court by the contending parties.

Q. Following the 1992 demolition, there have been various claims of sculptures etc. being found on the site, indicating that a mandir pre-existed a masjid. Are these claims validated by historical or genuine archaeological evidence?

DNJ: Ayodhya has witnessed much vandalism in both before and after the demolition of the mosque. First, there was “leveling” of the ground by the UP government’s Public Works Department. Then there was the unprecedented demolition by karsevaks. Thus both the “PWD archaeologists” and the “karsevak archaologists” (some of whom were political leaders of the Sangh Parivar) claim to have unearthed “evidence” of a pre-existing temple structure. But their despicable activities were not and could not have been carried out within the limits of scientific parameters of professional archaeology. The so-called “evidence”, therefore, is suspect and cannot be accepted as a clinching proof. What the Sangh Parivar has been trumpeting as conclusive evidence is the outcome of vandalism and fraud.

Q. As a historian, do you feel the Tojo Vikas Company Ltd. is a body, which should be entrusted with the task of conducting excavations and enquiring into the past? What do you make of their report?

DNJ: I do not know if the Tojo Vikas International has any archaeological expertise. But it claims to have noticed some “anomalies” and “disturbances” under the ground. This finding is based on what they call ground penetration radar (GPR) analysis. But in my considered view the GPR cannot tell us anything about the nature of “anomalies” or “disturbances” under the ground – and at a site like Ayodhya, which is more than 2000 years old, there can be any number of these for a variety of reasons. I may add that if one believes the tradition of the Jains the first five of their 24 tirthankaras are associated with Ayodhya. In fact the first of them Rishabhnath is believed to have been born there. And the Chinese travelers Fa-hsien (5th century) and Hsuan Tsang (7th century) speak of strong Buddhist presence at Ayodhya. So the question arises: are the “anomalies” or “disturbances” relating to the Jain structures or the Buddhist remains? The Tojo Vikas International has nothing to say about questions like these. Let me tell you that the excavation work has been entrusted to the Archaeological Survey of India not to the Tojo Vikas International. But here again the credibility of the ASI in respect of Ayodhya is questionable. First, when other scholars including me were given access to antiquities excavated by BB Lal, the ASI did not allow us to see the site notebook of Ayodhya Trench IV, which is a crucial document for the scrutiny of the excavated material. Moreover, being a government department the ASI is likely to echo the views of the Prime Minister who recently spoke at Shimla about the presence of evidence of a pre-existing temple at Ayodhya. q