What It’s Like To Be An Indian Archaeologist Who Refuses To Conform

Indian archaeologist Muhammed K K Karinkam
  • Leading Indian archaeologist Dr Muhammed K K enlightens us on a whole host of subjects, ranging from how to preserve Indian heritage, to the challenge of facing up to the left-wing bias in Indian universities, to that one time when a young student of his impressed former United States president Barack Obama.

    Excerpts from the interview:

The Indian history establishment in India has predominantly had a left-wing bias. Naturally, anyone who wishes to earnestly learn the ropes of this stimulating field and make breakthrough discoveries, finds herself facing a monumental challenge – walk the line of the establishment, or follow the facts where they lead you.

Indian archaeologist Dr Muhammed K K found this out the hard way. He learnt that if you were not a faithful follower of a particular camp, you would be hounded and attacked for simply charting an independent path.

In his long and illustrious career, during which time he held such key roles as regional director (north) of the Archaeological Survey of India and was involved in important discoveries like that of Akbar’s Ibadat Khana, Dr Muhammed has been committed to his work and work alone. Along the way, he has been part of the much-heated Ayodhya controversy for his work and rubbed shoulders with dacoits and managed to bring out in them a love for the country’s heritage.

Such has been the life and career of this truly independent archaeologist. We had the good fortune of speaking to him on a whole host of subjects, ranging from how to preserve Indian heritage, to the challenge of facing up to the left-wing bias in Indian universities, to that one time when a young student of his impressed former United States president Barack Obama. Excerpts from the interview:

Your career in archaeology is one filled with adventure and accomplishment. Your professional life captures the challenges that an Indian archaeologist faces. And you always went the extra mile. How did it all begin?

It all began in class nine when I read Discovery of India. Of course, I read the Malayalam translation, published by Mathrubhumi then. It made me interested in history. Equally inspiring for me as a boy was Glimpses of World History.

Another inspiring book that ignited my passion for history was a Malayalam-language book by one Balakrishnan Pillai, called Through the Heart of India, where I read about Nalanda. Reading these books, I decided to become a historian.

And you became an archaeologist?

I wanted to pursue my studies in history near Delhi or Agra. Fortunately, I got admission into Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which was close to both Delhi and Agra. So I went there. I finished my post-graduation studies and applied to become a research scholar. Then I saw the discrimination. Admission was given to a student who got 16 marks lesser than me in MA. The reason was that I was not a camp follower of the man who was controlling the admissions there – the power centre, professor Irfan Habib. However, this became a blessing in disguise for me. I enrolled in a course in post-graduate diploma in archaeology by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This was my dream career. I would have ended up merely as a professor teaching inside closed walls. But here, I was into the heart of the field – searching and discovering history. This happened in the year 1976-77.

After finishing my course in archaeology, I got a job in AMU as a technical assistant and subsequently, assistant archaeologist, when professor Nizami had taken charge as the head of the department. Had Habib continued as the head, I would not have secured this posting. I used to call it “the return of the native”.

In Aligarh, I worked under professor R C Gaur and excavated the famous Ibadat Khana – from where Akbar proclaimed his ‘Din-i Ilahi’, and a Christian chapel in North India.

I identified and established the identity of Ibadat Khana with the help of a painting that was made during the period of Akbar under his personal supervision – depicting him as having a discussion with Christian priests from Europe.

A painting depicting the scenes of the Ibadat Khana A painting depicting the scenes of the Ibadat Khana

When Habib came, he was not pleased with the discovery. He tried his best to scuttle it and discredit it. He particularly targeted me. However, the truth prevailed in the end. Because the structure I had excavated from the womb of the earth and the painting were so similar. Yet, just because of prejudice, Dr Habib refused to acknowledge the discovery and raised doubts. He had to at last concede that the discovery was indeed Ibadat Khana. But this was the general attitude. If you’re not their bonded intellectual and camp follower, then you will be hounded and attacked.

And how did you get into the Ayodhya controversy?

When excavation was undertaken at Ayodhya by Dr B B Lal, I was the only Muslim archaeologist in the team. At that time, these controversies were not there. When the controversy came up, the JNU historians suppressed some of our crucial discoveries. At the time, I was posted in Chennai as Deputy Superintendent of Archaeology. As part of the team, I know that we did indeed discover the remnants of the pillar bases, which was what was contested by the left historians. I told Iravatham Mahadevan about our discovery. Unlike Hindu and Marxist fundamentalists of Aligarh and JNU, he was a liberal man. He was also against the demolition of the mosque for righting a historical wrong. He also strongly felt that I should disclose this fact to the public. However, the left historians and a section of the media played with facts, suppressing them and spreading the false notion that there was nothing under the Babri. Had they acknowledged the truth then, a lot of unpleasant events would not have happened.

In fact, I know that many Muslim groups were willing to accept the truth, honour the sentiments of the fraternal Hindu community and work out a compromise. But the left historians and a section of the media thwarted it. So I wrote right then to the media, stating the facts. As a government servant, one should have obtained the permission to write to the media. But the government would not give me permission. Anyhow, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Indian Express, disclosing the facts. Then, explanation was sought by the department about my action. Fortunately, I was not suspended, but I was transferred from the eastern coast to the western one. It was to Goa. Then, in 1997, I was transferred to Bihar.

So, from Bihar, your work in reconstruction and conservation of ancient monuments started?

Yes. In fact, in Bihar, I even organised a ‘kar seva’.

Kar seva?

Yes. Kar seva. In Bihar, we were constructing a protective wall around the excavated structures at Kumrahar – the ancient capital of Chandragupta and Ashoka. We needed a wall around the excavation site, which was very important. However, we had a problem from some anti-social elements, and the lower-level bureaucracy was also not very helpful then. Whenever we built the wall, the very next day the miscreants would destroy it. So I decided to counter it by bringing together famous historians and high officials and making them participate in kar seva in constructing a wall. This was flashed in the state media. The local police and administration became duty-bound to protect it. In this endeavour, I was able to bring together historian R S Sharma as well as archaeologist-historian B P Sinha. They were both on the opposite sides of the divide in the Ayodhya issue, but here they came together for the common cause of national history and preservation of our heritage.

So, from Bihar onwards, you have been working with different groups outside the mainstream society while preserving the monuments?

Oh, yes! I have interacted with Naxalites, dacoits, petty criminals. But in all these cases, I have been able to get their cooperation in preserving the monuments once they learnt about the importance of the monuments and when I was able to touch a chord in their heart.

Let me tell you about the incident of Nirbhay Singh Gurjar, a dreaded dacoit. Bateshwar, Morena complex, which is some 50km from Gwalior, was an ancient site with a large number of ancient temples. We were carrying out renovation work there. But that place was plagued by dacoits under the leadership of Gurjar. I had to get his cooperation if I were to successfully complete the conservation. The place incidentally was under the administration of a dynasty called Gurjar Prathihara dynasty, after the period of Harsha. They had contributed to the construction and maintenance of temples. Once, when I got a chance to meet Gurjar, I pointed out to him this connection. I told him that perhaps providence had made him wander these very ruins, not just as a hideout but to contribute to the conservation of these temples which perhaps his ancestors built and maintained. This really invoked something inside him. From then on, he helped us with our restoration work.

Here was a man who was smoking a cigar inside one of the temples. But now, because of his cooperation, we were able to restore 60 temples.

There are a lot of incidents like this. In Chhattisgarh, one group of Naxals wanted us to make a small ‘donation’ to them so that they would give us protection from any disturbance as well as from their rival faction in Andhra. So I asked them what this ‘small donation’ was. If it was small, I could make it from my pocket and I did. It was Rs 10,000, and this ensured that we could carry out our work in peace.

You have been able to make a dacoit aware of his heritage!

You see, I have some traits that work to my advantage. One, I communicate with others with care. This somehow convinces them of my sincerity. Two, they are astonished by the fact that a Muslim is here renovating ancient monuments and is more knowledgeable in Sanskrit and ancient lore than most of their co-religionists. This creates a deep sense of acceptance. Third, I have been able to get the help of honest young officers – particularly in the police. All these factors made my work, though dangerous, a success and full of fond memories.

Again, about Ayodhya. There was an inscription obtained from the debris of the Babri structure after demolition. And it speaks of a temple. But professor Habib had alleged that it was planted there. He had also targeted late Dr S P Gupta, another archaeologist. What is your take on these?

I know Dr S P Gupta. He was a selfless man committed to archaeology. In fact, his contribution to archaeology was immense. He was also a great social worker. People like Habib can speak a lot about the poor, but they would do nothing for them. The university-grown elite Marxist historians are of the variety which speaks about revolution with wine glasses in their hand.

Regarding the inscription, which is called Vishnu Hari inscription, professor Meenakshi Jain’s latest book has provided an accurate picture and exposed the lies of these so-called leftist historians.

Can you share with us one of the most satisfying moments of your life?

When I was doing renovation work in New Delhi, I used to run an informal day care and take education classes for the children of labourers. Most of the labourers working in archaeology projects are poor migrants from places like Bihar. Their children go around begging or get subjected to abuse when they are working. So I created these informal day care plus education classes, for which I paid from my own pocket. In fact, one bureaucrat even thought I was using government money and tried to stop it. But as it was my personal money that was being used, they could not.

A TV network came to know about this and gave me a humanitarian award. When the then US president Barack Obama came here, I was to be his guide. He had come to know about these schools and wanted to see the students. One boy, Vishal, boldly greeted the president, saying, “Welcome Mr Obama”. Obama was impressed.

Later, I had retired and returned to my native place. When Obama visited again, the US embassy contacted me and informed me that the president wanted to meet Vishal. I had lost track of the boy, though. But they tracked him with my help – he was studying in St Columbus school. And Obama reserved a special slot and, apart from meeting the officials, met the boy. I felt very happy for Vishal.

You have been involved in the restoration and preservation of ancient heritage structures. What do you think should be the most important component – that we need – in the preservation of heritage monuments in India?

The involvement of people. People should feel a connect with these monuments, and they should feel that it is their history and that it can shape their future. You should inculcate this feeling in the children themselves. Every school should take children on heritage tours. They should make students take a pledge. Like Ashoka’s edict, the children should take a pledge that they would not disfigure, scribble or deface a monument.

I started a programme known as “adopt a heritage” for the school children so that they should feel like it is theirs. See the kind of change the sense of ownership – not through legal rights but a sense of history – brought in a dacoit to participate. Then, imagine how much we can achieve with children through the history.

We should also involve the student community in the cleaning of monuments. I call students the potential non-conventional energy sources for the preservation of our monuments. The way we teach history is also important. When we walk into Nalanda or Mamallapuram, we should feel that this is the land where Hieu Tsang walked 1,400 years ago, or where a Narasimha Pallava walked. A sense of history can give us a sense of wonder and pride and ownership. Our history curriculum and teachers should do that.

Also equally important is the need for qualified guides at all our heritage sites. There is a lot of economic as well as knowledge potential here which has been sadly under-utilised. Every archaeological site should have an interpretation centre where a short film is screened about the history and heritage of the site.

This article is part of the Swarajya heritage programme. If you liked this article and would like us to do more of the kind, consider being a sponsor – you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

Also Read:

Anybody who didn’t agree with Irfan Habib was branded ‘Hindutvawadi’: archaeologist in autobiography

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