Looking at Babri mosque controversy scientifically

By Humra Quraishi. Dated: 3/13/2019 11:42:33 PM


With this ongoing focus on the Babri Masjid controversy, I wonder why we have not focused on what Professor Irfan Habib had to comment in the context of this controversy. After all, this Aligarh- based internationally known historian, is the former chairman of Indian Council of Historical Research and also the former Professor of History at the Centre for Advanced Study in History at AMU; not to overlook the fact that he has authored books on the Mughal rule (prominent amongst them- Agrarian System of Mughal India, An Atlas of Mughal Empire, Prehistory) and he has also written on the Babri Masjid.
I had done a very detailed and exclusive interview with Professor Irfan Habib in 2003, where he commented, "There are no 'Left ' or 'Right ' Wing historians! All this is a creation of the BJP. If anyone speaks with a scientific outlook he's called 'Leftist ' by them…There wasn't a Hindu or Muslim reaction to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. As an Indian I felt insulted and it was a blow to the image of my country. The destruction of the 475 year old mosque brought shame and dishonour to the country. It wasn't a question of Hindu or Muslim but the very destruction was an insult to the country and its citizens; an assault on the Indian secular consciousness."
During the course of that interview I had asked him to comment on the Babri Masjid -whether it was built on a temple site or did it exist for centuries on that very site? Did the ASI conducted the excavation independently? Also, why those claims by the Right - Wing parties that they do possess evidence that the Ram Janmabhoomi temple was originally there?
"Can't say much about the competence of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct rigorous, scientific and impartial excavations. One must remember that the archaeological finds are subject to a wide range of interpretations - if it is trying to find out whether the Babri Masjid was immediately built upon a temple than any stratum of lime -mortar bound rubble or medieval baked bricks or glazed pottery below the mosque should be enough to prove that such was not the case.If the search is on anything that could possibly belong to a non-Muslim shrine of any sort of any earlier time then almost anything could be defined as a temple relic :a pre 13 century carved stone or image or even a Kushana period brick, though such might easily have come from a domestic house.In that case the dispute could be unending ; or could simply give the VHP the benefit of doubt and declare that ASI has spoken and decided in its favour."
He'd detailed -"There's no acceptable proof that the Babri Masjid had been built at the site of a Hindu temple - none of the fourteen inscribed Persian verses of the time of the original construction (1528-29), (published in the official Epigraphia Indica, Arabic and Persian Supplement 1965.Pages 58 - 62) even remotely mentioned this. As the 1991 'Historians 'Report To The Nation ' by RS Sharma, M Athar Ali, DN Jha and Suraj Bhan conclusively showed there was no reference in any of the several documents to the mosque having been built on the site of the temple. Not until nearly 250 years after its construction was such a claim made and a British reporter before whom this was stated in 1811 still considered it ' very ill founded.' "
He had also commented - "Once the destruction of the Babri Masjid had taken place, it began to be justified by the Sangh Parivar on various grounds, including that they possess "evidence ". Before one studies this "evidence", it is important to note that the securing of such evidence by the act of destruction was very much in the mind of the BJP and Sangh Parivar much before the final act of vandalism. There was till then, no acceptable proof that the Babri Masjid had been built at the site of a Hindu temple …faced with such lack of sustenance they turned to archaeology and so to Professor BB Lal …Lal had dug near the Babri Masjid,on which he had given a report in 1976 - 77 (Indian Archaeology - A Review,1976 - 77.Page 53). In 1990, in an article in the RSS mouthpiece, Manthan,October 1990, he sought to interpret his earlier report arguing that some 'pillar bases ' he had found had really carried pillars of the extension of the original temple that the Babri Masjid had been built on.The speculation was a sheer piece of speculation and D. Mandal in his 'Ayodhya Archaeology After Demolition ' (1993 - pages 26 - 40) had exposed by analysis the baseless character of Lal's suppositions."
Regarding talks of the sculptures being found on the site - in a pit when the ground was being levelled in 1992, Professor Habib had this to comment - "It is strange that when these sculptures were "found " the ASI was not informed.Rather their discovery was so suddenly announced by the VHP and they were pronounced by such 'experts' as Swaraj Prakash Gupta (who has done no work on early medieval history) as belonging to the eleventh century. It seems certain, on the other hand, that the sculptures do not belong to a single period at all, but range in their individual dates from the 7 to the 16 century,as testified by the historian RS Sharma (The Hindu. November 10, 1992) and thus could not have come from the same temple. Furthermore, as D. Mandal points out the colouration of some of the objects suggests that they have remained only partly buried and could not have thus been taken out from a pit. There is every likelihood that these sculptures were simply brought from outside at a time when the VHP and BJP through the state government had full and absolute control of the site. Regarding that supposed inscribed slab that was found within the domes of the structure, on the very day of the destruction, I have this to comment - According to the VHP's own witness, the slab as it fell was coated with mortar. But the slab now being presented as the one that allegedly fell off the wall is in a seemingly mint fresh condition. There is no trace of mortar on it on any side,even on the back, nor are there any marks that must result if the strong medieval mortar was later removed from it.It has remained totally untouched by mortar …it maybe added that no mortar was used in pre-Muslim buildings in India. It must therefore have come like the pit structures from some private collection, certainly not from Babri Masjid."
Could the excavation of the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid help clear the haze vis- a - vis the temple - masjid controversy? He'd said, "In a resolution passed by the Indian History Congress by "an overwhelming majority " at its annual session on 15 February 1993 (the first ever after the mosque's destruction on 6 December 1992) the principal organization of Indian historians protested against the principle that " a monument can be destroyed or removed if there are any grounds for assuming that a religious structure of another community had previously stood at its site. "
He went on to warn that "such a post - facto rationalization of what was done on December 6, 1992 would place in jeopardy the fate of numerous historical monuments all over the country, an increasing number of which are being targeted for destruction by the communal forces. It would seem that ten years later the very principle that the historians had found so intolerable has received tacit judicial recognition …In this regard I feel that today things have got more complicated and it will be a long fight."
On the entire controversy revolving around the very company - Tojo Vikas International - that was earlier assigned to do the geophysical survey of the disputed site, Professor Irfan Habib had commented -
" From the text of this order it appears that the High Court had earlier ordered a geophysical survey through a "Canadian " company, Tojo- Vikas International (Pvt) Limited,Kalkaji,New Delhi.This company has no previous experience of archaeological surveying.Nor are the credentials of Mr Claude Robillard, a " Canadian citizen " and the company's "Advisor and Chief Geophysicists ",any less doubtful, since no biodata whatsoever about him are furnished in the company's report. The company's report is singularly taciturn on what exactly it was required to find out. Geophysical surveying for archaeological purposes resorts basically to two kinds of instruments: 1)magnetic - which essentially help locate metal artefacts and hearths and 2) resistivity, which give clues about filled pits, buried walls etc. For reasons not stated the company's survey was confined only to resistivity survey, using Ground Penetrating Radar. No magneto meter was at all employed, so that there remained no possibility of locating hearths which would have indicated domestic habitations and, to that extent, could have narrowed the area where one might be looking for 'temple ' signs. While the Tojo Vikas team in its report does not refer to any background information about the dispute being furnished to it, it certainly lets slip the fact that it was somehow expected by certain quarters to trace "pillars " since the Parivar's late convert, BB Lal in his second version (1989) of his original findings on the excavations near the Babri Masjid proclaimed his earlier secret discovery of certain aligned "pillar bases ", which he thought had belonged to a large Rama Temple. The anxiety to being in pillars anyhow, comes out very clearly from the following statement in the Tojo - Vikas report (page 30) "Some of these anomalies may correspond to pillars (sic) alignment, broken up sections of wall foundations or fortuitous patterns of independent objects or natural features." Would anyone with such varied possibilities available have even thought of "aligned pillars", unless one had a previous briefing that pillar bases must be looked for? Not only does the Tojo Vikas team stop here, but in its conclusion goes on to relate the same very " variety of anomalies " quite confidently to "structures such as pillars, foundation walls, slab flooring extending over a large portion of the site…" Such an addition to "pillars " on its part is all the more remarkable when we find that the Tojo Vikas team itself employs strike much space (pages 26 - 27) and two diagrams to show that "NOT all hyperbolas shaped radar anomaly correspond to pillars or wall foundations," adding that "they could also come from debris or even a simple boulder of a certain size and shape ". Curiously, on the other hand, they try to make no distinction between strong mortar bonded rubble (indicative of Muslim construction) and loose debris, and between stones or baked bricks and sun dried bricks /rammed clay, which one should have expected from such a survey as their's.(the geophysical survey by the German - Italian team at Mohenjo Daro in 1982 -83 successfully demarcated the baked brick and the clay platform zones precisely by use of resistivity instruments. Such work would again have helped to separate medieval Muslim structures from earlier remains. It is thus clear that, despite its cautions and reservations, the Tojo Vikas report is not free from bias."
*(Humra Quraishi is a freelance columnist based in Delhi and is currently a visiting Professor in the Academy of Third World Studies in Jamia Milia University).



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