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Hindutva's Handmaiden
The ASI’s role in marshalling dubious evidence in support of the existence of Ram temple at Ayodhya is the right occasion to assess its activities
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Justice D.V. Sharma’s judgment in Babri Masjid case given on 30 September 2010 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 (ASI) has proved that the structure was a massive Hindu religious structure.”

What Justice Sharma was referring to was the ASI’s report of 2003 on Ayodhya of dubious value. What the ASI claimed to be the bases of pillars which held up the alleged temple turn out not to be 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 up that it can be linked to no particular stratum and period. Moreover, the presence of animal bones and glazed ware found at the site makes it difficult to claim that a Ram temple existed on this site between the XII and XVI centuries.

The ASI’s role in marshalling dubious evidence in support of the existence of Ram temple at Ayodhya is the right occasion to assess its activities as a handmaiden of Hindutva. The following characteristics mark Indian archaeology since colonial times: 

  • It is a monument-specific archaeology based on 
    • Geographical surveys
    • Literary traditions and 
    • Orientalist scholarship 

These characteristics combined 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, these 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:

“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 B.B. Lal (ASI director, 1968 to 1972) took up his advice. He excavated at Gangetic sites in search of evidence for the mythical periods described in the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana identifying two kinds of pottery, Painted Grey Ware as an indicator of the former and Northern Black Polished Ware of the latter, and attempted to match archaeological sites with places named in the epics. The ASI used this “evidence,” to propagate the myth that underneath the sixteenth century Purana Qila built by Sher Shah Suri lay the site of Indraprastha, the mythical “Hindu” city. 

This spurious 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 the god Rama's birthplace, which was used as the justification for the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992. The story of Ayodhya became the prototype for the Hindutva gang’s claims on the innumerable mosques, mausoleums, dargahs, and Eidgahs, all to be reclaimed as former Hindu sites or temples. 

In ASI terminology, the term “Hindu,” is a catch all, homogenized category for all schools of Sanatana Dharma—Buddhism, Jainism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and the rest. The ASI deploys such a convenient term to efface the long and bloody Hindu sectarian wars or Shaivite appropriation of Buddhist sites. The ASI’s methods serve to perpetuate the Hindutva groups’ myth of Muslim depredation of Indian heritage.

The ASI has been looking for Hindu temple under every medieval monument. The unearthing of Jain idols in the vicinity of Fatehpur-Sikri in 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 mosque demolition in December 1994, its two Indian organizers 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 from various parts of the nation:

  • In 2007, the ASI cooked up history at the Chittorgarh, Rajasthan fort by signposting an underground passage as the location of Padmini’s jauhar, self immolation, based on myth to highlight Emperor Alauddin Khilji’s alleged atrocities. Numerous modern temples abound 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 construction of three brand new Hindu temples in the precincts of Sher Shah Suri’s mausoleum in Sasaram, Bihar. These bath-room tiled temples with their calendar-art frescos mar the magnificent mausoleum’s vistas.
  • In 1970, the ASI allowed a kum-kum 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 ASI’s own rules. At the turn of the twenty-first 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 the 1948, the ASI converted the Jama Masjid in the Daulatabad fort in the Deccan into a Bharata Mata (“Mother India”) Temple. The very name is so candidly, crassly contemporary as to make a mockery of a medieval site to be so named.

These examples of the ASI’s interventions in various geographic areas of India are symptomatic of numerous examples that establish its role as the handmaiden of Hindutva.

The ASI’s representation of India’s archaeological legacy in Hindu terms has had a direct impact on heritage tourism. Unlike eco-tourism, medical tourism and the like, heritage tourism has 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 also reflected in the websites and printed tourist guides and promotional literature. 

Indian tourism ministry’s and state tourism departments privilege India’s Hindu past whereas the Muslim period is elided. Such representations of India as “Hindu,” is implicit though not explicit in the “Incredible India,” promotion directed toward the diaspora in North America, Europe, and wherever the rich live.

When tourists come to the sites and monuments, they learn that these are Hindu sites pillaged by Muslim 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 the sites of tourism. The ASI and the official tourism bureaus’ characterization of Indian archaeological sites as the foci 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 organizations such as the ASI, the state archaeology departments and tourism bureaus lend themselves as the handmaidens of Hindutva, even if they don't mean to do so.


Omar Khalidi is an independent scholar and a staff member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

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