Monday, August 10, 2020

The truth about Ayodhya that many journalists seem to ignore


(Published in MyIndMakers, 10 Aug 2020)


Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord (Aleph, Delhi 2018) is the first book by Valay Singh. It is a journalistic overview of the developments pertaining to the Ayodhya affairs of the last years. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, both about the recent Ayodhya agitation and how the locals experienced it, and about the late Middle Ages.



On the cover, the book is announced as “a balanced chronicle of faith, fanaticism and the war between secularism and religious fundamentalism in a key battleground in modern India". Balanced?

Even before reading the book itself, we can form an idea by checking its index and bibliography. There we find that the main scholarly writers arguing for the Hindu claim to the site and about the fact and foundation of the Islamic iconoclasm that created the dispute in the first place, are simply absent. There is no mention of the very key to understanding the whole affair, viz. the 1990 book Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them by historian Sita Ram Goel, which catalogues 1836 destroyed temples replaced by mosques, and presents the theology of Iconoclasm that explains it all.

There is only one mention of Prof. Meenakshi Jain. Perhaps her last Ayodhya book and certainly her book about the Hindu reaction to Islamic iconoclasm (2017, 2019) came a little too late for our author, but most certainly her earlier book (Rama and Ayodhya, Aryan Books, Delhi 2013) should have been a prime source for any later book on the Ayodhya affair. For one, by 2018 it was the only book that detailed how badly the Eminent Historians, Singh’s main source of faithfully parroted information, fared when put on the witness stand in Court. So, he only quotes Meenakshi  Jain (p.60) about a 5th-century Shiva linga, quite peripheral to the debate, though perhaps meant as useful to Rama deniers for asserting that Shiva was worshipped there and not Vishnu through his incarnations.

As a report, it is formally rather up to standard: when claims are made about living persons, he has contacted them for their version, as a journalist should. Thus, when the Shia Waqf Board became a party to the Ayodhya dispute very shortly before its conclusion, observers found it suspiciously close to the Hindu wish of weakening the Sunni position: “The desire of the Shia Waqf board members to ingratiate themselves to the Yogi or Modi govenments cannot be ruled out.” Valay Singh is a de facto supporter of the Sunni Waqf Board’s claim, so he has an interest in presenting all factors that may thwart it as suspect. Yet he admits, after due verification at the source: “The chairman of the Board, Wasim Rizvi, denied that this is the case.” (p.368) But then, Jesuits and journalists are known for wrong-footing the reader without brazen-faced lies but with selectively citing otherwise genuine facts.



The author

On the back cover, Singh is introduced as ”an independent journalist” who has launched himself by working for “NDTV as a researcher and editor” (not exactly a guarantee of objectivity) and has since become a widely-published columnist. Not a professional historian, and ever since the controversial intervention of the “eminent historians” in the Ayodhya affair, this might count as a good thing.

                His position in the ideological spectrum can also be deduced from the description (p.268) of  Irfan Habib as one of the “independent historians like Irfan Habib who had opposed the VHP”. The anti-temple historians representing the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) since December 1990 ludicrously called themselves “independent historians”, though they were statutorily and ideologically in the BMAC’s employ. An objective journalist would have taken his distance from this transparent camouflage, but Valay Singh has no qualms about showing on what side he stands.

By contrast, he sidelines the evidence dug up in the early 1970s by the dean of Indian archaeology, Prof. Braj Basi Lal, or rather, “pro-temple archaeologists like BB Lal” (p.268). No, first Lal did neutral excavations, and after that he stood by his findings; then, more than a decade later, the VHP showed interest in them. Note also that in the 1970s when he had made his discovery, PM Indira Gandhi emphatically ordered him to keep it secret. It is only when the debate came in focus in 1989 that he went public with it.

Unlike Irhan Habib, BB Lal has a record of going where the evidence leads him, regardless of partisan loyalties. Thus, when his diggings had found a human presence at the disputed site down to the -2nd millennium, this refuted the Eminent Historians’ claim that the Masjid had been built on virgin land, but it also conflicted with many Dharmacharyas’s belief that Rama had lived in the -6th or -13th millennium or even a million years back. He stood firm against their protests by replying: “I am not saying this, but my spade tells me so.” Likewise, in the Indo-European Homeland debate, he is nowadays falsely decried as “a convert to Hindu nationalism” for supporting the Vedic nature of the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization, but for decades he was cited as the lone archaeologist who had given physical proof for the hypothetical Aryan Immigration. As a junior scholar in the 1950s, he had made his name by documenting the Painted Grey Ware and fitting it into the dominant immigrationist paradigm by identifying it as a sign of the Aryan movement deeper into India. Since the 1990s, however, he has gone public with the insight that he had only force-fitted his findings into the reigning paradigm without ever proving it, and that the accumulated evidence of the last decades points in the opposite direction: “The Vedas and Harappa are but two sides of the same coin.” That may be to the VHP’s liking, but the development of this insight was demonstrably independent from any ideological loyalty.

                Finally, note that at the time of the Supreme Court’s final verdict the BBC selected Valay Singh to report the reactions in Ayodhya. There was nothing to report: the carefully crafted stereotype that Kar Sevaks express their joy by organizing massacres of poor hapless Muslims turned out to be false, probably to the BBC’s disappointment. Indeed, this was representative of the cold shower felt throughout anti-Hindu circles: the controversy had been so much fun for them, with plenty of opportunities for virtue-signalling (“look how free I am from this superstitious Hinduism”) and an enemy you’d love to hate.  At any rate, the Mendacious Media only hand out such plum posts to people whom they deem ideologically reliable, i.c. “secularist”. 



History and myth

The drawback of Valay Singh’s journalistic approach is that he has to rely on others and isn’t sure of his grip on the less obvious elements, hence many instances of “it is said that” and similar hazy claims. Hence also some writing mistakes against technical terminology and historical names, e.g. “Puspamitra Sung” (p.7) for Pushyamitra Shunga.

If these corrections could still be dismissed as pedantry, more consequential is his unsophisticated understanding of the basic categories of history and mythology. On the first page of text already, he shows reliance on the secularist superficialism that “the Ramayana is an epic of mythology and scripture and not a historically verifiable document” (p.3). In fact, a text that is pure fantasy or “myth” is a modern invention. Ancient epics were typically rooted in real history, but with a lot of embellishment. Pitting mythology against history is a 19th-century childhood disease of the scientist worldview, when anything scriptural was laughed off as “obviously unhistorical”,-- until amateur Heinrich Schliemann dug up Troy and showed that Homer’s “fanciful legend” did have a basis in real history.

Here and there, Singh has dug up interesting anecdotes, though always in the service of an anti-Hindu agenda. Thus, we learn that in 1938, the Vaishnava Pandit Ramtahal Das wrote a “hagiograpical” biography of Akbar-age Vaishnava saint Devmurari. Yet he claims: “Pandit Ramtahal Das, himself a Vaishnava, displays remarkable neutrality when writing about the historicity of the Vaishnava tradition. He asserts that if there was indeed a Ram or Vaishnava centre in Awadh at the time of Nabhadas (circa 1600) it would certainly have been mentioned in his Bhaktamal.” (p.60) “Neutrality” is of course code for a viewpoint that comes in handy for Singh’s own narrative. So when Babar’s contemporary Guru Nanak does report his pilgrimage to Rama’s birthplace in Ayodhya, we are expected to consider this testimony “neutralized” by the alleged non-mention in this Nabhadas’ writings almost a century later?

“According to a legend, corroborated by interviews with several Vaishnava saints in Ayodhya, ‘if 500 Vaishnavs used to go to the north, only 50 would return.’ Ramtahal Das also confirms this in Devmurari’s biography: ‘the Dashnamis, with the help of north Indian kings, started attacking Vaishnav saints who used to venture northwards for pilgrimages. It was the time of Muslim rulers and they had decreed that the sects be allowed to settle their scores without interference.” (p.60) No close sources are given, only a “legend”, that is (in spite of his claming otherwise) not corroborated by any real sources. A 20th-century writer is quoted as alleging only that Vaishnava pilgrims got “attacked”, yet Valay claims that 95% of the Vaishnava pilgrims were “killed”, a pretty sensational phenomenon that ought to have left tangible traces in the record.




Valay Singh’s desire to belittle Hindus and predictably reduce Hinduism to “caste, wholly caste and nothing but caste” makes him put a casteist spin on many stories. Describing a controversy between the purely Brahmin Ramanujis (followers of Ramanuja, the medieval philosopher crucial in the tradition of Rama worship) and the Ramanandi order, he quotes the Dutch scholar Peter van der Veer as certifying that a particular Ramanandi leader, Lakshmandas, had been humiliated by a Ramanuji teacher of Sanskrit. This proved that the Ramanujis looked down on the Ramanandis simply because, according to Van der Veer, “he belonged to the Ramanandi community.”

But a sectarian conflict can exist within any religion, and for a Hindu-basher, that is not good enough: Hinduism must be confirmed to be blacker than the rest, viz. through caste. So: “However, the possibility that van der Veer leaves out of his anthropological study is that (…)  Lakshmandas was perhaps not a high-caste Brahmin and as his guru knew that, he could not have given him the same pot that was used in his kitchen.” (p.177) This Singh writes less than one page after he himself had written that Lakshmandas had been “born in UP in a Brahmin family”.

The Ramanandis, because of their association with the Janmabhumi temple association, tend to be back-projected as the bad guys, yet Valay Singh reports that in 1813-14, “Francis Buchanan found that the Ramanandi priests ‘stressed upon their followers a strict moral code and adherence to a daily regimen of prayer and physical exercise; they also forbade meat and alcohol. Observance of their Vaishnava traditions gave them, untouchables included, a substantial amount of self-respect’, he concluded.” (p.94)

Unlike the secularists, who have demonized the Rama devotees, the British (who must have recognized much of their own Protestant innovation of Methodism in the Ramanandis) actually liked them: “The British found the Vaishnava values of complete devotion to a personal god to be more in line with their own idea of religion. As opposed to the militant, extremely ambitious and warlike Shaiva ascetics, the British found common ground with Vaishnavas.” (p.92)

Singh even admits that throughout the Vaishnava world, a fermentation of caste reform was taking place ca. 1900. Far from leading the peasant revolt of 1921, MK Gandhi actually tried to rein it in: “You, the peasants, should bear a little if the zamindar torments you.” (p.151) In their quest for social justice, the Vaishnavas went farther than upper-Bania Gandhi was willing to go.



The much-maligned British

Valay Singh of course rehashes the very popular lie (not just among secularists and Indologists, but also among Hindu sentimentalists) that British policies “result[ed] in the partition of the subcontinent on religious lines”. (p.180) No, it was the Muslim League’s policy that did so. There were only two significant opinion currents in the Muslim community, both Muslim supremacist: the traditionalists like Maulana Azad who felt that, like until the 18th century, Muslims could take full power in India in spite of being the minority (silly secularists call them “nationalist Muslims” because they tried to use Congress as their vehicle); and the modernists who took the new wave of democratic thinking into account and calculated that the Muslims should first settle for geographically limited sovereignty and only prepare for the conquest of the rest of the Subcontinent once the demographic equation had evolved in their favour.  The British involvement was limited to unwittingly creating circumstances favouring the second party over the first.

So, Singh misrepresents Muslim attacks on Hindus, such as the “Great Calcutta Killing”, which took place when the British were on their way out and the provinces had native autonomy. This pogrom, which convinced the British that their resistance to the Partition plan was useless, was planned by the Muslim League, with the passive connivance of the police which was under control of the Muslim League state government. He, however, denies Muslim agency by calling it a “large-scale riot” and a “massacre of Hindus and Muslims” (p.181). This is the usual media discourse: two-sided violence or even one-sided Muslim violence is presented as a Hindu attack on the poor hapless Muslims (as in late February 2020, when the Wall Street Journal and notoriously misrepresented a photograph of a Muslim rioters’ attack in Delhi as showing a Hindu attack), and only when the Muslim initiative is too glaring to be denied, their rearguard tactic is to present it as two-sided. In the case of the Great Calcutta Killing, this was purely a one-sided attack by the Muslim League on the Hindus, with the passive complicity of the state police, which only started to intervene as soon as the Hindu side managed to mobilize for self-defence.

All manner of probably true statements are spun to convey some anti-Hindu or at least Hindu-belittling messages. Thus, “given the late development of Ayodhya as a pilgrim centre, it was not surprising that most Hindus had never been to Ayodhya.” (p.234) Not too late for Guru Nanak to go on pilgrimage there in 1510-11 as per his Janam Sakhi biography, at any rate. But alright, even in the present age of trains and airplanes, it is still only a minority that has actually gone there, let alone in the age before high-tech. In those days, how many Muslims had been to Mecca and earned the title Hajji (someone who has performed the Hajj)? And does this prove that Mecca “developed only late as a pilgrim centre”? Journeying was long and difficult, only available to well-to-do people, mostly only in the latter part of their lives if their health still permitted it. For every lay pilgrim who made it to Ayodhya, there were a hundred Rama devotees back home.

Singh claims about Walter Hamilton’s gazette of 1928: “It is noteworthy that Hamilton finds not one temple to be described in detail.(...) His account makes no mention of Rama’s birthplace temple or of the Hanumangarhi or even the ancient Nageshwarnath temple.” (p.97) So he himself admits at least the existence of the Hanumangarhi and Nageshwarnath temples, yet notes that Hamilton doesn’t care to mention them. Rather than taking this non-mention as proof of how unimportant Rama’s birthplace is, he should merely have drawn the obvious conclusion that Hamilton never sought to give a description of Ayodhya’s religious landscape. So the non-mention of Rama Janmabhumi cannot even be used as an argument from silence (as non-historian Valay Singh does here), which would still be the weakest type of argument anyway.

By contrast, other British sources are conceded to mention the Hanumangarhi, but he still finds fault with those: “In 1855, curiously enough, no extant British record of the Hanumangarhi identifies the said mosque as Ram Janmabhumi.” (p.111)  Well, of course, because it wasn’t.

He adds facts that might become important the day a real history of the Ayodhya movement is written, e.g. that Hindutva stalwarts MS Golwalkar and Nana Deshmukh had been present for the installation of the idols in 1949. The strong involvement of the Hindu Mahâsabhâ from the beginning was already known, but recently the RSS has been magnifying its own role in the early Ayodhya agitation. Here Singh maintains a proper distance, qualifying this claim with “if true”. (p.189)




There is a mention of myself (p.29), where I discuss Ramacharitmanas poet Tulsidas’s perfectly explainable non-mention of the purported temple demolition by his contemporary Akbar’s grandfather Babar. (I later learned that in a lesser-known text of his, the Doha Shataka from 1590, verse 85-92, deposed before the Allahabad High Court in 2003, Tulsidas does mention Babar’s destruction.) This is a rather peripheral historical argument within my book Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple, which he has apparently read. The central thesis of the book, which he studiously ignores, consists of scholarly arguments for the temple, and a refutation of all the secularists’ and Eminent Historians’ attempts to escape this evidence.

Moreover, that book of mine also treats of a few parallel cases. Thus, it is where Singh could have found the demolition of the well-known false claim that Pushyamitra Shunga awarded a prize for the head of every Buddhist. Yet, he faithfully reproduces this false claim: “In Ayodhya, local tradition says that he declared a price of one gold coin for the head of one Buddhist. He is believed to have led a Brahmin campain to wipe out Buddhist rule from north India.” (p.7) The claim is not just wrong, but is also misattributed: his local informers have not expressed some “local tradition”. Being located far from Pushyamitra’s capital, the locals have merely parroted the Nehruvian story megaphoned through the textbooks and media. In history courses, you learn about the need for “origin criticism”; once you have some experience with this, you can, even before delving into the books or the dusty manuscripts, already see that in the present case, the claim is not based on some mysteriously preserved local tradition but on the (carefully engineered) received wisdom.

At any rate, Singh has been caught in the act of denying pro-temple evidence which he must have learned about as per his own testimony. So it doesn’t surprise us that he feigns unfamiliarity with the scholarly state of the art. According to him, the VHP sought “the cover of scientifically gathered evidence”  and “is said to have surmised that if the excavation proved (which it did in the minds of some Hindus) that there was a Hindu temple at the site prior to the Babri Masjid, then the demolition of the Babri Masjid was justified.” (p.270) No, proof from the excavations (converging with that from many documentary sources) did not just show the temple’s existence “in the mind of some Hindus”; this variegated proof is the scientific state of the art. Those who deny it, even if they boast academic titles, are ipso facto anti-science.



Some good things

Let’s not be overly pedantic. Some good things can be reported about this book. We learn here that Narasimha Rao (who, as PM, followed in Rajiv Gandhi’s footsteps by promising a solution in consonance with the historical evidence, a neutral way of saying: in accordance with the Hindu preference), according to a Congress politician, was “India’s first BJP Prime Minister”. (p.257) He certainly was India’s best PM so far, for he patronized the decisive move away from the Nehruvian socialist policies that had bankrupted India, and he sat unmoved through the news of Kar Sevaks demolishing the disputed structure without ordering the only thing that could have saved the Masjid: an intervention by the army. This actually saved many lives, for a standing Masjid would have swayed millions of fence-sitting Muslims to go on claiming this otherwise unimportant building, and would have dissuaded the Supreme Court from finally closing the controversy by letting common sense prevail: leave a Hindu sacred site to the Hindus.  

On p.82-83, he faithfully quotes the Austrian Jesuit Josepf Tieffenthaler, an eye-witness to the religious practices in Ayodhya. Like all witnesses in the first centuries after Babar, he reports plenty of Hindu activity at the site, esp. celebrations of his incarnation on Ram Navami; and conspicuously omits mentioning any Muslim activity there. Perhaps Akbar, who sought to curry favour with the Hindus as a counterweight to the sectarian and ethnic Muslim lobbies threatening his power, had reached a compromise with the Hindus to the effect that they could worship Rama there on condition of not offending the Muslims by demolishing the mosque architecture. The details about that period, probably ending with or interrupted by Aurangzeb’s iconoclastic fury, remain to be explored by the historians, who are all the more free to do so now that the burden of a momentous controversy has been lifted. 

Singh also approaches honesty when he reports: “On 27 February 2002, more than fifty karsevaks were burnt to death reportedly by a ‘Muslim mob’.” (p.262) These scare quotes were unnecessary, the facts have been established and even confirmed by the judiciary, but at least the true story is more or less explicitated.

This is his farewell sentence: “Ayodhya has come a long way in its journey over millennia, and while today it is called the graveyard of Inda’s composite culture and rule of law, I am hopeful that this label, too, will not stick forever. Ayodhya will keep changing its course with the river Sarayu as its eternal witness.” (p.369) We retain that the false label on Ayodhya as graveyard of pluralism will, in spite of frantic attempts by the secularists, not stick forever.




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Nikhil Gupta said...

Even if Doha shatak is not authentic it does not matter . Works of William Finch, Father Tiefenthaler, Islamic sources taking pride in demolition and other sources and Archaeology is enough to say temple existed.