A report written by four eminent scholars was used by the Muslim petitioners to contest the claim that the Babri Masjid was built atop a Hindu temple.
The archaeological aspects of the report were authored by Suraj Bhan. What he deposed before the Allahabad High Court and what he testified under cross examination highlight how unqualified expert opinions were used to subvert facts.
In 1990, four eminent historians submitted a document titled, Babari Mosque or Rama's Birth Place? Historians Report to the Indian Nation, to the then Union Home Minister.
The Muslim petitioners have since often relied on that document to contest the Hindu petitioners’ claim that the Babri (aka Babari) Masjid was built atop a Hindu temple. The document was authored by R S Sharma, M Athar Ali, D N Jha, and Suraj Bhan, all scholars of repute.
The document dealt with the historic and archaeological aspects of the dispute. The archaeological aspects of the report were authored by Suraj Bhan, who was at the time a professor in the Ancient Indian Archaeological Department of Kurukshetra University, Rohtak.
As per court records, he had claimed in court that ‘according to his research, no evidence he could find whereupon it could be said that the Babari Mosque was constructed after demolition of a temple.’
It was a different case altogether when he was examined in the court.
Suraj Bhan testified in court as follows:
‘I did my B.A. in 1953. Sanskrit and Economics were my subjects in B.A.. English literature, too, was my subject. I did not study history and archaeology as subjects up to B.A. I passed the M.A. Examination with Sanskrit and also with Archaeology and Culture. I only remember that ancient history and early medieval history were not in my course. The said two parts of history was of India only.’ (Allahabad High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 15, Page 3627; emphasis mine)
As for his archaeological and historical experience, he said:
‘I am a scholar of archaeology. There are many specialists in several areas of archaeology. My subject in the realm of archaeology is proto-historic archaeology of Satluj-Yamuna basin.’ (Allahabad High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 15, Page 3627)
‘Since construction of mosques after demolishing temples is not the subject of my research, so I did not make an endeavour to make study of those places. Otherwise also, I am not a historian with regard to medieval period.’ (Allahabad High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 15, Page 3629; emphasis mine)
Earlier, he had also said:
‘When I joined my service [at Archaeological Survey of India], I was an M.A. in Sanskrit. I was appointed to the post of technical assistant. I was appointed in 1956 or 1957. I undertook excavation work at Lothal [an Indus Valley Civilisation site] from 1956-57 to 1959-60. At that time I was working as a technical assistant in the office. In that very capacity I was then engaged in the excavation work.’ (Allahabad High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 15, Page 3626; emphasis mine)
Subsequently in his examination, he also admitted:
‘I am not a student of History. [...]’ ‘I am not a specialist in architecture. I have an ordinary knowledge of it.’ [...] ‘I am not a specialist in sculpture.’ [...] ‘Epigraphy, too, is not my field.’ [...] ‘My speciality was field archaeology, not ethnography.’ [...] ‘I am not a specialist in history of temple architecture.’ (Allahabad High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 15, Page 3631; emphasis mine)
In the document [report] that the eminent historians, including Bhan, had submitted, they had contested the findings of the ASI team, led by archaeologist B B Lal.
During the examination, Bhan admitted that ‘pressure was being repeatedly exerted [by the Babri Masjid Action Committee]; so, we submitted our report without going through the record of the excavation work by B.B.Lal.’ (Allahabad High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 15, Page 3632)
So, Bhan had contested and criticised B B Lal’s excavation work that he (Bhan) had not even read about!
Despite, as per his own admission, not having an expertise in medieval history, construction of mosques after demolishing temples, or temples’ architectural history, or architecture in general, Bhan commented on multiple forums about Ayodhya’s disputed site.
In an interview to Frontline, he contested ASI’s excavations and said, “...[o]ne thing is certain: it was not a temple. There is a great possibility of the structure being a Sultanate mosque.
“Its plan broadly corresponds with that of the Babri Masjid in the lay-out of the western wall, the southern chamber below the southern dome of the Babri Masjid and the extensive floor area of the court yard. It is well known from Mansura in Sindh that the early mosques had pillars in them.”
[t]his structure [disputed site], by no stretch of imagination, can be termed a ‘temple’. The floor plan and the construction material belong to the Sultanate period. The three layers do not belong to the pre-Sultanate (11th to 12th century AD) period. The floors are made of lime-surkhi, typical of Muslim architecture of that period. The building plan tallies with the Babri mosque. A mosque belonging to the Sultanate period was expanded to build the Babri Masjid and that is the truth no matter how the ASI interprets it.
Bhan, like everyone else, is free to have an opinion but he was not called to court for his mere opinion but for his ‘expert opinion’, and he was quoted in journalistic publications for the same, but, as his own admissions in the court show, he did not have expertise on matters he was commenting upon.
The High Court came down heavily on such ‘expert witnesses’. The Court observed:
‘[i]t appears to us that the report of ASI was sought to be criticized by the plaintiffs (Suit-4) as if ASI was supposed to satisfy them about its finding and not the Court. Several fanciful objections have been made just to multiply and add the list of the objections.’ (Ayodhya High Court 2010 judgement, Volume 17, Page 162)
The Court observed the nexus between the experts who had deposed before it. The Time of India reported:
One had done a PhD under the other, another had contributed an article to a book penned by a witness. Some instances underlined by the judge [Justice Sudhir Agarwal] are:
‘Suvira Jaiswal deposed “whatever knowledge I gained with respect to disputed site is based on newspaper reports or what others told” (other experts). She said she prepared a report on the Babri dispute “after reading newspaper reports and on basis of discussions with medieval history expert in my department.”
Supriya Verma, another expert who challenged the ASI excavations, had not read the ground penetration radar survey report that led the court to order an excavation. She did her PhD under another expert Shireen F Ratnagar.
Verma and Jaya Menon alleged that pillar bases at the excavated site had been planted but HC found they were not present at the time the actual excavation took place. Archaeologist Shireen F Ratnagar has written the “introduction” to the book of another expert who deposed, Professor Mandal. She admitted she had no field experience.’
The conduct of the ‘experts’ and their performance under scrutiny in Court raises questions about their intentions.
Academic arguments enrich legal disputes, but, in case of the Ayodhya dispute, as Bhan’s examination in court has shown, it only added towards making it a muddle.
Academics seemingly acted like spirited activists where they said and acted the way they wished as if they were immune because of their long careers that had garnered them repute through the years.
But once the Court, blind to the halo of these academics, treated them as mere mortals, they fell from grace.
The Supreme Court has concluded arguments in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute and has reserved its judgement.
It is expected that the judgement will be delivered before 17 November, the day when the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who is heading the five-judge bench hearing the case, is to retire.
The dispute is not just rooted in religious beliefs but also in a complex web of historical and archaeological arguments, which both sides have made in their favour.
The Allahabad High Court’s 2010 judgement in which some of the most eminent academics of our times faced the sharpest scrutiny, will serve as a note of caution that no one --- not even the most eminent academics who we quoted throughout our academic years --- is beyond the scope of questioning.