The ASI and the Indian Archaeology Today
Irfan Habib, KM Shrimali and DN Jha
17 July 2000
Archaeology, the science of reconstructing man’s past through a study of physical remains, especially man’s own artifacts, has come to develop an increasingly humane face, a concept of comprehensiveness of man’s culture, that it explores with tools that are daily getting more and more sophisticated and sensitive, derived from advances in different branches of science.
It is time to think where, in this context, archaeology in India stands today. It has certainly a distinguished past and many achievements behind it. While the formation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 gave impulse to antiquarian interests, it was with the officially recognized archaeological ‘surveys’ of Alexander Cunningham, beginning in 1861, that exploration became systematic, and immediately reported upon, through his classic Archaeological Surveys. In 1904 came the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, re-legislated as the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958. This provided the legal means to preserve monuments, a task which was increasingly seen to be a responsibility of the state. Under the stewardship of John Marshall and Mortimer Wheeler, improved techniques of excavations and scientific reporting were established.
After independence the Archaeological Survey, as a department of the Government of India, was greatly expanded, and under A. Ghosh as Director General, it obtained repute throughout the scholarly world for its rigorous techniques in excavations, care in preservation of monuments, punctual reporting of results, and regularity of issue of its publications. Under H.D. Sankalia, the Deccan College became the torch‑bearer of application of scientific techniques, and much work began to be done by the State Departments of Archaeology.
What is most regrettable is that during the last decade and more, the Archaeological Survey has so badly fallen behind in most of the ordinary technical respects. Reports on excavated sites do not appear for decades, and when they appear, their quality often leaves much to be desired. As has been proved by the case of B.B. Lal’s Ayodhya excavations carried out in the 1970s, new claims began to be made well over ten years after the excavations were completed: there is legitimate suspicion of afterthought here. Surely, if findings are fully and promptly published, there would be no room for such suspicion. While reports of many sites on which large funds were spent are yet to appear, even the annual survey reports of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) are many years in arrears, and so too the Epigraphica Indica and its Arabic and Persian suppliments, the major source for new inscriptions discovered. Ancient India, the highly respected journal issued by ASI in the late 1940s and the 1960s, is long defunct. The Advisory Board of Archaeology has not met for nearly twelve years, so that there is no formal body to which the ASI is even ritually answerable. The internationally accepted norms that archaeological finds should be available for inspection to bonafide researchers, and transparency maintained about methods adopted in excavations and technical studies of finds, is being largely ignored by the ASI. Preservation of monuments is also increasingly neglected. It is often that the courts of law have had to direct the ASI to take certain measures to prevent pollution. While in British times lists of historical monuments with reasons for giving or withholding protection were printed for various provinces, the ASI no longer publishes such lists. Let alone such protection, very recently Akbar’s famous palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri was wilfully damaged to dig up Anup Talao, under an impulse for which no rationale has yet been provided.
As if this was not enough, the ASI has increasingly begun to adopt a narrow and parochial approach to archaeology. The beginning of this approach was signalled by the publication in 1955 of B.B. Lal’s report on Hastinapur, which aimed explicitly at providing an archaeological proof for the Mahabharata tradition. This drew upon him the reproof of the then Director General A. Ghosh, who printed the ASI’s official disavowal of his conclusions in the preface to his report. Later on, M.C. Joshi also contested B.B. Lal’s thesis of Ramayana archaeology centred on Ayodhya. But now, as the ‘saffron’ forces have come into power, a complete shift is noticeable in official archaeology. Puratattva, a journal funded by the ASI, is intent on proving that the Harappan or Indus culture was really based on the Sarasvati, and was Aryan and not Dravidian in its ethnic basis.
Several official publications of the recent past have also adopted this new-fangled designation, which incidentally puts Gujarat with its great site of Dholavira outside the zone of the Harappan culture. The new nomenclature ‘Sindhu‑Sarasvati culture’ is on its way to being given official recognition, to replace the more neutral ‘Harappan’ or ‘Indus’ culture (Sarasvati being also a river of the Indus system). Such chauvinistic attempts are drawing ridicule from archaeologists in other parts of the world.
While historical archaeology, that is, exploration and excavation of settlements in times covered by written record, has often been given a secondary place in ASI, even here there has come to be an increased emphasis on excavations of religious sites and relics, often with divisive overtones. In 1994 the World Archaeology Congress was compelled to de‑recognize its Congress at Delhi hosted by the ASI, because of the host’s refusal to let it consider a resolution condemning the destruction of monuments on sectarian grounds. Recently, the Fatehpur Sikri excavations were so announced to the press as to invite speculations that Muslim rulers, such as Akbar or Aurangzeb, were responsible for the destruction of the Jain images.
Legitimate concern in this matter is far from being set at rest by the intemperate remarks of the excavator, an ASI official, about the ‘lies’ of ‘Delhi historians’ who have protested against such misuse of publicity. Similarly, the saffronized ASI’s concern with proving the ‘Aryan’ origins of everything Indian does not only have the potential of provoking a ‘Dravidian’ backlash, but has put Indian archaeology to world ridicule, as may be seen in Possehl’s recently published, monumental Indus Age, Vol. I.
In such a situation, it is hardly to be expected that the ASI can pay attention to what is now generally held to be the core object of archaeology: the study of human culture in all its dimensions, from everyday life to art, transcending ethnic, linguistic and religious boundaries, to be undertaken with total scientific rigour. If Indian archaeology is to regain its repute, Parliament and the people of India must wake up and take the necessary steps to restructure ASI and give it a proper direction and orientation.
Some of these steps have already been suggested by the Indian History Congress in its resolutions passed in the last decade or more, and by ASHA in its 1997 conference. These have unfortunately not received the attention they deserve.
The primary need is to isolate the ASI from direct subordination to the government of the day. From a Department of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, it should become an autonomous organization, directly reporting to Parliament. It should be headed by a person of impeccable academic credentials; and what is now the Advisory Board should have greater powers of supervision and guidance and should meet regularly, under a fresh constitution prescribed by an Act of Parliament.
The ASI should have separate preservation and excavation branches under separate Directors reporting only to the Director‑General, on the analogy of the present Epigraphy Branch. It is also to be considered whether preservation of monuments may be entirely taken out of the purview of ASI and put under a separate national trust formed for the preservation of our architectural and art heritage. Until such a trust is created, the creation of a separate Preservation Branch is essential. All over the world preservation of monuments is a discipline by itself, and it requires recognition as a separate profession in India as well. Moreover, had the two branches been separated, it is hard to imagine how any excavator could have been allowed to mutilate such a World Heritage site as Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri. The Preservation Branch, as also the Excavation Branch, should, of course, have adequate trained staff and funds at their disposal.
The licence to excavate should be carefully granted only after a fully justified proposal is submitted. An enquiry should also be held to find out why excavation reports have not been published and responsibility fixed in each case, so that such delays do not occur. The site notebooks and antiquities should always made available to scholars.
There is also need to strengthen the Epigraphy Branch, which, despite the importance of inscriptions for ancient and early medieval history, has been suffering from so much neglect for so long: it was noted by the Indian History Congress in 1993 that it is woefully understaffed.
All efforts to improve archaeological education need to be supported. The syllabi have to be constantly upgraded in the universities, from where most of the officials of the ASI come, even if the ASI sets up a large institute for training archaeologists, which, according to press reports, it plans to do. But no archaeology education will be successful if its products are not liberated from parochial and chauvinistic biases: such biases are bound to negate the very basis of archaeology. This is the reason why the RSS’s take-over of Indian archaeology must be opposed.