| An excavation worker enters the disputed area on Wednesday. (AFP)
Ayodhya, March 12: Tension crackled in the air as the excavation began today to find out whether a Hindu temple existed at the spot where the Babri Masjid had stood.
After the Archaeological Survey of India team was made to conduct a fresh survey of the site and map the trenches in the presence of the disputing parties under an Allahabad High Court order, digging started at 1.35 pm, 10 feet away from the makeshift structure.
By 6 pm, when the team called it a day, the excavators had gone three to five inches deep in all the four trenches marked in the outer portion of the chabutra (platform) on which Ram’s idol is placed.
Mohammed Hashim Ansari of the Central Sunni Waqf Board and one of the original plaintiffs in the Ayodhya suits boycotted the excavation, terming it “a political drama”.
Counsel Zafaryab Jilani, representing the board and accompanied by two archaeologists, said: “We are satisfied with the conduct of the ASI team, which maintained total transparency before and after initiating the excavation job today.”
“We will watch the process and cooperate if it is done with honesty and dedication,” he added.
Sources said the ASI is likely to make a request to the high court to start the excavation from 9 in the morning instead of 10, as it had directed yesterday. The ASI team will submit a progress report in a sealed envelope to the high court and await its instructions, team leader B.R. Mani said.
Faced with a court ban on speaking to the media, neither ASI officials nor the parties present at the site today were willing to speak on today’s work.
“Digging of the first layer has started. It’s going at a slow pace because all possible care is being taken to ensure that there is no damage to the structures or any other artefact which could possibly be found during the process,” said Ranjit Lal Verma, counsel for Nirmohi Akhada, one of the parties to Ayodhya suits.
The place (opposite the makeshift structure) being excavated has been covered from all sides with tents. The growing number of devotees who came for a darshan of the idol tried to peep inside the tent, but a wall of security personnel kept them away.
The inspector-general of Faizabad zone, A.K. Jain, said security around the site would be further tightened in the next few days as Ram navami witnesses large crowds in Ayodhya.
“The excavation might attract more crowds this time,” he added.
Life in the twin towns of Ayodhya and Faizabad remained normal, but the charges and counter-charges by the rival parties indicated that digging is likely to generate acrimony.
Ram temple votaries led by Ramjanmabhoomi Trust chief Ramachandradas Paramhans and VHP organising secretary Champat Rai dismissed the waqf board’s apprehensions of foul play.
“The opposite party is afraid now that the truth is bound to come out,” Paramhans said after the day’s excavation.
The litigants, representing Muslim interests, yesterday communicated their suspicion to Allahabad High Court. According to them, the ASI is working under the influence of Union minister Murli Manohar Joshi. They have engaged reputed archaeologists to ensure that nothing is done surreptitiously.
Those who reached Ayodhya today to be present at the excavation included Prof. Suraj Bhan, Dr R.C. Thakran (Delhi University) and Prof. Mohammed Abid (Aligarh Muslim University). Others from Calcutta, Pune and Aligarh are expected in a day or two.
A waqf board official said foreign archaeologists, already contacted, could also be called, if needed.
“We have information that some RSS-VHP elements may either try to influence the ASI team or plant some objects during the digging,” he said.
The Hindu litigants, including Nirmohi Akhara and the Ramjanmabhoomi Trust, have named three archaeologists — Dr S.P. Gupta, Dr J.P. Shrivastava and Dr Prakash Charan Prasad — as nominees.