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11. The Ayodhya evidence debate


11. The Ayodhya evidence debate

This paper was written as an adaptation from an earlier paper, �The Ayodhya debate�, published in the conference proceedings of the 1991 International Ramayana Conference, which had taken place in my hometown, Leuven. The present version represents my own text prepared for the October 1995 Annual South Asia Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, U. S.A. A few notes have been added.

The atmosphere at the conference was frankly hostile.  After the academic authorities, who may have been ignorant of my controversial reputation, had allowed my paper to be read, the practical organization of the panel session was entrusted to graduate students belonging to the Indian Communist organization, Forum of Indian Leftists (FOIL).  They scheduled me as the last speaker in a panel of four, chaired by an Indian female graduate student, a nice girl but obviously unable to perform the most difficult duty of a panel chairperson, viz. keeping the speakers to their allotted time.  Moreover, they arranged for our session to be held in a room where another panel was scheduled at noon, making it impossible for the last speaker to read his paper in excess of the panel session�s allotted time.  Two panel speakers played along by comfortably expounding and repeating the points they could easily have made in half the time.

It was up to people from the audience to protest and oblige the chairperson to allow me to read out my paper. When it was my turn, I was heckled somewhat by the Leftist crowd, especially by a well-known Indo-American Communist academic, who was rolling his eyes like a madman and making obscene gestures until an elderly American lady sitting next to him told him to behave.  At the end, Mathew came to collect a copy of my text (the book version, of which I had some author�s copies handy), called me a �liar�, and told his buddies that they needed to write a scholarly rebuttal.  Which is still being awaited today.

11.1. Introduction

One of the contenders in the Ayodhya history debate, the �hypothesis� that the Babri Masjid had been built in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple, had been a matter of universal consensus until a few years ago.  Even the Muslim participants in court cases in the British period had not challenged it; on the contrary, Muslim authors expressed pride in this monument of Islamic victory over infidelity.  It is only years after the Hindu take-over of the structure in 1949 that denials started to be voiced. And it is only in 1989 that a large-scale press campaign was launched to deny what had earlier been a universally accepted fact.

In normal academic practice, the debate on an issue on which such a consensus exists, would only have been opened after the discovery of new facts which undermine the consensus view.  The present debate is between a tradition which numerous observers and scholars had found coherent and well-founded, and an artificial hypothesis based on political compulsions instead of on newly discovered facts.

In an effort to move the debate forward, the Government of India provided the contending parties with an official forum in which experts could go through the evidence produced for both sides.  This scholarly exchange took place around the turn of 1991, and was briefly revived in the autumn of 1992.  Both rounds of the debate were unilaterally broken off by the Babri Masjid party.

This paper is intended to fill the gap left by the general media in the information on the debate about the historical claims concerning the Rama-Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya.  As the only non-Indian scholar to have followed this dispute closely, I will argue that the scholars� debate has ended in an unambiguous victory for one of the two parties.

11.2.The object of the debate

As is well-known by now, on Rama�s supposed birthplace in Ayodhya there used to stand a disputed mosque structure.  It was called the Babri Masjid because according to an inscription on its front wall it was built at the orders of the Moghul invader Babar in 1528, by his lieutenant Mir Baqi.  But until the beginning of this century, official documents called it Masjid-i-Janamsthan, �mosque of the birthplace�, and the hill on which it stands was designated as Ramkot (Rama�s fort) or Janamsthan (birthplace).  Since 1949, the building is effectively in use as a Hindu temple, but many Hindus, and especially the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), want to explicitate the Hindu function of the place with proper Hindu temple architecture, which implied removing the existing structure.  On the other hand, the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) and its splinter, the Babri Masjid Movement Coordination Committee (BMMCC), want the building, and after its demolition at least the site, to be given back to the Muslim community.

In December 1990 and January 1991, at the request of the Chandra Shekhar Government, the BMAC and the VHP exchanged historical evidence for their respective cases. it was broken off on 25 January 1991 when the BMAC representatives, without any explanation, failed to show up at the meeting scheduled for that day.  The debate was revived in October 1992 by the Narasimha Rao Government, with essentially the same teams, but the next month, the BMAC withdrew in protest against the VHP�s announcement of a Kar Seva (building activity) due on 6 December 1992.

It is strange (but perfectly explainable, as we shall see) that this debate has not received more attention in scholarly and journalistic writings.  It was, after all, the only occasion where both parties could not manipulate �evidence� without being subject to pointed criticism from the opposing side.  Many reporters on the Ayodhya conflict have made tall claims about the �concoction� of �bogus evidence� (not to mention �Goebbelsian propaganda�), and to substantiate these, there could hardly be a better mine of information than this Government-sponsored debate.  Yet, most of them refuse to even mention it.

A report on this debate should distinguish between three possible debating issues:

1) Is the present-day Ayodhya with all its Rama-related sites, the Ayodhya described by Valmiki in his Sanskrit Ramayana?  In the course of this debate, no new facts have been added to Prof. B.B. Lal�s conclusion that Valmiki�s Ayodhya and present-day Ayodhya are one and the same place. It is a different matter that his conclusions have been disputed, without any evidence, by the JNU historians among others.  Of course, it is nobody�s case that the Valmiki connection has been established in an unassailable manner; but at least, what much of research is available, points in that direction.  However, even if B.B. Lal�s assertion is correct, this leaves open the possibility that the writer who styled himself Valmiki, may have written his version of the Rama story long after it actually took place, and that he relocated the scene of a tradition coming from elsewhere into his own area.  Therefore, the next, more fundamental question might be:

2) Is the present-day Ayodhya, and more specifically the disputed site, indeed the birthplace of a historical character called Rama?  The BMAC has argued that such a thing cannot be proven, assuming that Rama was a historical character at all.  The VHP has refused to consider this question, arguing that religions do not have to justify the sacredness of their sacred sites: if the site was traditionally associated with sacred events and characters (as it was, at least from Valmiki onwards), or if it was treated by Rama devotees as somehow sacred (as it was since at least several centuries), then that should be enough to command respect, regardless of the historical basis of this claim to sacredness.

Compare with the Muslim sacred places: there is no historical substance at all in Mohammed�s claim that the Kaaba in Mecca had been built by Abraham as a place of monotheistic worship.  This story had to justify the take-over of the Kaaba from its real owners, the �idolaters� of Arabia.  And yet, in spite of the starkly unhistorical nature of the Muslim claim to the Kaaba, this claim is not being questioned. Nobody is saying that the Muslims can only have their Kaaba if they give historical proof that it was built by Abraham.

Therefore the VHP insists that if the disputed site is a genuine traditional sacred site, this must be enough to make others respect it as such.  However, if it was really a Hindu sacred site, it is reasonable to expect that this status was explicitated with a temple, which must have adorned the site before the Babri Masjid was built.  So, the third question is:

3) Was the Babri Masjid built in forcible replacement of a preexisting Rama temple?  The Muslim fundamentalist leader Syed Shahabuddin, convenor of the BMMCC (and initiator of the campaign against Salman Rushdie) agrees with the VHP that this is the fundamental question.  He has said repeatedly: 

�If it is proven that the Babri Masjid has been built in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple, I will demolish it with my own hands.� So, the subject matter of the debate can be limited to the question whether a Hindu temple had been destroyed to make way for the Babri Masjid.

In November 1990, in a letter to the newly appointed Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, the late Sri Rajiv Gandhi (whose Congress Party was supporting the new Government) had also proposed to narrow down the debate to this one question.  Sri Gandhi suggested that the decision of whether to leave the disputed building to the Hindus (who were using it as a temple) or to give it to the Muslims (who had used it as a mosque), should be taken on the basis of historical and archaeological evidence regarding the specific point whether the Babri Masjid had replaced a preexisting Hindu temple.  It is this letter from Rajiv Gandhi which prompted Chandra Shekhar to invite the contending parties to have a scholarly exchange of historical evidence.

11.3. Chronicle of the semi-official debate

Both parties met on 1 December and 4 December 1990, and they agreed to submit and confront historical material supporting their respective viewpoints.  On 23 December, the VHP and the BMAC submitted their respective bundles of evidence.  On 10 January 1991, both sides submitted rejoinders to their opponents� evidence bundles.  At least, the VHP scholars gave a detailed reply to all the documents presented by the BMAC.  But the latter merely handed in yet another pile of newspaper articles and more- such non-evidential statements of opinion.  This created the impression that the BMAC was effectively conceding defeat.

On January 24, the parties met in order to discuss the evidence.  But the BMAC team leader, Prof. R.S. Sharma, a well-known Marxist historian, said that he and his colleagues had not yet studied the VHP material (to which the BMAC had agreed to reply by January 10).  This is most remarkable, because the week before, he had led 42 academics in signing a much-publicized statement, saying that there was definitely absolutely no proof whatsoever at all for the preexisting Rama temple.  He had issued more statements on the matter, and even published a small book on it. There he was, pleading a lack of familiarity with the very material on which he had been making such tall statements.

The other historians for the BMAC were Athar Ali, D. N. Jha and Suraj Bhan, apart from the office bearers of the BMAC itself.  The four BMAC historians have published their argumentation some months later: Ramjanmabhumi Babari Masjid, A Historians� Report to the Nation.  Tellingly, they do not mention the outcome of the debate, but reiterate the ludicrous demand they made while attending the debate as BMAC advocates, viz. that they be considered �independent historians� qualified to pronounce scientific judgment in a debate between their employers and their enemies.

Of course, the government representative dismissed this demand as ridiculous.  Yet, the BMAC has continued to call them �the independent historians�, and they themselves have continued to demand that the VHP submit its case to �independent arbitration�, i.e. by their own kind.  These two telling details of the Ayodhya debate story have, of course, been withheld from the reader in the booklet published by the BMAC team, and in all subsequent publications by the anti-temple party.

The next meeting was scheduled for the next day, January 25. But there, the BMAC scholars simply did not show up.  The unambiguous result of the debate was this: the BMAC scholars have run away from the arena.  They had not presented written evidence worth the name, they had not given a written refutation of the VHP scholars� arguments, they had wriggled out of a face-to-face discussion on the accumulated evidence, and finally they had just stayed away.  Thus ended the first attempt by the Government of India to find an amicable solution on the basis of genuine historical facts.

In October 1992, the Narasimha Rao Government tried to revive this discussion forum.  Due to personal differences, Prof. R.S. Sharma stayed away from the BMAC team, which otherwise consisted of the same people.  The debate focused almost entirely on the interpretation of the archaeological findings of June 1992: a large number of Hindu sculptures and other temple remains, found in the terrain in front of the disputed building.  The BMAC team argued that these findings had all been planted.  It also demanded that in view of the ongoing negotiations, the VHP cancel its programme scheduled for 6 December 1992 in Ayodhya.  When the VHP refused, the BMAC stayed away from the talks once more.

11.4. The pro-temple evidence

On Ayodhya, there has always in living memory been a consensus: among local Muslims and Hindus, among European travellers and British administrators.  As late as 1989, the Encyclopedia Brittannica (entry Ayodhya) reports without a trace of hesitation that the Babri Masjid was built in forcible replacement of a temple marking Rama�s birthplace.  When there is such a consensus on a given issue, the academic custom is not to reopen the debate until someone comes with serious evidence that the consensus opinion is wrong and that a different scenario is indicated by newfound (or newly interpreted) facts.  But the only evidence to surface during the debate was presented by the VHP-mandated team and merely reconfirmed the old consensus.

The VHP�s evidence bundle was not just a pile of separate documents. It was centred around a careful argumentation, which can be summed up in three points:

1) A single hypothesis.  Only one hypothesis is put forward, viz. that the disputed place was traditionally (since before the Muslim period) venerated as Rama�s birthplace, that a Rama temple had stood on it, and that this temple was destroyed to make way for the Babri Masjid.  All the material collected goes to confirm this one hypothesis.  Not a single piece of documentary or archaeological evidence contradicts it. The contrast with the anti-Janmabhoomi polemists is striking they have so far not produced any document that positively indicates a different scenario from the one upheld by the VHP scholars.  The BMAC effort has been only. negative, viz. trying to pick holes in the pro-temple evidence, but the VHP has posited its own hypothesis that takes care of all the relevant data.

2) Temple foundations.  Archaeological findings in Prof. B.B. Lal�s excavation campaign Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites 1975-80 and more recent ones as well as a large number of documents written in tempore non suspecto confirm the hypothesis.  Findings of burnt-brick pillar-bases dated to the 11th century in trenches a few metres from the disputed structure, prove that a pillared building stood in alignment with, and on the same foundations system as the Babri Masjid.  The written documents do not include an eye-witness account of the temple destruction, the way we have eye-witness accounts of the destruction of many other temples.  But then, a wealth of documents, written from the 17th century onwards, by European traveller,-, and by local Muslims, confirm unanimously that the Babri Masjid was considered to have been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple.  These witnesses also describe first-hand how the place was revered by the Hindus as Rama�s birthsite, and that Hindus always came back to worship as closely as possible to the original temple site: they would not reasonably have done this except in continuation of a tradition dating back to before the Babri Masjid.

3) The single hypothesis is consistent with known patterns.  No ad hoc hypotheses are needed to support the main hypothesis, no unusual scenarios have to be invented, no unusual motives have to be attributed to the people involved, no conspiracy theory has to be conjured up.  The VHP hypothesis merely says that well-established general patterns of Hindu and Muslim behaviour apply to the specific case under consideration.  Among these are to be noted:

Firstly, the fact that a temple stood on the now-disputed site, which is a hilltop overlooking Ayodhya, is in perfect conformity with a world-wide practice of putting important buildings, like castles and temples, on the topographical place of honour.  By contrast, the hypothesis that the Babri Masjid had been built on an empty spot presupposes an abnormal course of events, viz. that the people of the temple city Ayodhya had left the place of honour empty.

Secondly, the demolition of Hindu temples and their forcible replacement by mosques has been a very persistent behaviour pattern of the Muslim conquerors.  These temple demolitions were consistent with the persecution of �unbelief� carried out by Islamic rulers from Mohammed bin Qasim (who conquered Sindh in 712) to Aurangzeb (the last great Moghul, d. 1707), and more recently in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir.  Though there is no lack of negationists who try to deny or conceal it, the historical record bears out Will Durant�s assessment that �the Mohammedan conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history�. It is safe to affirm that the majority of pre-1707 mosques in India has been built in forcible replacement of Hindu temples.  Outside India, the Islamic take-over of the most sacred sites of other religions was equally systematic, e.g. the Ka�aba in Mecca, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Aya Sophia in Istambul, the Buddhist monastery in Bukhara etc.

Thirdly, the fact that Hindu temple materials (14 black-stone sculptured pillars) have been used in the Babri Masjid is not an unusual feature requiring a special explanation; on the contrary, it was a fairly common practice meant as a visual display of the victory of Islam over infidelity.  It was done in many mosques that have forcibly replaced temples, e.g. the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi (in which a part of the Kashi Vishvanath temple is still visible), the Adhai-Din-ka-Jhonpra mosque in Ajmer, the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi, or, outside India, the Jama Masjid of Damascus (which was a Christian cathedral).

Fourthly, the fact that Hindus used to keep on revering sacred sites even after mosques had been built on them, is attested by foreigners like Niccolo Manucci in the 17th and Alexander Cunningham in the 19th century. By contrast, the hypothesis that Hindus started laying an arbitrary claim on a place firmly occupied by the Muslims (so that they courted repression for no reason at all), is pretty fantastic and without parallel.

11.5. No direct evidence

The VHP evidence bundle also contained a large number of quotes from ancient literature to prove that the Rama cult is not a recent development, and that the status of Ayodhya as a sacred city has been uninterrupted since at least 2000 years.  The one thing that is missing is the ultimate clinching evidence: a contemporary description of the forcible replacement of the temple with the mosque.  But even in the absence of this item of primary evidence, the amount of secondary evidence is so overwhelming, coherent and uncontradicted, that in another, less contentious historical search, it would be considered conclusive.

It may be recalled that, in the course of the public debate on the opinion pages of the newspapers, the pro-BMAC polemists had at first demanded non-British evidence, because the whole Janmabhoomi tradition was merely a British concoction.  In A. G. Noorani�s categorical words: �The myth is a 19th-century creation by the British.�

Next, they demanded pre-19th-century evidence, because Hindus and Muslims had already �interiorized the British propaganda� early in that century, as is clear from a number of writings by local Muslims, brought to light by Prof. Harsh Narain.  Thus, Mirza Jan, a Muslim militant who participated in an attempt to wrest from the Hindus another sacred site in Ayodhya, the Hanumangarhi, wrote in 1856 that �a lofty mosque has been built by badshah Babar� on �the original birthplace of Rama�, in application of the rule that �where there was a big temple, a big mosque was constructed, and where there was a small temple, a small mosque was constructed�. Therefore, Muslim leader Mohammed Abdul Rahim Qureishi has asked the pro-Janmabhoomi side �to produce any historical evidence, not only independent of the British sources but also of the period prior to the advent of the 19th century�.

But this type of evidence was also produced: most publicly the Austrian Jesuit Joseph Tieffenthaler�s 1767 account, presented by Mr. Abhas Kumar Chatterjee in Indian Express.  Tieffenthaler describes how Hindus celebrated Ram Navami (commemorating Rama�s birth) just outside the Babri Masjid, and recounts the local tradition that the mosque was built in forcible replacement of Rama�s birthplace temple.

It was also pointed out that the Muslim writer Mirza Jan, already mentioned, had given an extensive quotation from an (otherwise unknown) letter by a daughter of Aurangzeb�s son and successor, Bahadur Shah.  He quotes her as writing in about 1710 that the temples on the sacred sites of Shiva, Krishna and Rama (including �Sita�s kitchen�, i.e. part of the Ramkot complex) �were all demolished for the strength of Islam, and at all these places mosques have been constructed�.  She exhorted the Muslims to assert their presence at these mosques and not to give in to Hindu compromise proposals.

Furthermore, a letter dated 1735 by a Faizabad qazi (judge) was shown, describing Hindu-Muslim riots in Ayodhya over �the Masjid built by the emperor of Delhi�, i.e. either a pre-Moghul sultan or Moghul dynasty founder Babar (Aurangzeb moved the Moghul capital from Delhi/Agra to the Dekkhan).  This is only a secondary indication for the actual temple destruction, but it is first-hand evidence for the existence of the Hindu claim on the Babri Masjid site well before the 19th century.  Only when this type of evidence was shown, did the pro-BMAC polemists move on to demand strictly contemporary evidence.

About this demand for eye-witness accounts, Arun Shourie has remarked: �Today a contemporary account is being demanded in the case of the Babri Masjid.  Are those who make this demand prepared to accept this as the criterion - that if a contemporary account exists of the destruction of a temple for constructing a mosque, the case is made?� Shourie goes on to quote from Aurangzeb�s court chronicles: �News came to Court that in accordance with the Emperor�s command his officers had demolished the temple of Vishvanath at Benares (2/9/1669)� In this month of Ramzan, the religious-minded Emperor ordered the demolition of the temple at Mathura� In a short time by the great exertions of his officers the destruction of this strong centre of infidelity was accomplished... A grand mosque was built on its site... (January 1670)� These accounts are as contemporary as you can get.

Shourie concludes: �If the fact that a contemporary account of the temple at Ayodhya is not available leaves the matter unsettled, does the fact that contemporary accounts are available for the temples at Kashi, Mathura, Pandharpur and a host of other places settle the matter?  One has only to ask the question to know that the �experts� and �intellectuals� will immediately ask for something else.�

11.6. The anti-temple evidence

The BMAC presented a pile of some eighty documents, which can be divided into three groups: legal documents, statements of opinion, and historical documents.

The largest group consists of court documents, from court disputes over the Rama-Janmabhoomi and other contentious places in Ayodhya, most of them from the British period, a few from after independence.  However, what these court documents prove is:

Firstly, that the Hindus kept on claiming the site in principle, even if for the time being they were willing to settle for a licence to worship on a platform just outside the contentious building;

Secondly, that the Muslim pleas always focused, not on questioning the temple destruction tradition, but on the accomplished fact that they had owned the place for centuries, long enough to create an ownership title no matter how and from whom they had acquired it;

And thirdly, that the British rulers did not want any raking-up of old quarrels, and therefore upheld the status-quo, but without questioning the common belief that the Masjid had replaced a Hindu temple.

British judges have explicitly not subscribed to the thesis, now defended by the BMAC and the BMMCC, that there had never been a Hindu temple on the contentious spot.  On the contrary, in his verdict in 1886 a British judge observed: �It is unfortunate that a mosque should have been built on land held specially sacred by the Hindus, but as that happened 356 years ago, it is now too late to remedy the grievance.� So, the court verdicts that upheld the Muslim claim to the site (and have been cited by the BM-AC scholars to this effect), by no means imply that the judges doubted the contention that a temple had been demolished to make way for this mosque.  All the British sources, such as Edward Balfour in 1858 and Archaeological Survey of India�s field explorer A. Fuhrer in 1891, confirm the tradition that the Babri Masjid had replaced a Rama temple.

One British source, Francis Buchanan�s survey (written in 1810 and edited by Montgomery Martin in 1838), has been quoted by pro-BMAC historians (who have otherwise dismissed British testimonies as �prejudiced�, �part of a British tactic to foment communalism� etc.) as calling the tradition of the Rama-Janmabhoomi temple destruction �very ill-founded�. However, Buchanan did not denounce as ill-founded �the temple-destruction theory�, as the BMAC historians claim, but only referred to the fact that �the destruction is very generally attributed by the Hindus to the furious zeal of Aurangzeb�, which allegation was misdirected: as proof for Aurangzeb�s non-involvement Buchanan cites the inscription attributing the mosque to Babar. As the last large-scale temple-destroyer, Aurangzeb had become the proverbial representative of the old Islamic tradition of iconoclasm, which had already destroyed thousands of temples before his own time.

Buchanan opines that Babar had built the mosque not on empty land, but on the site of the Ramkot �castle�, which to him may well have been the very castle in which Rama himself had lived.  This claim only differs from the local tradition and the VHP position by being even bolder.  According to him, the black-stone pillars (with Hindu sculptures defaced by �the bigot� Babar) incorporated in the Masjid had been �taken from the ruins of the palace�, and at any rate from �a Hindu building�.  Obviously, the site was considered by the devotees as Rama�s court, originally a castle and only later a temple.

At any rate, the quarrel over whether the Babri Masjid replaced a �castle� or a �temple� is a false problem, considering Rama�s double-role as a God-King.  Buchanan gives no facts supporting an alternative origin for the Babri Masjid, and upholds the essence of the local tradition, viz. that the Masjid has replaced a Hindu building. The British judges have consistently accepted the view of the British surveyors and scholars.

The second largest group of BMAC documents consisted of book excerpts and newspaper articles, mere statements of opinion.  They give the well-known or at least predictable opinions of politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru and Ramaswamy Naicker, of secularist journalists like Arvind N. Das and Praful Bidwai, of Marxist intellectuals like the JNU historians and Prof. R.S. Sharma (who was invited to lead the BMAC team only after this first round).  In this collection of opinions, essentially four points have been argued:

Firstly, Rama was not a historical character;

Secondly, Rama may have been a historical character, but Ayodhya is not his real birthplace;

Thirdly, Rama worship in Ayodhya is fairly recent, and hardly existed prior to the period when the Babri Masjid was built;

Fourthly, the Babri Masjid was not built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple.

However, the cited opinions on each of these four points are not even convergent or in mutual agreement.  For instance, several authors say that the Babri Masjid was built on empty land; others say it replaced a �Buddhist stupa�; yet others say it replaced a Jaina temple, or a Shaiva temple, or a secular building.  About Rama�s birthplace, one source cited says Rama was born in Nepal; another says it was in Afghanistan; yet another says it was in Ayodhya, but on a different spot; one writer says that Rama was in fact a pharaoh of Egypt. in all, the BMAC has given �proof� that Rama was born at 8 different places.

Methodologically speaking, these documents do not form a body of evidence supporting one hypothesis.  The BMAC has merely collected all kinds of opinions which happen to be in conflict with the thesis that the Masjid replaced a Rama temple, without minding that these opinions are also in conflict with each other.  Of course, this collection of contemporary, often politically motivated articles and statements does not have any proof value.  At best, some of the names under the articles could constitute an �argument of authority�, but even that is diluted by their juxtaposition with political agitators and plain cranks.  More than an argumentation, this presentation of many conflicting opinions is a dispersionary tactic to keep the opposing party busy with refuting the weirdest viewpoints.

An important feature of the collected pro-BMAC opinions is that they have in fact limited themselves to an attempt to discredit the evidence cited in favour of the Rama-Janmabhoomi tradition.  They have not given any evidence (valid or otherwise) at all for an alternative scenario that explains the presence of the Babri Masjid and the well-attested Hindu opposition against it.  They have tried to explain away the Janmabhoomi tradition by means of a conspiracy theory: as the outcome of a 19th century rumour campaign by the British rulers, out to �divide and rule�. In fact, such a rumour campaign is totally unheard of in the well-documented history of British India, and would have left testimonies which the pro-BMAC historians have not been able to produce. It is an ad hoc hypothesis based on nothing but the fond belief that India�s �communal problem� is a British creation and not the necessary result of any religious doctrine of hostility towards alternative forms of worship.

The only seemingly valid point scored by some of the BMAC sympathizers cited in the BMAC evidence bundle, is the argumentum e silentio that the temple destruction is not mentioned in near-contemporary sources, notably Abul Fazl�s Ain-i-Akbari and the poems of Tulsidas.  However, neither Abul Fazl nor Tulsidas have written catalogues of demolished temples or even just devoted some pointed attention to the buildings of the cities mentioned in their works: they are simply not the sources that are supposed to carry the required information.  Also, they are not really contemporary with Babar, but with his grandson Akbar (around 1600 A.D.). For them too, the temple destruction was history, and the Babri Masjid just one of the thousands of mosques built on demolished Hindu temples.

The third part of the evidence bundle for the Babri Masjid side, is the historical evidence properly speaking.  It consists of three pieces.

One is the text of the inscriptions on the Babri Masjid and its gate, declaring that the mosque was built in 1528 by Mir Baqi, who worked under Babar�s command.  Of course the Hindu side has no quarrel with that: the Babri Masjid was built, so it must have been built by someone.  However, in spite of the inscription, the identity of the Masjid�s builder happens to be disputable.  It has been argued (by Sushil Srivastava and R. Nath, independently) that, judging from the architecture, the mosque must have been built during the preceding Sultanate period.  Sushil Srivastava even claims that the inscription attributing the Masjid to Babar (or at least to his lieutenant Mir Baqi), is a 19th-century forgery. At any rate, the scenario that it was built under Babar is not in conflict with the thesis that it was built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple.  This dispute is not about who built the mosque, but about what preceded the mosque.

The second piece is Babar�s memoirs.  In it, no mention is made of a temple demolition in Ayodhya.  Unfortunately, the pages for the months when he must have been in Ayodhya and perhaps also ordered the demolition of a Hindu temple, are missing from the manuscripts.  So we simply do not have Babar�s own report on this matter.  And if Sushil Srivastava and R. Nath are right, Babar was not the builder and his testimony is irrelevant, except insofar as it might explain why the already existing mosque got attributed to him.  For instance, the Afghan rulers (against whom the invader Babar fought) or the city�s inhabitants may have defended Ayodhya from the Ramkot hill, so that the existing mosque got damaged in the fighting (Babar was the first one in India to use cannon), and was subsequently rebuilt by Babar�s men.  But all this will remain speculation, because the relevant part of Babar�s report is missing.

The third piece of BMAC evidence is Babar�s testament, in which he advises his son Humayun to practise tolerance, to respect Hindu temples, and not to kill cows.  This statement of religious tolerance is very nice, but unfortunately it has amply been proven to be a forgery. It is quite bizarre that scholars trying to prove a point discredit their own case by using a proven forgery without any comment.

And even if Babar�s testament had been genuine, it would only prove that at the end of his life, Babar had got tired of the jihad which he had been waging (on top of an inter-Muslim war), or that he had come to realize that a prosperous kingdom would be better served by religious amity than by the intolerance of which he himself had given sufficient proof during his life.  Babar�s emphatical concern for tolerance would certainly not prove that tolerance had been his way all through his life.

There are Hindu temple materials in mosques attributed to Babar in Sambhal (replacing a Vishnu temple, and dated by archaeologists to the Sultanate period, just like the Ayodhya �Babri� Masjid) and Pilakhana.  Local tradition affirms that the Babri Masjids in Palam, Sonipat, Rohtak, Panipat, and Sirsa have replaced Brahminical or Jain temples.  The contemporary Tarikh-i-Babari describes how Babar�s troops �demolished many Hindu temples at Chanderi� when they occupied it.  Some tough jihad rhetoric has been preserved from Babar�s war against the Rajputs, such as the quatrain:

�For Islam�s sake, I wandered in the wild,
prepared for war with unbelievers and Hindus,
 resolved myself to meet a martyr�s death.
Thanks be to Allah!  A ghazi I became.�

It is quite plain that Babar, even when he had to fight fellow Muslims (the Afghan Lodi dynasty), never lost sight of his duty of waging war against the infidels.

So, these three documents do not prove that the Babri Masjid was built on something else than a Rama temple.  The two other groups of documents are not even an attempt to give documentary or archaeological evidence, merely a collection of sympathizing statements of opinion.  What is worse, the whole collection makes one wonder whether the BMAC experts had read it at all: not only are many of the documents unconvincing or beside the point, but some even support the VHP case.

Thus, a court ruling of 1951 cites testimony of local Muslims that the mosque had not been used since 1936, which means that in 1949 the Hindus took over an unused building - hardly worth the current Babri Masjid movement with its cries of �Islam in danger!� (or its newer version, �Secularism in danger!�) and its hundreds of riot victims.  On 3 March 1951, the Civil Judge of Faizabad observed: �it further appears from a number of affidavits of certain Muslim residents of Ayodhya that at least from 1936 onwards the Muslims have neither used the site as a mosque nor offered prayers there... Nothing has been pointed to discredit these affidavits.� Of course, even a judge may be misinformed on occasion; but at least, this is the official view, enunciated by a Court of Law constituted under India�s democratic legal system.  In particular, those who have been lecturing the Hindu movement on �abiding by the Constitution� and �respecting Court verdicts� ought to show some respect for this Court verdict.

Another court document shows that the ongoing court dispute (which is the only legal obstacle to the replacement of the present structure with a proper temple) was filed well past the legal time limit.  In any case, while the BMAC wants to rule out the British Gazetteers as evidence (because they confirm that the Babri Masjid had replaced a temple), it cites court documents which reproduce excerpts from the Gazetteers as evidence and declare in so many words that Gazetteers are admissible as evidence.  A number of court rulings record that Hindus relentlessly kept on claiming the site, �most sacred� to them, and made do with as near a site as possible under prevalent power equations: this refutes the BMAC claim that the Rama-Janmabhoomi tradition is a recent invention for political purposes, whether colonial �divide and rule� or Hindu �communalism�.

The leading political analyst Arun Shourie has commented: �On reading the papers the BMAC had filed as �evidence�, I could only conclude, therefore, that either its leaders had not read the papers themselves, or that they had no case and had just tried to over-awe or confuse the government etc. by dumping a huge miscellaneous heap.�

When asked in public forums about the results of the scholars� debate, both Prof. Irfan Habib (historian at Aligarh Muslim University) and Subodh Kant Sahay (who was the Home Minister at the time of the debate) have declared that �the VHP has run away from the debate�.  Leading newspapers have refused to publish denials of this allegations In fact, this unfounded allegation provides an interesting illustration of the psychology of lies.  Liars are often not very creative, and they tend to say things that are partly inspired on the truth.  Thus, Prof. Habib and Mr. Sahay are perfectly right in alleging that the debate has ended because one of the parties has �run away from the debate�: to that extent, their version is transparent of the truth.  Only, it is not the VHP but the BMAC which has turned its back on the debate.

11.7. The anti-temple debating tactics

Meanwhile, the actual course of the debate both in the official forum and in the media could have suggested some conclusions even to non-historians (like the Supreme Court judges who refused to pronounce an opinion on it in 1994).  The debate has not genuinely altered the old consensus, but it has been an interesting case-study in manipulation by unscrupled academics.  That, at least, seems to be a fair description of learned publications advertising themselves as �objective� studies of the controversy, but systematically concealing the arguments put forth by one of the parties.

The VHP has published its argumentation including a detailed refutation of the Babri Masjid Action Committee�s arguments, and like-minded scholars have published detailed presentations of specific types of evidence (e.g. Prof. Harsh Narain and Prof. R. Nath; note how the VHP, lacking a think-tank of its own, was dependent on the help of people with no prior connection to it).  By contrast, the BMAC, which had the support of the Indian Council of Historical Research led by Aligarh historian Prof. Irfan Habib and of a team of scholars led by Prof. R.S. Sharma, has not felt sufficiently satisfied with its own performance in the official debate to publish its argumentation.  Its numerous supporters have chosen not to refer to the debate at all and to keep the argumentation of their serious opponents out of view.

Instead, these top academics have chosen the poorest Hindutva pamphlettists as their opponents and made some, fun of cranky but irrelevant claims which go around in the semi-literate fringe of the Hindu movement.  One point they like to highlight is the spurious claim that on 22 December 1949, the idols �miraculously appeared� in the disputed building.  I do not know of anyone who would affirm that except tongue in cheek, but given that placing the idols could be construed as a criminal offence, it has nonetheless been affirmed - as an obvious ad hoc fable for purposes of self-exculpation.  But note that this miracle story has long gone out of fashion: in an interview in the New York Times, �Abbot Ram Chander Das Paramahams of an Ayodhya akhara declared openly that he was the one who had put the image inside the mosque.�

Another fairly common tactic was to lump the temple argumentation with the fringe school led by P.N. Oak, which holds that every indo-Muslim building (e.g. the Taj Mahal) was in fact a Hindu temple, not demolished but only transformed.  However, this school happened to have aligned itself with the eminent historians against the VHP.  Oak himself explained that the Babri Masjid itself was built by Hindus as a temple, that �Babar had nothing to do with the Babri Masjid�, and that neither the Moghul nor any other Muslim ruler had demolished a Hindu temple at the site. Oak�s version of history is of a kind with the contrived scenarios thought up by the eminent historians.

Another spokesman of this school, Jeevan Kulkarni from Bombay, claimed that the Babri Masjid was a Hindu temple built by Hindus before the Muslim conquest.  He even approached the Supreme Court to obtain permission to prove his point by means of thermo-luminescence and other advanced archaeological techniques, as well as an injunction to solve the dispute by preserving the building (as Muslims demand, in the �mistaken� belief that the building was built as a mosque) but allotting it to the Hindus to serve as the �restored�  Rama temple which it was meant to be when it was built.  Again, this school was wrongly identified with the VHP position.

A similar tactic was to associate the Ayodhya evidence with the eccentric theory of the non-historian Bal Gangadhar Tilak, later adapted by the non-historian Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar in his young days, that the Aryans came from the Arctic (Tilak�s attempt to harmonize the Aryan invasion theory with traditional Vedic chronology) or that India itself had been in the Arctic zone then (Golwalkar�s attempt to harmonize Tilak with Aryan indigenousness). These ideas are simply unrelated to the more recent history of Hindu-Muslim conflict, and are only brought into the discussion in order to strengthen the contrast between Hindu amateurishness and secularist professionalism: �After R.C. Majumdar, the communal interpretation has been relegated to the world of school-level textbooks, made-easies, popular magazines, newspapers and comic strips�, - meaning that the positions of prestige had been captured by India�s secularists who imposed denial of Hindu-Muslim conflict as the orthodox explanation. This is an argument not of authority but of status.

This way, India�s topmost academics and journalists have avoided confronting the real evidence and concentrated on attacking straw men instead.  It is clearly an application of Mao Zedong�s dictum: �Attack where the enemy is weak, retreat where the enemy is strong.� That may be a legitimate principle in warfare, but in scholarship the goal is not to score points but to establish the truth.

11.8. More on the British concoction hypothesis

The eminent JNU historians have claimed that �it is in the nineteenth century that the story circulates and enters official records.  These records were then cited by others as valid historical evidence on the issue.� A few years earlier, they were still far more circumspect before making this assertion. in the early days of the Ayodhya dispute, in a letter to the Times of India, a group of JNU academics wrote: �it would be worth enquiring whether there is reliable historical evidence of a period prior to nineteenth century for this association of a precise location with the birthplace of Rama.�

Lawyer A.G. Noorani comments on the letter: �They were absolutely right.  The myth is a nineteenth century creation by the British.� Note however that in their 1986 letter, the JNU historians had only suggested this in question format, but later many of them, like Noorani in this passage, have asserted it quite affirmatively.

Noorani then quotes a letter by Indrajit Dutta and nine others: �The belief that the disputed place of worship in Ayodhya is a mosque built after destroying a temple consecrating Rama�s birthplace originates in the first half of the 19th century.  In 1813 John Leyden, a British historian, published his Memoirs of Zehir-ed-din, Muhammad Babar, Emperor of Hindustan (A translation of Babar�s memoirs in Persian).  In it Leyden had contended that Babar had passed through Ayodhya in March 1528 during his campaign against the Pathans.  This �historical evidence� of Babar�s presence in the area was destroyed by later British authorities to propagate the belief that the �anti-Hindu� Babar had destroyed the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple and got a mosque built on the spot - though Leyden�s work makes no mention of it.  Sushil Srivastava of the Department of Medieval and Modern History, University of Allahabad, has worked extensively on the history of Avadh.  He substantiates his findings to show how the British authorities, specifically Colonel Sleeman, then resident of Lucknow, anxious to justify the annexation of Avadh, exploited. this controversy superbly at a time when rumblings of the 1857 mutiny were ominous.�

Remark the illogical claim that the British �destroyed� the document cited by Leyden to substantiate his hypothesis (and the local tradition) that Babar had passed through the town of Ayodhya, when that very document and that very hypothesis would support the theory that Babar destroyed a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, precisely the theory which the ten signatories try to �unmask� as a British concoction.  The claim that the British deliberately �destroyed� this or any other historical evidence is also unsupported by any evidence.

This is all the more serious considering the fact that the British archives provide a much more complete testimony of the British policies than anything from the earlier periods, and considering the ten signatories� own contention that their friend Sushil Srivastava has made a detailed study of the British machinations in Avadh.  There is little doubt that the British resident was implementing policies designed to bring Avadh under British control, but what is very much in doubt (at any rate totally unsubstantiated) is the claim that he used temple history concoctions to that end.

There is actually some evidence to the opposite effect.  P. Carnegy wrote in 1970 that up to 1855 both Hindus and Muslims worshipped at the mosque, which led to a lot of friction, until the British separated them: �It is said that up to that time [viz. the Hindu-Muslim clashes in the 1850s] the Hindus and Mohamedans alike used to worship in the mosque-temple.  Since the British rule a railing has been put up to prevent dispute, within which, in the mosque the Mohamedans pray, while outside the fence the Hindus have raised a platform on which they make their offerings.� As Peter Van der Veer comments on Carnegy�s testimony, against the British concoction hypothesis: �The suggestion that the local tradition is entirely invented by the British thus seems disingenuous.�

To quote Van der Veer in full: �The implication here is that the British found the �facts� that fitted their master narrative of the perpetual hostility between Hindus and Muslims. (�) One of the problems with the above argument is that the British were not very interested in the Hindu history of Ayodhya.  The most important British archaeologist of India in the nineteenth century was Alexander Cunningham.  He did come to Ayodhya, not to dig up evidence of Hindu-Muslim enmity but to look for the Buddhist monuments of Saketa/ Ayodhya - monuments that nobody locally was interested in, then or now.  Patrick Carnegy, the commissioner, argued that the pillars of the mosque - which are now ascribed to a Hindu temple by [B.B.] Lal and others - strongly resemble Buddhist pillars, although he did accept the local tradition that Babar built his mosque on the �birthplace� temple.  However, he also accepted the local tradition that Hindus and Muslims used to worship together in this mosque-temple until the disturbances of 1855.  The suggestion that the local tradition is entirely invented by the British thus seems disingenuous.�

Many 19th-century scholars had a strong pro-Buddhist bias in their India studies (setting a trend which continues till today), and the first Ayodhya surveyors display the same intellectual fashion, rather than the politically more useful interest in Hindu-Muslim friction.  The dozens of scholars who have floated the British concoction hypothesis are faced with a total absence of 19th-century data supporting it.

Patrick Carnegy, the first British commissioner in Faizabad and still very close in time to the episode of communal violence (1852-57) and the British take-over after the Mutiny (1857-58), would have emphasized Hindu-Muslim conflict if the British concoction hypothesis had been true.  Instead, he highlights the relative Hindu-Muslim harmony which existed shortly before the time of  the British take-over.

This moment of harmony may well have been exceptional and may have to be explained by the Muslim rulers� need to strengthen their position against British ambitions.  But at any rate it was a fact which the British would not have highlighted if they had wanted to base their divide-and-rule policy on false history of Hindu-Muslim conflict.  Moreover, if they had wanted to use historical cases of Hindu-Muslim tension to foment more such tension in their own day;  they could have invoked numerous certified instances rather than having to invent any.

11.9. A