Archaeology under the Judiciary: Ayodhya 2003

By Chakrabarti, Dilip K. | Antiquity, September 2003 | Go to article overview
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Archaeology under the Judiciary: Ayodhya 2003

Chakrabarti, Dilip K., Antiquity

Keywords: India, Ayodhya, heritage, politics

After more than a decade after its demolition, the December 1992 destruction of the sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya remains a powerful heritage issue. The site is considered sacred by Hindus as the birthplace of their god Rama, and the mosque's demolition caused the loss of about 2000 Indian lives in Hindu-Muslim rioting across India and led to the destruction of Hindu temples in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

On 5 March 2003, the Lucknow Branch of the Allahabad High Court directed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to ascertain by excavation whether a Hindu temple had stood at the site. Excavations began on March 12 2003, with an initial court directive to report within four weeks, then allowed to continue until June 15. To prevent anything untoward happening, including tampering with finds during the excavations, the Court imposed tight security control around the work and made provisions for its monitoring by representatives of interested parties.

Access to the excavation site was closed to the general public and ASI supervisors and workmen carried identity cards. The digging tools were listed and the excavated artefacts stored in a specially secure tamper-proof environment. The court-approved 'monitors' belonged to groups such as 'Visva Hindu Parishad' ('Global Organization of the Hindus'), 'Babri Masjid Action Committee' (Action Committee for (the protection of) the mosque built by Babar'), Indian History Congress, etc. Disputes of various kinds have been rife from the very beginning of the work.

The purpose of this note is two-fold. Firstly, to draw attention to the character of these disputes, which shows how bitterly this heritage battle is being fought. Secondly, I argue that this essentially religious dispute has been converted into a bitterly fought--and now judicial--contest by two opposing groups of Indian historians and archaeologists whose motivation has never been to preserve Indian heritage but to capture the power structure and the resources of the historical and archaeological research in the country.

The disputes which have surfaced after the court order are of two kinds. First, it is no longer solely a Hindu-Muslim dispute because the members of the Buddhist and Jain religious communities have also staked their claims to the site. A Jain forum is convinced that the demolished mosque was at the site of a sixth century AD Jain temple and it wants the site to be handed over to them. The claim that a Buddhist monastery--and not a temple to Rama--was demolished to make way for the mosque was put forward in a petition to the court by at least three organisations including the All-India Confederation of (neo-Buddhist) Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes. The other disputes are of a more technical character and range in scope from the adequate representation of Muslims in the excavation work-force to the declaration of a lack of faith in the integrity of the ASI by some Muslim litigants. A similar lack of faith was also declared by some 'monitors' present at the site, especially those acting as the representatives of the Babri Masjit Action Committee and the Central Sunni Waqf Board.

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