Friday, 11 October 2013

In India, A Partial Expiation For An Archaeological Crime

It was heartening to read in the news recently that an archaeological treasure, the 450 year old tomb of Mughal emperor Humayun, has been restored.

The newly-restored Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi

It's a pity that priceless archaeological artifacts often get imbued with religious, and consequently political, significance. Islamists are the regular villains in archaeological vandalism around the world. They destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and similar relics of a Buddhist past in the Maldives. In Egypt, they are even calling for the destruction of the pyramids and the sphinx. One can only shake one's head in hopeless sorrow at such mindless fanaticism.

Countries like the US, Canada, Australia and new Zealand, with barely 3 centuries of European history, have nevertheless done a splendid job of preserving and showcasing this heritage. [One could blame the early European settlers in these countries for the destruction of native communities and their culture, but in modern times, these countries have demonstrated enlightenment through their commendable efforts to retrieve and preserve native heritage as well.] Why do people with a heritage stretching back millennia not recognise and appreciate what a priceless set of treasures they have?

The Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan - the "after" photo shows a clear improvement over the "before" (if you're an Islamist)

The Islamic conquerors of India from the 12th century onwards were largely of the same breed as Islamists everywhere. Many Hindu temples were destroyed by them and mosques erected in their place.

And therein lies a tale of two wrongs that do not make a right. The Mughal emperor Babar (father of Humayun, whose tomb was recently restored) is thought to have destroyed (among countless others) a temple to the Hindu god Rama at Ayodhya and built a mosque over its ruins. That mosque remained standing until the last decade of the 20th century. It was called the "Babri Masjid" (Babar's mosque).

For centuries, this structure remained. It saw the passing of 7 generations of the Mughals and the advent of the British, and then it saw the passing of the British Raj as well, as Indians finally wrested back the power to rule themselves after at least 6 centuries of foreign rule.

And thereafter, with the move to democracy, the mosque's days were numbered.

This is the way the Babri Masjid looked before electoral arithmetic spelled its doom

Somewhere along the way, the Hindu right wing party, the BJP, decided that the only way it could improve its hitherto dismal electoral performance was to tap into militant Hindu sentiment that it would itself whip up. The Babri Masjid became the symbol and the focal point of the BJP's campaign. The mosque that was built on the ruins of a desecrated Hindu temple was projected as a historical humiliation of India's Hindu majority by its Muslim rulers, a humiliation that could only be reversed by the destruction of the mosque and a resurrected temple to Lord Rama built on its ruins. It was to be the righting of a historical wrong. More importantly, the site of the original temple was claimed to be the very birthplace of Lord Rama, so having the temple built anywhere but on the ruins of the mosque was preemptively made impossible!

The Hindu parties' emotive poster calling for the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, with a suitably militant image of Rama to drive home the message

By polarising society along religious lines, the BJP and its various allied Hindu organisations reckoned they could attract a significant number of votes from Hindus. (This cynical calculation, sadly enough, turned out to be correct. In 1984, the BJP had won 2 seats in parliament. In 1991, after having successfully raised a storm over the Babri Masjid, the party won 120 seats.) More importantly, the BJP formed the government in the state of Uttar Pradesh (the state to which the city of Ayodhya belonged).

[Quite some blood has been shed since the time that plan was put into action, and more is going to be shed in future, since the hardening of Hindu opinion and the consequent rewards to militant Hindu parties have now attained a momentum of their own. My own view on this is simple. We only have one history. We can learn from it, but we cannot erase it, no matter how humiliating it may seem. Destroying our own national monuments for religio-political reasons is cutting off our nose to spite our face. But of course, such arguments fall on deaf ears, since in times of strident militancy, reason itself seems weak and effete.]

After the 1991 elections, with the machinery of the Uttar Pradesh state government in its hands, the BJP began plans to demolish the temple while at the same time issuing reassuring public statements to allay suspicion. On 6th December 1992, the BJP did what Islamists worldwide have always done - destroyed their own country's archaeological monuments to satisfy religious bloodlust, and their own political ambitions.

There is grim irony in the fact that an avowedly anti-Islamic popular movement demonstrated the same intolerance and religious bigotry of their enemies. They also proved that, despite two historic changes in management, the degree of enlightenment of India's rulers had not improved in 500 years.

The armies of Hinduism sallying forth to do their sacred duty, no doubt

It stood for 450 years, then came down in one hour

And this is what was left of the Babri Masjid

Woohoo! We've destroyed a 450 year old archaeological treasure of our own country! Who needs foreign invaders?

And that's what I thought of when I read the news of the restoration of Humayun's tomb. The mosque named for the father was destroyed, but the tomb of the son was restored. I guess I could see the latter restoration as a partial atonement for the former archaeological crime, but something in me is not satisfied. When I look around me and see so many educated Hindu friends who cheer the destruction of the Babri Masjid, some openly and some less openly, I begin to think I must myself be a relic.

One of my friends on Facebook commented as follows:

"I dont think even the most ardent secularist would call the Babri Masjid an archeological treasure. Especially in a country where there are many other monuments that are older. It is provocative to say Hindus thought the structure was humiliating. The movement was an act of reclaiming. A temple was not just "thought" to have existed. The Allahabad high court judgment validated that last year and awarded one third of the land to Hindus. You are being selective when you talk about restoration only of the 450 yr old "treasure". What about restoration/rebuilding of the temple which lies below."

I replied:

"QED. You have furnished proof of my statement in the closing paragraph that this is indeed the attitude of many educated Hindus today.

1. Most people around the world would find it strange that a structure 400+ years old is NOT considered an archaeological treasure by some. In your opinion, how old does a structure have to be in order to be considered an archaeological treasure?

2. The presence of older monuments does not invalidate the value of structures 400+ years old. All of them are part of the country's great archaeological wealth. None of them is expendable.

3. A chequered history like India's can only be narrated by a chronologically matching set of artifacts reflecting the power structure, dominant culture and values of the time. Our value judgement today of whether any of that was "good" or "bad" is irrelevant. It's part of our history. We can look at some of those monuments and decide, "Never again!" That indeed is the point of learning history. But destroying one's own monuments to erase part of one's history that some people in the current generation disapprove of is immature and self-harming.

4. The temple can never be "rebuilt" in any case, only recreated. As such, why not build it a short distance away and provide information to visitors about the history of the temple and the mosque? That way, you have both structures and your history intact. And from the perspective of history study and tourism, it would be wonderful.

5. If belief systems are to take priority over pragmatism in the here-and-now, then only bloodshed and strife lie ahead, not prosperity, because belief systems are mutually incompatible. We need to be less precious about our beliefs and more concerned with the real country we live in.

6. There is nothing selective about my position. You are reading an anti-Hindu bias into what I have written. My entire piece was anti-vandalism. The Islamists have vandalised monuments globally, as my 3 examples show. The saffron Islam that passes for Hinduism nowadays is doing exactly the same thing."]


Prasanna Srinivasan said...

Two wrongs don't make right. Indian political parties often take this route. Recent debates on the rule around "criminals in politics" elicited similar responses - all spokespersons pointing out criminals in other parties who've done the same thing or worse. None of them even veered towards say stating that we need to improve our system of investigation, recording crime and delivering justice in lower courts - (I suspect its a key issue in ignoring all of this).

The temperance I have in archeological conservation is that everything is history. Too often between monuments, great personalities etc - life is affected today - so you often have some 400 year old wall in the middle of the road (or temple, mosque).

But I don't believe that mob rule is a good thing (the point you also make above)- whether by force or votes. If greater force makes something right, we might as well tear up the law books and our Constitution and give everyone guns - just like the old days.

Ganesh Prasad said...

> so you often have some 400 year old wall in the middle of the road

Well, you can always shift structures if required, like UNESCO did with the statues at Abu Simbel when the Aswan dam was being built. Destroying them is another story.