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In conversation with the noted historian on the history of the land dispute, how the issue was communalised, why he thinks it cannot be said that there was a temple under the Babri Masjid, and more.

Eminent historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha pioneered studies on material culture in early Indian history. In his academic career spanning more than 35 years, he undertook extensive research on society and the economy in ancient India, and probed different dimensions of feudalism in early medieval India. As a professional historian, he actively intervened in contemporary political debates that derived their relevance from historical studies. In the process, he was targeted by multiple Hindutva organisations rather frequently. For instance, when his book The Myth of the Holy Cow brought out historical references about beef eating in sub-continental dietary habits in ancient India, he became the target of all those who disliked his conclusions. He has always valued historical evidence over myths, and at most times been on the wrong side of the powerful. 

He was a part of a team of independent historians who scrutinised historical and archaeological evidence to dismiss the notion in its report that there was a Hindu temple underneath the Babri mosque. In this detailed interview to The Wire by Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, he trashes the theory that the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was built by demolishing a Hindu temple. He also speaks of how Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) shifted its stand on the issue and, thus helped the Sangh parivar foment a Hindu-Muslim conflict around the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.  

The Supreme Court will be giving its verdict on Allahabad high court judgment soon. Thus, the dispute has become topical again. How, as a professional historian, do you look at it?

The Ayodhya dispute has been hanging fire for a long time now. Hindus and Muslims have been fighting over the control of the disputed site. As I have said in my earlier interviews to the media, I see it as a battle between faith and rationality. For it is impossible to prove that Ram was born within the limits of 2.77 acre of the disputed land in Ayodhya. I don’t see any logic in this faith. And as a professional historian I think history cannot be written on the basis of faith; whatever is written or spoken about on its basis is only fantasy.

You were a part of  the team of historians that wrote “Ramjanmabhumi-Baburi Masjid: A Historians’ Report to the Nation”. What were your main findings? 

First, I would like to clarify that the four historians – Suraj Bhan, Athar Ali, R.S. Sharma and I – who authored the report were independent of the government and of the two contending parties to the dispute. This effectively meant lack of cooperation from them. 

But despite this, we were able to produce the report. We examined all the textual and archaeological evidence and came to the conclusion that there was no Hindu temple beneath the mosque.

How do you assess the role of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in fomenting the conflict? The ASI report built its theory that the masjid was built on a Hindu temple on the basis of “pillar bases” that it supposedly found. What is your take? 

The ASI and the Hindu party have argued for the existence of the temple on the basis of “pillar bases”. But there are some points to be clarified about them. First the attitude of B.B. Lal, the former director-general of the ASI, who first excavated at Ayodhya, has been shifting his stand about them. In his first report, he does not mention the pillar bases. In 1988, Lal presented a paper at the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) seminar which also is totally silent about the pillar bases; and when he delivered a lecture on the historicity of the Ramayana he made no reference to the pillar bases.

But soon after the shilanyas in November 1989, Lal underwent a metamorphosis and in October 1990, in a paper published in an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) publication, he referred to a pillared structure adjacent to the mosque; this was nearly 15 years after he excavated at Ayodhya. Scholars grow all the time and they may modify their opinion from time to time. But Lal grew at a frenetic pace and this makes his finding of pillar bases suspect. 

Second, the 14 black stone pillars with non-Islamic motifs, which we found embedded at the arched entrances of the mosque were decorative pieces and not load bearing. The four historians wanted to examine the issue further but the ASI did not give them the site notebook.

Has the ASI made its report available to historians and archaeologists for assessment? 

I have not seen the final report on the excavations carried under the court orders but those archaeologists and historians who have read it have trashed it. First, the ASI archaeologists who carried out the excavation did not observe the scientific norms which should have been observed in  such an exercise. Second, the excavation was carried out with preconceived ideas about the presence of the temple. Third, the report suppresses evidence. For example, animal bones, gazed ware and glazed tiles, which have been found at the various levels, do not find any mention in the report.

You have been of the view that faith has superseded history/historical fact in the way a majority of Indians, and even the courts, have come to understand the demolition of Babri Masjid. Why do you think so?

In my view, it is only faith of the Hindu parties that was the overriding consideration for the Allahabad high court. The historical evidence was totally relegated to the background; it was trashed.

How did the notion that Babri Masjid was built at the site of Ram Janmabhoomi become popular? What are the textual and other references of Ram temples in Indian history?

The first known Sanskrit text to place Lord Rama’s birth place in a locality of Ayodhya is the Skanda Puråna. It has several versions, and is full of interpolations. The Ayodhyamahtmya itself (which forms part of Skanda Purana) is probably an interpolation of the late 18th or early 19th century. 

Judging by its internal evidence, it is not earlier than 1600 (C.E). Of more than 30 sacred sites it mentions it names one as janmasthana. Interestingly, the compilers of the text devote eight verses to the janmasthana but 100 verses to the place whence he is supposed to have gone to heaven. The place is called the svargadwara. So the text on which the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and other groups are relying attaches greater importance to his passing away than to his birth!

The death of Rama was more important for the compilers of the text than the place of his birth. Also, the svargadwara is on the bank of the river Saryu, far away from the mosque site which is claimed to be the birthplace.

The French Jesuit priest Tifenthaller visited Ayodhya perhaps before 1765 and he for the first time referred to the destruction of the temple for the construction of the mosque. But it took time to become popular.

Was Ayodhya always regarded as a pilgrimage centre in historical texts? What does Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas say about Ayodhya? 

There is no evidence to show that Ayodhya was a Hindu pilgrimage centre in ancient times. And it had not emerged as one even as late as the 18th century. Tulsidas, the celebrated author of the Ramcharitmanas does not mention Ayodhya as a pilgrim centre. He suggests that it was not Ayodhya but Prayag that was to him the principal place of pilgrimage.   

Is there a possibility that Ayodhya could have been a centre of other religions too, say Buddhism or Jainism?

There is evidence that Ayodhya was an important Buddhist centre in the early medieval period. Huen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who came to India in the seventh century, during the time of Harshvardhana, referred to Buddhist presence here. He recorded that there were 100 Buddhist monasteries but only ten abodes of devas [Brahmanical gods] at this place. 

Ayodhya is also known as Saket which occurs in Buddhist as well as Jain scriptures. Moreover, Jains claim that it was the place of birth of Rishabnath, their earliest tirthankar. And Abu Fazl, mentions the tradition that two Jewish prophets lie buried at Ayodhya.  So the town was of sacred importance for several religions.

How and when did the whole Ayodhya dispute take a communal turn, in your view? In fact, the Hindutva groups now claim that not just Babur but several other so-called Muslim rulers, including Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan, destroyed many Hindu temples. 

There is no doubt that the Muslim rulers destroyed Hindu temples. But we should remember that Hindus are more notorious in destroying the temples or places of worship. It can be proved that they destroyed innumerable religious establishments of Jains and Buddhists. Certainly it is a matter to be researched – who destroyed how many temples in the country.

There is not much evidence of communal conflict in medieval India. But at Ayodhya, the Hindu-Muslim clash took place in 1855, though the issue between the Hindus and Muslims was sorted out by the officers of the Nawab of Awadh. His officers settled the issue by allowing  the idols being placed outside the mosque on what came to be known as Sita Ki Rasoi; a trust (Waqf) was also created. The property  issue was finally settled in 1885 when the sub-judge of Faizabad and the Judicial Commissioner of Awadh decided that the Muslims continue their possession of the mosque and transferred Sita Ki Rasoi to the Hindus.

The matter should have remained settled but the situation changed with the rise of communalism in the 1930s.

A milestone in the communalisation of the dispute is  December 1949 when the idol of Rama was surreptitiously put inside the mosque. The communalisation of the dispute received an unprecedented boost in 1984 when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was formed, with the slogan of building a Ram Temple at the site of the Babri Masjid.  

In pre-independence India, were there scholars who studied the temple destruction theory? I remember you saying that a Scottish physician, Francis Buchanan, who worked with the Bengal Medical Service, visited Ayodhya in 1810 and rubbished this theory. 

Of course, (H.M) Eliot and (John) Dawson wrote about the destruction of temples by Muslim rulers (in 1871) but did not study the problem as such. They, however, referred to the fact of destruction. The prominent historian to have made references to the destruction/desecration of Hindu temples was (historian) Jadunath Sarkar.

Do you think the courts should have involved historians and archaeologists in the whole adjudication process following the demolition?

Certainly. The historians should have been consulted in the adjudication process. I think a panel of international experts should have been entrusted the task of deciding whether there existed a temple under the mosque; judiciary alone is not equipped to pass judgment on a historical fact. But what can one expect from the judiciary which dismisses the report of historians and archaeologists as mere opinion?

Your team submitted your report to the government of India. How was its response?

We submitted our report to the government of India through Mr V.K. Dhall, in-charge of the Ayodhya cell in the PMO. But (we) never heard from him or anybody else from the government.

Finally, how does a lay person form an opinion on the matter amidst contrasting viewpoints of history? The proponents of a Ram temple in Ayodhya claim that only the so-called Marxist historians believe that there was no Hindu temple there.

The lay person has to be educated, and they should be convinced of a rational point of view. How one does it is a big problem. I have no ready answer for this. But make no mistake. The Marxists are not responsible for propagating the absence of the temple. The Hindutva groups are only raising a bogey of Marxism because they are unable to argue their case. n

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.