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 the voluminous judgment of the judge, Sudhir Agarwal, 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 the 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’ which has 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 hearings of “all possible angles in the matter so that there may not remain a grievance”, the high court accepted the ASI report which 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 the 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 goalpost was quietly shifted. In her deposition as an expert for the Waqf Board, the 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 also admitted: “It is correct that in Sikh literature there 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 “impartial 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”, the 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.” The judge, Agarwal, was sufficiently moved to say about Mandal that “the statements made by him in cross-examination show 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 Yechury, 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. The judge 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 Bhan that what lay beneath the mosque was an “Islamic structure of the Sultanate period”. 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 [sic]”. 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…” The judge, Agarwal, 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 on the next occasion the “impartial” historians strut on the public stage.