(Ab)uses of Archaeology

For a vast majority of the western world, archaeologists are people that combine romantic notions of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft into some jumbled persona. In India, the craft of archaeology has severe connotations when combined with religious Hindu ideals of knowledge. This article is a two-part commentary on the case at Ayodhya: one critiquing the practice of archaeology (by both Indian and non-Indian scholars); and the second, a look at how religion and politics have drastically influenced archaeological research and ultimately the information that is publicly accessible.

How do the concepts and myths of archaeology-as-science link to contemporary politics in India, and how do archaeologists contend with the various (ab)uses of scholarship in the political arena? Indian Archaeology was thrown into the headlines in December 1992 when the Archaeological Survey of India was called in to dig up the truth by the Courts in order to shed light on the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid case. Archaeology was taken and seen to be the scientific method of proving or disproving the presence or absence of material that was firmly rooted in religious belief and political rhetoric. The question arises, of course, is archaeology capable of doing just that? Or more precisely, in this situation, is the Archaeological Survey of India capable of that?

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has always played a key role in understanding the "political" in Indian history. This is because the agency is the direct connection between the government and the establishment of history. The ASI has not let go of the colonial legacy of bureaucratically based, state-sponsored research. Every permit granted (or not, as the case may be) for research for non-Indian scholars has created a pattern of blatant political overtones. With such a formidable wall of permits to climb, most researchers who may be interested in working on the history of Ayodhya are clearly dissuaded, and in fact, continue to be victims of veiled threats of being blackballed. Some would argue that the issue of Ayodhya is an extremely volatile subject matter leading to communal violence, and is a domestic issue—and therefore, not one that should become an international platform upon which activism should congregate. I, in contrast, would argue that the (ab)use of archaeology as science in the political realm is not acceptable; especially when there is open manipulation of data in order to further national political rhetoric.

There are countless examples of the intertwining of politics, nationalism, and archaeology—pre-WWII (Nazi) Germany, Israel, Egypt, and China—to name a few. In that sense, the response to Ayodhya is not a new political strategy, nor an unprecedented leap taken by the courts. As a familiar political tactic then, why was it not taken to task by the international archaeological circles? What renders archaeologists passive in their ability to respond (in any fashion) to events unfolding in regions where they specialize? How can archaeologists and other interested individuals talk about Ayodhya without becoming blacklisted? Ostensibly, archaeologists' general discomfort with the political overtones of their work may account for the laissez-faire attitude they adopt. A vast majority of practicing archaeologists maintains that the reconstruction of the past is not a political venture. They fail to recognize the repercussions of their work in non-academic arenas. Beyond that, the issue of working on anything even remotely political is never discussed within international archaeological circles. The few articles written about Ayodhya by non-Indian archaeologists and historians read as if walking on eggshells—every sentence carefully crafted so as not to offend any of the senior officials. Understandably, each researcher worries about the continuation of future research in India. It is interesting to note, however, that researchers (for example K. Elst 2002), whose findings corroborate the Hindutva hard-line, have had no problem gaining access to materials, nor any problems with publication of material in India through the Voice of India press.

Indian scholarship, however, has not maintained a silent response. If anything, historians and archaeologists in the Indian academy have risen to the challenge, and have held countless talks, panels and discussions about Ayodhya, and the repercussions of the state involving itself in research and the production of knowledge. Scholars in Indian history and prehistory are automatically categorized into one political and ideological school of thought or another. As they grow in their positions, their political affiliations are strengthened, only to result in an academy that is more polarized than ever before. The discussions about Ayodhya have been continuing for over a decade now, and scholars have calcified in their positions. This has resulted in the demise of actual dialogue—there are people speaking, but neither side is listening. This collapse of discourse among scholars about the issues plaguing Ayodhya and the excavations of the site is one of the key problems we must contend with before we (as a larger international community of scholars) can go further.

On another level, the 1990s saw massive changes to history textbooks, museum signs, and overt signs of cartographic aggression. By the time fear of Y2K subsided, a new fear gripped the halls of history and archaeology—the BJP government had started a clear line of ideological intervention in scholarship. Research designs and publications of texts were put on hold, and in some distressing cases, inaccurate archaeological data became made available for mass consumption produced by the Voice of India publications. These publications were scarce in text and description and concentrated on photographs of material that was out of context, and easily identifiable as temple architecture. Besides unethical publication of material, the use of these publications guised as excavation photographs were clearly used for swaying public opinion about the finds from the excavations at the temple/masjid precinct—this was just dirty politics, and just the beginning.

On March 5, 2003, The Hindu reported, "The Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court today ordered the Archaeological Survey of India to undertake excavation at the disputed site of Ayodhya within the week and complete the process within a month to ascertain whether a temple existed at the place where the Babri Masjid was built."

Walking in the hallways of the Archaeological Survey of India (New Delhi) that first week of March, it was clear that the archaeologists of the ASI found themselves at distorted junctures—where decision making became more opaque, tension filled hallways left one gasping for air, and individuals were nearly sprinting in a space that was used to a more relaxed gait—even if they had nothing to do with the Ayodhya court order. The only individuals who were calm (tenaciously, even) were the high-ranking officials—those who could not afford to be portrayed as uncertain.

There were multiple predicaments that stemmed from the court order. Firstly, to demand specific results within a time frame belittles the profession of archaeology. Secondly, to structure an excavation around the proving or disproving of a religious belief is ethically problematic. Finally, to place the burden of communal violence and tension upon research obscures any little bit of objectivity that might have existed in the subject matter.

As the month of March 2003 continued, the stakes for Ayodhya rose for the Indian public. On the 11th of March, The Times of India reported that the Jain Samata Vahini (a social organization of the Jains) spokesperson Sohan Mehta claimed the site of Ayodhya as part of the ancient Jain city—and argued that it was the place where five Jain Teerthankars stayed and was among the five biggest centers of Jainism and Buddhism till 450 years ago.

During this time, the ASI was also busy filing papers to the courts requesting extensions. By March 27th 2003 the Allahabad High Court hearing the Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid title suits rejected the ASI plea for extension of time from one month to two and a half months for completing the work at Ayodhya, because they considered the request premature.

The first two weeks of excavation work was carried out in three trenches—K3, K7 and K8. Examples of articles recovered during excavations, included a bead in K3, a small piece of figurine in K7 and a small stone disc and two pieces of earthen toys in K8. The Times of India reported that about 7 feet of digging was done in K8 in which the second floor surface was found in the third layer. One to two feet of excavation work was reportedly done in K3 and K7. These numbers, depths and reports are irrelevant for most readers; mainly because they are completely out of context. It almost seemed that these reports were sent out to confuse the Indian public, or to create the perception that the information about the excavation was open and made public for everyone to make informed decisions about. All one had to do was to walk up to a government office requesting a copy of the reports to realize that this was not open to anyone, and all documents relating to the excavations conducted at Ayodhya are considered classified documents.

As the perceptions of reality continued to be created by one political game player or another, more minority religious groups got in on the action. On April 6th, 2003, according to The Times of India, the Lord Buddha club, an association claiming to represent the Buddhist community, filed a petition with the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court seeking to become a party in the Ayodhya land title dispute. Udit Raj, Chairman of the Lord Buddha Club and National President of the Justice Party called a press conference at which he displayed old looking books of Chinese travelers (Fa Hyen from the 5th century & Huen Tsang) and Sir Alexander Cunningham's (the first Director General of the ASI), excavation report from Ayodhya (1862-63) in which each of the sources report Ayodhya as being a major Buddhist center. Raj also revisited the Tulsi Das issue; in which he pointed out that the Ram Charit Manas were written about 50 years after Babur came to India—and there was no mention about a Ram Mandir being demolished by Muslim invaders. Raj continued with the argument that there were many other temples in the country which had been built after demolishing Buddha stupas.

The archaeology at Ayodhya has only brought to surface the ugliest faces of Indian politics and the unscrupulous lengths to which archaeologists will go (or will be forced to go) for political gain. From losing reports of the excavation, to having disks stolen, to "missing inscription 53.4," the ASI has not had an easy task in dealing with Ayodhya.

At one point or another, the ASI has had almost all the political parties dismiss evidence as being fabricated or being one sided or just bad science. One wonders how many times the ASI had to update the report to placate a political pressure. And, at the end of the day, if no one finds the ASI credible, how useful was it to issue the court order to uncover the truth?

The city of Ayodhya is unlike any other city in India; a city quite literally turned inside out for the sake of political gains. One wonders how the every day has been effected by this turmoil. There was one day, however, when Ayodhya became like every other city in India. Traditionally, anthropologists consider war and sports to be on ends of the same spectrum of competition. Perhaps this is why on March 10th, 2003 cricket commentary overwhelmed devotional songs in this temple town and residents seemed more concerned about the fate of the India—Sri Lanka World Cup match that day than the outcome of the excavation at the disputed site. Even the ASI team members were seen asking the pilgrims about the progress of the match. It is distressing that this one day is seen as out of the ordinary—and the communal tension that permeates the streets of the city, as an every day occurrence.

This article has not offered any solution. I would be wary if a short article did offer a solution to such an immense issue. The aim of this piece is to serve as an opening; a platform where others may join in the discourse. Currently, there are few non-Indian archaeologists that have actively engaged in this discussion. In that sense, it is a critique of the practice of archaeology, drawing attention to the clear political nature of knowledge production of the past in India.


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