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Friday, October 15, 2010

Imagined histories

The Court watched a parade of the good, the bad and the ugly

By Swapan Dasgupta

When the history of the Ayodhya movement comes to be written, there will be the inevitable search for heroes and villains. The selection will be contentious: one man's hero is, after all, another man's villain. At this interim stage, when the Allahabad High Court verdict has opened a small window of opportunity for an amicable settlement that leaves no side completely dissatisfied, it would help to examine how the beauty parade of the good, the bad and the ugly has been viewed from the Bench.

An exploration of Justice Sudhir Agarwal's voluminous judgment is pertinent in the context of a determined bid by India's vocal Left-wing intelligentsia to rubbish the judgment as a departure from modernity, Constitutionalism and the rule of law. In a statement by 61 'intellectuals' led by historian Romila Thapar, that includes the cream of the Left-Liberal establishment and sundry art dealers, photographers and food critics, the judgment was attacked for dealing yet "another blow to India's secular fabric".

At the heart of the fury of the 'intellectuals' is the court's assault on the reputation of the clutch of 'eminent historians' who have dictated the 'secular' discourse on the Ayodhya dispute. The Court questioned the competence of various 'expert' witnesses and cast doubts on their intellectual integrity.

It was the Archaeological Survey of India report of court-monitored excavations in 2003 of the disputed site which set the cat among the pigeons. After exhaustive hearing s of "all possible angles in the matter so that there may not remain a grievance", the High Court accepted the ASI report which Dr R.C. Thakran of Delhi University, an expert witness for the Sunni Waqf Board, dubbed "an unprofessional document full of gross distortions, one-sided presentation of evidence, clear falsifications and motivated inferences."

Thakran's indignation was understandable. In its conclusion, the ASI submitted that "a massive structure with at least three structural phases and three successive attached with it" was located at the disputed 2.77 acres in Ayodhya. The scale of the buildings indicated that they were for "public" functions. "It was over the top of this construction during the early 16th century the disputed structure was constructed directly resting over it."

Without mincing words, the ASI report had brushed aside the so-called Historians Report to the Nation authored by Professors R.S. Sharma, M. Athar Ali, D.N. Jha and Suraj Bhan released in May 1991. This document was a plea to the Government of India "to include impartial historians in the process of forming judgment on historical facts." As an example of this "impartial" history, it was argued that "The full blown legend of the destruction of a temple at the site of Rama's birth and Sita ki Rasoi is as late as the 1850s. Since then what we get is merely the progressive reconstruction of imagined history based on faith."

Subsequently, as more research pointed otherwise, the goal post was quietly shifted. In her deposition as an expert for the Waqf Board, Aligarh historian Shireen Moosvi suggested that "The legend of Ayodhya being the birthplace of Rama is found from the 17th century, prior to which there is no legend about Rama's birthplace in medieval history." However, during cross-examination Moosvi was also admitted: "It is correct that in Sikh literature this is a tradition that Guru Nanak had visited Ayodhya, had darshan of Ram janmasthan and had bathed in the River Saryu."

A horrific misrepresentation was sought to be covered up without the slightest show of contrition.

A curious feature of the 1991 intervention which emerged from Suraj Bhan's cross-examination was the disinclination of the "imartial historians" to undertake any field work. In his deposition, Bhan stated: "I gave this report in May. I might have gone to Ayodhya in February-March…In my first deposition I may have stated that I had gone to the disputed site before June 1991 for the first time."

Nor was Bhan the only armchair archaeologist. Echoing Moosvi, the medieval historian who felt that "to ascertain whether it is temple or mosque, it was not necessary to see the disputed site", Professor D.Mandal, another expert witness for the Waqf Board, admitted he wrote his Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition without even visiting Ayodhya and with an eye to the presidential reference to the Supreme Court. Mandal also admitted that "Whatsoever little knowledge I have of Babur is only that Babur was (a) ruler of the 16th century. Except for this I do not have any knowledge of Babur." Justice Agarwal was sufficiently moved to say about Mandal that "The statements made by him in cross-examination shows the shallowness of his knowledge on the subject."

Shallowness and superficiality are themes that recur. Bhan confessed that the grandly titled Report to the Nation was written under "pressure" in six weeks and "without going through the record of the excavation by B.B. Lal".

The lapse would have put an undergraduate to shame but not the "impartial" historians. During her cross-examination, Suvira Jaiswal, another Waqf Board expert historian, confessed: "I have read nothing about Babri Mosque… Whatever knowledge I gained with respect to the disputed site was on the basis of newspapers or …from the report of historians." Sushil Shrivastava, a "historian" whose bizarre book on Ayodhya secured favourable media publicity and is still cited approvingly by CPI(M)'s Sitaram Yechuri, admitted he had "very little knowledge of history", didn't know Arabic, Persian, epigraphy or calligraphy and had got translations done by his father-in-law. Justice Agarwal was stunned by his "dishonesty".

Once the ASI excavations confirmed that the Babri Masjid wasn't built on virgin land, "impartial" history turned to imaginative history. It was suggested by Suraj Bhan that what lay beneath the mosque was an "Islamic structure of the Sultanate period." D.Mandal went one better suggesting that after the Gupta period "this archaeological site became desolate for a long time". The reason: floods. Supriya Verma contested the "Hindu" character of recovered artefacts from the Kushan, Shunga and Gupta periods—something even Bhan and Mandal had admitted to. These, she said, "could well have been part of palaces, Buddhist structure, Jain structure, Islamic structure." There were also suggestions, never proven or pressed, that the ASI had falsified and suppressed data.

The Court was not amused. Dismissing the unsubstantiated allegations "we find on the contrary, pre-determined attitude of the witness (Suraj Bhan) against ASI which he has admitted. Even before submission of ASI report and its having been seen by the witness, he formed (an) opinion and expressed his views…" Justice Agarwala was "surprised to see in the zeal of helping …the parties in whose favour they were appearing, these witnesses went ahead …and wrote a totally new story" of a mosque under a mosque.

The Judge was unaware of what constitutes "scientific" history in India. In her deposition as an expert in Ancient History, Suvira Jaiswal made an important clarification: "I am giving statement on oath regarding Babri Mosque without any probe and not on the basis of my knowledge; rather I am giving the statement on the basis of my opinion."

She was articulating the prevailing philosophy of history writing in contemporary India. The Courts recoiled in horror at the "dearth of logical thinking" and the underlying cronyism behind the public stands of India's "eminent" historians. Quoting a British Law Lord from an 1843 judgment, it suggested their expertise was "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"—harsh words that civil society needs to remember the next occasion the "impartial" historians strut on the public stage.

The Telegraph, October 15, 2010


Pijush said...

Contrary to what people might think, JNU does have an engineering department. It's called "History Engineering". JNU has a Center of Excellence for engineering India's history, using outdated Russian/British technology and catering to the Middle-east market. Equipped with a full service rig up, fabrication and coating facility.

Govind Raj said...

Wonderful piece of information. Thanks !

BJP_supporter said...

A lot of voters, as was seen in the last Delhi assembly elections immediately following terror attacks, still vote congress because to them, BJP has been 'proved' to be a communal party. In the secular/communal debate, Ayodhya is a key factor.

How many of those voters, do you think, could your arguments, or the details in the judgment, influence? It feels like dejavu because these arguments had been available to those who cared, for a long time.

I think the way Karnataka BJP handled the affairs in the past week, however squeamish it could have made this class of voters, would have also influenced some sections of the non-squeamish voters in BJP's favor. Ofcourse I dont have a proof for this.

satyam said...

great one....
but what perplexes me is that these LEFT(behind) intellectuals are able to punch a lot above their weight.. which is also true for the left which is stuck in two BASTIONS and yet influences so much of our POLICY and public debate.... i guess this space comes to them as the media inherently likes to spice up things... no better way to rev up the trps i guess as these intellectuals can manufacture demons and rewrite history with no qualms.... kudos to you SIR...

Anonymous said...

A wonderful articles. Sheer professional dishonesty displayed by these so-called 'eminent historians' has been exposed in this issue. If they can so blatantly misrepresent facts and concoct bizarre stories on a well publicized issue like Ayodhya and get away with that, one wonders what 'spin' they must be giving to other historical narratives that are not under public scrutiny. Their audacity is breathtaking.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful articles. Sheer professional dishonesty displayed by these so-called 'eminent historians' has been exposed in this issue. If they can so blatantly misrepresent facts and concoct bizarre stories on a well publicized issue like Ayodhya and get away with that, one wonders what 'spin' they must be giving to other historical narratives that are not under public scrutiny. Their audacity is breathtaking.

Plug gulP said...

The Historians report to the Nation is an insult to all Indians, and all followers of the scientific method. This is akin to the Creationism and anti-global warming movement in the US, where personal opinion is confused with scientific fact, in this case by people strangely on the right side of the aisle in that country.

Anonymous said...

I think all the 'eminent' and 'impartial' historians you mentioned in your piece can start anchoring debates on mainstream English news media now that they have established their 'secular' credentials!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

These are the same historians who prepare the syllabus of NCERT and CBSE. Worldwide , it is fast getting proven that there were no aryans invading dravidians but, NCERT still teaches the AIT (Aryan Invasion theory) to Class 5 students, even though genetic evidence has proven them wrong.

Anonymous said...

These are the same historians who prepare the syllabus of NCERT and CBSE. Worldwide , it is fast getting proven that there were no aryans invading dravidians but, NCERT still teaches the AIT (Aryan Invasion theory) to Class 5 students, even though genetic evidence has proven them wrong.

Rohit said...

Hi Swapan,

How did you gain information about all this? Are these mentioned in the full report of ayodhya judgement? How can a non-media person like me gain access to the same? I am tired of hearing the accusation that the decision is based on faith & not evidence. Your article tells me that these sickular idiots made a fool of themselves in court. How can we read the complete report?

Swapan Dasgupta said...

@ROHIT: The full (and rather voluminous) text of the Allahabad High Court judgment is available at the High Court site in pdf files. Just Google it. Justice Agarwal's 20 volume judgment is most instructive since he has also appended most of the depositions, including the ASI report.

Water Engineer said...

See the immense contribution of these "experts". They succeeded in convincing the HC that the ASI report was correct. They came against Ram Lalla but ended up as His witnesses.

Subhorup Dasgupta said...

Quite a run up to dussehra here.

Pradeep said...

The most disappointing fact in all the debates and analysis of the Ayodhya Verdict in past 15 days is that BJP has forgotten that the most authoritative person to speak on this matter was Arun Shourie, instead they chose to let Chandan Mitra and Mahesh Jethmalani, who are neither historians nor have deep understanding laws concerned.
BJP leaders had completed the marginalisation of Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha by voting in favor of amended Nuke liability bill and they have now put an end to relasionship with Arun Shourie by not ignoring his contributions that made sense to then Middle and educated class on the Ayodhya Movement.

JayKumar said...

Absolutely you are right that through out the debate BJP or over all Sangh Parivar should have asked Arun Shourie to come on news debate but Mahesh and Chandan are not at all associated with this movement at any point of time. So they wasted time here rather it was very good opportunity for them to show strength that they have good historians on their side who has been taking on this left intellectuals since this movement turned out to be mass movement in Indians history.

In long article Swapan mentions about Romila Thapar and her intellectual gang but my question is that many historians where cross examined there name we can see in article but same we cant see Romila Thapar names examined for cross examination if so how she provided here version of story to this issue.

Can any one provide Romila Thapar's version to court if she her self deposed before court?

Swapan Dasgupta said...

@JayKumar. Neither Romila Thapar nor Irfan Habib deposed before the Allahabad HC.

Anonymous said...


I had the same feeling as you vis-a-vis Shourie's silence on the subject. Because he wrote extensively on the Ayodhya movement in the early 90's, I thought he'd come forward and say a few words on the HC judgment. However, I doubt that it is the BJP that is sidelining him. Maybe he isn't making himself available. Maybe media people are not seeking him out for soundbites. I suspect that he has more or less retired from active public life. He is not writing much, and his public appearances are also infrequent, mostly at institutes of learning.

Pradeep said...

@Jayakumar, Sangh Parivars have never been interested in having their voices represented in Media world or the Intelectual Circles.
But ideally, BJP was supposed to be the one to bridge this void; by working on Opinion building exercises, by bringing various true intellectuals and historians under a banner, but the BJP is being hallowed by termites within, how will the outer Iron fence (Sangh) protect it, if i put it in Arun Shourie's words.
RSS under Mohanrao Baghwat has shown far more openness and flexibility to all those other organisations and individuals on matters of Religion and nation. they have worked with many who do not agree with RSS views on many other issues. Subramaniam Swamy and Baba Ramdev for example.
It is the BJP under its Gennext leaders has become more contrieved and hallow in nature.

Vikram said...

Dear Swapan

Unrelated to this post, I get the sense that BJP is in wait and watch mode for now, with no long-term strategy apparent to win the 2014 general election. Where is the organizational revamp required to re-enter UP, or become a significant force in untapped states like AP & TN?

Also, the party has been muted in pushing for a speedy resolution of the Amit Shah case, or to highlight the mockery of justice that is the Kasab trial. One gets the sense that they are usually reacting to some allegation which the backroom manipulators of Congress conjure. Am i missing something...will a political masterstroke be unleashed at the apt time?

Manas said...

High priestess Thapar and her fellow senior historengineers like comrades Jha, Sharma, Habib, Pannikar are smart enough not to appear before the court. That's what small fish such as Thakran, Bhan, Moosvi, Mandal, et. al. are for. The real villains - the aforementioned senior historengineers are still at large and brewing their next concoction.