Paper IV: Puppets on a string

The conduct of the Archaeological Survey of India before, during and after excavations

The Shri Ram bricks (pic by Seetha)

4.1. Justice Agarwal has expressed his high opinion of the Archaeological Survey of India’s conduct and work at Ayodhya (paras 3879 and 3989). We do not unnecessarily wish to go into the history of the ASI but cannot but mention some of its recent misdemeanours at Mughal monuments, like its digging up the Anup Talau within UNESCO’s heritage site, Fatehpur Sikri, or the vandalism committed by it at the Red Fort, Delhi, destroying priceless marble screens and fountains (caught on camera by Rajeev Sethi), both condemned by the Indian History Congress, in formal resolutions, at its Kolkata session, 2000-01 (Proceedings, p. viii), and Mysore session, 2003 (Proceedings, p. 1472). As for the ASI’s expertise, it is of interest to note that since the mid-1990s it has been headed continuously, as director general (DG), by a non-expert civil servant shifted from time to time at the whim of the central government until this year (2010) when finally a professional archaeologist has been appointed to head it.

When the excavations were ordered by the Allahabad high court to be undertaken by the ASI, the latter was entirely controlled by the BJP-led government at the centre under a minister of culture (para 3789) belonging to the VHP, the author of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The BJP itself had made the slogan of a Ram temple at the Babri Masjid site one of its main election slogans. On the eve of the excavations the BJP government changed the director general to install yet another non-professional civil servant, apparently in order to have a still more pliant instrument to control the ASI.

4.2. From the very beginning the ASI made clear its loyalties to its political masters’ beliefs and commitments. The high court in its order dated March 5, 2003 (para 216) asked the ASI to intimate its programme to “the Officer-on-Special Duty, Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid”. The ASI however insisted on addressing the designated officer as “OSD, Ram Janma Bhoomi” in its letters dated March 8, 2003 and March 10, 2003 thus significantly omitting the name Babri Masjid (para 223; also statements in ASI’s own Report, pp. 5-6). The new director general, ASI, while constituting the team of officers for the excavation, appointed 14 members placed under Dr BR Mani as team leader. Only one Muslim, an assistant archaeologist, was included in the team, as may be seen from the list in para 217.

These arrangements were in total contrast to what the high court itself had visualised in its orders of August 1, 2002:

“If it is ultimately decided to excavate the disputed land, in that event the excavation will be done by the Archaeological Survey of India under the supervision of five eminent archaeologists (Excavators), even though retired, including two Muslims…”

An eminent archaeologist surely means a person of the stature of DG or additional DG of the ASI, working or retired, or an archaeologist of equal stature from outside the ASI. Not one of the 14 members of the team, including the team leader, who was not even a director of the ASI, fitted this requirement. The team was so formed as to be led and guided by a pliant subordinate, not an eminent archaeologist. To make the team free from the dominance of one community, the court had desired that at least two out of five archaeologists supervising the excavations should be Muslims. The ASI formed a team of officials from which, until the court directed otherwise, Muslims were almost wholly excluded.

4.4. The “one-community” policy was also enforced by Dr Mani and his team on the labour force. When over 50 labourers were engaged for the work which began on March 12, 2003, not a single Muslim was found fit for employment. It seemed as if the ASI had decided that since it was ‘Ramjanmabhoomi’ ground, no Muslim could be allowed to enter it. A complaint about this was made to Dr Mani, team leader, ASI, on March 18, 2003. Mani’s reply, that he had left the recruitment to district administration (para 227), is hardly credible and amounts to no more than the proverbial “passing of the buck” by those who are caught in any questionable act. On March 26, 2003 the high court, presumably noticing Dr Mani’s attitude in the matter, expressly ordered that “labourers belonging to the Muslim community be engaged” and also that at least two more Muslim archaeologists be added to the ASI team (para 228). This had little substantive effect. As of April 4, 2003, eight days after the high court’s orders, there were only nine Muslims engaged, out of a total of 89 labourers (para 229).

Had Justice Agarwal looked at the ASI’s entire conduct, it might have struck him how the ASI’s behaviour from the very beginning of the excavations could engender legitimate suspicions which in the end also proved so correct… Yet a comprehensive clean chit is given in the judgement to the ASI despite the stream of motivated acts of impropriety and irregularity committed by the ASI officials

4.5. The communally biased attitude on the part of the ASI’s director general and the local team leader was thus clearly manifest in the formation of the 14-member team and the recruitment of labourers, in both of which scant regard was paid to the letter and spirit of the high court’s earlier orders.

4.6. There was thus every reason for the suspicion that the ASI team’s conduct was not likely to be impartial and above board. This began to be noticed in the way any materials likely to impede a temple-beneath-the-mosque theory were treated after the digging began.

4.7. Here we wish to refer to Mr Justice Agarwal’s assertion that the complaint about it was made too late (para 227) and was therefore motivated. The fact however is that in the beginning the crucial levels were not at all involved. As late as March 23, 2003, Dr BR Mani reported to the high court, through the DG, ASI, that excavation began on March 12, 2003, and then there were three non-working days (March 14, 17 and 18) so that before March 20, 2003, when the first complaint was made, excavation work had taken place only on five days. Moreover, until then no digging had proceeded below the floor of the Babri Masjid (para 225, sub-para III.1). So the crucial layers were just now being laid bare.

4.8. In view of the above, it is not at all fair to charge the complainants with delay in reporting the ASI’s treatment of artefacts. This was by no means what the bench thought at that time and by their orders dated March 26, 2003 (para 228) endeavoured to ensure that the ASI should take the minimum steps required for the proper recovery, registration and preservation of artefacts, and also measures to improve access for the counsels’ nominees to observe the excavation work. If the complaint had been as baseless as Justice Agarwal suspects then why should the bench have issued such orders?

4.9. On April 8, 2003 a complaint was filed to the effect that the ASI was not carrying out the court’s orders (para 229) and again the bench on April 10, 2003 passed detailed orders on the various lapses. The bench was so concerned about the ASI team’s casual approach to its orders hitherto that it ended the present orders with the injunction: “The observers are directed to ensure that this court’s instructions are carried out in letter and spirit” (para 230).

The Babri Masjid: As it was

4.10. Finally, the bench was so exasperated with Dr BR Mani’s way of bypassing its orders that on May 22, 2003 it passed the following extraordinary order:

“It is not necessary to comment much upon the work of the Team Leader of ASI [Dr BR Mani] for the last more than two months. We think it proper that another Team Leader should be appointed by the Director General, Archaeological Survey of India. However, Dr BR Mani shall also continue to work in the team” (para 235).

Thus the bench at the time found nothing to commend in the way Dr Mani had carried out the work on behalf of the ASI and desired that he be immediately replaced. Not desiring to show that he was being disgraced, his membership of the ASI team was however not terminated.

4.11. Justice Agarwal has not commented on this series of episodes and its implications. On the other hand, he takes to task the critics of the ASI’s conduct.

4.12. Justice Agarwal takes up some of the complaints made to the observers between April 14, 2003 and July 26, 2003. The response of Dr Mani to the complaint of April 14, 2003 was an admission that neither were animal bones being carefully recorded nor were pieces of glazed ware being sealed but he promised that now this would be done (para 3677). A similar response to the complaint of April 15, 2003 elicited a promise that the required videography and photography would be undertaken and a proper record would be kept (para 3678).

4.13. It was thus clear that the complaints were well taken. Yet Justice Agarwal takes exception to the complaint dated May 16, 2003 (para 3681) containing “the complaints regarding the recording of artefacts, brick-bat remains, etc, where the ASI instead of descriptions labelled them to serve its own objects”. The complaint, he says, was “mischievous and worthless”. Why? Because: “The ASI experts identify such item/ artefacts which ordinary people cannot. If only clear items were to be no expert would have (sic!) needed” (para 3681).

4.14. Here we are expected to look at “ASI experts” as “ordinary people” would. As a matter of fact, it is not quite so easy, in the case of broken artefacts or fragmented ‘architectural pieces’, for any ‘expert’ to imagine them as they were when they were complete pieces; and archaeologists have held different views about them. When Dr BB Lal, former director general, ASI, dug at what he called the Janma Bhumi mound in 1976-77, he was not able to identify any “pillar-base” there, as may be seen from his report published in Indian Archaeology 1976-77 – A Review (ASI, Delhi, 1980), pp. 52-53. Very properly, he did not attempt any identification of the material evidence while undertaking fieldwork and recording the finds. Only some 14 years later did he suggest such identification in the RSS journal, Manthan, October 1999; and his interpretation of the structural pieces was still open to doubt (see D. Mandal, Ayodhya: Archaeology after Demolition, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1993/ 2003, pp. 26-40).

In the excavations at the Babri Masjid however, the “ASI experts” immediately began identifying and marking the pillar-less pillar bases. A similar act on their part was to give suggestive names like ‘divine couple’, ‘circular shrine’, etc where the terms ‘divine’ and ‘shrine’ were both subjective and motivated descriptions, not arising from any supposed professional expertise at all. At the same time, they neglected other very significant objects in total violation of professional requirements.

Peter L. Drewett, in his manual of field archaeology, notes: “Having identified the bones to species and to part of the skeleton, the bone assemblage should be quantified” (Field Archaeology: An Introduction, London, 1999, p. 156). The “ASI experts” however refused to record animal bones properly and failed even to tabulate them by species, trenches and layers in quantified form, as required by the standard manual of field archaeology we have just quoted. It is charitable to assume that the conduct of ASI “experts” in this matter arose not from gross ignorance (after all, they were “experts”) but from the fear that the presence of animal bones (cattle and caprine) could undermine their entire temple theory. One wonders therefore to whose acts the adjective “mischievous” could be more aptly applied.

4.15. With reference to the complaint on May 21, 2003, made about a pillar base in G-2 (para 3683), it is noteworthy that Shri AR Siddiqui does not at all deny the allegation that the digging was so carried out that a squarish base was being created. He just said the digging was not completed and so the objection was “premature”. That this was a wrong piece of information is shown by the fact that on May 18, 2003, the day register for this trench distinctly records: “A pillar base on plan” (para 3685); and another report of the same day (May 18, 2003) gave a more detailed description of “a structure of brickbats and rectangular in shape”, which was encountered “during digging” and which forthwith was declared a “pillar-base” (para 3688). So Shri AR Siddiqui’s reply (vide para 3683) was, to the say the least, evasive and misleading: A squarish or rectangular pillar base was in fact already recorded and he had to explain whether it really existed or had been created by removing surrounding brickbats – and this he entirely avoided doing.

4.16. On June 7, 2003 a detailed complaint was submitted, pointing out the severe breaches of prescribed archaeological methods and procedures so far pursued by the ASI: it is reproduced in para 3699. Though the high court had ordered Dr Mani’s removal as head of the ASI team on May 22, 2003, we find him still in that position on June 8, 2003 – another example of how casually the ASI treated the high court’s orders. Dr Mani thereupon delivered the following tirade against the complainants:

“There seems to be a calculated effort to defame the ASI and demoralise it’s (sic!) team member (sic!) by making statements through media and also through applications like the present one submitted by one of the parties to the case. ASI being the premier institution of the country has always been famous for accuracy and scientific approach in exploration and excavation work” (para 3700).

He goes on to claim that his team’s “recording of artifacts is perfect” – a claim ill-suited to the mouth of anyone not divine. Indeed Dr Mani’s tone is one which would have smacked of supreme arrogance and self-congratulation even if the words had come from the head of the ASI rather than a mere superintending archaeologist; and, of course, one can retort that repute acquired in times long past cannot become a cover for lapses so clearly detected by the complainants.

4.17. Since most of the issues relating to the acts of omission and commission on the part of the ASI have already been discussed in Paper III, we are here mainly concerned with how Justice Agarwal deals with the complaints.

Courtesy: India Today

4.18. First of all, he takes no cognisance of the utter dissatisfaction of the then bench with the manner in which Dr Mani and his team had carried out the excavations until May 22, 2003. He also overlooks how, despite the court’s orders for his replacement, Dr Mani continued to be in charge on June 8, 2003. In other words, the bulk of the excavations were conducted under a person who had lost the confidence of the high court itself.

4.19. Justice Agarwal on the other hand investigates who prepared the texts of the complaints and then, finding their authors to be two witnesses, PW 29 (Dr Jaya Menon) and PW 32 (Dr Supriya Varma), gives us the dates of their presence on the sites (paras 3704 and 3705) as if they were not entitled to help in drafting complaints for other days. The comments made by Justice Agarwal in para 3711 may here be seen. Did the court similarly look into how the ASI team leader could cover in his report the excavations conducted during days he was not present at the site? In para 3712 an unfortunate slip in the complaint is held to be an astoundingly serious lapse though it perhaps arose merely due to a misreading of the figure 220cm as 270cm. Such a slip hardly means that “either they [Dr Menon and Dr Varma?] have deliberately tried to misguide the authorities (!) or the complaint [the whole of it?] lack (sic!) bona fide.”

4.20. The justice then takes up the oral evidence of the two archaeologists. PW 32 (Dr Varma) claimed that she was present when Trenches G-2 and F-3 were being excavated (para 3714). But, says the justice, digging of F-3 only started on May 30 while she was present only until May 31. However, the very dates he gives mean that Dr Varma had been able to watch the digging of the trench for two full days.

4.21. In para 3717 from an objection of his (para 3715), easily answered, Justice Agarwal draws the following conclusion:

“From the texture and the over all (sic!) facts and circumstances, some of which we have already discussed it appears to us that as soon as underneath (sic!) structures started appearing, the complainants in consultation with their alleged (!) experts, engaged in preparing a kind of anticipatory ground to assail the ASI people, their proceedings. What was submitted on spot do (sic!) not show that it was a simultaneous preparation of something which was actually observed and found objectionable by the persons thereat.”

4.22. On complaints of manipulation of materials excavated, Justice Agarwal has checked with the ASI’s records and finds (e.g. para 3725) that these records do not confirm them, as if in their record the ASI “people” would care to show how they were playing with the finds!

4.23. In para 3729 Justice Agarwal brings in the GPR Survey Report. No significance could possibly attach to it once the ground was actually excavated and there was no point in Dr Varma (PW 32) reading it and comparing it with the excavations. It is difficult to see what value can be assigned to the “anomalies” predicted in the report by the little known firm Tojo-Vikas International (Pvt.) Ltd., curiously carrying the name of the Japanese war criminal, Tojo (changed to ‘Tozo’ by Justice Agarwal – para 215). Such ‘anomalies’, the worthy company’s report had told us, “could be associated with ancient and contemporary structures such as pillars, foundation walls, slab-flooring extending over a large portion of the site” (Text reproduced in ASI’s Report, p. 5). No pillars were however found except for one broken fragment in the Masjid debris; and the presence of bricks and brickbats was not at all predicted.

4.24. It would be a sad day if the intentions and motives of the archaeologists and historians who appeared for a party whose religious faith they did not share are doubted for that reason. A preceding bench had indeed appreciated their work (para 228). But now they have become “alleged experts” (para 3717) and “virtually hired experts” (para 3879) although no proof has been offered that they lacked qualifications nor that they received any remuneration from the Muslim parties to the suit.

Of Dr Menon and Dr Varma it has been said (paras 3746 and 3774): “as admitted by these two witnesses they were partisan and interested”. In fact however neither of them made any admission of this sort. Being “interested” means “having a private interest”, especially a “pecuniary stake” (see Oxford Concise Dictionary, s.v. “interest (n.)” and “interest (vt)”); is there then a suggestion that they had something remunerative to gain for themselves by their work as archaeologists at Ayodhya?

It may be that it is hard to understand the spirit which inspired archaeologists like Dr Menon and Dr Varma and the consequence of their work at Ayodhya. It may here be worth quoting from an article in the Hindustan Times, Delhi, July 6, 2003:

“It is saddening that one should be obliged to speak in this manner of the work of the ASI that was once an institution in which the country could take justifiable pride. Today one can only say that if it did not do worse at Ayodhya, part of the credit goes to the numerous archaeologists from many places in India who maintained a constant vigil at the excavations. They did so only out of a loyalty to their profession and to secular values. When one thinks of them, one cannot help feeling sentimental about a country which, amidst all its troubles, can bring forth such men and women.”

Had Justice Agarwal looked at the ASI’s entire conduct, it might have struck him how the ASI’s behaviour from the very beginning of the excavations could engender legitimate suspicions (which in the end also proved so correct).

4.25. The DG, ASI’s addressing the bench as “Ramjanmabhoomi” instead of “Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid”, the correct designation, was not a slip but a declaration of the ASI’s partisanship in the dispute. We have seen that the first team of officials it formed for the excavation was practically entirely Hindu in composition (13 out of 14). The labourers it first employed did not include a single Muslim. Should it not have been asked, if the ASI’s intentions were of scientific excavations without any manipulation then why this deliberate exclusion of Muslims from the initial ASI team and the labour force? Even after the court’s orders, only a grudging and nominal recruitment of Muslim labourers took place.

We have seen that the complaints made about slackness in recording glazed ware and animal bones, which could militate against the presence of a temple, were genuine and partly admitted by Dr Mani himself. The high court had to pass stringent orders that its wishes must be implemented. Finally, its dissatisfaction with the ASI team leader’s conduct of the excavations was reflected in the court’s order of May 22, 2003 directing that Dr Mani be replaced as team leader though he “shall also continue to work in the team”. The spirit of the order was defied by the ASI in that while it appointed Shri Hari Manjhi, director (antiquity), as team leader, it also brazenly ensured that “Dr BR Mani continued to direct the excavation” (ASI’s Report, pp. 7-8).

4.26. Dr Mani’s hand can be seen as the dominant one in the final report. While Shri Manjhi’s name appears as the co-author of the report, the Introduction is by Dr Mani alone. He is a co-author in three major chapters (II, Cuttings; IV, Structure; V, Pottery) while Shri Manjhi, the team leader, is a contributor to none of the chapters in the report! The author of the last chapter, ‘Summary of Results’, is left unnamed – a curious way of evading responsibility. In sum, the result is that the very person with whose conduct of the excavations the high court was not satisfied was yet given full rein to ‘direct’ the excavations and write the report. Dr Mani, as we have seen, had made his commitments fairly clear by his initial actions in Ayodhya and it is not surprising that the same commitment informs the final ASI report.

4.27. Such are the plain facts, almost all of which are brought out by the documents reproduced, in whole or in part, in Justice Agarwal’s own judgement. And yet in para 3989 Justice Agarwal holds that “all objections against ASI are, therefore, rejected”.

4.28. A comprehensive clean chit is thus given in the judgement to the ASI despite the stream of motivated acts of impropriety and irregularity committed by the ASI officials that we have traced. The ASI officials arrived at Ayodhya with clear indications of commitment to one side of the dispute – shown by the very composition of their staff and labour force – and they stuck to the task of manipulating, selectively recording and perverting evidence as much as they could, increasingly constrained as they came to be by the vigilance exercised by archaeologists from the academic world. The ASI’s final report could not but be a partisan document, as we have seen in Paper III, and its rejection must form the prelude to any correct perception of the past of the disputed site.

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2011 Year 17  No.154, Section II, Paper IV: Puppets on a String



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