Site of debate

January 13, 1995

The World Archaeology Congress-III began in extraordinary circumstances in New Delhi and ended in uproar. Jonathan Sawday was there

"Shantih, Shantih, Shantih'' -- those familiar with Vedic literature, and the readers of T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land", will recognise these words as the formal ending to an Upanishad. They may be translated as "The peace which passeth understanding". These were also virtually the last intelligible words that could be heard from the rostrum in the closing plenary session of the third World Archaeological Congress held in New Delhi last month. Spoken by R. S. Sharma (described in the Indian press as a prominent "leftist'' historian), the appeal fell on deaf ears. The congress was brought to an abrupt close by the uproar that Sharma's own draft resolution, submitted to the plenary session, had precipitated. A few moments later the microphones were switched off on the orders, it was alleged, of the academic programme coordinator, Makkhan Lal.

"Born in the fight against Apartheid, the World Archaeology Congress-III reiterates its uncompromising opposition to the infusion of racial, religious or national-chauvinistic claims into archaeology and condemns, without reservation, all fraudulent manipulation of evidence and destruction of or damage to historical structure . . ." These, the opening phrases of Sharma's resolution, encapsulated the dilemma posed by the decision to hold the congress in India. It afforded proof that the past and the present, the academic study of archaeology and a people's sense of their own living national and religious identities, intersect with each other in ways that can have unpredictable, often disturbing, results.

WAC was, indeed, born out of the fight against apartheid. Thrown out of the International Union of Pre- and Proto-historic Sciences, it emerged in its present form in September 1986 when its first congress was held in Southampton. This will be remembered not only for the extraordinary circumstances under which the congress was held -- centring on the courageous decision to refuse invitations to academics based in apartheid South Africa -- but also for the resolute assertion of a set of principles that, as Peter Ucko later wrote, had disturbed the "shaky edifice" of the shibboleth of "academic freedom" to turn attention "to the issue of freedom itself".

In the ringing phrases of the introduction to article two of WAC's statutes, real freedom involved ". . . the explicit recognition of the historical and social role, and the political context, of archaeological enquiry, of archaeological organisations and of archaeological interpretation''. It was, perhaps, an ironic measure of the situation the third congress faced in India that an explanatory document drawn up in an emergency meeting of the WAC executive reaffirming this commitment was explicitly banned by the organisers of the third congress. But by then the central principles WAC represented had already been hopelessly compromised.

WAC, the worldwide archaeological organisation, and WAC-III, the third congress of WAC held at New Delhi, are not the same entities. Once the decision is made to offer the congress to a particular country, WAC hands over the running of the event to the host nation. The academic organisation of WAC-III, and responsibility for the delegates and the programme, was thus entirely in the hands of the Indian organising committee. Much of what may well prove to be the disaster of WAC-III may be traced to this "hands-off" attitude on the part of the parent body. But it is also only fair to say that the organisers of the third congress were beset by a series of natural disasters that made their task all the more burdensome. These included the outbreak of plague in India, and reports of the appearance of a particularly virulent form of cerebral malaria.

Nevertheless, the major problem was predictable. It can be traced back to the events of December 6, 1992 that took place at Ayodhya, a small town some 6km from Faizabad in central Masjid -- erected in the mid-16th century during the reign of the first Mughal emperor, Babur. According to the archaeologist Nandini Rao, to Hindus the mosque-structure represents a continual affront. This, they maintain, is the site of an earlier Hindu temple dedicated to the god/king Rama. Whatever the "facts" in the case (and "facts", in this instance, as Rao has written, cannot be disentangled from what might be termed "myth") Ayodhya had become a flashpoint in the uneasy relations between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Each side claims the area as its own. On December 6, 1992, these counterclaims resulted in the destruction of the mosque. Riots and fatalities were the outcome.

It was into this maelstrom that WAC-III was plunged by the decision to convene in New Delhi. The second anniversary of the destruction of Babri Masjid fell while the congress was in session. In the preceding days the Indian press had followed the preparations. When an advance-party of delegates arrived in New Delhi (comprising, in the main, an international group of young postgraduate and postdoctoral students from Southampton) they found that, not only was the academic programme of the congress at the point of collapse, and that much of the booked hotel accommodation for the expected 1,500-odd delegates from around the world had disappeared, but that their own safety, it was alleged, could not be guaranteed.

That there was a WAC-III, and that academic debate of any kind did take place in New Delhi is a testimony to the work of the inexperienced but dedicated young archaeologists who arrived. About the only venue still available, prepared by the organising committee of WAC-III, was the luxurious Taj Palace Hotel (rooms $125-175 a night). It was in these grotesquely inappropriate surroundings -- a pastiche of the Raj, festooned with ludicrously expensive banners in imperial purple proclaiming the arrival of the congress -- that the main body of the proceedings took place. Ironically, discussion of Indian archaeology was confined to the National Museum so that, in a perverse reversal of WAC's own principles, a form of academic apartheid had emerged: Indian archaeology had its venue, the rest of the world roamed the gloomy vaults of the Taj Palace. This decision to separate India from the rest of the world was made by the predominantly British emergency organisers (working under the WAC-III secretary-general, V. N. Misra) who were attempting to rescue the academic programme from chaos.

But this was not to be the only contradiction WAC-III found itself negotiating. Days before the opening, WAC president Jack Golson, recently retired from the Australian National University, was asked to sign an undertaking that the "Ayodhya Issue" would not be discussed during the congress. This request, it was claimed, had originated within the Indian government and had been issued to the WAC-III organising committee (headed by B. B. Lal -- one of the chief investigators of the disputed archaeology at Ayodhya) at the request of the minister for union human resource Development -- Shri Arjun Singh. It appeared that such a commitment -- which ran directly counter to WAC's own statutes -- had already been given by the organising committee, and Golson was now being asked, in effect, to police the congress. Probably the most disputed site in world archaeology was now beyond discussion, since, in Golson's own words, "I was given to understand that any refusal to make this commitment would have incalculable consequences for WAC-III, including possible externally inspired disruption of its meetings."

Whether or not Golson and his executive were justified in giving the required commitment is open to question. For some, it represented a compromise of WAC's principles to an extent that made their attendance at the congress deeply problematic. What is beyond dispute is that Golson was under the most appalling pressure.

Equally true was the fact that WAC-III, as an academic forum, had been unable (or unwilling) to withstand the political pressure (backed by the threat of violence) that had been brought to bear on its proceedings. Golson's first signed commitment, which reaffirmed WAC's guiding principles in an explanatory statement and which could have been interpreted as a coded recognition of force majeure, was ratified by the WAC executive, but was summarily rejected (although it was leaked to the newspapers) by the WAC-III secretary-general (V. N. Misra) and the academic programme coordinator (M. Lal). A shorter, revised statement, which dropped all reference to WAC's principles, proved acceptable. The statement concluded: "This (ie, Ayodhya) is the only concession that it (the WAC executive) is willing to make to (the) limitation of the WAC principles of discussion of the historical and social role, and political context, of archaeological enquiry and interpretation."

Does a principle, once it has been limited, still amount to a principle?

It might have been expected that the leading article of the right-wing, stridently nationalist, Hindu tabloid Organiser on December 11 should have called for the "rebuilding" of the (supposedly) ancient Hindu temple on the site of the (undoubtedly) destroyed mosque. That "archaeology'' was cited as one justification for the vigorous assertion of identity might have made the necessity of debating "Ayodhya'' by the world archaeological community all the more pressing. More disturbing, however, was the "request", forwarded by a group of Indian archaeologists to the president of WAC, that the following resolution be adopted: "The World Archaeological Congress-3 condemns the demolition and scarilage (sic) of sacred places of Hindu worship by certain sectarian and religious fanatics in medieval India. It also places on record its unequivocal disapproval of the demolition of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain places of worship in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh during modern times as well." The destruction of a 16th-century mosque, it may be noted, is passed over in silence.

During WAC-III, the December issue of Frontline ("India's national magazine from the publishers of The Hindu") appeared. Under the heading "Questions of Ethics'', Sukumar Muralidharan squarely faced the controversies WAC-III was unable to debate. Muralidharan highlighted the belated reinterpretation of the Ayodhya site offered by the president of WAC-III (B. B. Lal) in the pages of Manthan, the journal of the right-wing Hindu party Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). More than ten years after the publication of his original report on Ayodhya, B. B. Lal had decided that his excavations revealed (Muralidharan wrote) "the remnants of a pillared temple which had stood at the site prior to the mosque". Other Indian archaeologists and historians were less than convinced by this reinterpretation, and the ambiguous evidence that was (belatedly) being used in its support. Their voices were not heard at WAC-III. Having surrendered to political pressure, there was no forum in which to put the conflicting interpretations to the test.

WAC is a prestigious organisation. Its prestige rests not only on the individuals from around the world who are its members, but on the principles adopted and tested in 1986 and at subsequent congresses and inter-congresses. Its secular and practical commitment to non-western voices, to minorities, and to the rights of indigenous peoples, makes it a unique academic organisation. Archaeology -- the interpretation and representation of the past -- has become the site of often passionate debate.

The cultural aspirations of people throughout the world find (or fail to find) authenticity in the legacy of their complex histories. For these very reasons, "compromise" of the type enforced on WAC in India should be alien to the organisation. No nation state should have the right to silence the competing histories that might be located within its borders for the sake of current political expediency. In India, the prestige of WAC was welcome, but not the responsibility entailed in providing a forum for WAC.

Whether WAC-III should have been allowed to continue in New Delhi is a moot point. In 1998, under the presidency of Bassey Andah, of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, WAC-IV will, it is hoped, take place in South Africa. By 1998, the voyage that began in Southampton in 1986, will have reached yet another port of call, undoubtedly the most significant to date. By that time, it might be hoped that New Delhi will be a distant memory, even if the lessons learned there have been absorbed into the fibre of the World Archaeology Congress.

Jonathan Sawday is a lecturer, department of English, University of Southampton. He was co-organiser of the theme "Material culture and the body" at WAC-III.

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