digging deep

Why a court ordered the new National Museum head to be replaced on a 2003 Ayodhya excavation

The Allahabad High Court had asked the ASI to report whether there had been a temple below the Babri Masjid. Mani was replaced as team leader in two months.

The government on Monday appointed retired Archaeological Survey of India official BR Mani as Director General of the National Museum in Delhi. The move comes a year after Mani retired as the Additional Director General of the ASI.

As newspapers reported almost immediately, one of the significant points of Mani’s career was his involvement with the ASI excavations mandated by the Allahabad High Court as it heard the case against the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, by volunteers mobilised by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The court in its hearings of the case had ordered the ASI on March 5, 2003, to inform the bench within a month whether the Babri Masjid was built on the remains of an older Hindu structure.

Mani initially led the excavation team. He was superintending archaeologist of the team of 14 excavators, which began work on March 11. But a little over two months after the digging began, the court ordered him to be replaced. On May 22, Mani was replaced by another ASI archaeologist, Hari Manjhi. Mani continued to work with the team and he is even one of the signatories of the final report submitted by the ASI.

So why was he replaced?

A job concluded

In an interview to the Indian Express on Monday, Mani claimed that he was removed because he had said that there was no need to dig any further.

“I was replaced because I refused to dig any further, which the court wanted,” Mani said. “I felt there was no need to dig any further. So they said the leader of the team has to be changed.”

Observers at the site of the excavations between March and August 2003 disagree with Mani’s interpretation.

Archaeologist Supriya Varma was one of several witnesses permitted by the court to keep an eye on the excavation process. The reason for Mani’s removal was not that he had refused to dig deeper, she said. It was because of complaints about the nature of work that were forwarded to the court.

“The excavation team had found animal bones and glazed pottery, which is associated with Muslim inhabitations,” Varma said. “Mani had instructed the labourers to throw away all bones and pottery.”

Although there were several others who had raised concerns during the excavations, ultimately only Varma and fellow archaeologist Jaya Menon filed written complaints with the court about the process of Mani’s work. These were the basis on which the court ordered him to be replaced.

Not an individual problem

It was not just Mani observers had issues with. It was also the entire framing of the work. For one, the court had mandated that the excavations be completed in a month. The ASI team, between Mani and Manjhi, completed it in six. Even this, Varma said, was at too hurried a pace for any archaeological excavation.

“Excavation is a slow and careful procedure,” Varma said. “To begin with this was an unreasonable request.”

For another, it was not as if Mani was the only one whose work was disputed. His successor Manjhi was also criticised for following a similar process. The final ASI report on the excavations at Ayodhya was intensely disputed by archaeologists and historians who had observed the process.

Syed Ali Nadeem Rizvi, a historian at the Aligarh Muslim University, was another observer permitted to oversee the excavations.

“This was an institutional error,” Rizvi said. “It was not BR Mani as an individual at fault. He was replaced by another officer with the same brief. If you compare Mani’s early book, Delhi on the Threshold of History, that is quite upright and it notes all the facts. But in Ayodhya, he laid aside all principles of archaeology and excavated in an inspired way.”

A contentious history

This dispute itself follows a long history of academic debate about excavations at Ayodhya. Well before karsevaks destroyed the masjid, there was no academic consensus on how to interpret that work.

In 1993, shortly after the demolition, archaeologists Dhaneshwar Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar wrote a seminal essay on the issue, titled Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition. They systematically laid out the issues with an earlier ASI excavation from the 1970s and how it had misinterpreted data by identifying pillars at different layers as belonging to a single one. These pillars were the foundation of the Hindu claim that a temple had been demolished to make way for the Babri masjid.

The Allahabad High Court itself in a two to one finding agreed that there had indeed been a temple at the site before a mosque replaced it. In this, it relied heavily on the ASI’s report.

“Everywhere there is an understanding that archaeology is a scientific discipline,” Varma said. “We might use scientific tools, but what people do not understand is that excavation is an act of interpretation.”

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