Righting the historians’ wrongs

SWAPAN DASGUPTA

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WHEN the history of the Ayodhya movement comes to be written, there will be the inevitable search for heroes and villains. The selection will be contentious: one man’s hero is, after all, another man’s villain. At this interim stage, when the Allahabad High Court verdict of September 2010 has opened a small window of opportunity for an amicable settlement that leaves no side completely dissatisfied – an opportunity that, alas, won’t be readily seized – it would help to examine how the beauty parade of the good, the bad and the ugly has been viewed from the bench. How do India’s historians fare under intense judicial scrutiny?

An exploration of Justice Sudhir Agarwal’s voluminous judgment is pertinent in the context of a determined bid by India’s vocal left-wing intelligentsia to rubbish the judgment as a departure from modernity, constitutionalism and the rule of law. In a statement by 61 ‘intellectuals’ led by historian Romila Thapar, that includes the cream of the left-liberal establishment and sundry art dealers, photographers and food critics, the judgment was attacked for dealing yet ‘another blow to India’s secular fabric.’

At the heart of the fury of the ‘intellectuals’ is the court’s assault on the reputation of the clutch of ‘eminent historians’ – Arun Shourie’s sarcastic usage – who have dictated the ‘secular’ discourse on the Ayodhya dispute. The court questioned the competence of various ‘expert’ witnesses and cast doubts on their intellectual integrity.

It was the Archaeological Survey of India report of court monitored excavations of the disputed site in 2003 which set the cat among the pigeons. After exhaustive hearings of ‘all possible angles in the matter so that there may not remain a grievance’, the High Court accepted the ASI report which Dr R.C. Thakran of Delhi University, an expert witness for the Sunni Waqf Board, dubbed ‘an unprofessional document full of gross distortions, one-sided presentation of evidence, clear falsifications and motivated inferences.’

Thakran’s indignation was understandable. In its conclusion, the ASI submitted that ‘a massive structure with at least three structural phases and three successive buildings attached with it’ was located at the disputed 2.77 acres in Ayodhya. The scale of the buildings indicated that they were for ‘public’ functions. ‘It was over the top of this construction that during the early 16th century the disputed structure was constructed directly resting over it.’ In simple language, the ASI report confirmed a local belief in Awadhi that the 16th century Babri Masjid had been constructed on the site of a pre-existing public building which, presumably, could be a temple.

Without mincing words, the ASI report had brushed aside the so-called Historians Report to the Nation authored by Professors R.S. Sharma, M. Athar Ali, D.N. Jha and Suraj Bhan released in May 1991. This document was a plea to the Government of India ‘to include impartial historians in the process of forming judgment on historical facts.’ As an example of this ‘impartial’ history, it was argued that, ‘The full blown legend of the destruction of a temple at the site of Rama’s birth and Sita ki Rasoi is as late as the 1850s. Since then what we get is merely the progressive reconstruction of imagined history based on faith.’

 

The champions of ‘impartial’ history had clearly overstated their case by dating the dispute to the mid-19th century. Subsequently, as more research pointed otherwise, the goal post was quietly shifted. In her deposition as an expert for the Waqf Board, Aligarh historian Shireen Moosvi suggested that, ‘The legend of Ayodhya being the birthplace of Rama is found from the 17th century, prior to which there is no legend about Rama’s birthplace in medieval history.’ However, during cross-examination Moosvi also admitted: ‘It is correct that in Sikh literature there is a tradition that Guru Nanak had visited Ayodhya, had darshan of Ram janmasthan and had bathed in the River Saryu.’ Guru Nanak, it may be added, was a contemporary of the first Moghul emperor.

A horrific historical misrepresentation was sought to be covered up without the slightest show of contrition.

A curious feature of the 1991 intervention which emerged from Suraj Bhan’s cross-examination was the disinclination of the ‘impartial historians’ to undertake any field work. In his deposition, Bhan stated: ‘I gave this report in May. I might have gone to Ayodhya in February-March…In my first deposition I may have stated that I had gone to the disputed site before June 1991 for the first time.’

Nor was Bhan the only armchair archaeologist unconcerned with empirical detail. Echoing Moosvi, the medieval historian who felt that ‘to ascertain whether it is temple or mosque, it was not necessary to see the disputed site,’ Professor D. Mandal, another expert witness for the Waqf Board, admitted he wrote his Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition without even visiting Ayodhya and with an eye to influencing the presidential reference to the Supreme Court. Mandal also admitted that, ‘Whatsoever little knowledge I have of Babur is only that Babur was (a) ruler of the 16th century. Except for this I do not have any knowledge of Babur.’ Justice Agarwal was sufficiently moved to say about Mandal that, ‘The statements made by him in cross-examination show the shallowness of his knowledge on the subject.’ Yet, as the controversy raged through the nineties, Mandal’s book was cited as evidence of the spuriousness of the claims by Ram Bhakts.

 

Shallowness and superficiality are themes that recur. Bhan confessed that the grandly titled Report to the Nation was written under ‘pressure’ in six weeks and ‘without going through the record of the excavation by B.B. Lal.’

Lal, a renowned archaeologist who had undertaken excavations in Ayodhya had, in any case, by then been firmly located in the camp of those unable to distinguish between history and mythology.

The lapse would have put an undergraduate to shame but not the ‘impartial’ historians. During her cross-examination, Suvira Jaiswal, another Waqf Board expert historian, confessed: ‘I have read nothing about Babri Mosque… Whatever knowledge I gained with respect to the disputed site was on the basis of newspapers or …from the report of historians.’ Sushil Shrivastava, a ‘historian’ whose bizarre book on Ayodhya secured favourable media publicity and is still cited approvingly by CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechuri, admitted he had ‘very little knowledge of history’, didn’t know Arabic, Persian, epigraphy or calligraphy and had got translations done by his father-in-law.

Justice Agarwal was stunned by Shrivastava’s ‘dishonesty’.

Once the ASI excavations confirmed that the Babri Masjid wasn’t built on virgin land, ‘impartial’ history turned to imaginative history. It was suggested by Suraj Bhan that what lay beneath the mosque was an ‘Islamic structure of the Sultanate period.’ D. Mandal went one better suggesting that after the Gupta period ‘this archaeological site became desolate for a long time.’ The reason: floods. Supriya Verma contested the ‘Hindu’ character of recovered artefacts from the Kushan, Shunga and Gupta periods – something even Bhan and Mandal had admitted to. These, she said, ‘could well have been part of palaces, Buddhist structure, Jain structure, Islamic structure.’ There were also stray suggestions, never proven or pressed, that the ASI had wilfully falsified and suppressed data.

 

The court was not amused. Dismissing the unsubstantiated allegations: ‘We find on the contrary, pre-determined attitude of the witness (Suraj Bhan) against ASI which he has admitted. Even before submission of ASI report and its having been seen by the witness, he formed (an) opinion and expressed his views…’ Justice Agarwal was ‘surprised to see in the zeal of helping …the parties in whose favour they were appearing, these witnesses went ahead …and wrote a totally new story’ of a mosque under a mosque.

The judge admitted to being unaware of what constitutes ‘scientific’ history in India. In her deposition as an expert in Ancient History, Suvira Jaiswal made an important clarification: ‘I am giving statement on oath regarding Babri Mosque without any probe and not on the basis of my knowledge; rather I am giving the statement on the basis of my opinion.’

She was articulating the prevailing philosophy of history writing in contemporary India. The court recoiled in horror at the ‘dearth of logical thinking’ and the underlying cronyism behind the public stands of India’s ‘eminent’ historians. Quoting a British Law Lord from an 1843 judgment, it suggested their expertise was ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ – harsh words that civil society needs to remember the next occasion the ‘impartial’ historians strut on the public stage.

 

The issue, unfortunately, is not confined to the (mis)use of history in public controversies. The Allahabad High Court also heard the deposition of one Suresh Chandra Mishra, Reader in History of Satyawati College, Delhi University, who it may be presumed teaches the subject to impressionable undergraduates. Mishra boasted to the court that he had located the precise spot of Ram’s birth which, presumably, wasn’t where the disputed structure stood. However, since determining the historicity of Ram was beyond the court’s remit, he was asked some questions that could have a bearing on the dispute, since he admitted that ‘Babur was my favourite subject.’

Some of his answers are worth reproducing for the light they throw on the quality of history that is being dished out to students. ‘In my knowledge,’ Mishra asserted, ‘there was no Vishwanath temple in Kashi 100 years ago… I do not think that the Gyanvapi mosque was constructed by demolishing half of Kashi Vishwanath temple.’ Mishra admitted to having ‘read many books from the time of Baburnama to 1989 regarding the construction of the Babri mosque. I do not remember the name of any book. I must have read it.’

At this point, counsel must have amused themselves quizzing this so-called ‘expert’ about his knowledge of medieval India. ‘I have heard of jeziya tax’, declared Mishra reassuringly, although ‘I fail to recall under whose rule or at which time the jeziya tax was imposed… and for what purpose it was levied.’

 

In October 2010, a court in Normandy ordered the prosecution of the Mayor of the small French hamlet of Gonneville-sur-Mer for his refusal to take down a photograph of Marshal Philippe Petain, the head of the Vichy Government from 1940 to 1944. The photograph had, along with photographs of other presidents, hung on a wall in the Council chamber for the past 70 years. Earlier in the year, however, a visitor claimed to have been offended by the photograph and reported the matter to the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which in turn initiated proceedings.

The court ruled against the Mayor. It accepted the prosecution plea that Petain was ‘the very embodiment’ of a regime that, apart from collaborating with the occupation forces, was also xenophobic and virulently anti-Semitic. The judgment also coincided with new revelations that Petain personally had a hand in the laws that excluded Jews from French public life after 1940.

The mayor and his council didn’t contest the ignominy associated with Petain and the Vichy regime. Petain, he argued, couldn’t be written out of the pages of history: ‘The figure of Marshal Petain has its place in the Town Hall, as do memories of the most painful and most glorious moments in our history.’

The mayor may well have been echoing General Charles De Gaulle, the man whose uncompromising resistance to the Vichy regime and the German occupation allowed France to emerge with its honour intact after Liberation. In a speech during a visit to the town of Vichy on 18 April 1959, De Gaulle struck an emotional note: ‘…history is a continuous thread. We are one people and whatever ups and downs we may have suffered, whatever events we may have seen, we are the great nation of France…I say this in Vichy. The past is finished. Long live Vichy! Long live France! Long live the Republic!’

 

This scarcely-remembered speech (quoted by historian Henry Rousso in his much-acclaimed The Vichy Syndrome) didn’t however permeate into the innards of France. The awkward reality of a vast section of patriotic French people having endorsed Petain’s truce with the Germans as a way out of further humiliation is undeniable. Contemporary accounts suggest that till the tide of war changed with the German defeat in Stalingrad, the average French person accepted Petain’s National Revolution as a viable approach to restoring national honour. Certainly, Vichy stalwarts like Petain, Pierre Laval and Robert Brassilach – all three convicted of treason after Liberation – perceived themselves as fiercely patriotic.

The awkwardness of having adjusted to the short-lived German occupation and ending up on the wrong side of history has troubled a large section of France. This may explain why, till very recently, embarrassed silence greeted attempts to probe too deep into the Vichy experience. In his own way, the Mayor of Gonneville-sur-Mer has challenged this evasion.

There may be few apparent similarities between the French discomfiture with Petain and Germany’s handling of its Nazi past. Ever since the second Auschwitz trials in 1977, Germany has unambiguously owned up to its responsibility for the Holocaust and other horrors. There have been German apologies to Israel, Poland, Russia, and countries where the swastika flew at some point during World War II. Indeed the earnestness with which Germany has atoned for its Nazi past once prompted Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, to once ask: ‘Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?’

 

The willingness of Germany to confront its troubled past and yet not be overwhelmed by it took another leap in October 2010 when the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened its exhibition, ‘Hitler and the Germans – Nation and Crime’. The exhibition addresses the issue that, until the late-1960s, many Germans were unwilling to confront: that Hitler would have been nothing had he not received the enthusiastic support of the German people. The curators deliberately kept the exhibits prosaic. The idea was to show the extent to which both ordinary Germans and the elite accepted Hitler and deified him.

There is, of course, a real danger that in being obsessed with confronting the inheritance of the Third Reich, the other facets of ‘German genius’ may be overlooked – an argument made forcefully by the English writer Peter Watson. Watson’s contention that Germany did itself incalculable harm by endorsing the Nazis – without Hitler, the 20th century may well have been Germany’s century and not America’s – is compelling and may serve to offset the impact of the guilt-tripping commentaries that have accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel’s robust interventions on economic and social policy. Unlike France, which is still squeamish about its Vichy past, Germany appears to have handled its history with incredible maturity.

 

The German experience has a bearing on India’s uncertain clumsy experiments with the past. At the most basic level, India is happiest obfuscating many centuries of history under the mantra of ‘5,000 years of culture and civilization’. ‘Official’ India is most troubled when something like the dispute in Ayodhya erupts and a High Court judgment resurrects an issue that has been frozen in denial – the destruction of shrines under the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghuls.

The troubling feature of India is the growing chasm between popular historical memory and the officially endorsed ‘nation-building’ history. In the popular perception, there was widespread medieval vandalism and India is dotted with physical evidence of shrines that were either destroyed or whose denominational character was changed. Yet, since the early 1970s, historians whose works are deemed ‘respectable’ have wilfully glossed over themes that apparently run counter to an idyllic syncretic or composite culture. In schools and universities, narrative history has been junked in favour of a crude economism. It is somehow felt that ‘nation building’ will be better served by focusing on the economic intricacies of feudal societies rather than the bigoted excesses of Aurangzeb. Outright denial or obfuscation has thus become a hallmark of a country with a rich history and poor historians.

Unfortunately, the experiments with disingenuity haven’t really worked. Academic historians constituted themselves into a cosy club during the Ayodhya agitation, claiming that the whole Ram Janmabhoomi belief was an elaborate hoax and, most likely, a sinister colonial creation aimed at dividing a harmonious Indian society. No shrine, they insisted, had been destroyed to make way for a mosque in 1528. Far from neutralizing the Ram bhakts, this negationism actually drove the devout into greater bouts of frenzy, culminating in the demolition of the 16th century shrine. Had the more pertinent question – Must India spend its energies overturning medieval wrongs? – been asked, it is entirely possible that society wouldn’t have been so damagingly polarized. The battle to set back the clock of history was actually a crusade to right the wrongs of historians.

‘Our history,’ the British Education Secretary Michael Gove said at a Conservative Party conference in September 2010, while unveiling an initiative to restore narrative history to the school curriculum, ‘has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present.’ It’s an enlightened message that could just as well be relevant for India.

 

History is essentially a conversation between the past and the present, an engagement that doesn’t follow a predetermined script. However, this scintillating encounter will be hideously distorted if the past is bowdlerized to suit contemporary fashion. India is paying the price for trying to learn from a history built on questionable certitudes.

‘Teachers’, the historian Simon Schama who is helping out with a new history curriculum for British schools, recently reminded us, ‘need to be grown up and brave. Sensitivity is fine but it stops at the door of honest narrative.’

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