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Friday, October 29, 2010

Remembering right

India is a country with a rich history and poor historians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a court in Normandy ordered the prosecution of the Mayor of the small French hamlet of Gonneville-sur-Mer for his refusal to take down a photograph of Marshal Philippe Petain, the head of the Vichy Government from 1940 to 1944. The photograph had, along with photographs of other presidents, hung on a wall in the Council chamber for the past 70 years. Earlier this year, however, a visitor claimed to be offended by it and reported the matter to the League against Racism and Anti-Semitism which in turn initiated proceedings.

The Court ruled against the Mayor. It accepted the prosecution plea that Petain was "the very embodiment" of a regime that, apart from collaborating with the occupation forces, was also xenophobic and virulently anti-Semitic. The judgment also coincided with new revelations that Petain personally had a hand in the laws that excluded Jews from French public life after 1940.

The Mayor and his Council didn't contest the ignominy associated with Petain and the Vichy regime. Petain, he argued, couldn't be written out of the pages of history: "The figure of Marshal Petain has its place in the Town Hall, as do memories of the most painful and most glorious moments in our history."

The Mayor may well have been echoing General Charles De Gaulle, the man whose uncompromising resistance to the Vichy regime and the German occupation allowed France to emerge with its honour intact after Liberation. In a speech during a visit to the town of Vichy on April 18, 1959, De Gaulle struck an emotional note: "…history is a continuous thread. We are one people and whatever ups and downs we may have suffered, whatever events we may have seen, we are the great nation of France…I say this in Vichy. The past is finished. Long live Vichy! Long live France! Long live the Republic!"

This scarcely-remembered speech (quoted by historian Henry Ruosso in his much-acclaimed The Vichy Syndrome) didn't however permeate into the innards of France. The awkward reality of a vast section of patriotic French people having endorsed Petain's truce with the Germans as a way out of further humiliation is undeniable. Contemporary accounts suggest that till the tide of war changed with the German defeat in Stalingrad, the average French person accepted Petain's National Revolution as a viable approach to restoring national honour. Certainly, Vichy stalwarts like Petain, Pierre Laval and Robert Brassilach—all three convicted of treason after Liberation—perceived themselves as fiercely patriotic.

The awkwardness of having adjusted to the short-lived German occupation and ending up on the wrong side of history has troubled a large section of France. This may explain why, till very recently, embarrassed silence greeted attempts to probe too deep into the Vichy experience. In his own way, the Mayor of Gonneville-sur-Mer has challenged this evasion.

There may be few apparent similarities between the French discomfiture with Petain and Germany's handling of its Nazi past. Ever since the second Auschwitz trials in 1977, Germany has unambiguously owned up to its responsibility for the Holocaust and other horrors. There have been German apologies to Israel, Poland, Russia, and countries where the swastika flew at some point during World War II. Indeed the earnestness with which Germany has atoned for its Nazi past once prompted Avi Primor, a former Isaeli ambassador to Germany, to once ask: "Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?"

The willingness of Germany to confront its troubled past and yet not be overwhelmed by it took another leap this month when the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened its exhibition "Hitler and the Germans—Nation and Crime". The exhibition addresses the issue that, until the late-1960s, many Germans were unwilling to confront: that Hitler would have been nothing had he not received the enthusiastic support of the German people. The curators deliberately kept the exhibits prosaic. The idea was to show the extent to which both ordinary Germans and the elite accepted Hitler and deified him.

There is, of course, a real danger that in being obsessed with confronting the inheritance of the Third Reich the other facets of "German genius" may be overlooked—an argument made forcefully by the English writer Peter Watson. Watson's contention that Germany did itself incalculable harm by endorsing the Nazis—without Hitler, the 20th century may well have been Germany's century and not America's—is compelling and may serve to offset the impact of the guilt-tripping commentaries that have accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel's robust interventions on economic and social policy. Unlike France which is still squeamish about its Vichy past, Germany appears to have handled its history with incredible maturity.

The German experience has a bearing on India's uncertain clumsy experiments with the past. At the most basic level, India is happiest obfuscating many centuries of history under the mantra "5,000 years of culture and civilisation". 'Official' India is most troubled when something like the dispute in Ayodhya erupts and a High Court judgment resurrects an issue that has been frozen in denial—the destruction of shrines under the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghuls.

The troubling feature of India is the growing chasm between popular historical memory and the officially endorsed 'nation-building' history. In the popular perception, there was widespread medieval vandalism and India is dotted with physical evidence of a shrine that was either destroyed or whose denominational character was changed. Yet, since the early-1970s, historians whose works are deemed 'respectable' have wilfully glossed over themes that apparently run counter to an idyllic syncretic or composite culture. In schools and universities, narrative history has been junked in favour of a crude economism. It is somehow felt that 'nation building' will be better served by focussing on the economic intricacies of feudal societies rather than the bigoted excesses of Aurangzeb. Outright denial or obfuscation has become hallmarks of a country with a rich history and poor historians.

Unfortunately, the experiments with disingenuity haven't really worked. Academic historians constituted themselves into a cosy club during the Ayodhya agitation claiming that the whole Ram Janmabhoomi belief was an elaborate hoax and, most likely, a sinister colonial creation. No shrine, they insisted, had been destroyed to make way for a mosque in 1528. Far from neutralising the Ram bhakts, this negationism actually drove the devout into greater bouts of frenzy, culminating in the demolition of the 16th century shrine. Had the more pertinent question—Must India spend its energies overturning medieval wrongs?—been asked, it is entirely possible that society wouldn't have been so damagingly polarised. The battle to set back the clock of history was actually a crusade to right the wrongs of historians.

"Our history", the British Education Secretary Michael Gove said last month while unveiling an initiative to restore narrative history to the school curriculum, "has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present." It's an enlightened message that could just as well be relevant for India.

History is essentially a conversation between the past and the present, an engagement that doesn't follow a pre-determined script. However, this scintillating encounter will be hideously distorted if the past is bowdlerised to suit contemporary fashion. India is paying the price for trying to learn from a history built on questionable certitudes.

The Telegraph, October 29, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

India Inc should look beyond BTech and MBA

By Swapan Dasgupta

The generous $50 million donation to the Harvard Business School by the Tatas has, quite naturally, attracted considerable attention in India. This includes uncharitable suggestions that India's high-profile multinational has got its priorities all mixed up and is suffering from a colonial hangover.

The debate over the ethical validity of corporates directing their philanthropic energies abroad, particularly when Indian education could do with booster shots, is likely to continue. The India versus Harvard tussle is, however, only one emotive aspect of the public interest in private endowments. Equally relevant is the question: what are the donations for? In addressing this issue, it is best to not lump all donations to overseas institutions under the same roof.

The Tata donation to a premier Business School has followed a path well-travelled. In India's prevailing value system, management education is the pinnacle of accomplishment, on par with an IIT degree. An MBA is regarded as a passport to career advancement and explains why business schools have mushroomed all over India. Indian society hasn't paused to ask the question British cartoonist Martin Rowson once posed to me in jest: "Why does a man selling envelopes in Swindon need a management degree?"

Rowson was guilty of caricature. Yet, there is a point to ponder: has India become obsessive about the MBA, at the cost of everything else?

This is why it may be instructive to look at the two other gifts to Harvard that were overshadowed by fat Tata cheque: Anand Mahindra's $10 million donation to the Harvard Humanities Centre and Narayana Murthy's $5 million to the Clay Sanskrit Library.

To the reigning philistines, these endowments were eccentric indulgences. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru injected the promotion of "scientific temper" into the Directive Principles of the Constitution, Indian conventional wisdom has deemed the perusal of the humanities a colossal waste of time and an unaffordable luxury. For conspiratorial post-colonialists, the primacy of the liberal arts during the Raj was Macaulay's plot to create a nation of subordinate clerks. To economic planners concerned with a skilled workforce, classical studies or Indology was another diversion of resources. In the contrived science and technology versus humanities battle, the latter stood no chance.

The institutional devaluation of the humanities was reflected in the modified design of the examinations to the all-important civil services examinations. From the day multiple choice questions became the norm and the essay paper was junked, it became clear that lucidity and articulation—the ability to construct an elegant and internally consistent argument—were no longer regarded as worthwhile attributes.

The stress on applied skills was no doubt a shift away from an elitism that had earlier made the IAS and IFS a wing of the St Stephen's College alumni club. But, have we overdone the anti-elitism bit and, instead, bred a generation lacking lucidity in three languages?

The 'reform' of civil services recruitment was just the tip of the killer iceberg. Since S. Nurul Hasan decided to make education the laboratory for some inspired ideological engineering, the humanities were inexplicably merged into the 'social sciences'. Instead of being an argumentative conversation involving the past and present, "scientific history" resulted in students being force fed dollops of questionable certitudes. Literary criticism became jargon infested and infected with derision of 'dead, white males'. Classical studies were made lifeless by the official disdain for theology and religion. Indeed, had it not been for universities in Britain, Germany and the US, Indology as a discipline would have become extinct. The state of the Asiatic Society is living proof of the ease with which we destroyed institutions that others had so painstakingly built.

It is in the context of the relentless assault on the humanities that we can view Mahindra and Murthy's donations to Harvard as inspired choices. Murthy's gift will help complete and perhaps revive the monumental project sponsored by the philanthropist John Clay to publish the essential works of classical Sanskrit literature. Mahindra's endowment to his alma mater could inspire fellow industrialists to recognise a life beyond technology and business studies. Since India often takes its cue from 'phoren', the two donations may even prompt a larger realisation that a function of education is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Who knows, one of these days we may even be privileged to hear a HRD minister say that education isn't just about the "scientific temper".

Sunday Times of India, October 24, 2010

Deny Arundhati claim to fame

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the aim of those who organised the convention of secessionists in Delhi on October 21 was to court both notoriety and publicity, they can look back with satisfaction on a very successful venture. Middle India may have been absolutely appalled and horrified at the spectacle of pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani preaching his divisive message in the heart of the Capital, flanked by the intellectual cheer-leader of the anything-to-offend brigade, Arundhati Roy. However, the organisers weren't interested in winning over Indian opinion. Their objective was propagandist.

First, the convention on azadi organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners—which seems a Maoist front—was meant to signal a grand unity of those seeking the vivisection of the Indian Union. They included the Kasmiri secessionists, the rump of the Khalistani movement, the separatists from the North-eastern states and, of course, the Maoists who are trying to create the conditions which will allow the secessionists to succeed. The event was a gathering of political rogues and was meant to be that way.

Secondly, it came as no surprise to the organisers that a convention of this nature organised in Delhi attracted vocal opposition. I can fully sympathise with those Kashmiri Hindus who were agitated by the presence of someone who created the conditions for the horrible ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. However, it is also a fact that the organisers were banking on spirited protests against Geelani to elevate a vicious message into a debate over free speech and democracy. The ease with which some TV channels fell into the trap was indicative of the larger gullibility of India's liberal establishment.

In a lucid intervention on the subject, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley has argued that the freedom of speech is not absolute but also governed by other laws. The Indian Penal Code, for example, does not extend the principle of free speech to utterances calculated to provoke enmity between castes and religion and undermine the integrity of the state. In the past, the latter offence used to be called sedition but in the contemporary world that usage is rare but in essence the secessionists and their supporters seem to be guilty of that horrible offence—if prosecuted and convicted by a court of law.

Following Jaitley's intervention, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that the authorities are examining the speeches to see they violated the law. In principle this is right. If Varun Gandhi can first be jailed and prosecuted for his alleged hate speech during the 2009 election campaign, there are grounds to press for charges against Geelani and Arundhati Roy. According to the report in Pioneer, the Booker Prize winner told the gathering: "India needs Azadi from Kashmir and Kashmir from India. It is a good debate that has started. We must deepen this conversation and am happy that young people are getting involved for this cause which is their future." It is a different matter that the "conversation" consisted mainly of treacherous elements shouting slogans, including "Azadi ka matlab kya? Lal ilaha il illah".

Actually, the speech of Arundhati Roy was more incendiary than Geelani who repeated the hoary line about "self-determination" and tripartite talks to hammer out a solution. In fact, Geelani stressed he wasn't against India but wanted a "free" Kashmir where—and he was at pains to spell this out— Islamic strictures against consuming alcohol would not apply to the minorities.

Whether the policemen who examine the transcripts of the convention will also feel that Arundhati crossed the Lakshman rekha between the acceptable and unacceptable is unknown. The irony is that a publicity-conscious pamphleteer would love to be prosecuted for sedition and, preferably, even arrested. The spectacle of a small, innocent-looking, soft-spoken woman who is a celebrity in the Noam Chomsky-loving classes in the West being led away by burly, pot-bellied policemen will make for wonderful TV and is calculated to whet the appetites of all who believe that India's democracy is counterfeit. It will have a global impact and may even bring forth a petition calling for her release signed by the who's who of the Manhattan establishment. Maybe President Obama will also chip in.

An Arundhati Roy charged with sedition for daring to question India's 'occupation' of Kashmir will be the best thing to have happened to a movement that never quite succeeded in putting the stone throwers on par with the Palestinian intifada. The attempts to transform the disturbances in Kashmir into an international human rights issue has failed mainly because India has too many better things to offer. The last thing we now need is to make Arundhati Roy into India's Liu Xiaobo and Geelani into the Taliban-loving Amnesty International's "prisoner of conscience."

Jaitley is right about the law and the Constitution but he is wrong about the political wisdom of prosecuting secessionists for non-violent offences. Geelani routinely makes speeches in Srinagar that are far more provocative than the one he made last Thursday in Delhi. The fact that he made it in Delhi doesn't worsen the offence. Both Srinagar and Delhi are, after all, in India.

Secessionism has to be countered both militarily and through arguments. An argumentative environment is India's best advertisement against intolerant Maoism and Islamism.

Sunday Pioneer, October 24, 2010


 


 


 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Summary of ASI Report on Ayodhya excavations

[Below is reproduced the "Summary of Results" of the Archaeological Survey of India report on the Ayodhya excavations. This is contained in Volume 18 (pages 4299 to 4305) of Justice Sudhir Agarwal's judgment in the Allahabad High Court case on the Ayodhya dispute]


 

"Summary of Results":

"Excavation at the disputed site of Rama

Janmabhumi - Babri Masjid was carried out by the

Archaeological Survey of India from 12 March 2003 to 7

August 2003. During this period, as per the directions of

the Hon'ble High Court, Lucknow, 82 trenches were

excavated to verify the anomalies mentioned in the report

of the Ground Penetrating Radar Survey which was

conducted at the site prior to taking up the excavations. A

total number of 82 trenches along with some of their baulks

were checked for anomalies and anomaly alignments. The

anomalies were confirmed in the trenches in the form of

pillar bases, structures, floors and foundation though no

such remains were noticed in some of them at the stipulated

depths and spots. Besides the 82 trenches, a few more

making a total of 90 finally were also excavated keeping in

view the objective fixed by the Hon'ble High Court to

confirm the structures.


 

The results of the excavation are summarized as here

under:

The northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) using

people were the first to occupy the disputed site at

Ayodhya. During the first millennium B.C. although no

structural activities were encountered in the limited area

probed, the material culture is represented by terracotta

figurines of female deities showing archaic features, beads

of terracotta and glass, wheels and fragments of votive

tanks etc. The ceramic industry has the collection of

NBPW, the main diagnostic trait of the period besides the

grey, black slipped and red wares. A round signet with

legend in Asokan Brahmi is another important find of this

level. On the basis of material equipment and 14 C dates,

this period may be assigned to circa 1000 B.C. to 300 B.C.

The Sunga horizon (second-first century B.C.) comes

next in the order of the cultural occupation at the site. The

typical terracotta mother goddess, human and animal

figurines, beads, hairpin, engraver etc. represent the

cultural matrix of this level. The pottery collection includes

black slipped, red and grey wares etc. The stone and brick

structure found from this level mark the beginning of the

structural activity at the site.


 

The Kushan period (first to third century A.D.)

followed the Sunga occupation. Terracotta human and

animal figurines, fragments of votive tanks, beads,

antimony rod, hair pin, bangle fragments and ceramic

industry comprising red ware represent the typical Kushan

occupation at the site. Another important feature of this

period is the creation of large sized structures as witnesses

by the massive structure running into twenty-two courses.

The advent of Guptas (fourth to sixth century A.D.)

did not bring any qualitative change in building activity

although the period is known for its Classical artistic

elements. However, this aspect is represented by the typical

terracotta figurines and a copper coin with the legend Sri

Chandra (Gupta) and illustrative potsherds.

During the Post-Gupta-Rajput period (seventh to

tenth century A.D.), too the site has witnessed structural

activity mainly constructed of burnt bricks. However,

among the exposed structures, there stands a circular brick

shrine which speaks of its functional utility for the first

time. To recapitulate quickly, exteriorly on plan, it is

circular whereas internally squarish with an entrance from

the east. Though the structure is damaged, the northern

wall still retains a provision for pranala, i.e., waterchute

which is a distinct feature of contemporary temples already

known from the Ganga-Yamuna plain.


 

Subsequently, during the early medieval period

(eleventh - twelfth century A.D.) a huge structure, nearly 50

m in north-south orientation was constructed which seems

to have been short lived, as only four of the fifty pillar

bases exposed during the excavation belong to this level

with a brick crush floor. On the remains of the above

structure was constructed a massive structure with at least

three structural phases and three successive floors attached

with it. The architectural members of the earlier short lived

massive structure with stencil cut foliage pattern. And other

decorative motifs were reused in the construction of the

monumental structure having a huge pillared hall (or two

halls) which is different from residential structures,

providing sufficient evidence of a construction of public

usage which remained under existence for a long time

during the period VII (Medieval-Sultanate level - twelfth to

sixteenth century A.D.) It was over the top of this

construction during the early sixteenth century, the

disputed structure was constructed directly resting over it.

There is sufficient proof of existence of a massive and

monumental structure having a minimum dimension of

50x30 m in north-south and east-west directions

respectively just below the disputed structure. In course of

present excavations nearly 50 pillar bases with brick bat

foundation, below calcrete blocks topped by sandstone

blocks were found. The pillar bases exposed during the

present excavation in northern and southern areas also

give an idea of the length of the massive wall of the earlier

construction with which they are associated and which

might have been originally around 60 m (of which the 50 m

length is available at present). The centre of the central

chamber of the disputed structure falls just over the central

point of the length of the massive wall of the preceding

period which could not be excavated due to presence of

Ram Lala at the spot in the make-shift structure. This area

is roughly 15x15 m on the raised platform. Towards east of

this central point a circular depression with projection on

the west, cut into the large sized brick pavement, signify the

place where some important object was placed. Terracotta

lamps from the various trenches and found in a group in

the levels of Periods VII in trench G2 are associated with

the structural phase.


 

In the last phase of the period VII glazed ware sherds

make their appearance and continue in the succeeding

levels of the next periods where they are accompanied by

glazed tiles which were probably used in the original

construction of the disputed structure. Similarly is the case

of celadon and porcelain sherds recovered in a very less

quantity they come from the secondary context. Animal

bones have been recovered from various levels of different

periods, but skeletal remains noticed in the trenches in

northern and southern areas belong to the Period IX as the

grave pits have been found cut into the deposition coeval

with the late disputed structures and are sealed by the top

deposit.


 

It is worthwhile to observe that the various structures

exposed right from the Sunga to Gupta period do not speak

either about their nature or functional utility as no

evidence has come to approbate them. Another noteworthy

feature is that it was only during and after Period IV

(Gupta level) onwards upto Period IX (late and post

Mughal level) that the regular habitational deposits

disappear in the concerned levels and the structural phases

are associated with either structural debris or filling

material taken out from the adjoining area to the level the

ground for construction purpose. As a result of which much

of the earlier material in the form of pottery, terracottas

and other objects of preceding periods, particularly of

Period I (NBPW level) and Period III (Kushan level) are

found in the deposits of later periods mixed along with

their contemporary material. The area below the disputed

site thus, remained a place for public use for a long time

till the Period VIII (Mughal level) when the disputed

structure was built which was confined to a limited area

and population settled around it as evidenced by the

increase in contemporary archaeological material

including pottery. The same is further attested by the

conspicuous absence of habitational structures such as

house-complexes, soakage pits, soakage jars, ring wells,

drains, wells, hearths, kilns or furnaces etc. from Period IV

(Gupta level) onwards and in particular from Period VI

(Early Medieval-Rajput level) and Period VII (Medieval-

Sultanate level).


 

The site has also proved to be significant for taking

back its antiquarian remains for the first time to the middle

of the thirteenth century B.C. (1250±130 B.C.) on the

analogy of the C14 dates. The lowest deposit above the

natural soil represents the NBPW period and therefore the

earliest remains may belong to the thirteenth century B.C.

which is confirmed by two more consistent C14 dates from

the NBPW level (Period I), viz. (910±100 B.C.) These dates

are from trench G7. Four more dates from the upper

deposit though showing presence of NPBW and associated

pottery are determined by Radio-Carbon dating as 780±80

B.C., 530±70 B.C. And 320±80 B.C.. In the light of the

above dates in association with the Northern Black

Polished Ware (NBPW) which is generally accepted to be

between circa 600 B.C. to 300 B.C. it can be pushed back

to circa 1000 B.C. and even if a solitary date, three

centuries earlier is not associated with NBPW, the human

activity at the site dates back to circa thirteenth century

B.C. on the basis of the scientific dating method providing

the only archaeological evidence of such an early date of

the occupation of the site.


 

The Hon'ble High Court, in order to get sufficient

archaeological evidence on the issue involved "whether

there was any temple/structure which was demolished and

mosque was constructed on the disputed site "as stated on

page 1 and further on p.5 of their order dated 5 march

2003, had given directions to the Archaeological Survey of

India to excavate at the disputed site where the GPR

Survey has suggested evidence of anomalies which could

be structure, pillars, foundation walls, slab flooring etc.

which could be confirmed by excavation. Now, viewing in

totality and taking into account the archaeological

evidence of a massive structure just below the disputed

structure and evidence of continuity in structural phases

from the tenth century onwards upto the construction of the

disputed structure alongwith the yield of stone and

decorated bricks as well as mutilated sculpture of divine

couple and carved architectural members including foliage

patterns, amalaka, kapotapali doorjamb with semi-circular

pilaster, broken octagonal shaft of black schist pillar, lotus

motif, circular shrine having pranala (waterchute) in the

north, fifty pillar bases in association of the huge structure,

are indicative of remains which are distinctive features

found associated with the temples of north India."

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

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Our best game: Chip on my shoulder

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are different explanations as to why the Government of India spent Rs 70,000 crore or more to host the Commonwealth Games. To the cynical, it was an incentive package for the country's burgeoning, public sector-driven 'cash and carry' economy. To political animals, it was aimed at boosting the prospects of Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi Chief Minister who is now inclined to pitch for the Olympics. To parochial Delhiites, the flyovers, expanded metro and upgraded civic infrastructure were about adding value to the proverbial corner plot. And to the insouciant Suresh Kalmadi, the Games were all about himself. According to The Times (London), Kalmadi has gratuitously asked the organisers of the London Olympics to consider contracting his services—presumably with Lalit Bhanot of "different standards of hygiene" fame in tow.

Midway through the proceedings, it is also becoming apparent what the Games are not about. First, it is not about people's participation in an event paid for by taxpayers. The empty stands testify to the fact that the Games are about as people-unfriendly an extravaganza as officialdom and Doordarshan can manage. Secondly, the Games are not about showcasing India's abilities. The colossal displays of incompetence, venality and deceitful conduct have given a new meaning to Incredible India.

Thanks to a dynamic private sector which, mercifully, was relatively uninvolved in the bacchanalia of a decrepit Establishment, India hasn't been totally written off yet but its ego has been deflated. It will take much more than self-congratulatory myth-building to remove the perception that underneath the hype there is still too much of the Third World lingering in India.

Finally, there is one thing this CWG isn't about: the Commonwealth.

The complete detachment of an enterprise from its avowed purpose has never been more marked and more deliberate. The CWG may have had its origins in the British Empire Games of the 1930s but despite the changed circumstances there has always been a common endeavour: to nurture a sense of community through friendship.

The one crucial element missing from the gathering in Delhi is that feeling of fraternity. The CWG could well have been an impersonal package tour of Delhi where visitors arrive, do their number, are treated to a capsuled version of Indian culture, see the Taj Mahal, taste a curry, experience Delhi belly and fly away carrying a T-shirt and memento.

Actually, it's been worse. From the time New Zealander Mike Hooper, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation, got into a spat with Kalmadi and Bhanot, and was reviled for being a white man, the behaviour of the Indian hosts has been downright boorish and offensive. A contrived protocol standoff between Prince Charles and President Pratibha Patil unleashed a needless wave of apoplectic xenophobia; Bhanot decided that Australians, Scots and the English were racist fuss pots for demanding clean mattresses and spotless toilets; the governor-general of New Zealand (who is of Indian origin) was needlessly snubbed in Delhi on Thursday with an external affairs ministry boycott of his lunch because some low-life anchor in Auckland had tastelessly caricatured Dikshit`s name; delegations from Africa and the Caribbean were treated peremptorily because they didn't come into the Organising Committee's radar; and it took a formal protest by Uganda to secure an Indian apology for an accident caused by a malfunctioning security barrier.

Nor did civil society do any better. In our bid to show off our culture and achievements we forgot that the diversity of the Commonwealth needed showcasing too. Was there anything done in Delhi to demonstrate to the numerous countries that India too was interested in them? A golden moment to build bridges across the Anglosphere—after all, the Commonwealth is essentially an English-speaking Union—was squandered by an attitude bordering on insular arrogance.

The real irony is that the Commonwealth as we know it today was created at the behest of India. In 1947, it was both Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel who forcefully insisted that India should remain in the Commonwealth, as an independent republic and without being subservient to the Crown. To them, these connections forged by Empire were an asset. It was the parallel desire of the United Kingdom and the Dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, interestingly, South Africa) to accommodate India that led to the creation of the Commonwealth. The body may not count for much politically, but it has a formidable reach and is an important element in public diplomacy.

Kalmadi, it may be suggested in hindsight, isn't merely an individual; he personifies a mindset. As a supplicant of Kalmadi, official India approached the CWG with a puerile boastfulness that rapidly turned to cussedness once alarm bells started ringing. To many Indians, this cockiness equals national pride; to many outsiders it suggests that India doesn't merely have a chip on its shoulder, it has a chip on both its shoulders.

Sunday Times of India, October 10, 2010

Suppressing voices in China won’t help

By Swapan Dasgupta

What would have happened, it was asked on Twitter last Friday, if someone in the state-controlled media in China had made a tasteless remark similar to what the TV presenter in New Zealand made about Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit? Would the Ministry of External Affairs have summoned the Chinese Ambassador, issued a demarche and snubbed a visiting dignitary?

My own guess is that we would have quietly tut-tutted, stonewalled media inquiries and retreated into the depths of helplessness. When it comes to small fry such as New Zealand, India is willing to live up to the image of Sheru, the Commonwealth Games mascot: a friendly lion but a lion all the same. However, when it comes to China, the natural instinct of the MEA is to look for excuses to avoid baring its manicured fangs.

Of course, there are exceptions. Occasionally, we do get officials and ministers who don't confuse their respect for China's civilisation with abject deference to the ruling establishment of the People's Republic of China. Despite all the dire threats issued by Beijing, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. And despite signalling that his authority stems from the first family, the Minister of Environment's unmistakable 'give it to China' approach to Arunachal Pradesh's development will not become official policy. India has its Sinophiles but it also has a political class that is not swayed by the dangerous logic of China's approach to the subcontinent.

Yet, because China policy is still unduly influenced by China experts who take their cue from Beijing, it is extremely unlikely that there will be any official Indian reaction to the Nobel committee's decision to award its Peace Prize to the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.

This is understandable. India is disinclined to wear its commitment to democracy on its sleeve. Unlike the United States which has fetishized its double standards, New Delhi is inclined to respect sovereignty—although this has not prevented our diplomats from proffering gratuitous advice to Israel, the only worthwhile democracy in West Asia. India has its inconsistencies but at least we don't claim to be the custodian of all that is noble in the world.

It is unlikely that either Rashtrapati Bhavan or Race Course Road will be writing a personal message of congratulations to the Nobel Prize winner China continues to regard as a convicted "criminal". The 54-year-old human rights activist was sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for alleged "subversion". In the Chinese context, it meant that he had questioned the absence of democratic freedoms in China and c-authored "Charter 08", a blistering attack on the crimes of the Communist Party of China. Having attracted nearly 10,000 signatures (mainly of teachers and intellectuals), Charter 08 has come to symbolise the yearning for democracy in China.

However, the understandable wariness of official India to take an official position on an award that Chinese diplomats tried desperately to prevent need not be the last word on the subject. There is nothing to prevent Indian civil society from celebrating the Nobel Committee's recognition of the universality of basic democratic rights.

That the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, coming two decades after the Dalai Lama had been similarly honoured, is calculated to infuriate Beijing isn't in any doubt. With characteristic Iron Curtain ham-handedness, the Chinese authorities have attempted to black out the news, quite forgetting that censorship doesn't work and, in fact, makes the forbidden item that much more delicious to everyone. Norway has been threatened with retaliation and, who knows, the US too will be threatened because of President Obama's call for Liu's release.

These are routine noises by a regime that, underneath its imperious arrogance, is fundamentally nervous about its own legitimacy. Some two decades ago, Deng Xiaoping had coined the characteristically cryptic phrase "Crossing the river by feeling for stones" to define China's cautious approach to political reforms that can invariably end the CPC's monopoly of power. There were many who felt that rapid economic growth and greater exposure to the capitalist world would ease Communist control. Indeed, it was widely believed that the 2008 Olympics would hasten the process of relaxation. But this has not happened.

In an interview to Daily Telegraph last year, Professor He Weifang, the lead signatory to Charter 08 assessed today's China, using Deng's metaphor: "The situation at the moment is that the river has deepened and the Party has got scared, so it has pulled back fearing that the waters will rise up and drown them. In the last two years this pulling back from the water has got worse."

Whether or not China retreats into the clutches of a nervous dictatorship has a profound bearing on the world. As it has risen to the status of the world's second largest economy, Beijing has become fiercely assertive in its conduct. With growing militarisation, colonisation of the world's mineral and energy resources in a manner reminiscent of Victorian imperialism, and aggression towards its neighbours (Japan got a taste of it last month), it is becoming increasingly apparent that China's unrestrained rise will lead to it wishing to redraw the rules of the game.

This is why it is important that enlightened voices are not suppressed in China. Taiwan has shown that democracy and the Chinese people are fully compatible.

Sunday Pioneer, October 10, 2010


 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

From the archives

Various people have requested me to provide a link to an article We're all kar sevaks now published in Indian Express on January 4, 1993.

The article reflects the mood immediately after the demolition when India appeared totally polarised. Some of the assertions reflect the heady emotionalism of the times. Read it in its historical context.

I am also linking another article At home nowhere published in Sunday magazine in January 1993. It too conveys the mood of the times.

Would love comments.

Verdict leaves ‘secular intellectuals’ aghast

By Swapan Dasgupta

The suggestion that India has 'moved on' from the turbulent decade of conflict may have become the shorthand for lazy and facile thinking. Yet, there is more than a grain of truth in the deduction that India's priorities have changed significantly in the past 25 years. Last Thursday's High Court judgment on Ayodhya was followed keenly by the entire country. The authorities were apprehensive that the outcome could trigger disturbances and even rioting. But nothing untoward happened either on Thursday or after the Friday prayers. The sound and fury was confined to the tamasha in the TV studios. There were reports of simmering anger in the 'Muslim street' and a few inflammatory sermons from the pulpit but the disquiet, if any, was internalised.

The matter-of-fact way in which India digested the complex High Court judgment suggests three possibilities. Perhaps people just weren't interested—a plausible explanation in a country where the sense of history is feeble. Maybe, people had heeded the Home Minister's advice and were mulling over the verdict's implications—an implausible explanation in an easily excitable country. Finally, it is indeed possible that most of India thought the verdict—particularly the order for a three-way partition of the contentious 2.77 acres—was fair, just and based on the one thing that counts: robust common sense.

The suggestion that the High Court verdict has enjoyed a spectacular degree of popular acceptance runs counter to the indignation in "intellectual" circles. Not since the Supreme Court's Shah Bano verdict in 1986 was rubbished by clerics and some ministers of the Rajiv Gandhi Government has any court judgment been at the receiving end of so much abuse by so few.

Those who till 4 pm on September 28 were solemnly pontificating on the "majesty of the law" and the overriding importance of the Indian Constitution went completely berserk after it became that the Sunni Waqf Board petition had been rejected and that the court had favoured the Ram lalla deity with possession of its perceived janmasthan. The judgment was compared to a "panchayati" order and "majoritarian conceit" and painted as being so outrageous that it destroyed Muslim faith in the judicial process. Additionally, it was pilloried for having reduced Muslims to second class citizens.

It is understandable that those convinced of a favourable verdict were deeply disappointed. Ironically, the intemperate, inflammatory and indecorous language didn't come from the representatives of either the Sunni Waqf Board or the Muslim Personal Law Board. Apart from the MP from Hyderabad's Razakar party who was his usual provocative self, it was the cream of India's liberal chic that went berserk.

Some of the outburst was predictable. Those whom Arun Shourie dubbed the "eminent historians" were understandably agitated that the High Court judges had the effrontery to discount their 'no-temple-ever' assertions in favour of the evidence culled by the Archaeological Survey of India. Their spirited attempt to reclaim the mantle of sole spokesmen for India's past was understandable. If the courts discount their fatwas, it was only a matter of time before the stifled voices of other historians would make their departmental dominance more fragile.

Also following the script was the apoplectic fury of those who had hitherto been the respectable face of secularist modernity. Their apprehension was any possibility that the Hindu and Muslim leaderships would cut a deal above their heads and make redundant their franchise to speak on behalf of the minority. For two days and courtesy some TV channels, the secular modernists attempted to whip up Muslim opinion against the judgment and use the community's apparent displeasure to force the Government into using its proverbial "good offices" with the Supreme Court. The overall idea is to build up an intellectual climate so forceful that the Supreme Court would think it prudent to overturn the High Court judgment.

The provocative, self-preservation tactics of the thekedars of conflict—one 'secular' lady saidthat the Indian state no longer had a social contract with Muslims, an assertion that could well be construed as legitimising terrorism—would have certainly had a disorienting effect had it been backed by community pressure. Without mincing words, the professional secularists are trying to create a fresh communal schism by nurturing minority victimhood. It's a very dangerous game.

Fortunately, India is a country where nothing is really ever perceived in black and white; there are always enough shades of grey to muddy the search for total clarity. There is a constant search for compromise—what is colloquially called 'adjust'—to cope with life's difficulties. True, the quest for harmonious equilibrium does break down occasionally—as it did during the Ayodhya movement—but the desire for unflinching certitudes is usually short-lived.

By coupling the letter of the law with the spirit of reconciliation, the High Court has set the framework of a solution. It is important that Middle India is unflinching in its determination to herald a compromise that accommodates both the desire for a Ram temple and an undisputed mosque. For that it is important to not rise to the secularist provocation and keep faith in the good sense of an India that wants to be at peace with all its citizens. If both the Congress and the BJP can keep its nerve and maintain composure, India will soon be witnessing the end of the Ayodhya dispute.

Sunday Pioneer, October 3, 2010

Friday, October 1, 2010

Not the time for bigotry

The verdict should end a troubled chapter

By Swapan Dasgupta

At its simplistic best, the most significant feature of the much-awaited Allahabad High Court verdict is that it has overturned the only other judgment of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute: a Faizabad district court verdict of 1886. At that time, confronted by litigation that arose from Hindu-Muslim tension over the issue, district judge FEA Chamier ruled in March 1886: "It is most unfortunate that a Masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that occurred 356 years ago, it is too late to remedy the grievance."

On Thursday afternoon, a majority decision of a the three-bench court disagreed with the fundamental premise of Chamier. It held that because the Babri structure was built after demolishing a pre-existing Hindu temple in 1528, it couldn't really be regarded as a legitimate mosque, at least theologically. As such, it had absolutely no hesitation in endorsing the belief among large numbers of Hindus in the Awadh region that the disputed site was indeed the rightful inheritance of Ram bhakts. The High Court said that, ideally, the 70 acres of so of disputed property should be split three ways but that the Ram lalla (child Ram) idol should be allowed to remain at the site of what was earlier the central dome of the Babri Masjid.

The unambiguous verdict of the High Court was, to say the least, unexpected. Till Wednesday evening, the so-called secular forces and the Muslim leadership were insisting that the verdict would establish the majesty of the Constitution and the highlight the non-negotiable nature of the rule of law.

After the verdict, their enthusiasm is distinctly less pronounced. It has been suggested that the verdict is a tacit legitimization of both the installation of the idols inside the Babri Masjid in December 1949 and its dramatic demolition 43 years later. If the Babri structure was a non-mosque since its construction in 1528, the crime of the kar sevaks was the desecration of a medieval monument and not a place of worship.

Undoubtedly, this interpretation of the dispute is going to be contested in the Supreme Court. That a section of the Muslim community is unhappy with the judgment is obvious. But far more significant than that is the fury with which the judgment has been greeted by the secular modernists. Apart from contesting everything that the "eminent historians" have been suggesting about Ram being born in Afghanistan or somewhere else and about the Babri structure having been built on vacant rock, the judges have attached greater weight to the Archaeological Survey of India report and to the weight of local tradition.

This approach is certain to send the secular establishment into a complete tizzy. Without exaggerating the importance of this minusculity, it can safely be said that this lobby will be desperate to have their reputations salvaged by the Supreme Court. Therefore, even if a section of the Muslim community decides that there is little point persisting with the dispute and to settle for an honourable way out, there will be a powerful secularist e4stablishment urging the minorities to fight to the last.

The fight would have been worth it if there was a real danger that the Ayodhya verdict will open the floodgates of uninhibited majoritarianism and perhaps, even a Hindu Rashtra. Such fears are grossly exaggerated. One of the features of the organised Hindu camp to the verdict is the conscious show of restraint. The Hindutvavadis may have been pleased as punch that their central arguments were upheld by the court, but they have been very careful to not show it. This is on account of the realisation that India is not in a mood for confrontational politics and that, unlike the 1990s, belligerence will be politically counter-productive. The RSS, for example, is elated that the whole Ayodhya episode has elevated it to the status of being Hindu India's most visible face. It would not like to compromise on that.

There are no doubt maximalists on both sides who seek total victory for themselves and a total defeat for their adversaries. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has many such elements in its leadership. Its demand, made only a few days before the verdict, that Hindus must have unhindered possession of all 70 acres of the disputed site and that no mosque should be located within the municipal limits of Ayodhya, suggest an astonishing degree of narrow mindedness which is dangerous for the country. If these bigoted elements start interpreting the verdict according to their convenience, it will be only a matter of time before the whole atmosphere of India is vitiated and the Hindus lose the moral advantage they have at present.

Persisting with the dispute and taking it to the Supreme Court may well be inevitable but there is considerable merit in treating the High Court judgment as a parallel plea for a compromise. The suggested partition of the 70 acres in three may seem a piece of legal innovation but its implications are more profound: a honourable settlement for both the Hindus and Muslims. If the local Hindus can retain possession of the garva griha—the epicentre of the dispute—there should be no objections to giving a share of the property to the Muslim community to either build a mosque or for any other purpose of its choosing. An open offer by the Hindu religious leadership to the Muslim community to bury the hatchet and come to an out-of-court settlement would be gesture of magnanimity, which is bound to be welcomed by a large section of the minorities.

It is important that quick steps are taken to allay all the misgivings of those who see themselves as the defeated side. There will be enough politicians and general busybodies who will suggest that the High Court verdict has menacing implications for all minorities—quite forgetting that the Places of Worship Act of 1991 make it impossible for an Ayodhya-type dispute to emerge in the future. There will be appeals to Muslim victimhood and the sinister suggestion that the community can never expect justice from a biased Hindu-dominated judiciary.

These are dangerous arguments but it is important to recognise that such whispers will resonate through the ghettos and will be fuelled by irresponsible websites. Minority egos are fragile and can easily be bruised. This makes it incumbent for Hindus to desist from triumphalism and instead show magnanimity and generosity. A unilateral Hindu offer to accommodate a mosque in the vicinity of the Ram temple will have a salutary effect. So far a section of the Hindu leadership has become captive to the proposed architecture of Prabhashankar Sompura, the man who designed the reconstructed Somnath temple in Gujarat, and whose son has designed the VHP version of the grand Ram temple. It would be better if some of the design is modified to factor in a larger sense of nationhood.

For the Hindus, the High Court verdict was a significant victory. Statesmanship demands that it shouldn't also be translated as a landmark Muslim defeat. The High Court verdict on Ayodhya should end a very troubled chapter of India's history and not initiate a new discord.

The Telegraph, October 1, 2010