Here is the paper presented by Yvette Rosser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yvette_Rosser) at the International Conference on Indian History, Civilisation and Geopolitics (ICIH-2009) that was held from January 9 to 11, New Delhi. It analyses the antics and intellectual dishonesty of India’s cartel of communist historians.
SAFFRON ARCHEOLOGY AND THE MEDIA
“I have said that it is archaeologists who have been at the forefront of this saffron movement. It is important for the public to know that the same archaeologists — and they are a minority — who spun the tale about an ‘84 pillar temple’ under the Babri masjid have created this ‘Aryan Harappans’ myth.” — Shireen Ratnagar
The following discussion concerns a contemporary civilizational controversy regarding contestations in the interpretation of archaeological data. During the summer of 2000, a very public debate arose surrounding the excavation of a 10th century Jain temple in Fatehpur Sikri where a team from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had unearthed the ruins of a temple that revealed, among other finds, a pit filled with numerous damaged, broken statues. The debate about this archeological dig offers an example of not only the ideological gulf dividing social scientists in India, but is indicative of the manner in which opposing camps of scholars have been using the popular media to sensationalize their perspectives.
The newspapers jumped in to report about this particular excavation site. Shortly, Prof. K.N. Panikkar, Prof. K.M. Shirmali, Prof. Harbans Mukhia from JNU and Prof. Irfan Habib from Aligarh Muslim University, D. N. Jha from Delhi University, and numerous other Indian academics who often chime in to condemn the Indo-centric paradigms, issued a statement that accused the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) of acting irresponsibly by excavating the ruins of this Jain temple citing the dig as an example of “saffron archeology.”
These critics accused the ASI of “communalizing archeology”. They claimed that the ASI was excavating this site because they wanted to prove that Muslims had destroyed the Jain temple. The historians also contended that the archaeologists at the ASI twist their data, releasing information before it was entirely analyzed, and manipulating the popular media. Many historians have recently assumed that they are more able to understand the nuances of archaeological data than are trained archaeologists whose interpretations are now considered to be tainted by saffron.
Harbans Mukhia, a medieval historian, explained during our interview:
“Archaeology is a discipline that requires a tremendous amount of patience, you dig up things, don’t start announcing your conclusions, be patient, fill out your report, and then, reach whatever conclusions. They don’t have the patience, they want to get into the newspaper head lines immediately so usually it starts from there, announcing headlines.. which headlines? Usually provocative headlines … for example, their evidence of Aryan settlements. Now that leads to a reaction and a counter denunciation, etc. If there was patience… they haven’t bothered to publish reports for 25 years not to speak of the ones last year, but suddenly you get these screaming headlines. They don’t have the patience.”
There were numerous newspaper articles and op-ed pieces about this archaeological dig. It typified the divisions that are ubiquitous among the prolifically polarized intellectuals in India. Besides speaking with several archeologists in Delhi, I made a brief long distance telephone call to Agra and spoke with the superintending archeologist of the dig, D.V. Sharma who said that he had never claimed that the Jain Temple had been destroyed by Akbar. Several months after the spectacle had erupted across the newspapers, an article in the July 22, 2000 edition of the magazine Frontline confirmed that D.V. Sharma had not made such an extrapolation, but that the media had sensationalized the major archeological discovery of a large and rare catch of statues dating from the 10th and 11th centuries.
The media, when reporting about the remarkable find, erroneously associated the ruins of the Jain temple with Akbar, since the excavation was going on only a few hundred meters from the walls of Fatehpur Sikri — though the desecration of the temple may have predated the construction of the city. Shortly after the news about the excavation was published in the press, Prof. Harbans Mukhia from JNU visited the site with a group of students and spoke with the junior archeologists at work there. Mukhia returned to Delhi and a few weeks later wrote “Demolishing Temples Wasn’t the Past’s Only Language” which appeared in The Hindustan Times on Sunday, March 19, 2000.
In this article Professor Mukhia claimed that in the medieval period, Hindus also destroyed temples. He took a very negative view of the Bir Chhabili archeological project. In the first few paragraphs he gave a little lesson in historiography vis-à-vis state sponsored violence and asked the reader to note that, “the wrapping of political nuances around the discipline of history” is common in all nationalist histories. He went on to state that destructions of religious sites “reflect the assertion of state power by the rulers … and their search for legitimisation in a vision of history”.
After describing the archeological site as he viewed it, during the few hours that he had visited, Professor Mukhia speculated that since numerous statues of the Jain deity, Mahavira, were found broken into smaller pieces, and bore “several marks of deliberate or indeliberate vandalism” but the “Jainia Saraswati… [was] almost in tact, with one hand broken off, but laying by its side” that, as a historian, this information leads him to “a suspicion”.
He therefore speculates: “Is it feasible to consider the possibility of Brahminical intolerance, which spared the one goddess with clear Brahminical association, but not others which were, as it were, on the other side of the fence, that is, Jainism?
Professor Mukhia, in this rather far-fetched “suspicion” of Hindu on Jain violence, contradicts his assertions at the beginning of this article when he explained about historiography and stressed that religious clashes were not the only language of the past. We should not assume, he emphasized, that the “state did nothing else except demolish temples and subjugate people of other faiths”.
He criticizes historians who “never view history except as interminable religious clashes organized by the state. It is thus that just about any testimony, textual or archaeological, bearing upon history is immediately constructed as a proof of the states’ religious intolerance.”
Yet, by the end of his article, Mukhia is asking his readers to consider that it is “feasible” that Brahmans mutilated these Jain murtis. This speculation is based on his negative evaluation of Brahmans of the medieval era. In so doing, Mukhia politicized his analysis of the excavation. He uses mocking tones to describe the motivations of the archaeologists. Mukhia’s contemporary political opinions about the neo-Hindu Revivalists movement, caused him to blame their Sanskrit spouting ancestors for the desecration. Albeit, this is, he stresses, only a suspicious possibility.
He fails to see that his claim, that history has been politicized, is in itself politicized. To continue to miss the point of his whole essay and attempt to sharpen the political point, he caps his claim that Hindus may have been responsible for the destruction of this Jain temple, with a jab at the current BJP government and the ASI, when he wrote regarding “Muslim demolitions of non-Muslim temples” that “a former professor of physics and a former journalist let it be known from their ministerial platforms that this is the only correct version of Indian history”.
The physics professor and the former journalist alluded to, are M.M. Joshi (Ph.D. in Physics, former Professor at Aligarh University) the controversial Minster of Human Resource Development (HRD) that served under the BJP government and Arun Shourie (former journalist and Ph.D. in Economics from Syracuse) and at that time a BJP member of the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha.
Two weeks later, in a rebuttal to Harbans Mukhia’s article, Dr. Meenakshi Jain, a historian in Delhi, wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the April 4, 2000 edition of The Hindustan Times, “Brahmins Weren’t Iconoclasts”. She wrote, “The recent discovery of Jain statues in Fatehpur Sikri is evidence that communalism was ‘constructed’ much before the colonial period”.
As one of the few outspoken “non-leftist” historians in New Delhi, Dr. Jain describes her view of the battlefield that is contemporary Indian historiography: “Frightened by the growing avalanche of archaeological evidence which threatens to pulverize Marxist historiography, the desperation of leftist academics to salvage their rendition of the past is entirely understandable. Decades of labour expended in effacing references to the destruction of Hindu temples, shifting the focus instead to sectarian Hindu conflict is now in jeopardy.”
She continues: “Given the Jain community’s impeccable non-militant credentials and Akbar’s reputation as the best face of Indian Islam, this casts an entirely new light on inter-community relations in medieval India. That is why, though Jain-Hindu reactions have been muted so far, Marxists have rushed in to defend their carefully sanitised version of the past.
For the leftists, Akbar is sacrosanct, the “Father of Indian integration”–a model of communal harmony because he is seen as less “fanatical” and more “Indianized” than his ancestors or his offspring, which included some of the more notorious iconoclasts in Indian lore, such as Babur and Aurangzeb. The leftist intellectuals, who extrapolate their historical narratives about medieval India outwards from the benevolent “secularism” of Akbar’s fifty-five year reign, were therefore particularly pained to discredit an archeological excavation that might indicate that Akbar was not as liberal as depicted in the history textbooks they had written.
Ironically, as mentioned, the ASI officer, D.V. Sharma, had not made the claim that Akbar had destroyed this Jain temple, neither had the junior archaeologists working at the sight. However, the famous vocal group of concerned historians in Delhi, inferred that if a temple was destroyed around the time that Akbar built his capital at Fatehpur Sikri, then obviously the “saffron archeologists” must be trying to connect the destruction of the Jain temple with Akbar’s construction of Fatehpur Sikri.
Four months after the initial media hoopla, the Delhi Historians Group called a news conference to condemn the excavations on the hillock near Agra, and issued a press statement signed by two dozen professors. Included in this list were the names of historians who have taken the lead to write historical pamphlets and op-ed pieces designed more to inflame Hindu sentiments than to offer a nuanced, culturally sensitive, multi-perspectival approach to controversial topics such as temple desecration and beef eating in ancient India.
Professor Mukhia, in his newspaper article stressed that not only Muslims destroyed temples during the medieval period, but that Brahmans had also frequently destroyed Jain and Buddhist holy sites. He wrote that there were “innumerable instances of the demolition of Buddhist viharas by Hindus” (emphasis mine). This claim has long been the countervailing ‘leftist’ argument vis-à-vis temple destruction during the medieval period. This accusation was brought forth with a vengeance during the “history pamphleteering” years leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. In response to the archeological dog at the Jain temple unearthed near Fatehpur Sikri in 2000, several “JNU-type” scholars once again fell back on this analysis.
This theory has been one of the primary arguments for almost two decades. It became the main tact used during the Ram Janam Bhumi/Babri Masjid controversy by those who argued against the prior existence of a Hindu temple at the long contested sight. They could argue, as they did, that “Babur may have destroyed a temple”, but it was a common practice all over historical India. Especially, they will mention the “hundreds” of instances when Hindu kings destroyed Buddhist sites, though most contenders rarely offered any conclusive evidence.
As early as 1986, a group of Delhi historians, as a block, were writing letters to the editor claiming that Hindus destroyed Buddhist and Jain temples. An early example of this tactic is quoted in full by Sita Ram Goel, in his controversial book, “Hindu Temples, What Happened to Them.” Goel describes the circumstances leading to the publication of their letter, “In August 1986, The Times of India printed on its front page the photographs of two stones carrying defaced carvings of some Hindu deities. There was a short statement beneath the photographs that the stones had been found by the Archaeological Survey of India in course of repairs to the Qutb Mînãr at Delhi. The stones, according to the Survey, had been built into a wall with the carved faces turned inwards.”
Goel goes on to cite several letters to the editor that this photograph elicited:
“The majority of writers congratulated the editor for breaking a conspiracy of silence regarding publication of a certain type of historical facts in the mass media. A few writers regretted that a news item like that should have been published in a prestigious daily in an atmosphere of growing communal tension. None of the writers raised the question or speculated as to how those stones happened to be there. None of them drew any inference from the fact that the Qutb Mînãr stands near the Quwwat al-Islãm Masjid which, according to an inscription on its eastern gate, was built from the materials of twenty-seven Hindu temples.”
Goel mentions another article in The Times of India on September 15, 1986 with a photo depicting “the Idgãh built by Aurangzeb” and “the news that a committee had been formed by some leading citizens for the liberation of what is known to be Srî KrishNa’s place of birth”. This was followed by a few more letters to the editor and then, on October 2: “[A] dozen professors from Delhi…wrote a long letter of protest. The letter … reveals the line laid down by a well-entrenched clique which has come to control all institutions concerned with the researching, writing and teaching of history in this country.”
This letter, written by the Delhi historians twelve years before the BJP came to power at the center, four years before the destruction of the Babri Masjid, complained that they had “noted with growing concern a recent tendency in The Times of India to give a communal twist to news items”. They warned the Times that its “readers should know that historical analysis and interpretations involve more than a mere listing of dates with an eye to pious sentiments”. This list of historians included the same dozen names that still appear on op-ed pieces and press releases that continue to be written to counter what they consider to be communal history, such as the insinuation that the majority of Islamic invaders and rulers desecrated Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples.22 Importantly, relevant to the immediate topic, they promote the claim that Hindu rulers in the medieval era were almost as culpable of temple desecrations as were Muslim rulers.
The jointly signed 1986 letter to the editor then took up several issues including Aurangzeb’s temple desecrations and the destruction of Buddhist shrines by Hindus, which in a rebuttal, Sita Ram Goel addresses, one by one. None of the historians who signed the letter engaged Goel’s points. These kinds of one-sided exchanges are typical. When Delhi Historians bring out a critique of certain historical controversies, such as the interpretation of an archaeological dig, their objections are eagerly, sometimes vociferously, addressed by the recipient of the condemnation, issue by issue, such as D.V. Sharma’s response to Harbans Mukhia’s critique.
Regardless, this strategy has not created much dialogue, presumably because the leftist historians do not want to “lower themselves” to entertain what they consider to be “communal ideas”. Nonetheless, each time a leftist historian publishes a critique in the press, a non-leftist scholar, for want of a better word, or commentator writes back and points out flaws uncovered in the suppositions of the eminent historians, point by point. These rebuttal critiques are usually ignored. This pattern is undoubtedly what prompted Anjali Mody, a correspondent for The Hindu to write, in exasperation, “For every fact that a left or liberal historian throws into the public arena to counter the Sangh’s claims the Sangh too can, as it has shown, conjure up an opposing ‘fact’. For every piece of masonry quoted as evidence by historians, the Sangh/BJP will produce two.”
This same predominance of data was brought forward to show that there had been a large 11th century temple under the Babri Masjid site, but since the evidence was “tainted by Saffron” or “Nationalism”, the “Delhi historians” refused to consider it. This tendency to discount all research, if it happens to also prove supportive of Indian and/or Hindu Nationalism is repeated constantly in academia. Professors in South Asian Studies Departments have written anthologies and organized conferences about Hindu Revivalism. These educational products rarely if ever include articles or presentations by members of the groups under study.
There are certainly many competent scholars in India who could represent the “non-Marxist”, “indigenous”, “Indo-centric” point of view regarding the history and study of India. As a rule, however, their arguments and analyses are usually ignored–except when short excerpts are quoted out of context, especially in op-ed pieces written by “Delhi historians group”. This absence of Hindu voices in the academic treatment of Hindu Revivalism among colleagues in Departments of South Asian Studies is, in an academic world informed by post-Orientalism, post-Edward Said-ism. a startling deficit that does not allow for dispassionate and informed discourse, much less affording any possibility of dialogue.
Sita Ram Goel also complained about the media blackout that occurs when these “Marxist scholars” contest the treatment of certain historical issues. He wrote:
“[A] few readers of The Times of India including several professors of equal rank wrote letters challenging the facts as well as the logic of the Marxist professors. But none of these letters was published in the letters-to-the-editor column of the newspaper. After a fortnight, the daily published some nondescript letters from its lay readers and announced that the “controversy has been closed”. It was a curious statement, to say the least. The controversy had only started with the publication of the long letter from the Marxist professors, accusing The Times of India of spreading “communalism” and making a number of sweeping statements. The other side was waiting for its rejoinders to appear in print. The Times of India would have been only fair to itself and its readers to let the other side have its say. But it developed cold feet. Perhaps it was not prepared to get branded as ‘communalist’ for the sake of ‘a few facts from the dead past.’ Perhaps it was in a hurry to retrieve its reputation which had been ‘compromised’ by the publication of the ‘controversial photographs.’ “
In Western academia, it would seem that politically correct precautions continue dictate scholarship about not only Hindu Nationalism27.
The same dismissive treatment and the lack of desire to engage their objects of criticism when those objects argue back, is made obvious by Harbans Mukhia’s failure to respond publicly, or for that matter, privately, to D.V. Sharma’s seven page rebuttal to his article. His response to a reporter from The Hindu is indicative: “Mukhia himself reacted mildly when contacted for his comments: ‘Let me assure Mr. Sharma that I am not denying the fact of demolition of temples in medieval India, but suggesting that each case has to be examined on its own merits and that Muslims had no monopoly over the demolition of others’ places of worship. Historical evidence is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic formulas’.”
Professor Mukhia was himself guilty of reducing history to platitudes nurtured by many years of calling ancient Hindus to task for killing Jains and/or Buddhists and destroying their sacred places. He purposefully ignored the more detailed and informed nuances pointed out by the archaeologists concerning the excavation at the site of the demolished Jain temple. Not only had Mukhia pedantically pontificated and wildly speculated, but when the errors in his theory were deconstructed by the archaeologist in charge, he preferred to remain mum.
In much the same fashion that D.V. Sharma took Harbans Mukhia to task for misrepresenting historical evidence and lacking expertise, so too, S.R. Goel, launched into a detailed analysis of the errors he found in the statement sent to The Times of India by the Delhi Historians Group. Though his rejoinder is too lengthy to recount in full, a few examples of the facility with which these non-leftist historians bring forth an immense amount of documentation, just to have it dismissed, is of interest and typical of these ultimately unproductive, as far as mutual understanding is concerned, academic exchanges.
The “Delhi historians” wrote:
“Dera Keshava Rai temple was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo Bundela during Jahangir’s reign. This large temple soon became extremely popular and acquired considerable wealth. Aurangzeb had this temple destroyed, took the wealth as booty and built an Idgah on the site. His actions might have been politically motivated as well, for at the time when the temple was destroyed he faced problems with the Bundelas as well as Jat rebellions in the Mathura region. It should be remembered that many Hindu temples were untouched during Aurangzeb’s reign and even some new ones built. Indeed, what is really required is an investigation into the theory that both the Dera Keshava Rai temple and the Idgah were built on the site of a Buddhist monastery which appears to have been destroyed.”
Sita Ram Goel’s response goes into nineteen pages. I only reproduce a few of his counter arguments here, simply to show that spokesmen and women associated with “Hindu Nationalists” are considered ill informed poseurs by an internationally renown scholar like Professor Romila Thapar, it may be assumed, also by her co-signatories on this letter and on dozens of press statements and pamphlets during the past two decades. These scholars are in fact, serious multilingual scholars, quite familiar with the historical record, able to draw from multiple sources, and adamant that their position is more grounded in historical facts.
First, Goel suggests, “leaving aside the Marxist accusation of ‘communalism’ against The Times of India that, “Marxists … have a strong nose for smelling communalism in the faintest expression of Indian nationalism”. He also writes, in retaliation against the pejorative pedantic approach,
“…overlooking the ex-cathedra tone which characterises their pronouncements regarding interpretation of history. The tone comes quite easily to those who have enjoyed power and prestige for long and, therefore, begun to believe that they have a monopoly over truth and wisdom. We shall confine our examination to what they have stated as facts and what they claim to be the correct interpretations of those facts.”
First Goel takes up the “Kesavadeva Tradition at Mathura”:
“It is true that the temple of Kesavadeva which was destroyed and replaced with an Îdgãh by Aurangzeb, was built by Bir Singh Deva Bundela in the reign of Jahãngîr. But he had not built it on a site of his own choosing. An age-old tradition30 had continued to identify the KaTrã mound (on which Aurangzeb’s Îdgãh stands at present) with the spot where KaMsa had imprisoned the parents of Srî KrishNa, and where the latter was born. The same tradition had also remembered with anguish that an earlier Kesavadeva temple which stood on this spot had been destroyed by an earlier Islamic iconoclast.”
Goel, continues, actually drawing from the works of Romila Thapar, who “has herself testified to this tradition about Kesavadeva”. Referring to “descriptions of the Mathura region by Greek historians”, she had earlier written, “A possible connection could be suggested with Keshavadeva on the basis of this being an alternative name for KRSNa and there being archaeological evidence of a settlement at the site of Keshavadeva during the Mauryan period.”
Goel footnoted her reference31 and then added this comment in the footnote, that, if not “ex-cathedra” was at least tit for tat: “It is her habit to speak with two tongues–one when she is in the midst of scholars who know the facts, and another when she functions as a professional Hindu-baiter.”
Goel sites studies by Dr. V.S. Agrawala. “Curator of the museum at Mathura” who “makes the following observations”,
“Mathurã on the Yamunã is famous as the birthplace of KRishNa. It was the seat of the Bhãgvata religion from about second century BC to fifth Century AD.”
Goel spends over three pages drawing corroborating information from epigraphy, textual references, oral narratives, and numerous archaeological studies to prove that “Brãhmanical shrines of Mathurã began to be built quite early as shown by the discovery of an epigraph […] inscription […] and lintel” which testified that “a magnificent temple of VishNu was built at the site of KaTrã Kesavadeva”.33 Continuing in this vein, drawing from germinal Sanskrit sources,34 Goel cites, “Patañjali35 [who] informs us of the existence of shrines dedicated of Rãma and Kesava”.36 He sites “the earliest archaeological evidence to prove the tradition of the building of KRSNa’s shrine”.37 Quoting copiously from previous research, the references continue for many pages, politicized needling of his Marxist “other” does not play into this segment of his exegesis.
Goel then takes up the topic of “Why Aurangzeb Destroyed the Temple”, responding to the comment by the Delhi Historians Group that “Aurangzeb had this temple destroyed, took the wealth as booty and built an Idgah [for] “political motivations”, [because] he faced problems with the Bundelas as well as Jat rebellions in the Mathura region”. They then remind the readers that “many Hindu temples were untouched during Aurangzeb’s reign and even some new ones built”.
Drawing from “contemporary records to see how these explanations are wide of the mark” Goel brings out details from historical documents, “The temple of Kesavadeva was destroyed in January, 1670 [to comply with] an imperial firmãn proclaimed by Aurangzeb on April 9, 1669”. On that date, according to Ma’sîr-i-Ãlamgîrî, ‘The Emperor ordered the governors of all provinces to demolish the schools and temples of the infidels and strongly put down their teaching and religious practices.’
Quoting from the historian, Jadunath Sarkar, Goel cited “several sources regarding the subsequent destruction of temples which went on all over the country, and right up to January 1705, two years before Aurangzeb died”. Having referenced his comments, he goes in for the politicized kill, calling into question the reasoning abilities of the “Marxist historians”,
“None of the instances cited by [Aurangzeb] make any reference whatsoever to booty or the political problem of rebellion. The sole motive that stands out in every case is religious zeal. Our Marxist professors will find it very hard, if not impossible, to discover economic and/or political motives for all these instances of temple destruction. The alibis that they have invented in defence of Aurangzeb’s destruction of the Kesavadeva temple are, therefore, only plausible, if not downright fraudulent. It is difficult to believe that the learned professors did not know of Aurangzeb’s firmãn dated April 9, 1669 and the large-scale destruction of Hindu temples that followed. If they did not, one wonders what sort of professors they are, and by what right they pronounce pontifically on this subject.”
Goel goes over “the chronology of Hindu rebellions in the Mathura region” and concludes that, “there was no Bundela uprising in 1670 when the Kesavadeva temple was destroyed”. He explains, “The first Bundela rebellion led by Jujhar Singh had been put down by December, 1635 in the reign of Shãh Jahãn [and] the second Bundela rebellion had ended with the suicide of Champat Rai in October, 1666”. Goel makes the wry observation that “the third Bundela rebellion was still in the future”. He points out that the professors held that “the Jat rebellion in the Mathura region [was] responsible for the destruction of the Kesvadeva temple” However, Goel explains, “The Jats had risen in revolt … after and not before Aurangzeb issued his firmãn of April, 1969 ordering destruction of Hindu temples everywhere”.
Bringing in the issue of forced conversions, Goel implicates Aurangzeb as a communal tyrant, who “in 1665… imposed a pilgrim tax on the Hindu [and] in 1668… prohibited celebration of all Hindu festivals, particularly Holi and Diwali”. Concluding with a flourish of Hindu nationalist discourse, “The Jats who rightly regarded themselves as the defenders of Hindu honour were no longer in a mood to take it lying down”, Goel states emphatically that, “The temples were destroyed in obedience to the imperial firmãn and for no other reason”. Goel continues page after page to taking up each of the controversial topics that had barely been broached in the Delhi historians’ letter to The Times of India, including a discussion of the Ram Janma Bhumi movement, which was still six years away from the fateful day the Babri Masjid was demolished.
To conclude this rather lengthy excursion into the writings of the famous, some would say, infamous, “Sangh” historian, Sita Ram Goel points out the ironic nature of historical arguments that emerged as he engaged them. The beauty of the paradox, by which he deftly left his Marxist nemeses/historians having to backtrack in order not to alienate the majority of Indian citizens, may be one reason that they so rarely respond to such scholarship contesting their theories.
When scrutinized carefully, many ironies emerge from their theoretical positions. If questioned, sometimes they will admit that their historical assumptions may have been slanted to propound a certain political point of view, that such liberties were justified in order to combat communalism. Quite often when a rejoined from the non-leftists cuts through their arguments and frustrates a broad acceptance of their pronouncements on various topics they are unable or unwilling to respond, and they prefer to remain mute, resorting to name calling rather than confronting the paradoxes and inconsistencies that had been pointed out.
In this way, Goel attacks their economic theory which he claims they employ to hide the inherently iconoclastic nature of the Islamic invaders/rulers that was codified in the
“theology of Islam systematised on the basis of the Qu’rãn and the Sunnah of the Prophet [that] lays down loud and clear that it is a pious act for Muslims to destroy the temples of the infidels and smash their idols. Conversion of infidel temples into mosques wherever practicable, is a part of the same doctrine [….] The economic and political motives, invented by the Marxists, are not only far-fetched but also do not explain the destruction and/or conversion of numerous temples which contained no riches, and where no conspiracy could be conceived.”
This is the same contradiction that crops up when Pakistani historians discuss Indian Marxist and most Western historiographical treatments of the Islamic invasions. Islam-centric interpretations criticize Marxist scholars for saying that Ghaznavi and Ghori and the rest of the Turko-Afghani Islamic invaders, traveling into India on horseback, demolished temples and icons for economic gain, first, and only secondarily in the name of Islam—using religion more as excuse than a crusade.
In Pakistan, the historical record is very clear. Ghaznavi, Ghori, Babar, et al entered Hindustan on divinely inspired missions to “bring the light of Islam to the infidels”. As Muslims it was their duty to crush the idols worshiped by the pagans, and as soldiers it was their right to take their due share of the booty, as per the instructions of the Qu’ran. According to Pakistani textbook writers and historians, Islamic invasions of India had nothing to do with greed. Most Pakistani historians defend such plunderous and destructive activity as corollary events necessitated by the dictum to spread the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Indian Marxists would rather focus on the economic and political implications of the Islamic invasions, reinterpreting the zeal of the invaders as greed instead of religious fervor.
Sita Ram Goel capitalizes on this irony:
“The [Indian] Muslim apologists who have been in a hurry to borrow the Marxist explanation do not know what they are doing. The explanation converts Islam into a convenient cover for brigandage and the greatest Muslim heroes into mere bandits.”
Finally, in response to the historians’ comment that even “the historicity of the personality [of Krishna] is in question”, Goel trivialized their argument, saying that the “Srî KrishNa for whom the Hindus really care is a far greater figure than the Srî KrishNa of history”. The historicity of Hindus gods and goddesses is far less important than their symbolic and Puranic or mythological aspects. Goel explains:
“What [Hindus] really worship is the Srî KrishNa of mythology. There are many temples and places of pilgrimage all over India associated with this mythological Srî KrishNa. [….] [A] majority of the renowned places of Hindu worship and pilgrimage have only mythology in support of their sanctity. Are the professors telling the Hindus that the desecration or destruction of these places should cause no heart-burn to them because the characters associated with these places are drawn from mythology, and that an iconoclast is badly needed in every case for blowing up the myth?”
Goel also takes up the issue of Hindus destroying Jain and Buddhist temples, and numerous other contemporary controversial historical debates. Goel, with his frontal attacks, and the massive amount of information that he is able to gather, is much despised by the JNU associated intellectuals.
As mentioned, in the years leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, many scholars jointly published pamphlets and released press statements claiming that in the past, Hindu rajas often destroyed the temples of their adversaries. The argument proposed that Muslims were not the only ones who destroyed temples, consequently, they could argue by a stretch, that there is nothing anti-Hindu about the Babri Masjid. They felt that this titillating bit of supposition, that Hindu rajas desecrated Hindu and Buddhist shrines, somehow justified temple desecrations by Babar and those who preceded and followed him through the Khyber.
This point is argued much in the same way as the insistence that alternative research into the Aryan invasion/migration theory is driven by the idea that, if the Aryans, the ancient ancestors of the Hindus, were foreign invaders from Central Asia, then the Turks and Afghans who came a few thousand years later, fit into the same category, foreign invaders from Central Asia, then all Indians are also descendants of India’s medieval, as well as ancient ancestors. This argues, that if “all Indians, Hindus and Muslims, are descendants of invaders, then ‘those Hindu Nationalists’ couldn’t claim to be the true culturally autochthonous inhabitants of the Subcontinent and it would then be impossible to paint the Muslim minority as the foreign other.”
That most Hindu nationalists adamantly think the vast majority of Indian Muslims are indigenous Indians, whose Hindu or Buddhist ancestors converted to Islam, is rarely considered within the anti-Sangh critiques.
Considering how vehemently Prof. Mukhia, Prof. Thapar, and their colleagues in the Delhi Historians Group have insisted that Hindu iconoclasm was commonplace in the medieval and pre-medieval period, there are really very few hard statistics about this claim and scant existing evidence to support their theory of wide spread Hindu temple and Buddhist vihara destruction by Hindu rajas. After hearing this claim propagated for over a decade, as an accepted “fact” to which those who are anti-Hindutva constantly refer, it would be fair to assume that these historical occurrences of Hindus destroying temples and viharas were well documented. Though there has been scant hard data to support the claim, it had been repeated off-handedly again and again by certain Indian social scientists and by Western academicians, and finds space quite regularly, in the English language media in India.
In Delhi in the Spring of 2000, when I interviewed Prof. Harbans Mukhia, whose op-ed piece about Hindus demolishing temples appeared just a few days after my arrival in India, I asked him what documentation he could provide regarding the destruction of temples by Hindus. He informed me that Prof. Romila Thapar had collected some information that confirmed the theory that Hindus, during earlier eras, had been very active in the destruction of temples. He had some references, he mentioned, “somewhere in his files”. I thought they must be pretty dusty by now since he had used the temple desecration tack for years, and though he is a well published scholar of medieval Indian history, he had never written any papers about this very interesting phenomenon by which he swears. A few days later I met with Professor Romila Thapar and told her Professor Mukhia had said that she could provide information to substantiate the hypothesis that Hindu rulers in the past had regularly destroyed temples in neighboring kingdoms. She said that she had not written anything but that Richard Eaton, an American scholar had recently written about this phenomenon in “the introduction of his latest book”.
In the December 9 and 16, 2000 editions of Frontline published by the The Hindu newspaper–where there has been a steady stream of essays about historiography, almost weekly for years. Prof. Eaton wrote a long article in two parts that discussed in detail the destruction and desecration of various temples during the medieval period. In his article, Eaton attempted to prove this assertion commonly made by Dr. Mukhia and his colleagues. However, Eaton failed to understand the difference in scale and magnitude, separated by over several centuries, that Hindus raided the temples of other kings, usually to snatch the murti, not to raze them. Compare this with the much more widespread, widely practiced, and architecturally devastating attacks on Hindu temples by Muslim armies that systematically destroyed hundreds, if not thousands, of Hindu temples in North India within a few centuries. Politically incorrect, or not, I am pained to point out that there is not only a difference of scale, but it is like comparing apples and oranges.
When I spoke with Professors Thapar and Mukhia I told them that I had heard about Harsha in Kashmir, recounted by the poet Kalhana in the “Rajtarangini”. The Hindu king Harsha destroyed some temples and viharas44, but most of Harsha’s contemporaries considered his actions as exceptions to the usual practice. I pointed out to the good professors, that all of the literature indicates that Harsha was definitely only looting the temples for gold and riches, not desecrating them for ideological reasons. Though the result is the same–the temples were attacked–the intent and the scale of the destruction were very, very different.
While meeting with both Professor Mukhia and Professor Thapar I mentioned one or two instances I had heard of in Rajasthan and Gujarat. I also spoke of an isolated raid over the Vindhya Mountains, where competing Maharajas raided temples in another kingdom and stole a murti (consecrated statue) considered to be endowed with powerful attributes. Then, bringing it back to his own kingdom, the king erected a new and more fabulous temple for the murti. This type of vandalism is a very different case–the murti was removed as a trophy, not as an unholy thing to be desecrated.
In the accounts that I had heard, the Hindu kings who looted the temple of an adversary did not throw the captured statue in the roadway or bury it into the staircase of a religious structure in his kingdom to be trod upon, but, interestingly, built an even grander temple and had it installed with great fanfare. Though the actions may have similarities, the motivations and importantly, the ultimate impact on Indian architecture and Hindu educational and religious institutions was very different.
I argued that these types of attacks on temples were not representative of usual Hindu practice, but in fact were very much the exception to the rule. Even after reading the Eaton article, I was not impressed by the meager evidence. The article offered very few verifiable examples to substantiate this often-repeated claim that Hindus were just a guilty as Muslims for breaking statues and destroying temples.
I suggested to Professors Mukhia and Thapar and a few other historians, in the Delhi G-group, that “they should stop using that tact about the Hindus destroying temples, because hardly anyone in India really believes them and such assertions bring their competence into question”. The evidence that Hindus were equally culpable for the destruction of temples and viharas, similar to the large-scale destruction of Hindu temples and educational institutions by the various Sultans, is simply untenable. Though the left-leaning (some would say “Hindu-baiting”) historians in India cite the case of King Harsh in Kashmir, it is a rare historical exception, certainly not proof of a legacy of Hindu-driven carnage against Buddhists or Jains during the ancient or medieval period. From the data available, the historians who make these claims have failed to uncover any overwhelming evidence to substantiate their theory of wide spread Hindu aggression against non-Hindus in the ancient or medieval periods. Strangely enough, many scholars in the West have also accepted this theory without deconstructing its flaws or substantiating the details.
Very few people in India actually believe the theory that throughout history Hindu rulers destroyed a considerable number of temples. The historians who make these claims are discredited in the eyes of many people in India because their arguments remain speculative and are seen as politically motivated. Those who have argued this point since the historical/archeological battles that raged around the Ram Janma Bhumi/Babri Masjid controversy have provided quite limited documented historical instances where Hindus are believed to have razed temples and/or Buddhist viharas. Though this claim was the rallying cry of the scholars who opposed the Ram Janma Bhumi movement, no one among the proponents of this theory has yet published anything to corroborate these claims, They have propagated this theory as a factual intellectual weapon for well over a decade.
My questions about this issue remain: Why, when Professor Mukhia and Professor Thapar and their colleagues have asserted this as fact, in numerous pamphlets and op-ed pieces, have none of them ever published any scholarly articles to actually prove it, even though among themselves, they all believe it? Yet, why haven’t they bothered to document the facts to which they have constantly referred during the past decades? My questions, concerning lack of evidence for this theory were dismissed by its proponents. However, other scholars, the infamous non-leftists, with whom I spoke in India, called this the “manufacturing of historical myths to suit the ‘pseudo-secular’ leftist paradigm”.
Is this the manufacturing of historical beliefs or an undistorted dispassionate retelling of well-established events? Many supposedly neutral scholars in the West feel comfortable when Marxist historians use facts in a specific manner in order to write Indian history, but completely discredit other traditions that are trying to do the same thing, from their own perspectives. Though facts are facts, as so many historians have told me, historiography is interpretation.
Meenakshi Jain continued her condemnation of Marxist historiography, as she critiqued Harbans Mukhi’s speculative theory regarding the possible Brahminical vandals who destroyed the 11th century Jain temple near Fatehpur Sikri. The tone of her criticism of leftist scholars mirrors Mukhia’s mud slinging at the Saffron archaeologists. While presenting a mini lesson on historiography to the readers, as did Mukhia in his op-ed piece, Dr. Jain wrote:
“Unfortunately for leftist academics, the time for such crude theories is fast running out. A re-examination of religious texts, historical records, and literary treatises has forced a growing body of non-Marxist scholars to reach entirely different conclusions about Indian’s religious culture. For instance, they now believe that undue stress has been laid on the so-called orthodox-heterodox religious divide. In historical practice the division between Hinduism and Buddhism and Jainism was never so fundamental as to foreclose the possibility of mutual exchange. […]Explaining the presence of Hindu gods and so-called Hindu ‘elements’ in Jain temples, the scholars highlight a shared religious culture wherein divine figures and even ritual forms were reincorporated, reformulated, and re-situated. […] The doctrinal, ritualistic, and institutional similarities between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were too marked to be over-looked. [….] Brahmins constituted the largest groups of monks and supporters of early Buddhism and were strongly represented in most religious movements in India. Several key Jain philosophers were Brahmins. […] The claim of Brahminical intolerance is mischievous and dishonest. The Brahmins were known for their tendency to absorb, assimilate and upgrade deities, not for exhibiting animus towards them. [….] While leftists have accused Brahmins of intolerance, they have downplayed, if not purged, evidence of Muslim bigotry.”
When I questioned several of the well-known scholars comprising this entrenched but suddenly ideologically vulnerable group of elite historians, without a doubt, they let it be known that they did not think other Indian historians could possible be trusted to re-evaluate Indian history, except, as Romila Thapar suggested, “westerners” whom, she thought were more objective than non-Marxist Indian historians. In all probability, most scholars or journalists who come to interview these “JNU type” intellectuals do not ask such provocative questions and it did seem that my some of my questions were not very welcome.
I was told several times that Richard Eaton had recently published something about Hindus destroying temples. They admitted that even after over a dozen years of propounding this theory, they had not bothered to support it with research. I simply found it amazing that scholars who had made a certain claim, using a very specific tact for all those many years, had never sought to back up their well used theory with any hard data.
As mentioned, the articles published by Professor Eaton in the popular news magazine, Frontline, though they did document temple destructions, could not show that it was wide spread and in particular, he could not, in his article, claim that the Hindus had destroyed murtis, rather they captured them, to increase their own spiritual and temporal power. Not only is the scale drastically different, but the intention was seemingly the exact opposite.
“In 642 A.D., according to local tradition, the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi. Fifty years later armies of those same Chalukyas invaded north India and brought back to the Deccan what appear to be images of Ganga and Yamuna, looted from defeated powers there.”
The article goes on to discuss several of these types of Hindu on Hindu events, each separated by fifty years or a century or two. Even taking into consideration the instances of a Hindu Raja attacking a temple in a rival kingdom, there is a big leap between the claim that Hindu rajas are as culpable for destroying temples are were their Muslim counterparts during later centuries. This is simply not true. But most importantly, Eaton never makes the distinction between the destruction of a murti or mandir45 based on revulsion towards the institution represented, in contrast to capturing the murti for purposes of worship thereby enhancing the prestige of the king. The destruction of Hindu temples by Islamic invaders and rulers during the pre-modern period far exceeded any quasi-similar destructions by Hindu kings in earlier periods. Drawing such parallels, as Professors Mukhia, Thapar, and Eaton have done, is making tremendous assumptions in order to justify a certain rather politically motivated point of view.
Arun Shourie, in his critique of historiography, took up this topic:
“[T]oday the fashion is to ascribe the extinction of Buddhism to the persecution of Buddhists by Hindus, to the destruction of their temples by the Hindus. One point is that the Marxist historians who have been perpetrating this falsehood have not been able to produce even an iota of evidence to substantiate the concoction. In one typical instance, Romila Thapar has cited three inscriptions. The indefatigable Sita Ram Goel looked them up. Two of these turned out to have absolutely no connection with Buddhist viharas or their destruction, and the one that did deal with an object being destroyed had been held by authorities to have been a concoction; in any event, it told a story which was as different from what the historian had insinuated as day from night. [….] Goel repeatedly asked the historian to point out any additional evidence or to elucidate how [she] had suppressed the import that the inscription in its entirety conveyed. He waited in vain. […] Marxists cite only two other instances of Hindus having destroyed Buddhist temples. These too it turns out yield to completely contrary explanations. Again Marxists have been asked repeatedly to explain the construction they have been circulating–to no avail.”
Harbans Mukhia, R.S. Sharma and especially Romila Thapar and K.N. Panikkar, as well as a whole list of scholars who appeared as witnesses for the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee, such as K.M. Shrimali, Sumit Sarkar, and others, are railed by Shourie in his book, which is now a classic among non-leftist/Hindu-centric scholars. When I interviewed Romila Thapar she said that Eminent Historians was a “pail-full of abuse being thrown at us”. She added that she gets “irritated each time creeps like S.P. [Swaraj Prakash] Gupta get up and start abusing me. Or Arun Shourie, yes I find it beneath my dignity to respond”. Yet Prof. Thapar and her colleagues, do respond, by constantly writing op-ed pieces, issuing press releases, intended to cast dispersions at the Saffronites—often alluding a certain physics professor and former journalist. They hold news conferences and make very provocative public statements, against those whose research is at odds with theirs, This is ironically, not beneath their dignity.
The tight coterie of “leftist”, now called “progressive” social scientists, mostly historians, who are predominantly situated in New Delhi, are very vocal and prolific social critics. Besides being on the warpath against archaeologists, such as B. B. Lal and S. P. Gupta, they particularly loathe Arun Shourie, and paint M.M. Joshi as a monster. Without a doubt, over the years these historians have done some very interesting work and are serious scholars, but they have an agenda. As progressives they view the progress of the nation as their duty, which is a noble cause, but often they discount the means in their quest for an end that reflects their ideology. However noble they describe the goals of that quest to be–national integration, secularism–they feel strongly that their paradigm is the only one that has the sophistication and intellectual rigor to dictate how these national objectives are to be achieved. However there are many others who have critiqued the particulars of their program.
In the historical narrations created to promote this mandate there often seem to be few limitations to their criticism of the religion of the majority of their fellow countrymen. More than one eminent leftist scholar whom I interviewed became rather irritated when I suggested that Hinduism was a tolerant non-dogmatic and deeply reflective religion. After an interview, Uma Chakrovarti, a professor of Women’s Studies at Delhi University, cried out, in response to my comment “Hinduism is the most intolerant religion!” I found it incredibly ironic that among a group of highly placed Indian intellectuals “Hindu” often seems like it is used only as a pejorative term.
Arun Shourie expressed what many of the “non-leftist” informants whom I sought out said to me, when he wrote:
“Once they had occupied academic bodies, once they had captured universities and thereby determined what will be taught, which books will be prescribed, what questions would be asked, what answers will be acceptable, these historians came to decide what history had actually been! [I]t suits their current convenience and politics to make out that Hinduism also has been intolerant.”
The media’s attention to the meaning of the Jain site near Fatehpur Sikri and leftist scholars’ questioning of the motivations of the Indian Archaeological Survey continued through the next few months. This highly publicized and politicized dialogue offers a good glimpse at the stances and rebuttals that characterize the history wars in India.
Mukhia’s impetuous article that had initiated the colorful rebuttals in the media about this site had, in large script under his byline a sentence that is also the final ominous exclamation in his op-ed piece, “The digging under Fatehpur Sikri’s Anup Talao, has just about begun and it is already being claimed that it too hides a temple underneath!” This was in reference to an entirely different excavation that was “just about to begin” inside the walls of Fatehpur Sikri. Mukhia’s comment is a sensationalist statement intended to provoke and is not reflective of the intentions of the planned dig. The excavation under the water tank, Anup Talao (peerless pond) located within the palace compound, was conducted based on “contemporary accounts of the construction of Fatehpur Sikri, a variety of textual references were available to a chamber that Akbar sought to build en closed in water. Access to the chamber could be obtained without the Emperor soaking himself.”
While D.V. Sharma found “a huge jar, 12 feet high and 8 feet wide” in a hidden room below the pond, the media connected the two digs, and made some assumptions that Akbar may have destroyed the Jain temple. Mukhia’s claim that the ASI was looking for another desecrated temple under Anup Talao was unfounded and intended to cast politicized dispersions on the ASI, also criticized by Irfan Habib, who:
“thinks that the excavation of Anup Talao is a grossly misdirected enterprise. The contemporary chronicler Badayuni has mentioned… that Akbar had tried in vain to build a chamber which would be protected from the fury of the summer sun by a layer of water. This attempt was abandoned because water kept seeping through to the chamber. The chamber was subsequently sealed and Anup Talao used in the following years alternately to store water and to display a hoard of copper coins. Since these facts are known from the textual record, there was no need to excavate right in the heart of a World Heritage Site, argues Habib. Indeed, he claims that the ASI’s procedure is contrary to all known principles of preservation of historical monuments.”
A news item appeared in the Times of India on April 5, under the misleading title, “Did Akbar build Fathepur Sikri over a temple?” The article reported about an “illustrated talk” that had been presented in Delhi a few days earlier by D.V. Sharma. The journalist wrote that:
“Sharma showed slides of the remains of a temple under Bir Chhabili Tila, a mound near the monument along with the existence of a water palace under the Anup Talao, within the premises of the monument. [….] Matching the dramatic tenor of the ASI excavations was the reaction that followed the talk. Satish Grover, Professor School of Architecture and Planning wanted to know if the ASI had any policy on ‘ripping apart’ ancient monuments which were part of the national heritage. ‘We all know that India is a rich and ancient country, built on layers and layers of civilisation. There could be a temple beneath the Taj Mahal too. Will the ASI dig that up too?’ he queried.”
Whether by “accident or design”, both Satish Grover and Harbans Mukhia conflated the excavation of the chamber underneath the pond inside the walls of the monument, with the excavations going on outside, where the desecrated Jain temple had been discovered. These two separate sites were also confused in media reports. In the Times of India article, D. V. Sharma, speaking at the lecture, is reported to have defended the ASI’s Anup Talao excavation, insisting that,
“The effort was not to destroy the present heritage but only to find out the truth. ‘We are here to correct the interpretation of palaces and monuments, not to rip apart monuments’.”
The article by Harbans Mukhia had already appeared in The Hindustan Times several weeks earlier, as well as the rebuttal written by Meenakshi Jain, so the controversy and the media debate were already in full swing prior to D.V. Sharma’s slide presentation. Because the excavations had received such wide coverage, and had already been politicized, there was an attempt, during the lecture to refute Mukhia’s allegations.
Shortly after the publication of Mukhia’s op-ed piece, archaeologists D.V. Sharma and S.P. Gupta had both written letters to The Hindustan Times to criticize his critique. When I visited S. P. Gupta at his office in New Delhi, he gave me a copy of both of these letters. He informed me that the newspaper did not publish his rebuttal for over three weeks though he called them several times to inquire why they had not. When it had appeared, it was in a significantly truncated form. This letter written in response to Mukhia’s hypothesis was the paper that S. P. Gupta had circulated at the talk by D.V. Sharma, mentioned below in the Times of India article. An abbreviated version of the lengthy rebuttal written by D. V. Sharma was published in The Hindustan Times a few weeks after Mukhia’s controversial piece had appeared.54 The news report in the April 4th edition of the Times of India went on to say:
“But the fact that the matter had already become politicised was evident, when the Chairman of the Indian Archaeological Society, S. P. Gupta, circulated a paper on the excavations which concludes: ‘There is ample proof of (a) the destruction of the Jain temple, (b) the sculptures being vandalised without exception. There is no evidence of Hindu vandalism at the site. What is the other language of this destruction if not ‘demolishing temples’ by the Muslims.”
Both S. P. Gupta and D.V. Sharma reacted strongly not only to Mukhia’s proposition that Brahmins had desecrated the Jain temple, but to the politicized approach that he had taken in his newspaper critique of the ASI. Both archaeologists countered Mukhia’s claims with vehemence, addressing the points he had made, they highlighted the errors in his hypotheses, while also bringing his political orientation into question, as he had done theirs.
In his rejoinder sent to the Hindustan Times, “Beyond All Logic: Prof. Mukia Derailed at Sikri”, which, as mentioned, was not published for several weeks, S.P. Gupta wrote:
“[Mukhia’s] peculiar and self-contradictory statement is also seen further when he makes the observation [regarding] the location of the most beautiful image of a Jain Sarasvati found lying about two meters from the surface. ‘It had been as if placed there with reverence, all others bear several marks of deliberate or indeliberate vandalism’. But this is not true, it was treated like all other sculptures.”
Gupta takes on a few of Mukhia’s observations, such as the claim that the area was not known to be a “Jain stronghold”. Gupta sates that “Mathura-Sikri was certainly a stronghold of the Jains right from 2nd century B.C.” giving an example of a Jain temple excavated in Mathura. Gupta then writes, responding to Mukhia’s preliminary politicization of the issue,
Curiously, a historian is trying to interpret this archaeological evidence in the framework of his Marxist ideology. ‘Is it feasible to consider the possibility of Brahmanical intolerance’ which spared the one goddess with clear Brahmanical association but others which were, as it were, on the other side of the fence, that is Jainism’. The poor professor does not seem to know that Sarasvati was not exclusively Brahmanical, it was equally worshipped by the Jains, just see the 12th century inscribed statue of a Jain Saraswati from the Jain temple at Pallu in the National Museum, New Delhi. Further, even the Saraswati image is found broken at Sikri, which has also been admitted by Mukhia but the funny suggestion is that ‘although’ this was also ‘dumped’ in this ‘dumping ground’ it was shown some respect because Saraswati was a Brahmanical goddess, an observation which is based upon totally wrong assumptions.
Gupta’s letter of less than a page and a half, continues, in defiance of Mukhia’s pet theory that Hindus destroyed temples:
“In his write-up, Prof. Mukhia has tried to suggest Hindu-Jain conflict as the probable cause for the vandalism of the Jain temple and sculptures at Sikri without citing a single example from history or archaeology of Delhi-Agra region. On the contrary, it is well known that as many as 27 Jain and Brahmanical temples were destroyed near Qutab Minar site by the Muslim Sultan of Delhi named Qutbuddin Aibak in an inscription which he himself got engraved.”
Gupta, undoubtedly provoked by Mukhia’s politicized side-swipe, returns an equally politicized retort, “This is the kind of history that the Left historians are trying to write, fact or no fact, they must plead on behalf of their Muslim clients”.
Shortly after Mukhia’s now infamous article about Hindu iconoclasm against Jains appeared in the newspaper, D.V. Sharma sent The Hindustan Times a seven page, very detailed letter, objecting to Mukhia’s interpretation and also Mukhia’s biased attitude. He engaged the issues raised by Mukhia, and criticized him for his lack of knowledge not only about archaeology, but linguistics, geography, psychology, ethnography, history both textual and oral, and his amateurish attempts to incorrectly and selectively take partial knowledge and from that deficient position, to extrapolate, what Sharma considered to be an archaeologically preposterous and unscientific theory. More than that, Sharma objected to Mukhia’s politicization of this excavation site: Mukhia’s statement that it was part of the BJP government’s efforts to advance a particular “version of Indian history”.
Sharma begins by describing the yearlong process of surveying a 25 km radius, and checking “epigraphical evidences” through which they determined there might be a temple under the Bir Chhabili mound, considered to be similar to the “five temple-sites [known] to exist at Sikri village”. He explained that before carrying out the excavation, they had done “hard and tough fieldwork in situ” (original emphasis).
Beginning on the second page of the seven-page letter, in a long paragraph, this archaeologist from the ASI takes up the topic of Mukhia’s assertion that Hindus desecrated Buddhist viharas. I reproduce this paragraph in full because it is indicative of the voluminous data from which archaeologists can draw to discredit this standard claim of leftist historians, but, as well, it captures the sheer astonishment that many scholars experience when analyzing what they consider to be a convoluted version of medieval India history.
“Some historians have assiduously compiled A FEW instances of the demolition of Buddhist viharas by the Hindu rulers, which they cite, more often than not, and zealously, to dilute the vehemence and vastness of medieval iconoclasm. The fact stands out that these few exceptions cannot make the rule and, generally, there was religious toleration in ancient India. Even when Buddhism was dying out (8th century onwards), there were Buddhist monasteries and viharas spread throughout northern India–from Begram to Bengal. Who destroyed them? Does the learned Professor want us to believe that the Hindus destroyed them? He must have heard the name of Iktiyaruddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji who demolished a large number of these Buddhist viharas, burnt laks of precious manuscripts preserved in them, and butchered thousand of bhikshus living in them, on his way from Delhi to Bengal (c. 12th century A.D.).
“The question is of ‘iconoclasm’ let loose by a Mahmud Ghaznavi (1001-1025), a Friuz Tughluq (1351-1387), a Sikandar Lodi (1488-1517), and, above all, an Aurangzeb (1658-1701) vis-à-vis the Hindu and Jaina temples? The learned Professor of History of such a high citadel of learning as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, must surely have read the Black Decree of Aurangzeb issued on 8th April 1669, ordering the governors of all provinces to destroy schools and temples of the non-believers, and report compliance. And he must also have read the “detailed compliance” recorded in Saqi Must’an Khan’s Ma’athir-I-’Alamgiri. Why does he want us to forget or ignore these established facts of history, when we have excavated a site where remains of a temple and desecrated images, in large numbers, are unearthed? Who destroyed the temple and the sculptures? Did the Hindus do it?
“The learned Professor is not aware that at least the Hindus and the Jainas (who also inter-marry) lived in total amity and built their religious shrines together, at the same place, as at Ellora, Khajuraho, Osain and scores of other places. There is not a single instance where the Hindus could have demolished a Jaina temple and such a concealed suggestion in the learned Professor’s writing is absurd. Here, at Fatehpur Sikri, we have excavated a temple and mutilated Jaina images, with conchoidal fracture marks, and we are concerned with the historical fact of medieval iconoclasm, all that scholarly acrobatics so laboriously made by the learned Professor, in the first few paragraphs of his article is absolutely irrelevant and wide off the mark and the very title of his learned epistle is as misleading as it is misconceived.”
Sharma then spends five typed pages taking up each of Mukhia’s points, one by one. First he describes the pit, and explains the ancient method of disposing of damaged statues, in a “visarjana (sacred disposal)”. Sharma writes,
A pit made carefully of stone slabs has been excavated by us and most of the Jaina images (about 30) have been recovered from this pit. [….] It was not a ‘dumping ground’. The learned Professor does not know that even broken images were not ‘dumped’ like garbage, they were reverentially buried. When he called it a ‘dumping’, he deprives it of the element of adoration with which such ‘visarjana’ was made. The pit is still existing in situ in the section of a quadrant. Perhaps, bias blurs the vision more than anything else. [….] [B]efore attributing the site as ‘dumping ground’ […] one wishes […] the learned Professor could have acquired a little basic knowledge of archaeology.
In his article that opened the floodgates to this debate, Prof. Mukhia did mention that when he visited the site, he had spoken to two junior excavators of the ASI with whom he had discussed the dig. As mentioned, they told him that the “excavations had yet yielded no definitive data and pointed to no certain conclusions.” Mukhia, asserts from his two hour visit to the site that “The parts of the walls still in tact do not suggest any particular structure: either a temple or a house or any other”. D.V. Sharma takes him to task for making conclusions without knowing the details of the site. Sharma wrote:
“Prof. Mukhia has stated to have discussed the result of excavation with Assistant Archaeologists of ASI. [….] It is surprising that he never cared to discuss the findings and results of the excavation with me, the Director of the excavation before writing in the newspaper. He is a non-technical person and he is not conversant with plans, elevations, sections and co-relations of structures, in an archaeological excavation, which is why he could not see the temple plan, which is clearly visible at the site.”
Sharma goes on to describe the size of the entire temple, which was over 33 meters by 20 meters and had two terraces. Mukhia had asserted that the site did not necessarily resemble a temple, whereas in fact, the walls of the temple were over a meter in thickness, filled with “rubble masonry with mud mortar”. The temple floors and walls were made from ”huge stone slabs” that measured “6’ x 3’ x 1’” Sharma admonishes Mukhia, saying, “all this is there and one wonders why he failed to see the temple plan in-situ, if he was at all interested to know this fact”.
Mukhia had written, concerning the etymology of the word “Bir Chhabili”:
“The mound that is under excavation is known in the village around as Bir Chhabili’s mound. Clearly it has no religious association (emphasis added).57 Bir Chhabili also does not seem to be a proper name, but more like a pet name, or one which expresses the lady’s attributes and points to a young woman who was perhaps both romantic and audacious. Little else is known about the site in popular lore.”
Mukhia’s use of the word, “audacious” certainly is an attempt to de-religify the meaning of the name, to which D.V. Sharma takes Mukhia to task for his uninformed speculative assertions,
The learned Professor is also advised to study ethno-archaeology of Fatehpur Sikri carefully, and traditions, and customs of the region. The site is highly venerated among the Sikarwar Rajput clan of this region and they definitely came to this place for … ceremony of their newborn children. […] Bir Chhabali is a corrupt form of the probable name attributed to their Goddess (Devi). The sculpture of Sarasvati has an inscription at the base of its pedestal in nagari script and Sanskrit language. Not being an epigraphist, perhaps he could not understand the inscription. This is also the reason why he could not understand the cult and importance of Sarasvati in Jain art and tradition. The image is unique in the world when compared with the images of Sarasvati so far discovered. […] The word Bir and Birbani in Rajasthani, Haryinavi, Gujarati, Marathi and local dialects in UP means young lady of extremely beautiful appearance. Prof. Mukhia also does not seem to be well versed in linguistics which is why he could not co-relate traditions and customs, folk sruti-lores58, language of the region and art and he proceeded to comment in the newspaper without knowing the subject viz., archaeology, epigraphy, art and linguistics.
In his op-ed piece, Mukhia had observed that:
“At the excavated site, the legs of Mahavira in a meditative lotus position are still embedded in a part of the wall and there is no clear purpose of its location. […] There are also several torsos of Mahavira, clearly identifiable because of the flower motif on his chest…”
Sharma contests Mukhia’s statements about the icons with a long technical paragraph about the history of Jain iconography, the lineage of the Jain tirankaras as well as the manner in which the damaged statues were situated, then he wrote:
“The learned Professor has absolutely no knowledge of Jaina iconography, how else could have he identified the sculpture of a tirtankara embedded in the wall … as Mahavira? It is not of Mahavira and I would like to bring to his kind notice that not a single sculpture of Mahavira has been discovered so far from the excavation from Bir Chhabili Tila.”
Sharma then discusses the iconography of the Jain Sarasvati statue, criticizing Mukhia’s evaluation. Mukhia had written that “the Jaina Saraswati [was] in a seductive posture, with the face strongly resembling that of Mahavira”. Sharma pointed out details of the statue’s iconography, requesting : “Prof. Mukhia to study carefully the iconography of Jain Sarasvati and brahmanical Sarasvati. [….] Obviously, he has commented upon this wonderful sculpture without being conversant at all with iconography or epigraphy.”
Sharma turns his attention to the dig under the pond within the Fatehpur Sikri monument itself. He took particular exception to the comment made by Mukhia that the ASI was already claiming, “that it too hides a temple underneath”. Sharma responded, “The ASI has never claimed existence of a temple beneath Anup Talao and [Mukhia’s] statement is false and misleading”. Sharma advises Mukhia “to go through the … Ain-I-Ahbari… and other contemporary references [that] clearly state that His Majesty Emperor Akbar ordered construction of an underground water palace at Fatehpur Sikri”. Sharma explains that: “The excavation at Sikri was undertaken under Anup Talao to reveal and corroborate the reference of Ain-I-Akbari and not to trace an alleged temple which seems to be a fairy tale coined by some mischief mongers better know to Prof. Mukhia.”
As Sharma winds up his letter, he charges Mukhia with dragging politics into what should have been a scholarly discussion. About this topic, Sharma writes at length, with no holds barred:
“It is widely known that some historians of Delhi, who were hitherto monopolizing the state (read: Court) patronage, have been displaced from their ‘Imperial’ pedestals and have been reduced to their actual size. Their maxim, that they could fool all the people, all the time, has been disproved. Naturally, they are aggrieved and they are making the best of every trifle to embarrass the government on cooked-up charges of saffronization of the institutions, which had been woefully stagnating and needed to be revived. Is it a sin to let in new ideas to replace their fossilized thought? They feel outraged that their intellectual hegemony–carefully fabricated and scaffolded over the years–has been demolished. But Fatehpur Sikri excavation is purely an academic matter and cannot be used as a stick to beat the government. They must settle their scores with the government somewhere else. Prof. Mukhia has dragged the names of Dr. M. M. Joshi and Shri Arun Shourie to politicize this matter, which is as unfair and unjust as it is unfortunate. We never expected a University Professor to stoop so low as to indulge in this type of derogatory exercise. Professional ethics demanded that, before writing to the press, he should studies the site, the temple-remains, and sculptures carefully, without prejudice, and on merit.”
This archaeological excavation in Fatehpur Sikri cycled through the op-ed pages for the next few months. The analytical piece in The Hindu, “Tales from Fatehpur Sikri”, appeared July 22, almost five months after the initial spate of articles. The author stated that D.V. Sharma, did not use the words “definitive view” or “final judgment” when he responded to Mukhia’s charges. Additionally, as can be seen from the materials presented, he did not grossly misread Mukhia’s intentions because Mukhia had made no veiled reference to the fact that he felt the Archaeological Survey of India was the handmaiden of the BJP.
Although his suspicion about Hindu on Jain temple demolition was speculative and tentative, without any corroborating evidence, can it be said that Mukhia innocently forwarded this theory, as if he did not know it would generate vociferous rebuttals? More than the provocative words he used, his over all tone was anything but dispassionate and tentative. Mukhia had written strong words, “clearly the mound has no religious significance” and he got strong rebuttals, as could only have been expected.
However, the article in The Hindu that summarized the media hoopla concerning this ignoring all the pleas of tentativeness that had been advanced … accused Mukhia of offering a “definitive view” and a “final judgment” on the basis of incomplete knowledge. And plunging ahead recklessly from this gross misreading, Sharma went on to ascribe motives of a particularly sectarian kind at this archaeological site. The Hindu recounted what the author considered to be Mukhia’s sophisticated analysis against the ASI’s communal archaeologists, “Mukhia’s plea for an attentive reading that would be alive to the complexities of sectarian strife in the medieval period was not received well in certain quarters”.
The author comments with alarm, “Most observers thought it curious that Mukhia’s plea for caution should have provoked this outpouring of intolerance from a professional archaeologist”. Yet he fails to mention that it had been Mukhia whose initial article had politicized the issue. The writer for The Hindu charged that this response from “certain quarters” was: “a definitive sign of a recurrence of the Ayodhya syndrome which afflicted the archaeological profession rather badly in the 1990s–of discoveries of the past being burdened by predilections and cultural biases of the present.”
In the July 4, 2000 edition of The Hindustan Times, Professor K. M. Shrimali wrote an article titled “The Rediscovery or India: Why does Fatehpur Sikri hog the lime light when the Khajuraho diggings go unnoticed?”. In his book, ‘Eminent Historians,’ Arun Shourie devotes several pages to K. M. Shrimali, with whom he publicly debated these issues on a popular television talk show. Shourie points out what he considers to be lapses of scholarship, and stresses the politicization of Shrimali’s positioning, citing, among other observations that he had appeared, along with numerous “Marxist colleagues”, as a witness “in the pleadings filed by the Suni Waqf Board in the courts … considering the Ayodhya matter”.
In his article in The Hindustan Times, Shrimali wrote a resounding critique of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), saying the controversy about the dig near Fatehpur Sikri had brought the ASI “under scrutiny”. He explained it simplistically, in terms of the Ram Janma Bhumi/ Babri Masjid divide, lamenting that ASI’s “reticence at the time of the karsevak-type62 archaeology at Ayodhya and also during and after the demolition of the 450-year old Babri Masjid, is too recent to forget”.
Shrimali’s association with the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC) was very vocal and public, and as was pointed out by Arun Shourie, he was one of the scholars most intimately involved with the hearings, news conferences, and pamphlets before and after the demolition of the contested religious site. It did seem at that time, that this group of historians in Delhi were lined up against the archaeologists–a divide that continues. Shrimali’s observations about archaeological data from the disputed site must be seen in context of the polarized politicized standoff that it has become, rather than simply accepting the verdict of this well respected historian.
Implicating India’s premier archaeological institution as ideologically driven, a veritable arm of the RSS, Shrimali explains: “Indian archaeologists have, in the last 50 years, assiduously worked along a single track. The loss of the fabulous and gigantic sites such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa to Pakistan had to be compensated and the antiquity of the Indian culture pushed back.”
Having concluded that since independence the ASI has been myopic and motivated by jealousy of Indus Valley sites, he then makes the absurd statement, which he sees as ironic, but in context of Pakistani historiography, is nonsensical: “It is ironical that the theocratic Pakistan’s archaeologists dealing with the cultural phase of comparable antiquity are refraining from establishing any religious identity but their counterparts in secular India are consciously working in that direction.”
Professor Shrimali should have known that in Pakistan the official historical narrative does not reach back to the hoary past, but just to the seventh century, beginning with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and less than a century later, in 712 CE with the “triumphant arrival of Islam in the Subcontinent”. The iconographic relics recovered from Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) sites, such as the horned figure sitting in yogic posture, would in all likelihood not inspire connections with the religious identity of Pakistani archaeologists and historians–these scholars are 99% Muslims.
However, in Sindh, home to Mohenjo-Daro and numerous IVC sites, many people have passionately established a personal connection with a “cultural phase of comparable antiquity”. The sufistic Sindhi people take great pride in the cultural connections that link them to the ancient civilization that flourished on the Indus River five thousand years ago. In Pakistan there are also history wars, though not as free and vocal, since textbooks and the curriculum are closely dictated by the central government, and dangerously, any discussion of the pre-Islamic period can lead to charges of blasphemy. Several Pakistani scholars are still languishing in prison, awaiting a death sentence for saying such things as Muhammad’s parents were not Muslims since Islam did not exist until after their death. The desire to have a tangible, documented stake, to own one’s own national or ethnic identity, is common to most groups of people and plays out in many political and cultural arenas.
For decades Sindhis have objected to the dismissive treatment used in Pakistani textbooks and official narratives about the nation, of the IVC, from whence Sindhis claim their cultural roots. To punish them for the connections to a pre-Islamic past that many Sindhis feel, most Pakistanis look down on Sindhis. There are even Sindhi nationalists who agree with the “out of India” theory for the Aryans, claiming, as do the “saffron archaeologists” implicated by Prof. Shrimali, that there was no Aryan invasion, but that Vedic culture arose from the Indus Valley Civilization.
In his op-ed piece, Professor Shrimali launches into a prolonged attack on B.B. Lal, a famous and well-published archaeologist. He states that: “B.B. Lal, the famous excavator of Ayodhya in the 1970’s, emphasized: ‘Site was again occupied around the 11th century AD… but the entire late period was devoid of any special interest.”
When I discussed this with B. B. Lal in December 2001, he explained that these statements in his report were continually taken out of context, about the layer, being “devoid of any special interest”. In Lal’s Ayodhya excavations during the 1970’s, he had been looking at ancient levels to determine dates of prehistoric occupancy. In that search, he found the pillars of an 11th century temple just below and adjacent to the Babri Masjid structure. In the context of his paleo-historical investigation, he had made the above extracted statement in the report. This excerpt is often quoted by leftist scholars, without the sentences before or after it. It is excerpted to prove that B.B. Lal had suddenly changed his position on the Ram Janma Bhumi temple, because he was swayed by the politics of Hindu Nationalism in the 1980’s and 90’s.
When B.B. Lal wrote that the “site was again occupied around the 11th century AD”, what Shrimali leaves out, between his ellipses, is Lal’s archaeological data describing the numerous pillars of a large temple dated circa that era. However, specific to that particular report, since the 11th century was not the era under investigation, “the entire late period was devoid of any special interest’ as far as the current study of ancient sites was concerned. Such partial readings of documents seems to be characteristic of India’s school of elitist historians when they critique research that differs from theirs. Discoveries and documentation are dismissed, because they are written by, as Prof. Thapar says, “fools who do not understand the rules of good scholarship,” fools we are lead to presume, like Professor B.B. Lal?
Shrimali’s op-ed appraisal of Indian archaeologists continues with a disparaging discussion of B.B. Lal’s work, a condemnation of his excavations, which had been authorized under the Nehru government:
“[Lal’s] zealous plea for text-aided archaeology going back to the 1950’s has remained confined to seek archaeological corroboration of ‘Aryan literature’ and has never been extended to any ‘medieval’ text.”
In his argumentative essay, Shrimali advises archaeologists to investigate medieval India instead of ancient India. However he contradicts himself, and reverses his stance in an official statement made during a press conference held two weeks later on July 17, 2000, to which Shirmali was a signatory, advising that archaeologists should not excavate medieval sites, because they are too communal. Perhaps this problem arose due to differing views of periodization.
Shrimali wrote, continuing his invectives of intellectual superiority over the tainted archaeologists: “The… notion of the ‘medieval’ as understood by Indian archaeologists is out dated. Writings of historians in the last 35 years have underlined that it could be used for centuries ranging from the fourth to the 14th, or perhaps even later in some regions of the subcontinent. Most Indian archaeologists are unaware of this rethinking and have persisted with communal periodization fostered by British imperialist historians, viz. Mahmud Ghazni and penetration of Islam marks the beginning of the medieval period.”
Regardless of Shrimali’s assumption of their ignorance, the issue of periodization is something about which Indian archaeologists and that nondescript group of “third rate, shoddy”, non-Marxist scholars, are very much aware. They have long argued that there was no dramatic break in the archaeological record in northern India until the advent of invaders from the northwest, c.1100 CE. The civilization that existed in India between the first years of the Common Era and the beginning of the second millennium, though considerably variable between widely dispersed sites, attested no marked and dramatic changes, until the advent of the Turko-Afghani invasions. This same record of archaeological continuity is also forwarded by a large number of archaeologists to argue against the Aryan Invasion Theory. The Indo-centric scholars would say that the attempt by Marxists to push back the medieval period is based in part on their efforts to find corollaries to feudalism in early Indian society, in order to fit India into the Marxist paradigm and also to soften that marked change brought to India by the Islamized armies of Central Asia.
In colonial models, on the other hand, Hindu history is almost nonexistent, mythical as it were. British colonialists, and Indian Marxists after them, considered that real, documentable history did not begin until the advent of Islam into the Subcontinent. This colonial perspective has been criticized by Indo-centric scholars who maintain that there were innumerable kingdoms in ancient India that are attested in textual and epigraphical records. In addition, the re-periodization proposed by Professor Shrimali and his leftist/progressive colleagues, that situates the beginning of the medieval era in the seventh or eighth and even, as he mentioned in The Hindustan Times article, the fourth century, has been a serious topic of discussion. The archaeologists and other recently saffronized scholars to whom Professor Shrimali grants very little intelligence, have not embraced the colonial model–their understanding of the dating of the medieval period, rather than being out-dated, is very aware of the on-going debates.
Dr. Meenakshi Jain wrote about this topic: “The arbitrary pre-dating of the medieval period by a couple of centuries, for instance, and the forcible application of the concept of feudalism to this period, seem inspired by political considerations. The intention, in both cases, is clearly to draw attention away from the cataclysmic northern invasions and focus instead, on the alleged political, economic, and cultural decay in India on the eve of the Muslim advent. Credible Western scholars have questioned this methodology and cast serious aspersions on the Indian Marxists’ understanding of history as well as their fidelity to facts.”
Professor M.G.S. Narayanan, a well known scholar from Kerala, who previously served on the ICHR board with Irfan Habib and in the past contributed to volumes edited by R.S. Sharma, was for several years the BJP appointed chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research. I interviewed Professor Narayanan in December 2001, and attended a lecture he delivered analyzing the impact of Marxist historiography on the writing of history in India. Professor Narayanan considered the problem of periodization. Regarding colonially constructed history, he said, “they proposed a division into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods.” Later these religious markers were “changed … to conform more exactly to the division of European history into three periods—ancient, medieval and modern”. Narayanan maintained that these markers were useless in the Indian context, “demonstrating further the meaninglessness of the whole exercise”. He explained that in this tripartite system “there was no sense in searching for the special traits that set apart one period from another in terms of political forms or economic trends or culture”. Pointing out that the Marxist historians, who have guided Indian historiography since the sixties, embraced this paradigm, even though “with each new discovery in the field of archaeology or ancient literature the absurdity of this periodisation became clearer and clearer, but no attempt was made to abandon the frame.”
Dilip Chakrabarti, a well published archaeologist discussed the dominance and hegemony of Marxists historians in India. His observations are quoted here at length:
“Finally, as the ebb of nationalism died down and as the Indian historians became increasingly concerned with the large number of grants, scholarships, fellowships and even occasional jobs to be won in the Western universities, there was a scramble for new respectability to be gained by toeing the Western line of thinking about India and Indian history. There could be no question of loosening the stranglehold of Western Indology in such a milieu. There could not be any thought of looking at its implications very closely either. It is however, also true that rumblings against some of the premises of Western Indology have been heard from time to time, but such rumblings have generally emerged in uninfluential quarters, and in the context of Indian historical studies this would mean people without control of the major national historical organizations, i.e., people who can be easily fobbed off as ‘fundamentalists’ of some kind, mere dhotiwalas of no intellectual consequence.
The social scene of Indian historical studies underwent a slow but sure change in the years after Independence. […] .As the number of university teaching jobs in the subject greatly increased as a result of the expansion of higher education in different parts of the country, people – especially those from the ‘established’ families – were no longer apprehensive of choosing History as an academic career. In all cases these university jobs were centrally or provincially supported, bringing with it the inevitable network of government control and a system of rewards for those who would jostle into the key positions of the network. Since the 1970’s, with the establishment of centralized administrative and research funding bodies in some individual subjects, such as History, the importance of this network increased manifold, and soon the distinction between the ‘mainstream’ or ‘establishment’ historians and their less fortunate brethren became clearly marked.
To join the mainstream the historians could do a number of things: expound the ruling political philosophy of the day, develop the art of sycophancy to near-perfection or develop contacts with the elite in bureaucracy, army, politics and business. If one had already belonged to this elite by virtue of birth, so much the better. For the truly successful in this endeavour, the rewards were many, one of them being the easy availability of ‘foreign’ scholarships/ fellowships, grants etc. not merely for themselves but also for their protégés and the progeny. On the other hand, with the emergence of some specialist centers in the field of South Asian social sciences in the ‘foreign’ universities, there was no lack of people with different kinds of academic and not-so-academic interest in South Asian history in those places too, and the more clever and successful of them soon developed a tacit patron-client relationship with their Indian counterparts, at least in the major Indian universities and other centers of learning. In some cases, ‘institutes’ or ‘cultural centres’ of foreign agencies were set up in Indian metropolises themselves, drawing a large crowd of Indians in search of short-term grants or fellowships, invitations to conferences, or even plain free drinks. Quite predictably Indian historians of this period became great subscribers to the theory of internationalism in the matter of historical belief, with the proponents of the Independence generation taking a severe beating. Honest-to-goodness historical investigations based on a close familiarity with the land where the relevant historical forces were operative in the first place were frowned upon; on the other hand, a great show was made of extolling the virtues of the latest sociological and anthropological approaches emanating from the Western campuses, without bothering to find out if such approaches could be practiced by a large majority of Indian investigators who do not have easy access even to the most elementary sociological or anthropological libraries or whether such a blind fetishism did not sometimes lead to a theoretical position undermining the Indian national identity.”
Several years before the Fathepur Sikri imbroglio, an article by Romila Thapar had appeared in Frontline, on August 12, 1997, in the “India Independent: 50 years” special edition. When discussing the problem of periodization, she seems to concur with Narayanan:
“The periodisation of Hindu, Muslim and British—or its equivalent of Ancient, Medieval and Modern—is being gradually eroded. The line of demarcation has to be made on the basis of fundamental social changes, which do not necessarily coincide with invasions, conquests and dynastic changes.”
Professor Thapar states, “The most substantial contribution in terms of further evidence has been from archaeology”, yet she dismisses the archaeological evidence when it confirms historical constructions with which she does not agree. She wrote, “The pretence at historicity was a new aspect of Hindutva ideology and was used to gull the public. It therefore has to be challenged by historians”. This comment is indicative that the Delhi historians group are politically selective in the archaeological data that they all willing to entertain.
Professor Thapar continues to be one of the most strident voices challenging “Indigenism” which she maintains is “historiographically barren with no nuances or subtleties of thought and interpretation”. She concludes with what is almost a reversal of this stance when she states that “the obsession with the past will continue and historians will thrive. In fact the greater the contentions, the more will there will be a honing of historical generalizations”. These two contradictory statements give rise to issues of authenticity and the politics of who gets to decide whose historiography is invalid and whose is to be promoted and patronized. Nowhere are these countervailing tendencies are more vivid than in the disdain with which Romila Thapar and her colleagues view archaeologists with an indigenized bent. Characteristic of their challenges, the Delhi historians rarely engage the data brought forth by these “indigenous” scholars, but have a compulsion to focus almost exclusively on the contentiousness.
In his op-ed critique of archaeology written three years after Thapar’s above quoted article, Delhi University historian K.M. Shrimali “pointed out a curious asymmetry in the ASI’s methods of reporting between two sites–Fatehpur Sikri and Khajuraho”. In the opinion of Shrimali, at Fatehpur Sikri there was a “rush to judgment and little effort to dispel the growing confusion in the public mind”. In contrast, he pointed out that “the reporting procedures adopted [at Khajuraho] have been cautious and restrained”. Shrimali discussed the discoveries at the Bijamandal Temple in Khajuraho, explaining the similarities of the two ASI sites, where there are “figures of Saraswati, Vishnu, Jain tirthankaras” side by side. Shrimali speculated: “The site has raised questions of whether assimilative tendencies led to the carving of Jain tirthankaras in a Shaivite temple, or whether subsequent to abandonment by the Jain community, the sanctity of the place was maintained as a Shaivite shrine.”
In D.V. Sharma’s lengthy letter to The Hindustan Times, most of which was not published, he had also referred to this aspect of the Khajuraho cite to make another point. Sharma suggested that such overlapping of Jain and Hindu shrines generally indicates that among Hindus and Jains during that era, “toleration and co-existence was a way of life, as is evident from the cluster of temples of different faiths” that existed at Khajuraho. Harbans Mukhia had used a misreading of the same sort of evidence to try to make the point that if there was a demolished Jain temple, and Jain statues that had been desecrated, it was just as likely to have been the result of Hindu bigots as it was Muslim iconoclasts.
The historical evidence simply does not substantiate that hypothesis. Yet the newspaper audience is told a few months later that the ASI had rushed to judgment and practices a “motivated reconstruction” of the past and that Mukhia had only been “pleading” for academic objectivity. Shrimali, ends his July 4th article, with the question:
“Will Mr. Sharma tell us how many decades shall we have to wait to find out if it was really a visarjan and not the repetition of a Khajuraho-type development? Till then, his instant archaeology is bound to be suspect and disturbing.”
In his rejoinder to Mukhia, written several months earlier than the Shrimali op-ed piece, D.V. Sharma had mentioned the differences and similarities between the two sites. Obviously he considered the analysis proposed by Harbans Mukhia, a close associate of K. M. Shrimali, to represent the very sort of instantaneous interpretations for which he was now being publicly criticized. Undoubtedly, by the tone of his earlier quoted letter, Sharma found such instantaneous speculations to be equally “suspect and disturbing”.
Shrimali asked, playing off the title of Mukhia’s original essay, “is ‘the language of destruction’ the only language that the ASI alone can understand?” Some archaeologists, “from certain quarters” would maintain that Marxist historians, of whom Mukhia and Shrimali are two, manipulate data and propose preposterous justifications to negate the historically attenuated violence of the medieval period. Though Professor Thapar had argued that the divisions were not that simplistic, they certainly play out that way in the popular media, and in the insulting names that each side hurls at the other. Historiography, archaeology and polite academic discussions are lost in the fray.
During the summer of 2000, there were at least two more media events concerning the dig near Fatehpur Sikri. The continuing unsavouriness of the politicization of the controversy, and the seemingly unending stream of trumped up accusations leveled against several renown archaeologists, compelled the director of the ASI to make a public statement, which the article in The Hindu a few weeks latter called, “a long overdue clarification”. Speaking to a news agency on July 6, two days after Shirmali’s critique of the ASI came out in The Hindustan Times, Director-General Mrs. Komal Anand “authoritatively confirmed that there was no basis to believe that any religious structure was destroyed or damaged during the construction of the Fatehpur Sikri palace complex”.
Nonetheless, the article in The Hindu, accused the ASI of complicity in communalism,
“This delayed intervention from the top [of the ASI] may have temporarily laid to rest the controversy. But the larger questions about the political uses and abuses of archaeology are unlikely to disappear quite so easily.”
I asked Romilar Thapar about the worry that many historians expressed about the ominous saffronization of archaeology, pointing to Mukhia’s newspaper article regarding the Jain temple that was excavated near Fatehpur Sikri. She replied:
“You have to understand it not in terms of archeology but you have to understand it in terms of political propaganda. If you are building up a theory that the Muslims were dreadful on all scores and therefore one has to project them in the blackest of colors the logical thing that you do is you focus on the one Muslim ruler that everybody has said was very tolerant, secular, gave patronage to all kinds of people, and so on, Akbar. And try and make him appear in the worst possible light. So how do you do this? You’re conducting excavations at some distance from Fatehpur Sikri and you pull up this Jain temple now, you let slip to the media, ‘This is very interesting, there is a Jain temple next door to Fathepur Sikri.’ So the press rushes off and you start saying ‘well we don’t know, it’s a Jain temple and it is very close to Fathepur Sikri’. So immediately the connection is made that, like in the case of the Babri Masjid, a theory can be now built up that says Fathepur Sikri was built on the destruction of Jain temples. And this goes on being discussed in the press. The excavator doesn’t say a word to deny it. One historian [Harbans Mukhia] goes there with a bunch of students to look around and writes this article that openly challenges the archeologists, Then they reply, and the reply was not in terms of ‘why this site was chosen’ and ‘what was the significance of the site’, ‘what is its relationship to Fathepur Sikri’. It was not in terms of the ‘archeological relationship of stratification’ and so on, which every archeologist should know when you are digging a site that is supposedly close to a monument. None of that, it goes on and on accusing Harbans Mukkia of not knowing anything about archeology. It is neither here nor there, whether he does or he does not, he has raised some questions, answer those questions. Okay. Then they get their wind up because in Parliament the opposition says that are going to raise this issue. Then the archeological survey becomes scared because it becomes a direct political issue. The opposition would realize the issue: ‘why they are saffronizing archeology’ and ‘what do they mean by saying that there is a link between this Jain temple and Fathepur Sikri’? Then they come out with an official statement saying that there is no connection. Now why does one have to go through many months of this gentle suspicion that there is a connection and Akbar isn’t really as good as he is made out to be because he destroyed a Jain temple to build his monument?”
Though well meaning regarding an anti-saffron agenda, Thapar is conversant with only one side of the situation. She could not have been unaware of the seven page rebuttal written by D.V. Sharma, alluding to above, he mailed her one. But she chose to ignore the many pages in which Sharma did indeed engage the issues raised in Mukhia’s article, “why this site was chosen” and “what was the significance of the site”. He also somewhat retaliated the hostile tone. Sharma’s letter, in its entirety, was, according to Mukhia, circulated widely among hundreds of Delhi intellectuals, historians at JNU, journalists, and scores of social critics. As one of the most prominent of those Delhi intellectuals at JNU targeted to receive Sharma’s rebuttal letter, Thapar was sent a copy of that rejoinder that was specifically directed at her group of colleagues. She said she remembered something to that effect, full of vile invectives, not worth reading. However, had she read it she would have seen that he carefully addressed Mukhia’s questions.
In that detailed letter, Sharma had dealt extensively with “what was the significance of the site”. Sharma had stated very clearly, in that letter sent across New Delhi several months before my interview with Prof. Thapar, that the excavation of the Jain temple had no ‘relationship to Fathepur Sikri’. That his response was irrelevant to Prof. Thapar, reveals a pattern. It is similar to the manner in which she and her colleagues have continued to blithely ignore, while at the same time misquoting, a decade of careful rejoinders from B.B. Lal and his discussion of data to back up his explanations. In this way, scholars associated with the Delhi Historians’ Group continue to chose to pretend that their original critiques remain unanswered and the object of their criticism has only pointed a politicized finger, not pointed out details of the data under dispute. Case closed.
In this technique of dismissal any kind of dialogue is precluded. Most ironic is, though they charge that the archaeologists are not sticking to academics but are keeping the issues politicized, this is, in fact, the precise methodology employed continuously by Thapar and the Delhi Historians’ Group themselves. They question a scholar for having a saffron agenda, then, act offended when the object of their ridicule in defense responds to the jab by returning the retorts, case by case. As mentioned above, many of these scholars who are pejoratively labeled saffron go into great detail to explain the content and the context of the facts they are presenting. They are opposed to only rebutting the political accusations. However, the numerous spokesmen and women of the Delhi Historians’ Group do not lower themselves to consider these carefully laid out arguments from whom they consider blithely, “Hindu Nazis”.
Sharma’s letter did accuse “Harbans Mukkia of not knowing anything about archeology” but it also went into detail about how Mukhia’s lack of knowledge had caused him to miss many details when he visited the site and how that misinformation had caused him to make gross generalizations. Mukhia “raised some questions”, but Prof. Thapar chose not to acknowledge the seven pages that Sharma had written attempting to “answer those questions”. Ignoring all rebuttals and explanations, Thapar can then state with conviction that the ASI has saffronized archaeology. She can accuse the archaeologists of hurling “vile invectives” in response to “observant” politically correct op-ed pieces such as Mukhia’s.
Romila Thapar spoke to me about what she considered to be the archaeologists’ penchant of “running to the press” with each new sensational discovery. She told me:
“There was a time, and I wish to God that we would go back to that time, when professionals, and especially archeologists, because they are in the field and there are things coming out of the earth unexpectedly all the time. There was a time when archaeologists excavated and found something, the first publication was always in a professional journal, or at a professional seminar where other professionals would also evaluate the materials and sometimes the person that had done the digging would backtrack a little bit. After that had been done it would go into your Illustrated London News or wherever it was, National Geographic. It would be picked up and it would be sort of hyped up a little bit, this that and the other. But nowadays it’s the reverse, here at least, the first thing that they do is to go to the press and say, look we have found such and such or the press comes to them and says what have you found and they are ready to talk. Instead of saying to the press, sorry this has first to be evaluated. There isn’t that concept of peer group evaluation before you open your mouth publicly and make a declaration.”
Romila Thapar neglected to mention that more often than not, it is the Delhi Historians’ Group that makes controversial statements to the press, which the saffronized archaeologists feel compelled to engage. In response to simple announcements, such as planned archaeological digs, the Delhi historians read in communal intensions, and they are ever ready to run to the press without ever contacting the ASI or the archaeologist in question for more information.
Year after year at annual events such as the Indian History Congress the scholars have passed resolutions condemning the supposed abuse of archaeology in India. Press announcements of this kind are continually forthcoming. S.P. Gupta’s counter comments in this regard are relevant here,
“[T]he ‘academic debate’ … initiated by the JNU historians through their pamphlet “The Political Abuse of History” … quoted several times Prof. B.B. Lal’s archaeological findings about the antiquities of Ayodhya [that he found nothing predating the 8th century] because it helped them in their arguments, and Prof. Lal was portrayed as a great archaeologist. [….] The problem began when another set of evidence from Ayodhya – namely the discovery of pillar-bases immediately to the south of Babri Masjid, almost touching the boundary wall – again known through the researches of Prof. Lal – came to be used by another group of scholars involved in the debate. This evidence goes against JNU and other Marxist historians. Rather than accepting the evidence and beginning a proper academic debate the Marxist historians began throwing mud on Prof. Lal’s unblemished career of over 45 years as a field-archaeologist. Overnight from ‘amongst a few greatest living archaeologists in the world ‘he became’ a ‘VHP archaeologist’ and whatever he had done, right from the beginning of his career, from 1944, became questionable. But what was more unfortunate part of the whole affair is that his work is being questioned more through the letters in newspapers and not through the academic articles in archaeological, historical or indological journals. This shows their motive.”
Mukhia’s op-ed piece had concluded with the comment that the ASI was conducting this dig to bolster the communal politics of M.M. Joshi and Arun Shourie. Since Mukhia had originally made this allegation, it would seem to be within acceptable conventions of debate for Sharma to respond to the insinuations. The other pages upon which Sharma explained the details of the dig, to counter Mukhia’s less informed theories, were not noted by scholars such as Prof. Thapar. Only his defensive response to politicized insults were worth repeating, not the fine academic lines, about the actual excavation site, were remembered from Sharma’s widely circulated letter. This lack of engagement with the issues, the complete black out of the arguments of the “other side”– so that the debate remains on the polemical politicized plane, is the on-going strategy to paint the ASI saffron.
These same historians who in 1989, authored the now famous pamphlet “The Political Abuse of History”, have continued their assault on the ASI for over a decade. In 2000, they were unwilling to let the confusion regarding the demolished Jain temple outside the walls, versus the underground water tank, inside the palace walls, sort itself out and be duly dismissed as a conflation of issues. Twenty-three scholars representing the “Association for the Study of History and Archaeology”, which is housed at the SAHMAT office in New Delhi, held a news conference and issued a three page statement, with the names of those who attended the meeting listed on the forth page. The date of the document is July 17, 2000, titled, “Press note: The ASI and Indian Archaeology Today”, the same week that I interviewed Prof. Thapar.
In this statement issued to the media, the historians first presented a paragraph about the value of archaeology and then gave a short history of the Archaeological Survey of India, mentioning some of the big names in colonial archaeology, Cunningham, Wheeler, Marshall. They refer to the ASI’s association as a department of the government. But by the third paragraph they begin their case against the ASI and particularly they singled out the work of B. B. Lal.
Lal’s excavations became retroactively controversial in the mid-eighties after which time he was systematically condemned by the vocal group of Delhi Historians. Prior to that, his scientific and detailed excavations of ancient sites conducted by the ASI, which he headed up for decades, were commended for bringing forth valuable information. His work confirmed that there were strata in the sediment that could be traced to textual references about ancient settlements such as Hastinaapura, a city near Delhi mentioned in the epic The Mahaabhaarata. Earlier, in less polarized years, these same “Delhi historians” sited copiously from Lal’s work. They held each other in mutual respect. The intellectual chasm cleaved by the Babri Masjid debates drove a political wedge between Indian intellectuals, pitting the “Delhi historians” against a whole slew of scholars, especially archaeologists. Until that black and white, left and right, day and night division dramatically divided the field of Indian social sciences, Lal’s work was considered groundbreaking.
The SAHMAT sponsored press release had this to say:
“[In] the case of B.B. Lal’s Ayodhya excavations carried out in the 1970’s, new claims began to be made well over ten years after the excavations were completed: there is legitimate suspicion of afterthought here. Surely if findings are fully and promptly published, there would be no room for suspicion.”
The media statement accused the ASI of ignoring “transparency…[regarding] methods adopted in excavations and technical studies of finds”. They lamented that during “British times” things were more “systematic” and efficient.81 They stated that, “the ASI has increasingly begun to adopt a narrow and parochial approach to archaeology”. This began, they maintain, with the “publication in 1955 of B. B. Lal’s report on Hastinapur, which aimed explicitly at providing an archaeological proof for the Mahabharata tradition”.
They claimed that Lal’s report:
“drew upon him the reproof of the … director general, A. Ghosh … [and] the ASI’s official disavowal of his conclusions. But now as the “Saffron” forces have come into power, a complete shift is noticeable in official archaeology […] proving that the Harappan or Indus Culture was really based on the Saraswati, and was Aryan and not Dravidian, in its ethnic basis.82 Several official publications of the recent past have also adopted this new fangled designation83…. The new nomenclature “Sindu-Sarasvati culture” is on its way to being given official recognition to replace the more neutral “Harappan” or “Indus” culture. [….] Such chauvinistic attempts are drawing ridicule from archaeologists in other parts of the world.”
There are a great number of scholars in “other parts of the world” who do not subscribe to this critique that dominates Marxist Indian thinkers. Some recent world history textbooks for US students mention that the discovery of numerous IVC sites in India is prompting a reevaluation of the theories concerning the Indus Valley Civilization. In the past, from Chinese pilgrims and Arab chroniclers, there were numerous investigators who explored the possibility and brought forth data concerning the Sarasvati River.
“In 1844, Major F. Makenson, looking for a safe route to connect Sindh with Delhi, discovered a huge riverbed, over which he wanted to build an eight-way lane. In 1869, archaeologist Alex Rogue found Himalayan alluvial deposits in the Gulf of Cambay (now Khambat) which could not have been brought there by the non-Himalayan Sabarmati or Narmada. This led him to suspect that the Saraswati must have left them there before she vanished. C.F. Oldham of the Geological Survey of India asserted in 1893 that the dry bed skirting the Rajasthan desert was that of the Saraswati.”
Wheeler’s discovery of Mohenjo-daro in the next century put a dogmatic end to such speculations. However, the term Indus Valley Civilization is itself based on incomplete information obtained in the early years of archaeological explorations of the Subcontinent that focused exclusively on sites along the Indus River. Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s theory that Vedic Aryans raided and sacked the “Dravidian cities“ has been enshrined in schoolbook histories for over seven decades. Nonetheless, since the discoveries of Sir Mortimer, literally hundreds of Indus Valley-type sites have been found in Gujarat and along a large swath of dried up riverbeds across western India, more in fact than are located in present-day Pakistan. The renaming of the ancient civilization so that it does not exclude the parts that are located in what is now India, would seem to be a more neutral nomenclature, than simply Indus Valley.
Members of the “Association for the Study of History and Archaeology” (AHSA), which consisted primarily of the same group of “Concerned Delhi historians”, several of whom often write op-ed pieces in the English dailies and many of whom testified on the behalf of the All India Babri Masjid Committee (AIBMC) attempt to give authority to their views by associating their pronouncement with foreign scholars. Supposedly, the foreign scholars alluded to, who are presumably more objective than ASI archaeologists, have ridiculed the idea of reassessing the naming of the Indus Valley Civilization because they consider that such reevaluations are driven by chauvinistic nationalistic motivations. Many concerned scholars in western educational institutions do shun this interesting if controversial debate based on these fears articulated and circulated internationally by Indian elitist intellectuals
Broadly speaking, this claim about the ridicule coming from non-Indian archaeologists is overblown and not representative of the growing Occidental academic interest in the topic. Such a dismissive handling of the question does not take into account its inclusion in high school history textbooks in the West that now often consider the alternative theories of the Indus Valley/Sarasvati Civilizational region. For careful scholars, fifty years of documentation has become too overwhelming to ignore.
The leftist historians of the DHG and ASHA want to imply that the remarkable finds that have emerged from IVC excavations in India are less striking than those discovered by colonial archaeologists in Pakistan. Though the same Harappan era sites, with terracotta seals, uniform bricks and weights, and so forth, have been unearthed by archaeologists to the east of the Indus in present day India, these group of Indian scholars, primarily historians, nonetheless prefer to focus predominately on the sites located on the Pakistani side of the boarder They invariably discount the sites found in India as politically motivated and too tainted by saffron to even consider.
This public critique, compiled by ASHA for the media, claimed that some “archaeologists in other parts of the world” are predisposed against and therefore refuse to examine new information coming from India. Perhaps these respected foreign scholars, heeding the dire warnings issued through SAHMAT, prefer to bury their heads under the ground, rather than examine the data found there. In so far as there are numerous “archaeologists in other parts of the world” who have taken notice of five decades of remarkable discoveries, ignoring selective data seems to be the only strategy suggested by this group of scholars often known as the “Delhi historians”.
B.B. Lal called this syndrome “blindfolding ourselves under a spell of bigotry” and had this to say about this tendency to deny paradigmatic shifts:
“It is interesting, nay even amusing, to look back and see how historical theories take birth, are sustained and become so much ingrained in the psyche that it becomes next to impossible for conservative scholars even to have a look at the mounting new evidence which goes counter to their long-cherished views. And this is precisely what has happened in the case of the theory known as ‘The Aryan Invasion of India’.”
In 1994 the World Archaeological Congress was held in Delhi. According to B.M. Pande, whose work as an archaeologist has always been considered to be thorough and objective, along with many other esteemed professionals with long careers in the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), the 1994 World Archaeological Congress hosted in Delhi was “a disaster”. The agitation by a group of Marxist scholars humiliated the ASI urging that it be censured by the World Archaeological Congress, an international body. This group of “progressive” (formally called Marxist) scholars, who often author stridently worded op-ed pieces created a “hue and cry” during the 1994 World Archaeological Congress and “tried to malign the Archaeological Survey of India.” According to Prof. Pande, whom I interviewed in Delhi in 2000, “they created such drama we were ashamed”. He said that the “gang” responsible for the tamasha was the usual cast of characters, “Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Shrimali, and a few more”.
Professor Pande explained:
“When the Babri Masjid was destroyed, immediately the same group of persons who had joined hands with the Babri Masjid Action Committee started accusing the Archaeology Survey of complicity and some of them used to come to the Archaeological Survey … they had meetings and wrote numerous articles in the newspapers.”
Prof. Pande had personally been insulted by this “usual gang” as he called them. He said they got in the habit of greeting respected members of the ASI with the RSS hand salute, instead of a simple Namaskar. They publicly and privately abused the archaeologists. “In the press and elsewhere they asked, ‘Why did the archaeological survey allow the destruction of the Babri Masjid?’.”
Prof. Pande was irate at that insinuation. He pointed out:
“#1, ASI is not in the picture at all because it was not a protected monument. And #2, No archaeologist worth his salt would like any ancient structure to be destroyed. Irrespective of the fact whether it is protected or not protected. Even if it was, presuming for a moment the Babri Masjid was protected, was it possible for an organization like the ASI to have saved the destruction from thousands… when the entire might of the state could not stop it? But what happened was that all the time they were making allegations against the ASI. Why didn’t ASI do this or that… rubbish.”
That is the time when the well known group of Marxist scholars started attacking B.B. Lal, whom Professor Pande knew well and considered him to be “a very objective archaeologist”. Pande had worked with Lal at Kalibangan for six seasons. He said:
“I have seen how meticulous he is, how thorough he is. He does not tamper with the evidence. These critics have not even gone for a picnic at an archaeological site… not even a picnic. And they make all kinds of allegations… that the ASI is dominated by the RSS… The ASI was not dominated by anyone else but archaeologists.”
In 1994, at the World Archaeological Congress the ASI was called communal and fascist and the Indian archaeologists were decried as hyper-nationalists and accused of advocating the destruction of ancient sites. This was sheer propaganda according to many, but the historians who forced the issue at the international meeting in Delhi, were, nonetheless, given lots of news coverage and succeeded in painting India’s premier archaeologists black, or saffron, as the metaphor extends. Then as now, there were many articles in the newspaper “Frontline” and “EPW” that continue to condemn the archaeologists as nationalists. The politicized abuse continues.
At the 1998 World Archaeological Congress held in Croatia, K.M. Shrimali presented a paper against the ASI,
“Regrettably, archaeologists in India were only muted spectators when 450 year old monumental Masjid was demolished at Ayodhya. Let us all rise at least now to redeem the sullen and scarred prestige of Indian archaeology. May we hope that henceforth the Indian archaeologists will not emulate the German archaeological community that played a pivotal role in legitimating notions of Germanic racial and cultural superiority and thus contributing to the political legitimisation of the Nazis in the 1930s.”
Also at the 1998 Croatia WAC conference was a panel of Indian historians with several archaeologists, including S.P Gupta and B.B. Lal, who discussed the Ayodhya situation dispassionately, referring to the artifacts and the facts, instead of falling back of politicized accusations of Nazism, as their critics have done for decades.
Amid all this mudslinging, B. B. Lal and several other prominent archaeologists went digging for ancient Indian history and found it, layer after layer, much to the chagrin of the members of various academic associations founded by elitist historians, such as the “Association for the Study of History and Archaeology”. In spite of Lal’s publications, reports, and rejoinders, which were forthcoming, within the on-going barrage of abuses leveled against B.B. Lal and the ASI, his rebuttals and responses are usually ignored, and at best distorted. His critics continue to repeat the exact same objections year after year, though Lal has published several papers clarifying and explaining.
To conclude this discussion on fiery battle lines drawn between conflicting interpretations of Indian Archaeology, that inevitably trigger a response from the media, the case of Professor B.B. Lal, will be examined a little further. Professor Lal, was awarded the Padmabhushan in 2000 a coveted national prize. In 1998, he was nominated to the board of the ICHR (Indian Council for Historical Research). This brief discussion of Professor Lal will lead into the subsequent discussion of the ICHR and the controversial recall of two volumes of the Towards Freedom project.
Ostriches and Archaeologists: B.B. Lal and the “Unalterable Facts of History”
“The fundamentalists want to establish the superiority of the Sarasvati over the Indus because of communal considerations. In the Harappan context they think that after partition the Indus belongs to the Muslims and only the Sarasvati remains with the Hindus.”
–R. S. Sharma, Advent of the Aryans in India (1999)
Two archaeological controversies dominate the debates between the vocal scholars of the Delhi Historians’ Group (DHG) and the rather unassuming if persistent Professor B. B. Lal. Most recently Lal has been criticized for his extensive work on the Sindhu/Sarasvati Civilization, a topic about which he continues to publish, long past his retirement. And, though his work on the “Archaeology of the Ramayana and Mahabharata” was retroactively downgraded by the ivory citadels to the moats of “nationalist archaeology”, it was his discussion and analysis of his excavation on the perimeter of the Babri Masjid complex that drew the attention and the ire of the DHG. Because of these two contested topics, the DHG has painted all of Lal’s previous work saffron, beginning right from 1946 and his excavations in pre-partition Pakistan. Psychoanalyzing the ASI, assuming that the loss of the IVC sites had created an almost addictive lust for finding Harappan and Mature Harappan sites in post-partition India, the DHG, et al, could scoff at the findings as motivated by a Indian nationalist need to create an imagined trail of historical continuity.
A vehement and very public criticism was raised and sustained by the Delhi Historians’ Group and other loosely formed alliances of leftist scholars, against the ASI archaeologists. This pattern didn’t begin with the Babri Masjid/Ram Janma Bhumi (BM/RJB) controversy in the late eighties, it rather jelled over several decades. Though the chasm created by BM/RJB fueled and accelerated the divisions between contesting theoretical and methodological perspectives, the main reason that such abusive discourse became the norm was because the semi-autonomous bodies directing historiography in India were for several decades dominated by leftist intellectuals such as Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, K.M. Shrimali, who were, so to speak, the leaders of the crusade against the ASI.
Their stance was official and well known, there was little room for debate. Far fewer Marxists opted for archaeology than history, perhaps because historiography is more theoretically based, and archaeology is concrete, with surprises constantly rising from the earth to shatter old theories. In this brief final section about archaeological disputes, I draw from rebuttals written by Mr. B. B. Lal, juxtaposing these with the critiques leveled against him that continue to appear in the popular media.
In the early l950s B. B. Lal began his study of the archaeological sites associated with the Mahabharata. His work at Hastinapura Indraprastha, Purana Qila and other related excavations revealed a common material culture of “Painted Grey Ware […] ca. 1100 to 800 BC”. His path breaking findings were first published in Ancient India, (Cambridge) in 1954-55.91 Several other publications were forthcoming. Through the years, Lal trained many of India’s foremost archaeologists. He served as the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and as the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, among other academic and bureaucratic posts.
Lal undertook the Ramayana phase of the project, using the same methodology applied to his Mahabharata excavations. In order to investigate the historicity of the epics, he carefully selected several sites, based on descriptions of geographical locations mentioned in the ancient texts. This methodology reflected a worldwide interest in textually referenced archaeological investigations that had provided rich information from Israel, Persia, Greece, and could be applied to areas where recognizable geographical references were part of indigenous narratives. The work on the Ramayana project lasted twelve years, from 1975 to 1986 and was first reported in Antiquity, vol. LV, England, 1981, pp. 27-34. Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Lal has produced a long bibliography of excavation-reports and research papers, published in India and abroad.92
In 1988, at an international conference, New Archaeology and India, organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research, Lal presented a lengthy paper titled “Historicity of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana: What has Archaeology to say in the Matter”. According to Lal, he submitted his 60 page paper to the ICHR and though he made “numerous enquiries” for several years, he was repeatedly told that the proceedings were, “in the press”. Lal later surmised, that because his report “went counter to [the] views [of] the then authorities of the ICHR [they] withheld the publication of the paper”. Finally, according to Lal, due to the long delay, the 60 page, fully illustrated paper was “hijacked”, because of its great interest, and published in a Hindu-centric journal, The Manthana.
As will be seen in the following discussion of the recall of the Towards Freedom project, this is not the only research that was withheld from publication by the pre-BJP era ICHR. Under the directorship of Irfan Habib, P.N. Chopra was also censured for not privileging a left-centric presentation. There are many internal rumblings disassembling the hegemonic discourse. The big question is, can the multiple voices survive the changing of the generational guard, embracing and publishing theoretically polished “indigenous” historiographies, with an interest that transcends religious circumstances?
Given the independent nature of the press in India, there does exist English language as well as vernacular journals that discuss with articulate dispassion the issues that are taboo or ignored in the major English dailies, from where social scientists and humanities scholars in the West get their quick fix social and political updates. In the March 14, 2002 Free Press Journal93 M.V. Kamath brought to the readers’ attention, that “Archaeologist (Madras Circle), K. K. Muhammad said:
“I can reiterate this (i.e. the existence of the Hindu temple before it was displaced by the Babri Masjid) with greater authority – for I was the only Muslim who had participated in the Ayodhya excavations in 1976-77 under Prof. Lal as a trainee. I have visited the excavation near the Babri site and seen the excavated pillar bases’. […] ‘The JNU historians have highlighted only one part of our findings while suppressing the other. I often wondered why Prof. Lal is keeping quiet about it while JNU group went on a publication spree’. Muhammad was to add; ‘Ayodhya is as holy to Hindus as Mecca is to Muslims; Muslims should respect the sentiments of their Hindu brethren and voluntarily hand over the structure for constructing the Rama Temple’.”
Unfortunately this type of quote rarely makes it to the pages of The Hindu, and would be considered by “Babri historians” such as Irfan Habib and R.S. Sharma to be an exploitation of an Islamic name for the nefarious treachery of the likes of B.B. Lal and his usual cast of archaeological Nazis.
For several decades, B.B. Lal was on the “p-sec” shortlist for imminent saffronization, primarily because of his archaeological investigations into the “Indic past”. However, Lal’s reputation remained relatively in tact until February 10, 1991 when he delivered a lecture at the Annual Conference of the Museums Association of India, titled, “The Ramayana: An Archaeological Appraisal”. According to Lal, a reporter at the lecture asked him about the “interrelationship between the pillar-bases encountered in the trench excavated by me and the stone pillars incorporated in the Babri Masjid and further whether there was any temple underneath the Masjid. I replied, as any archaeologist would have: ‘If you do want to know the reality, the only way is to dig underneath the mosque.”
The news report went on to say:
“Some of the pillar-bases, Prof. Lal said, lay under the edge of the trench on the side of the Babri Masjid and it was likely that there may exist more such bases in that direction. It was also probable that the stone pillars incorporated in the mosque and the pillar bases found in the excavation hardly half a metre below the surface may belong to a structure that existed at the site prior to the construction of the mosque. In order to verify this and to obtain a clear picture of the preceding structure, it would be necessary to carry out further excavations in the area including that underneath the mosque. Prof. Lal said it was essentially a politica1 issue rather than an archaeological one and added that the sooner it was settled amicably the better would it be for the country.”
Professor Lal was astonished that, though his above quote appeared on 12th of February, by “the very next day twenty eminent historians [had already] issued a statement [picked up by the media] casting serious aspersions on my innocuous suggestion”96. He later added, curious about the efficiency of the orchestrated condemnation,
One really wonders at the secret mechanism devised by these historians to prepare and align the statement in a single day when they are physically located variously at Kurukshetra, Delhi and Patna?
The statement of these twenty scholars in The Hindustan Times, complied for the press with incredible speed, appeared on February 13th, a day subsequent to the article reporting Lal’s suggestion that an excavation of the Babri Masjid could help to prevent the social divisions that had arisen around the contentious site. The leftist historians’ group in a collective reprimand, lamented that B.B. Lal had crossed over to the Saffron side. The scholars who signed on to the instantaneous critique
“deplored as unfortunate that professionals should tend to lose proper sense of India’s past ‘under the impetus of the current Hindutva campaign’. The statement referred to the observation made by Mr. Lal in his lecture two days ago.”
This group letter argued that when Mr. Lal had suggested “fresh excavations at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya [he was] fulfilling the demand of those who wanted the Babri Masjid to be demolished to construct the temple at that site.” Though he had only suggested that an investigation under the mosque was technically the best way to determine if there had been a temple there, the article submitted to the press by the group of concerned historians, asserted that they had found his suggestion, to be “highly disquieting”. These scholars, many of whom were witnesses for the Babri Masjid Action Committee, commented authoritatively that “the pillars found in the structure of the Masjid ranged from the 14th century and ‘seem to have been brought from various structures outside the Masjid to decorate it‘.”
Professor Lal “issued a rejoinder which appeared [five fast days later] in The Statesman, New Delhi, dated February 18, l991:
“Further excavation within the floor area of the Babri Masjid without in any way harming the structure is necessary to know what actually preceded the mosque at Ayodhya, according to former Archaeological Survey of India Director General, Mr. B. B. Lal, reports UNI. If both the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the All-India Babri Masjid Action Committee had honest intentions to know what actually preceded the mosque, they should not shy away from further excavations, the noted archaeologist said in a lengthy rebuttal to the comments made by some historians in regard to his lecture at Vijayawada recently. ‘Why should the contending parties shy away from further excavation, unless they are afraid of facing the truth?‘ he asked.
From this moment on Lal has been repeatedly accused of “falsifying records and withholding information”. The above described controversy cycled back through the pages of the English dailies in the summer of 1998 when the newly elected BJP government made its first round of nominations to fill vacancies on various boards. As in the past, when the council is reconstituted every three years, some of the scholars who have been serving on the board are retained and some are replaced. In 1998 B.B. Lal was asked to continue serving on the ICHR board. Because K.N. Panikkar and several other leftist scholars who had served multiple terms in the past, were not asked to remain on the board, they raised a hue and cry that the ICHR was being saffronized.
This view was carried widely in the English media, and it was during this period of time when Arun Shourie publicly took on K.N. Panikkar and K.M. Shrimali. Typical of the media’s treatment of the BJP is this “verbatim account” of an interview that appeared in Frontline in July 1998.99 Sukumar Muralidharan, an avowedly anti-BJP journalist of The Hindu, interviewed Murli Manohar Joshi, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD) regarding the “reconstitution of the Indian Council for Historical Research”. I have quoted most of the questions and answers from what I consider to be a mockery of an interview because it clearly shows that journalists who are lined up with the leftist historians to oppose the policies of the BJP are blatantly biased.
Muralidharan asked Joshi, “There is a view that only historians of one particular persuasion have been accommodated in the reconstituted ICHR”. Joshi replied, “Each one of them is a highly qualified historian. Each … is either a Professor or an ex-Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. None … is a member of any political party”. Muralidharan then asserts, ignoring the qualifications of the appointees, “Some of them do have an association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, perhaps not formally, since the RSS does not maintain membership rolls”. Joshi, responding that none of the scholars attended RSS “programmes or shakhas”, added that he thought it was wrong spirited to make a scholar in to a “persona non grata” just “because [he] has a different view from you or me”.
Several times Muralidharan uses the phrase, what “they” or “the people” “are saying”. By invoking this amorphous and highly informed “they” the journalist can assert that the majority of Indians think that on previous ICHR boards, “all viewpoints used to be accommodated, whereas now only one has been”. Joshi countered that in his opinion, earlier there had been “a predominance of one viewpoint”. He added that now, “the boot is on the other leg”. Muralidharan challenges this assumption, referring again to the unnamed “people” are claiming that “this is not quite correct”. Joshi rehashes his stance, reiterating that, “The ICHR is a body which should contain persons of high academic qualifications. It is not a body of a particular political view or a particular ‘ism’.” However, Muralidharan again brings up the issue of the Babri Masjid controversy and accused Joshi of stacking the ICHR board with scholars “associated with […] the Vishwa Hindu Parishad”, four of whom “were actively involved in the campaign” to bring down the mosque.
At this point, though the printed word does not really shout, it can be inferred by the tone of the interview, that there was a lack of decorum between the journalist and the minister. Joshi told Muralidharan that his view of the situation was “myopic and untrue”. Muralidharan responded by naming four names he associated with the VHP, “B.P. Sinha, B.R. Grover, B.B. Lal, K.S. Lal”. Joshi explained that “They were all Directors-General of the ASI much before the BJP was born”, but Muralidharan insists “they were all associated with the VHP’s panel of historians”. Joshi pointed out that on the previous board, there were scholars associated “some other panel”, he added but that “does not mean I should condemn him”.
When Muralidharan, drawing from that pool of popular knowledge from which he commonly draws says, “the point is made that earlier there were both Mandir and Masjid historians in the ICHR. Now there are only Mandir historians”, the tit for tat takes over. Joshi counters that such a view is false and that other people might “say that formerly there were only Masjid historians”. Muralidharan is convinced that all the newly appointed ICHR board members are saffron and will not concede that the earlier boards also had a bias and had been involved in politicizing historiography during the BM/RJB episode by supporting the AIBMAC. He retorts to Joshi, “That is incorrect” to which the minister responds in kind, “That is correct” While Joshi explained, “nobody in [the recently appointed] group has ever supported [the] Mandir”, Muralidharan points to “Professor M.G.S. Narayanan [who] was Member-Secretary of the ICHR”.
The two argue about whether Narayanan actually came out in favor of the Ram Temple, and Joshi concluded, “In history, the basic thing is that persons who are fully qualified… should be there. I can understand any criticism on the basis of academic incompetence”. But Muralidharan states, “The question is not of incompetence but of bias. B.B. Lal, for instance, was accused of the suppression and falsification of evidence”. When Joshi pointed out that this was only said by “some people” Muralidharan added, “Also by the World Archaeological Congress”.101 Joshi retorts, “That is again a body. If you accept that there are groups of historians, then one group says something, the other group says something else. In another conference somebody else could be castigated for something else”.
Muralidharan then castigates the minister, saying that “differences […] are normally dealt with in a spirit of openness […] it is all placed on the table”, to which Joshi replies, “It has been placed on the table. But it is up to you whether you close your eyes or keep your eyes open”. Muralidharan again brings up B.B. Lal saying that he ”has refused to submit his site notebooks and excavation records from Ayodhya for scrutiny by other historians”. At this point, Joshi ends the interview by saying, “Is this an interview or are you entering into a debate? You may have your own personal view, but as a correspondent you should be conducting an interview.”
Two weeks prior to the publication of this aggressive ill-informed interview, an editorial titled “Tampering with history” had appeared in the June 12, 1998 edition of The Hindu the parent publication of the magazine Frontline. The Editor of The Hindu, had criticized B.B. Lal because of his nominated to serve another term on the ICHR. A similar hoopla had not accompanied his nomination three years earlier by a non-BJP government. Since B.B. Lal was the object of the editor’s scorn, he took it upon himself to respond and point out what he perceived to be errors in the editorial. On July 1st, Lal’s rejoinder was published in The Hindu, and three days later in the same paper the confrontational interviewer, Mr. Muralidharan again accused Prof. Lal of suppressing facts and falsifying evidence, completely ignoring the rebuttal that had just been published. Lal had written:
“Since I happen to be one of the eighteen persons nominated by the Government on the Council, the editor took the opportunity to have a dig at me. He made three distinct allegations. To quote:
(i) His (i.e. my) initial conclusion was that there was no evidence to suggest the “historicity” of the Ramayana;
(ii) Even now he refuses to hand over his field diaries to ASI and throw these open to fellow archaeologists; and
(iii) Professor Lal began echoing the Sangh Parivar and even claimed to possess “clinching” evidence suggesting that the Babri Masjid stood on the ruins of a Hindu Temple.”
These three accusations are still brought forward against Prof. Lal, even as recent as 2002, yet there are many places where he has published his response to the above critiques including in the proceedings of the 1998 World Archaeological Congress. He has pointed out numerous times that a few lines of his conclusions about “the ‘historicity’ of the Ramayana sites” are constantly taken out of context. Accusations that he his hiding field notes and refusing to let other scholars read them peppers many of the on-going critiques of B.B. Lal, whereas there is no evidence that any field notes are missing.
Lal confronts these three critiques, but to little avail, since journalists such as Muralidharan are predisposed not to believe B.B. Lal upon whom they continue to heap immeasurable abuse. Responses and rejoinders, if read at all, are not seriously considered, except as enemy propaganda. “In regard to the first allegation”, B.B. Lal wrote: “[L]et me make it absolutely clear that at no point of time did I ever say that there was no evidence about the historicity of the Ramayana story.” He then lists several of the papers he published on the subject beginning in 1981 and explaining that the ICHR had not brought out the research he had presented in 1988, he noted that in 1993 the first volume came out “under the project ‘Archaeology of the Ramayana sites’,” wherein, Lal,
categorically restated [that] the combined evidence from all five sites excavated under the project shows that there did exist a historical basis for the Ramayana.
The frustration of the scholar is apparent when he writes, “I do not know why the editor has chosen to misrepresent my viewpoint and give an altogether opposite impression to the reader”. Dismissing the allegation that he withheld information from the ASI as “outrageously baseless”, Lal reminds the reader that the “Babri Masjid historians” saw the field notes “a few years ago.” He asked in this op-ed rejoinder, almost a decade later, “Why all this fuss now?” But the issue that he confronts head on is the third item that taunts him for inventing evidence that a Ram Temple stood on the grounds of the Babri Masjid. Lal wrote “in some detail” about this third objection to his work, “since it is an issue about which the entire country would like to know the facts”. Lal briefly describes his excavations at fourteen different areas in Ayodhya, “Janmabhumi area was just one of them [where] a trench was laid out […] at a distance of hardly four meters from the boundary wall”. Lal, in response to his critics, described the “pillar foundations encountered in the trench” and compared them to “the pillars incorporated in the mosque, which evidently originally belonged to a temple”.
Lal chides :
“an over enthusiastic Babri Masjid archaeologist [who] in his effort to deny the entire pillar evidence, published a propaganda booklet in which he stated that these were not pillar foundations but walls. The most amusing part, however, was that he just drew some white lines interconnecting the pillar bases on the photographs concerned and thereby wanted us to believe that these were walls. What a mockery of archaeology! Another Babri Masjid archaeologist, while conceding that these were pillar bases all right, suggested that the structure concerned was no more than a mere cowshed. No doubt for a person coming from a rural background the cowshed idea was a very exciting one, but he conveniently overlooked the fact that this structural complex had as many as four successive floors made of lime, something unheard of in the case of cowsheds. […] In this trench, just below the surface, parallel rows of pillar foundations, made of bricks and stones, were met with. While some of these fell well within the excavated trench, a few lay underneath its edge towards the boundary wall of the Mandir Masjid complex.”
Elsewhere he argues that the Babri Masjid:
“protagonists are … hell-bent on rejecting the historicity of the Ramayana. Their motivation is not far to seek: if they succeed in controverting the very historicity of Rama it would be much easier for them to argue that as there was no Rama there could not have been a Janma-Bhumi (birthplace), much less a temple there. And lo and behold, they complain that the ‘Ayodhya diggings did not confirm the traditional notions of chronology of the so-called “sacred” texts or even of the “epic” story. It provided a rude shock insofar as the Rama saga centering around Ayodhya of the Tretayuga was not shown to be hundreds of thousands of years old’. What a demand!”
Perhaps B.B. Lal has employed this ironic voice, because he has been forced to repeatedly explain the same erroneous criticism of his work that has been thrown at him over and over again in endless editorials. In his published rejoinders, he has tried for more than a decade to point out that his critics’ statements concerning his work are incomplete. Yet, year after year, they repeat the same partial data to underscore their assertions. Journalists, such as the editor of The Hindu, remain unimpressed by the data offered, seeming not to have read the rebuttals that are published in their newspapers.
Lal has now, in the minds of leftist scholars and Muralidharan and N. Ram-type journalists, become the saffron icon of Hindutva archaeologists. He is accused of manufacturing or falsifying data, when that data does not agree with the theories of the “Babri historians”. He is accused of hiding data that, these same historians claim must have existed, but cannot prove because of Lal’s treachery. This tact of attacking Lal is not limited to the English dailies, but his name is also brought up in the Lok Sabha from time to time by members of the opposition, particularly from the various Communist Parties, when they are seeking an example of a scholar whom they consider to be an opportunist having given up his secular scholarly principles in order to court government funds, or someone who is so completely incompetent that they could not be trusted to serve on the board of directors of governmental bodies such as the ICHR.
As argued at length, neither of these descriptions fits Professor Lal; he is neither an opportunist, incompetent, nor treacherous. His work is highly prized and he is known as a careful archaeologist. It is precisely because he has not shied away from certain debates that he has become controversial. In many ways, the controversies allowed him certain opportunities to continue his investigation into the politically incorrect but fascinating work on the Sarasvati River. Another tack used to attack Prof. Lal are the production of hair splitting articles mulling over Lal’s presumed bias in the interpretation of Painted Grey Ware sites and Carbon 14 dating and alluvial deposits. These technically dense reports often find their way into the media as well, recently in regards to the Aryan invasion and Sarasvati River.
But even these attempts to caste academic aspersions are not limited to a consideration of the data and inevitably also include statements such as Irfan Habib made about Dilip Chakraborti, “whose sympathies with the ideological predilections of mainstream Indian archaeology have been especially marked in recent years.” What else has been marked in these years is the sustained attack against “mainstream Indian archaeology” and the disengagement with artifacts and facts. This discussion of the saffronization of Professor B.B. Lal offered a clear example of a scholar who is scapegoated. It has also shown how the DHG and ASHA have vengefully targeted “mainstream” Indian archaeologists. This division causes a rupture in the disciplines and has retarded the development of Indian historiography.
The above section highlighting the battles between leftist historians and “mainstream” Indian archaeologists, deserves an obituary rather than a conclusion. Given the tone of the debate, it is difficult to see a time when these schools of scholars will be able to create a healthy environment where disagreements are discussed and importantly, differences are respected.
The debate between Dr. Lal and the DHG brought up numerous points of discord, contentious issues in the narrative of “What is India?”. There will never be a final interpretation of historical events. The past is fluid, this slipperiness means that our understandings of history are experienced selectively and those partial views and groundings impact the present. In a complex country like India, there are multiple presents acting simultaneously.
Abdul Kalam, the scientist who recently became the President of India, was called pejorative names by Muslim and Marxist leaders ostensively because he agreed to serve his country, at the behest of the Indian Nationalist BJP government. When someone of his fame is flayed in the English dailies for being too liberal, or too trans-India, too enamored by India’s civilizational glories, how can someone like B.B. Lal, of far less public stature escape condemnation for presenting conclusions that could support patriotic, pro-Indian, trans-Subcontinental perspectives?
It may be astonishing to realize that not until Republic Day in January 2002 were ordinary Indian citizens allowed to fly the Indian flag. Up until that day, almost fifty-five years after independence, only government elites were allowed to fly the flag. Whether a holdover from the Raj–keeping the colors in the hands of the rulers, or an inherent fear of nationalism on the part of the framers of the Indian constitution, patriotism has not been encouraged, and the narrative of Indian history reflects that negative stance, with a focus on invasions and loss, the belittling of the indigenous self. The contributions of Abdul Kalam and B.B. Lal represent a hope for a bright future by bringing out what is best in India, and a bond with a history that is conducive to sustainable development in a post-traditional society.
Both Abdul Kalam and B.B. Lal, were condemned for making statements, about continuity of culture and India’s glorious past, that were contrary to the position of scholars associated with SAHMAT and JNU. They became scapegoats. With each of them, their critics are nit picking, hair splitting, and retroactively politicizing decades of their work. The critics from the Delhi Historians Group, whom Arun Shourie might call the coterie of leftist historians (K.M. Shrimali, R.S. Sharma, H. Mukhia, R. Thapar, K.N. Panikkar, D.N. Jha, etc., etc.), preface their critiques of Lal and other scholars and even Kalam, with dire warnings that they have embraced cultural chauvinism, sold out objective secular scholarship, and are now using their work to further fascism. For them it is simplistic, you are either with them in their red fort of Indian intellectualism or you are a genocidal rapist.
The tone of the debate is intentionally rancorous and kept at a shrill pitch by that group who screams in the press and the Lok Sabha about the Talibanization of India by the “brigades” of murderous Hindutva Nazis… these viewpoints, such as from Communalism Combat, are even carried into hearings in the chambers of the US congress. In my opinion, this polarization is a huge problem. The coterie of leftists would be loath to discover any co-terminus goals with their saffron nemeses. They only read the rejoinders to their barrage of critiques as enemy propaganda, they don’t take note of any engagement and adjust their information. Their only goal is to denigrate not to integrate or invite open debate.
Scholars from the Delhi Historians Group, ASHA, or other loosely organized acronyms housed at SAHMAT and JNU, are loath to descend to the unscholarly superstitious level of those dreaded Sanghis, also known as archaeologists. It is of great concern that the name Hindu is being dragged through the dirt by prefixes and suffixes such as Nazi and fascist and murdering rapists. If anyone disagrees, those pejoratives are also pasted to his or her name. This lack of engagement has caused a great loss of academic progress.
Certainly it would be beneficial if the debate were to focus on the issues and had less name calling and less sensationalizing. But even in the West, this is the case. At conferences and among scholars, I have been told that before I open my mouth to mention fascinating archaeological finds such as Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, and other “Indus Valley” sites located in what is now geographically India… that I should first, before even saying or writing the controversial words “Sarasvati River” … that I must stress very clearly, “I am against genocide in Gujarat”. These day a scholar can’t even mention the fact that Harappan/Indus Valley sites, based on important research conducted over the last few decades, are more aptly seen as a part of a greater Indus/Sarasvati culture, because many more sites have been found to the east of the Indus.
A discussion of these sites excavated by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) causes critics to claim that the ASI has been high-jacked by Hindutva, even when the ASI’s research is corroborated by the work that has been done along the Ghaggar River in Pakistan by Prof. Mughal, who can not be said to be a Hindu Nationalist. Simply using the phrase, “Indus/Sarasvati” triggers a knee-jerk response. Scholars are obliged to go through agni pariksha time and again, regardless of the cold hard archaeological data that there is to discuss. Before speaking about terra cotta seals, bathing ghats, uniform sized bricks, excavated in Gujarat and Rajasthan and Haryana, the speaker first has to appear before the imaginary House on Un-Indological Activities and swear that they have never or would never murder minorities.
I must say that such a required caveat, stifles what should be a lively discussion about an interesting topic. Even so, among many scholars of Indian (South Asian) studies…. you are painted black if you do not ground yourself in accepted theories such as the Aryan Invasion/Migration, or if you look at the medieval period through a lens that includes culture and religion, as well as “accepted” approaches such as economics and government. If you mention Nalanda University, that had tens of thousands of students from all over India (even from foreign countries), studying a broad range of subjects, from Sanskrit to science, you are not allowed to mention that it was destroyed by Khilji… don’t bring that up. If you do, you will be told that the Muslims only put the finishing touches on the end of Buddhism in India (which had been corrupted by Tantrism anyway), because the Brahmans (or the Brahmanism trope) had already destroyed most of the Buddhist viharas before Islamic invaders arrived.
If you point out that Hindus and Buddhists all studied at Nalanda and they taught the Vedas and the Buddhist texts, in Prakrits and Sanskrit, and had both pundits and bhikshus teaching there–a history of practices that seem to point out that the communities co-existed–you are called a romantic, trying to “prop up a Golden Age of Indian history that never existed except in the fantasy of Orientalists and Indian Nationalists”. And you are told that you “didn’t do your penance prior to speaking, please go back and repeat that you are not pro-genocide. Imagine that!!! Communalizing Nalanda!!!” Who’s in denial here?
To tell you the truth this political problem has paralyzed the field, truly gummed it up. It is frustrating because those that demand the ‘agni pariksha’ hold the reigns of academia. Scholars are cowed into silence if they see certain correlations in data that may be frowned upon by their outspoken colleagues who see politics in every archaeological dig or every new or alternative interpretation.
These self-appointed tenured gatekeepers refuse to discuss the alternative perspectives because (1) they had already analyzed the Vedas, Upanishads, Indian historiography, and tucked away all that can be said [“ref. to my work (1987, 1991)” etc.]. And. most importantly, (2) any consideration of “alternative interpretations” is automatically “contaminated, equated with hate and racism, which will undoubtedly lead to fascism in India that will facilitate the resulting holocaust of the non-Hindu minorities” … all laid at the feet of the dissenting scholar(s). That sure can put a damper on the discourse…. so much for talking about the granary at Lothal…. never mind looking at the curriculum at Nalanda, or ruins of a Jain temple, or the archaeology of Hastinapur, or images of Saagar/Samundra in the Rg Veda, much less emic or etic, or anything having to do with Hindu (or Buddhist, or Jain) community identities in any time period, period.
Subroto Roy, warned that there was a “brittleness in conversations about India’s polity today”. There is, I would point out, a destructive quality within the popular media in India (and similarly negative coverage about India in the USA) that adds to the fragility and fuels the discord. Pradful Bidwai, Kuldip Nayyar, are widely read in Pakistan and Bangladesh…. N. Ram is a favorite when he is at his Hindu-baiting best, and articles from “Communalism Combat” are found reprinted, even K.N. Panikkar’s forays into journalism are given wide coverage in English dailies in Dhaka and Islamabad, Karachi.
The anti-Hindutva rhetoric, with the word “brigade” used repeatedly, replete with references to Nazis, is quite appealing to the middle class sentiments of Lahoris, those who read the English papers. That is why Arundhati Roy was so warmly received there recently. Obviously, intellectual Pakistanis love to host sophisticated India bashers. But if a Pakistani goes to India, such as the journalist Najim Sethi or the historian Mukarak Ali, or a singer or actress, and criticizes Pakistan, or sings a pro-Hindustan song, he or she is sometimes arrested and often harassed on his or her return
There are many excellent scholars who are stymied and effectively shut up, because they can not stand the heat, the very real personal and professional implications they must overcome are staggering… if they dare to argue against the dominate paradigms. This vitiated atmosphere is destructive. But that is what there is…. a huge self-hate campaign… particularly in the English press, which may ultimately backfire. But at least in the short term, it allows for very little discourse –with battle lines drawn but no chance for debate, no areas of convergence where the defenders and aggressors (whomever they are) can even agree to disagree.