The World Archaeological Congress in India: Politicizing the Past

Article excerpt

India has a variegated and multi-layered history. Its richness and vitality today is due to the diversity of traditions assimilated, amalgamated or incorporated into the fabric of the greater Indian society. At present, the unity and integrity of Indian society is threatened by separatist as well as supremacist jingoistic movements, a threat archaeologically manifest during the Third World Archaeological Congress. The events that transpired in WAC-3, already the subject of commentary and reflection (Colley 1995; Chippindale 1995; Anonymous 1995), highlight the role of WAC as a world organization, and underscore the exploitation of cultural heritage in contemporary politics. Moreover, the deliberate political use of the past by professional archaeologists to serve partisan agendas comes as a shock both to those who still cling to the neutrality of archaeological practice and to those who view politicians as the only `bad guys'.

On December 6 in 1992, a mob of fanatics vandalized and razed to the ground the Babari (Babri) Masjid (mosque) at Ayodhya. Idols of Lord Rama were placed in a makeshift temple over the site. As it transpired, two chief Indian organizers of WAC-3 (Frontline 16 December 1994, 11(25)) are known to be closely allied to the Ayodhya political agenda.

The alliance of the organizers with a certain political agenda became clear when propaganda about Ayodhya was distributed to delegates at a Congress dinner. It included a glossy coloured publication, Ramajanma Bhumi: Ayodhya: new archaeological discoveries (Sharma et al. n.d.), with claims for a Hindu temple at Ayodhya pre-dating the mosque. Published by Professor K.S. Lal, it carries the name of S.P. Gupta among its authors. It purports that on 18 June 1992, when the ground near the Ramajanma Bhumi temple was being levelled,` a big hoard of beautifully carved buff sandstone pieces were found in a large pit, dug down below the old top level', objects which are `architectural members of a Hindu temple-Complex of the 11th Century AD' (p.1). Under the heading `Fresh excavations' (p.12), it states: `On the 22nd and 23rd of July Dr K.M. Shirvastave and Dr S.P. Gupta went to Ayodhya and scraped the section facing east and also dug at least two feet still deeper in a small area along this section. They discovered a huge burnt brick wall of more than a dozen courses running along the section and beyond it.' A photo of Gupta with a trowel in hand points to a close-up of several structural remains, including brick walls and floors of different periods. This archaeological material, the pamphlet says, conclusively proves what Prof. B.B. Lal, the previous excavator of the site, has been repeatedly saying that here at the Ramajanme Bhumi there was an impressive structure of 11th-12th century built on pillars standing on a series of parallel burnt-brick bases which was destroyed in the early 16th century, in all likelihood the bases carried on the same temple-pillars which are fixed in the "mosque" (p.12). And the discoveries also `confirm the views expressed earlier in 1990 by Dr S.P. Gupta that the 16 black stone pillars and one piece of door-jamb with carvings of gods and goddesses existing in the so-called "Babari Mosque" structure and also the adjoining areas belong to a 11th century Hindu temple, possibly Vaish-navite' (p. 12).

B.B. Lal's excavations at Ayodhya in the mid 1970s indicated a continuous occupation of the site between the 7th century BC and the 3rd century AD. When tensions over Ayodhya surfaced in 1989, B.B. Lal (according to Frontline (1994): 100) wrote in Manthan, a journal of the partisan party RSS, that his excavations had uncovered a series of brick pillar bases just outside the southern wall of the (Babari) Masjid. It seemed reasonable to Lal that these were the remnants of a pillared temple predating the mosque. According to Frontline, Lal, who had not reported the `pillar bases' for over 15 years, refused to provide professionals with any documentation until October 1992, when he produced a photograph of the trench. …