Treasures buried by layers of hate

June 12, 1998

As the World Archaeological Congress is again outmanoeuvred by fundamentalists in the name of academic freedom, Michael Tierney calls for extreme rightwingers to be barred

The World Archaeological Conference, an international academic organisation for archaeologists, arose out of the international campaign against apartheid in South Africa. In 1986 members of the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences were divided about whether to ban South African delegates from the union's conference. WAC was born of that split and has gone from strength to strength.

One of its aims is to undermine the dominance of Anglo-American archaeology. It also recognises that there is a political context to all archaeological work - its statutes state that "WAC is based on the explicit recognition of the historical and social role, and the political context, of archaeological enquiry".

At an international meeting of the organisation in Delhi in 1994 these principles were severely tested when the meeting's organising committee was subjected to political manipulation, the purpose of which was to veto any discussion of the destruction of the Babri Majid mosque in Ayodhya, India, two years earlier. India's Baratiya Janata Party, which in 1994 governed Delhi and is now the principal partner in the coalition running the country's government, was determined to avoid criticism by WAC and so forbade the meeting from discussing the mosque's destruction.

The politics of the BJP, a rightwing party that has used a virulent form of Hindu nationalism to achieve power, are built on the supposed superiority of Hindus over other ethnic groups, particularly Muslims. The BJP is the Indian equivalent of the National Front in France, the anti-state militias in the United States or the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

In the late 1980s the BJP whipped up nationalist fervour around the issue of the supposed birthplace of the Hindu god Rama in Ayoydha. The target of this was a 16th-century mosque, which the BJP claimed was standing on the site of an earlier Hindu temple supposed to mark the Lord Rama's birthplace. The call went out to destroy the mosque and serious violence between Hindus and Muslims ensued. On December 6 1992 the mosque was razed to the ground and hundreds of people later died in communal rioting.

After the BJP's interference with WAC in Delhi in 1994, the conference's executive in Delhi decided to hold an internal inquiry and to convene another meeting to discuss the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. That meeting, entitled "The destruction and conservation of cultural property", took place in Croatia last month.

While its primary purpose was to consider Ayodhya, the issue was discussed in a series of meetings that looked at the use and misuse of archaeology in different parts of the world. The choice of Croatia was deliberate, given the recent war and continuing tensions in the Balkans. The largescale destruction of objects and symbols in the various campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia were identified in a number of conference papers as attempts to erase the history and cultural identity of different groups.

Archaeologists are only too aware of how their subject has been used in the past by Nazi, fascist and other such regimes to construct or destroy social identities, whether they be those of gender, nation or class. Given this political awareness one would have expected that the organisers of the Croatia conference would have been more careful not to provide another forum for the extreme right views witnessed in Delhi. But, unfortunately, opinions from the Hindu fundamentalist delegation were again on offer. The delegation used evidence taken from the ruins of the Ayodhya mosque soon after its destruction. They offered no explanation as to how they had access to that evidence and certainly nothing was said about the ethics of using material collected in such circumstances.

One of the delegates showed a video in which it was argued that Ayodhya was only the latest of 3,000 Hindu temples that had been destroyed by Islamic forces in the Middle Ages. It was claimed that the destruction of the mosque was the will of the people and therefore quite acceptable. Although such views are abhorrent, and as such difficult to repeat, it is even more difficult to describe the tense and even intimidatory atmosphere of the Ayodhya sessions. Some people felt they were under surveillance - secularist and anti-fundamentalist speakers were photographed and videotaped by a member of the fundamentalist delegation.

The articulation of such politics in academic forums raises, yet again, the question of academic freedom and the role of intellectuals in society. The WAC executive took a worthy decision to try to rectify the damage that had been done in Delhi. But because of confusion over how one should deal with right-wing extremists WAC found itself outmanoeuvred once more. A number of liberal-minded delegates made heart-felt pleas for reconciliation and dialogue. One WAC executive member proposed that a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque should be built on either side of the now destroyed Babri Majid and a rose garden built over the disputed site.

Yet the question must be raised as to whether one can attempt dialogue with those whose politics are based on the active suppression of dissent. When discussion turned against the fundamentalists in the plenary session they simply walked out. In a proposed publication of the proceedings of the conference and in the name of an illusory academic freedom, it is now possible WAC will once more facilitate the spread of the fundamentalists' view. Surely we should act swiftly to exclude such opinions from forums such as WAC.

Michael Tierney is a part-time archaeology lecturer at the University of Wales, Lampeter and the organiser of a workshop at the Croatia conference entitled "Community archaeologies: whose archaeology is it anyway?"

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments