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ASI is the handmaiden of Hindutva

October 01, 2010 14:26 IST

The ASI's role in marshalling dubious evidence in support of the existence of a Ram temple at Ayodhya is the right occasion to assess its activities as a handmaiden of Hindutva, says Omar Khalidi

As India reinvents itself through archaeology and tourism, official organisations such as the ASI, state archaeology departments and tourism bureaus lend themselves as the handmaidens of Hindutva, points out Omar Khalidi

Justice DV Sharma's judgment in the Babri masjid case given on Thursday claimed that 'the disputed structure was constructed on the site of the old structure after demolition of the same. And that the Archaeological Survey of India has proved that the structure was a massive Hindu religious structure'.

What Justice Sharma was referring to was the ASI's report of 2003 of dubious value on Ayodhya. What the ASI claimed were the base of pillars which held up the temple, were in fact not pillar bases at all. The Siva shrine at a lower level adds no strength to the claim of a Ram temple. The terracotta from different levels has been so jumbled that it can be linked to no particular stratum and period. Moreover, the presence of animal bones and glazed earthenware found at the site makes it difficult to claim that a Ram temple existed on this site between the 12th and 16th centuries.

The ASI's role in marshalling dubious evidence in support of the existence of a Ram temple at Ayodhya is the right occasion to assess its activities as a handmaiden of Hindutva.

Four traits that mark archaeology

Four characteristics mark Indian archaeology since colonial times: it is a monument-specific archaeology based on geographical surveys, literary traditions and Orientalist scholarship. These characteristics combine to form a traditionalist, location-driven excavation agenda that privileged some sites to the Hindus without regard to the historical provenance of any site or monument.

Taken together, the four characteristics privilege ancient references to monuments, whether in legend or literature, as authentic, while all medieval and modern ones are perceived as tales of depredations.

The ASI's colonial origins are transparent in its philosophy and operation. Mortimer Wheeler, director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India between 1944 and 1948, advised Indian archaeologists that 'Partition has robbed us of the Indus Valley… We now have therefore no excuse for deferring any longer the overdue exploration of the Ganges Valley. After all if the Indus gave India a name, it may almost be said that the Ganges gave India a faith."

His student BB Lal (ASI director, 1968 to 1972) took his advice. He excavated the Gangetic sites in search of evidence for the mythical periods described in the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana identifying two kinds of pottery -- painted greyware as an indicator of the former and northern black polishedware of the latter. He then attempted to match archaeological sites with places named in the epics.

The ASI used this "evidence" to propagate the myth that underneath the 16th century Purana Qila built by Sher Shah Suri lay the site of Indraprastha, city of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. This theory of Muslim rulers building over Hindu structures has certainly gained ground. By the 1990s, most publications about India's capital describe Indraprastha as the first of the 'seven cities of Delhi'.

Lal used similar 'evidence' at Ayodhya to support his claim of the identification of Lord Rama's birthplace, which was used as justification for the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992. The story of Ayodhya then became the prototype for Hindutva claims on innumerable mosques, mausoleums, dargahs, and idgahs, all of which were to be reclaimed as former Hindu sites or temples.

In ASI terminology, the term Hindu is a catch-all, homogenised category for all schools of Sanatan Dharma -- Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism, Vaishnavism and the cult of Shakti. The ASI deploys such a convenient term to efface the long and bloody Hindu sectarian wars or Saivite appropriation of Buddhist sites. The ASI's methods serve to perpetuate the Hindutva groups' myth of Muslim depredation of Indian heritage.

Hindu temples under monuments

The ASI has been looking for Hindu temples under every medieval monument. The unearthing of Jain idols in the vicinity of Fatehpur Sikri in the 1990s was the occasion to blame Emperor Akbar for destroying temples. When the annual meeting of the World Archaeological Congress in New Delhi coincided with the second anniversary of the Babri masjid demolition in December 1994, its two Indian organisers barred discussion of the event, since they were closely associated with the Ayodhya movement.  

Numerous examples of the ASI's role in transforming medieval heritage can be seen across India.

  • In 2007, the ASI cooked up history at Chittorgarh, a fort near Udaipur, Rajasthan, by signposting an underground passage as the location of Padmini's jauhar or self-immolation, based on the myth of Emperor Alauddin Khilji's alleged atrocities. Numerous modern temples abound in the medieval fort.
  • In 2003, the ASI virtually converted the 15th century Kamal Maula mosque in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, into a temple by allowing Hindu worship in it.
  • Since 1977, the ASI has allowed the construction of three new Hindu temples in the precincts of Sher Shah Suri's mausoleum in Sasaram, Bihar. These bathroom-tiled temples with their calendar-art frescos mar the magnificent mausoleum's vistas.
  • In 1970, the ASI allowed a kumkum sprinkled stone on the southeast corner of Charminar in Hyderabad to be converted into a full-fledged Bhagya Laxmi temple. A modern temple is protruding out of a major medieval monument in defiance of the ASI's own rules.
  • At the turn of the 21st century, almost all the grand gates in historic Golconda fort and Hyderabad are riddled with Hindu temples, signs and icons flying in the face of the ASI's preservation mission.
  • In 1948, the ASI converted the Jama Masjid in the Daulatabad fort near Aurangabad into a Bharata Mata Mandir (Mother India temple). The very name is so candidly, crassly contemporary as to make a mockery of a medieval site.

ASI's impact on heritage tourism

The ASI's representation of India's archaeological legacy in Hindu terms has had a direct impact on heritage tourism. Unlike ecotourism, medical tourism and such like, heritage tourism has had vast appeal to the increasingly rich, upwardly mobile, tech-savvy upper caste Hindus at home and abroad.

The ASI's representation of Indian archaeological sites as essentially Hindu is revealed by a close scrutiny of the web sites and printed tourist guides and promotional literature. In the Indian tourism ministry and state tourism department web sites and literature, India's past is invariably described as the 'Hindu golden age' and all subsequent eras until the colonial era as the age of Muslim tyranny. Such representations of India as Hindu is most blatant and obvious in the Incredible India promotion directed toward the diaspora in North America, Europe and wherever it is the rich live.

When tourists come to the sites and monuments, they learn who they are and where they come from. If they come through the promotions by the tourism ministry and state tourism departments, they learn that they are Hindus and the Muslims caused all the depredations. To anyone who has been a tourist in India, the various self-appointed touts and guides at the sites are ubiquitous. They provide a spicy supplement to the official narrative of Muslim vandalism.

The wide appeal of Hindutva among the Indian diaspora can be partly explained by their experiences at tourism sites. The ASI and the official tourism bureaus' characterisation of Indian archaeological sites as the focus of Muslim vandalism reinforces what was learnt through biased textbooks. The growing Islamophobia in the West further adds to the mental images of Muslims as violent bigots.

As India reinvents itself through archaeology and tourism, official organisations such as the ASI, state archaeology departments and tourism bureaus lend themselves as the handmaidens of Hindutva.

Omar Khalidi, independent scholar and staff member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also the author of Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India and Muslims in Indian Economy

Omar Khalidi