Bureaucratic Archaeology: State, Science, and Past in Postcolonial India – A book excerpt

6 December 2021

Ashish Avikunthak is cultural anthropologist, archeologist and filmmaker who has been making films in India for more than 25 years. His films have been shown worldwide in film festivals, galleries and museums. He tweets at @AAvikunthak.

The following is excerpt from Ashish Avikunthak’s Bureaucratic Archaeology: State, Science, and Past in Postcolonial India. The book is a multi-faceted ethnography of quotidian practices of archaeology, bureaucracy and science in postcolonial India, concentrating on the workings of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The following chapter explores the issue of the excavation of Ram Janmabhoomi– Babri Masjid complex in Ayodhya and the politics surrounding it.

It was in the dry winter of 2003 at Dholavira, when I met ASI archaeologists and technical staff who had excavated the disputed site of the Ram Janmabhoomi– Babri Masjid complex in Ayodhya. Speaking about the Ayodhya excavation was prohibited. It was not a mere taboo, but illegal. Everyone who had worked at Ayodhya had signed a High Court prohibitory order—it was forbidden to divulge any details about excavation. A draughtsman—a 15 years’ veteran of the ASI in hushed tones rebuked me: “Why are you troubling [taqleef] me? I have to support my children, sir [bibi-bache hai, saheb]. The court has forbidden [mana hai] us to talk about the excavation. It is too sensitive [English word used].” It was less than four months after the Ayodhya excavation and trepid reluctance was in the air. Most of my informants were frightened to speak, but some whose confidence I had gained did share. For the next two years, as I conducted my fieldwork, I had a series of conversations with some members of the Ayodhya excavation whom I met during my fieldwork at ASI sites. All of them refused my request for a formal interview. But in the slow and languorous pace of an ASI archaeological excavation, time is not a premium; gradually my informants opened up and candidly shared their experiences at the Ayodhya excavations of 2003.

 “This was the most terrifying archaeological excavation in the history of the ASI. Full of tension [English phrase used],” he continued. On nudging further, he explained: 

“Now what should I tell you? [Ab kya bathae aapko?] First, no one digs in the summer. Second, this is archaeology and not red tape [babugiri]. We dig history [itihas]. We make history. We make the nation [rashtra]. And we need time [waqt]. Archaeology is about patience. Archaeology is a science. Archaeology is an art. You cannot do archaeology under the pressure. But who will tell the High Court? They gave us the order and we did the work [Unhone order diya. Aur hamne kaam kiya]. After all we are government servant[s] [sarkari naukar hai]. If the court tells us to dig in the moon, we will have to do it.” 

The ASI, like most bureaucratic organizations in India, had an ambivalent relationship with the judicial system in India. During my fieldwork, I observed that a large volume of the daily office practice of ASI branches dealt with incessant court cases—site encroachments, minor corruptions, disgruntled employees, property disputes, and others. “We are used to dealing with court cases. This is our daily bread-and-butter [hamri rozi-roti hain],” retorted the assistant archaeologist (AA) with a sense of despondency. He had experience working in proto-historic, early historic, and medieval sites in north India. He was one of the most experienced AAs in the ASI. “Excavating in the summer under excruciating heat is a terrible idea [bada hi kharab plan hai]. But then excavating in the monsoon is disaster [musibath],” he continued his diatribe. 

The timing of the Ayodhya excavation ran counter-intuitively to over 100 years of wisdom that Indian archaeologists had accumulated. The Ayodhya excavation started in March—around the time of the year when most excavations are wrapped up throughout South Asia. The piercing heat of over 40-degree centigrade makes it virtually unbearable to work in the vast open landscapes, especially in north India. Archaeological sites are excavated during the most climatically agreeable months of the year—“between Diwali and Holi.” One of my informants parenthetically bracketed the temporal location of the arduous archaeological fieldwork between two of the most popular festivals of the Hindu calendar. During these dry winter months from November to February, not only is it pleasant to work for long hours in the outdoors but it also prevented the deep excavation trenches from collapsing (as it was common in the wet season). The Ayodhya excavation began in March 2003 and continued during the monsoon months, which by all standards of archaeological acumen was unfavorable. The Ayodhya excavation at its inception began as an inappropriate archaeological intervention, under the duress of an obdurate judiciary. 

By now we were sitting on the edge of a trench in the middle town of Dholavira. We observed a dozen women attired in traditional Kutchi ghagra-choli industriously cleaning the floor of a trench with plastic paintbrushes exposing a layer that had recently being excavated. He wryly recounted: 

In Ayodhya we worked for 16 hours a day in two shifts—day and night. Once the rains started falling the trenches were covered under multi-colored plastic sheets. We worked under the agonizing heat of halogen light’s glare, descending 20 meters under the earth, just digging. Only sweat, humidity, dirt and darkness. It was terribly hot. They used huge fans that would only churn out more hot air. We could not see anything, let alone do archaeology. We were just digging and collecting objects. This was not archaeology it was donkey-labor [gaddha-mazdoori]. All we found was tons of potshards, burnt bones, shattered ceramics tiles, unidentified terracotta pieces, and fragments of unknown idols that looked like someone’s God, but no one’s Ram or Rahim [na kisi ka Ram, na kisi ka Rahim].

The work conditions at Ayodhya were so unusually non-normative that it is mentioned in the ASI Excavation Report—a genre of archaeological text that is usually reticent and discreet and has no place for even subdued belligerence. Dr B. R. Mani, one of the directors of the Ayodhya excavation, in a rare exception made an extra-special note in the introductory chapter of the report in a section succinctly titled “Constraints.” He rather distressingly, but in restrained terms, notes: “Working conditions worsened at the onslaught of the monsoon … creating heat and humidity besides total darkness in a number of deep trenches. One team member fell down and fractured his hand and leg while others including some casual laborers received electric shocks by touching pedestal fans fixed on baulks.” However, in the spirit of bureaucratic determinism, Dr B. R. Mani continues in a formidable vein: “In spite of all such constraints the team of the Archaeological Survey of India worked vigorously with full devotion and sprit” (Manjhi and Mani 2003, 11).

The Ayodhya excavation of 2003 was the most unusual excavation in the history of the 142-year-old organization. It was an archaeological excavation to find the remains of a Hindu temple, buried under an Islamic mosque ordered by the court. “The premise of the excavation was unscientific. This was [a] property dispute [property ka lafda]. It had political [raajaneetik] and communal [saampradaayik] overtones but the court unnecessarily [befazool] pulled in [the] ASI [khama-kha court ne ASI ko iss main ghasite liya],” complained another AA. With the High Court’s summon, the listless bureaucracy of the ASI was jolted and pushed into the center of the most distressing events of postcolonial Indian history since the partition of 1947. The Special Full Bench of the Allahabad High Court, Lucknow, to adjudicate the case, had taken recourse to the scientific framework of archaeology to solve a case with huge political valence. The court summoned the ASI as an “expert body of the government” (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 2181) and ordered excavations on 5 March 2003 because “extraordinary situations demand extraordinary steps and strategy” (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 2142). “We came to the rescue of the court. This case needed a civil judgment, at worst a political judgment. The court instead decided on an archaeological judgment,” resentfully explained my informant as we sat under the clear night sky outside our tent in Dholavira.

In comparison to the vast airy expanse of Dholavira, especially in the cool winter months, where, at the end of the excavation, one could admire the mesmerizing sunset reflecting beautifully on the simmering waters of the Rann of Kutch, the excavation at Ayodhya was ostensibly “disturbed” (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 2212). An ASI archaeological excavation is a relaxed bureaucratic exercise—tedious, monotonous, and repetitive with occasional discoveries, done at a relatively calm, nonchalant pace, without excessive haste or stress. Years are spent languorously excavating the site layer by layer—artifacts are cautiously removed, structures are leisurely exposed. They are mapped, drawn, photographed, classified, and, sometimes, analyzed. Archaeologists on field sites live in spacious and comfortable tents with a large retinue of servants and laborers at their disposal. The Ayodhya excavation of 2003 in contrast was an excavation in “fast forward” mode as an AA eloquently explained. “Doing an archaeological excavation under the direct orders of the High Court was [a] different ball game [alagh hi kehla tha]. Excavation is [a] five-day match. [The] Court forced us to play a one-day match [Excavation five-day match hota hai. Court ne toh humese one day khilaya],” expressively explained the AA. He smartly employed the allegory of a cricket match to distinguish between a usual ASI excavation and the Ayodhya excavation. He compared the slow moving, languid pace of a five-day genre of cricket to the regular ASI excavation and sharply contrasted it with the much faster one-day version of the game to the Ayodhya excavation. It was the most rushed archaeological excavation in the history of the ASI. What would have taken any ASI Excavation Branch (Ex. Br.) in an analogous medieval site in north India nearly four to five seasons (around 500–700 days of excavation) was hurriedly excavated in less than 150 days from March to August of 2003. When the excavation ended, the ASI had excavated a staggering 90 trenches, some of which were twenty 20 meters deep, and recovered many thousands of antiquities, ceramics of different periods, coins, architectural fragments, terracotta objects, figurines, and bones.

The flawed nature of the Ayodhya excavation not only emerged from the inappropriate temporality of the excavation or the sluggish bureaucratic juggernaut that the ASI was, but the culpability was greatly exacerbated by another postcolonial institutional juggernaut—the Indian judiciary. The Allahabad High Court “remote-controlled” the daily practice of archaeological excavation and even by the disheartening ASI standards, made the Ayodhya excavation of 2003 a logistical mess (Mandal and Ratnagar 2007; Varma and Menon 2010; Varghese 2018). For instance, one of the major concerns of the court that caused considerable anxiety amongst the senior officers at the director general’s (DG) headquarters in the ASI was the equal representation of Muslim and Hindus in the ASI workforce at Ayodhya (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 235–38). After considerable jugglery, the office of the Exploration & Excavation of the ASI’s DG headquarters handpicked its most energetic officers and technical staff from the five Ex. Brs. throughout India (see AACD, File No. 29/1/95-Pt IV). Not all were happy to be working at Ayodhya. Some of my informants confided to me that they were reluctant participants of the Ayodhya excavation. 

A surveyor who was able to evade the Ayodhya excavation, dramatically explained: “The Court prodded the DG. The DG prodded us. Those who were ordered they had to go” (Court ka danda pade DG pe. Aur DG ka dande pade ham pe. Jinko order mila, unhe toh jana hi pada). Finally, 51 ASI personnel with cautious Muslim representation proportionate to their population according to the 1991 Indian census records, along with 131 laborers, including 29 Muslims, were chosen to excavate the site. Two excavation directors—Hari Manjhi, director (Antiquity), and B. R. Mani, superintending archaeologist (SA), led the motley group of industrious excavators. B. R. Mani was the sole team leader of the excavation when it began and Manjhi was deputed later (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 234–37) because a large number of complaints were filed against the ASI excavation practices at Ayodhya (Varma and Menon 2010, 65).

The High Court’s intervention was not just confined to the constitution of the workforce of the excavation team but percolated more penetratingly (see AACD, File No. 29/1/1995-EE [Part-V]). One of my informants asserted that the constant “interference” by the High Court with its multiple orders and counter-orders made the Ayodhya excavation the “ultimate bureaucratic circus” (ekdum sarkari circus). The constant vigilance and daily “irritating” intrusion of the various representatives of the feuding parties overseeing the minute details of the excavation was stressful, further aggravated by the national media reporting every potshard discovered. “The excavation site looked like an army operation with PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) and the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) constantly guarding us,” described an AA in Bhirrana. The stress level was so high that some archaeologists abandoned the excavation midway.

  1. Mandal, a retired professor of the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, Allahabad University, was one of the few independent observers who had visited the site during the excavation. He poignantly noted in his critique of the Ayodhya report in the journal Social Science Probings published in 2004: “The worst aspect of the working environment was a considerable absence of mutual trust. It was of course from both sides, and whatever it was, it was very sad indeed” (Mandal 2004, 38). Furthermore, the numerous anxious parties of the court case would file injunctions, which radically transformed the usual placid pace of ASI archaeological excavation. The courts intrusion was so disruptive that each minor action of the archaeological excavation was strictly monitored. As soon as artifacts would emerge from the surface of the excavated earth, it would be transformed into an incriminating evidence of postcolonial bureaucratic jurisprudence rather than a material culture having an archaeological credence. B. R. Mani in his introduction to the report notes with mild annoyance that the court’s emphasis on following the protocol of juridical bureaucracy greatly hindered the ASI’s investigative efficacy (Manjhi and Mani 2003, 10). Objects were understudied, analysis was hastened, proper diagnosis was hampered, and these greatly impeded the making of the Ayodhya report (Varma and Menon 2010). 

The “scientific investigation” (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 2169; Supreme Court 2019, 552) that the three judges of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court (Sudhir Agarwal, Sibghat Ullah Khan, and Dharam Veer Sharma) depended upon in the adjudication of the case was itself a product of an extremely compromised archaeological excavation. An AA, who had worked at Ayodhya for the first few weeks, sardonically narrated his frustrations of working at the site: “None of us cared if under the Masjid was [a] Hindu temple, a Buddhist Vihara, or a Jain temple. We just wanted to leave the site as soon as we could.” He, like many of the 53 ASI employees, had been in the field for nearly six months—first from November 2002 to March 2003 working at sites that their various Ex. Brs. were digging and then since March 2003 “on deputation” at Ayodhya. We were sitting and sipping tea at Baror. He scornfully continued to air his annoyance:

Who can work with a group of anxious maulvis, nervous pundits, suspicious RSS swayamsevaks (volunteers), and the skeptical communists, voyeuristically gazing at every act we did in the trench. They even followed us when we went to relive ourselves. As if we will smuggle something incriminating from the toilet into the trenches. The Muslims wanted us to find Babur’s name plate and the Hindus wanted us to find Ram’s paduka (shoes)!

 Finally, after painstakingly answering my innumerable queries, with a heavy sigh he said: 

Sirji … we did all we could. We did our best. Like the army, we work for the country. They told us to dig Ayodhya. We did that. They told us to write the report. We did that. Now those above have to decide if it was good or bad [Hamne toh apana kaam kar diya, baki upurwale ki marzi].

I did not further question my informant but I suspect the uparwale (those above) in this case was both the High Court, and the God that the ASI was searching for at Ayodhya. 

The excavation report titled Ayodhya: 2002–04—Excavations at the Disputed Site consists of two volumes—the first volume is the text, the second consists of plates of images, diagrams, drawings, and photographs. Hari Manjhi and B. R. Mani edited the report, with 23 other contributors to volume 1, who penned the 10 chapters—4 SAs, 2 deputy superintending archaeologists (Dy SAs), 4 assistant superintending archaeologists (ASAs), 12 AAs and 1 assistant superintending epigraphist. Manjhi is not named as an author to any of the chapters of the report. He was a symbolic head to placate the Muslim parties of the court case who had accused B. R. Mani of being close to the Hindu parties and not without reason. B. R. Mani’s reputation as a saffron (bhagwa) archaeologist was common knowledge among the archaeological community in India. He along with R. S. Bisht, the excavator of Dholavira, were known to be close to S. P. Gupta and B. B. Lal, who had been unambiguously instrumental in the formation of a Hindutva archaeology. The year 2003 was also when Jagmohan—the BJP leader and the then minister for tourism and culture—was persuasively pushing for a Hindutva agenda in the ASI, especially in the context of the Saraswati Heritage Project (SHP). It was not a surprise that Mani was appointed the team leader since the pre-excavation stage in September 2002.  

If the Ayodhya excavation was the most rushed archaeological excavation in the history of the ASI, then the Ayodhya report was the most hastily written excavation report in the history of archaeology. It was a record of sorts. The Ayodhya excavation ended on 12 August 2003 and the report was submitted to the High Court on 22 August 2003. The two-volume, 574-page report was written in 10 days. An informant who had worked at the excavation and was closely involved at the writing of the report informed me that they had started working on the report simultaneously with the excavation (also see Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 230). Explaining the process of report-writing, he excitedly narrated: 

There was tension all around. Everyone worked without complaining. We knew we were making history. The photographer took the photographs. The draughtsmen drew furiously. Everyone did over time. We were sleeping less than three hours a day. It was excruciating [dardnak]. Teams were made for each chapter. We worked very hard [hamane bahut mehanat ki]. The Court had given us two extensions. We submitted the report just on time. It was such a relief [aaram] when everything was over [sab kuch khatam ho gaya tha].

This is not how archaeologists write site-reports, especially ASI archaeologists. If the excavation is a premeditated and measured form of knowledge production, then writing an archaeological report is a deliberative, pensive, and timeconsuming process (Sinclair 1989; Hodder 1989; Tilley 1989; Joyce 2002). The act of representing material cultural formation into an epistemic narrative is looked upon in the ASI with as much dread and trepidation as the adventurous excitement of archaeological fieldwork is looked upon in favorable anticipation. 

This two-volume report was the most secretive text ever written by the ASI. Only the top brass had seen the report—even those who had worked at Ayodhya had not seen the report. It came to a very limited public domain when the copies of the report were given to the parties of the court case, and not yet published. The non-publication of the Ayodhya report after more than 15 years of excavation signals not just that fact that it consisted of state secrets but that it was poorly written. As I have shown earlier, the ASI archaeologists were very unhappy with the working conditions at the site and the production of enormous amount of material culture was done in conditions that were substandard and impossible. B. R. Mani in his “Constraints” section of the Introduction of the report further elaborates: 

Monkeys started damaging the sheets as a result of which several layers of sheets were spread over bamboo and wooden poles. They created further darkness. Photography was also affected due to bad light and natural colors were not easily obtained as multi-colored sheets reflected their colors on the surface and sections. Much difficulty was felt for the stratigraphical observations particularly for determining layers. (Manjhi and Mani 2003, 10)

This alarming disclaimer in the body of the report makes the evidential basis of the report suspect (see Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 572–73). Fueled by the fact that very little time was spent to do a nominal analysis of the artifacts excavated, the ensuing report had to be kept unpublished because it was truly “a[n] inferior [ghatiya] piece of work,” as a senior university archaeologist told me. “It is a good thing that report is not published, we are ourselves very embarrassed of it,” an AA who worked at site once confided. The practice of writing site-reports has a checkered history in the ASI. ASI archaeologists are notoriously known for taking decades to write archaeological reports, if they write any. A senior archaeologist who had also worked at Ayodhya, during a dinner conversation in an ASI field camp without sarcasm and with profound seriousness remarked: “It normally takes twenty-five years to write an archaeological report in ASI. But the Ayodhya report was written in less than 10 days.” He contemptuously continued: “The High Court had kept the gun [bandook] on our forehead [kanpati], so we worked like mad men [pagalo ki tarah]—day and night without sleep and rest, to produce a report which reads less than [a] scientific report but more like a court testimony [adalt ki gawahi].”

If the Ayodhya excavation was a flawed project—a product of postcolonial juridical anxiety—then the ASI report that formed the empirical grounds for the court to adjudicate that a temple existed under the Babri Masjid was an even greater anomaly. It was written in an innocuous lackluster style, more dreary and staid than the usually written ASI archaeological site-reports (for example, see Lal 1954; Thapar 1967, 1957; Rao 1985; Joshi 1990, 1993; Lal et al. 2003), which were bland clones of the nineteenth-century archaeological derivative (Hodder 1989, 270–71; Hamilton 1999), rather than exemplars of contemporary archaeological practice. Finally, the most controversial inconsistency of the text is the mysterious un-authored tenth chapter of the report which provocatively and without much empirical basis asserted for the presence of the temple under the disputed site. Each of the nine chapters has two or more authors, whereas the last chapter, unexpectedly, had been written anonymously.

This last chapter of the report is called “Summary of Results” (Manjhi and Mani 2003, 268–72) and is the most assertively interpretative section of the report—generously quoted by the High Court and Supreme Court judges. My informants told me that this chapter was ghost written by the late S. P. Gupta—the card-carrying member of the Hindu fundamentalist organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He forcefully noted in the report that the monumental pillared structure under the mosque was a temple. It is in the last paragraph of the chapter of the report that the ASI gives its parting Hindutva shot:

Now viewing in totality and taking into account the archaeological evidence of a massive structure just below the disputed structure and evidence of continuity in structural phases from the tenth century onwards up to the construction of the disputed structure along with the yield of stone and decorated bricks as well as mutilated sculpture of divine couple and carved architectural members including foliage patterns, amalaka, kapotapali, doorjamb with semi-circular pilaster, broken octagonal shaft of black schist pillar, locus motif, circular shrines having pranala (waterchut) in the north, fifty pillar bases in association of huge structure, are indicative of remains which are distinctive features found associated with temples of north India.

This assertion of a monumental structure having characteristics of a Hindu temple was usurped by the judges to adjudicate that a temple did exist under the Babri Masjid. The importance of this section can be judged by the fact that it has been cited twice in the Supreme Court judgment (Supreme Court 2019, 524 and 563). It is also this chapter that is generously quoted by the Justice Sudhir Agarwal (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 2442–45) for adjudicating the case in favor of the Hindu parties in 2010. However, as critics have pointed out both in court and in the public sphere, the ASI report suffers from many serious lacunas. It had failed to take into account many elements of the site in the writing of the report (see Gupta 2010; Mani 2010; Varma and Menon 2010; Anwer 2011; Varghese 2018). Both the judgments provide a legal sanction for the construction of the temple over the obliterated mosque, but also for the first time in the history of modern judiciary it provides a legal rationale for the presence of God. And most problematically, it imparts a powerful juridical validation for the destruction of the Babri Masjid (see Supreme Court 2019, 505–99).

The Ayodhya excavation represented a stark and a highly controversial instance of an ASI archaeological excavation—a peculiar product of postcolonial bureaucracy and postcolonial science. Although the Ayodhya excavation was one of the most important excavations in the history of postcolonial India, it was also one of the most disturbingly ineffective excavations ever conducted— as evidenced from the contestations, objections, and criticism, remarkably documented in excruciating details in the judgment of Justice Sudhir Agarwal (Khan, Agarwal, and Sharma 2010, 117–2912). However, for the bureaucratic archaeologists of the ASI, the Ayodhya excavation was only an irritant in its routine work. It impeded their normal customary schedule of managing, excavating, and preserving the rich archaeological heritage of India. They viewed the 1992 demolition as a problem of law and order, while the Ayodhya excavation of 2003 was regarded as an incident of bureaucratic duty exercised under the astonishing pressure of the judiciary.