Sunday, November 24, 2013

ASI Gold Rush’ of Dandia Kheda

After the ‘Gold Rush’: the questions that remain - Preeta Bhattacharya, Titas Chakraborty, Suchetana Chattopadhyay

Recently the Archaeological Survey of India initiated a Gold Rush of sorts. The excavation undertaken at the Dandia Kheda Village in Unnao District of Uttar Pradesh again raises question on this institution’s integrity and credibility. Inspired by the dream of a Godman the ASI was convinced a thousand ton gold was buried underneath a temple within the precinct of Raja Ram Bux Singh’s Fort. The ‘sadhu’ had claimed, if found, the gold will wipe out the poverty of India. With his blessings, the ASI started digging. Huge crowds gathered. Countrywide mass excitement was fuelled by irresponsible comments floating from the mouths of Central Ministers, the Chief Minister of UP and sensationalist media coverage. After ten days, the ASI decided to suspend the excavation and abandon the site. It had found iron tools and pot-shards. Not an ounce of gold was spotted.

 Any excavation in the country requires the submission of a detailed plan before the ASI and the official stamp of its approval. The ASI follows certain strict guidelines, fixed by its top officials, before it embarks on excavations or authorizes other bodies to do so. Apparently, the rules could not be applied to a case of ‘divine intervention’.

 This brings to mind the official report which the ASI had prepared after the Saffron Brigade demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992. The report brought the professional expertise and ideological orientation of the ASI into question. Historians and archaeologists accused the institution of distorting, misrepresenting and ignoring hard facts on the ground. The controversial report was placed before the Allahabad High Court in 2003 as ‘evidence’, strengthening the hands of the Hindutva forces.

Ten years down the line, the ASI has once again proved how enamored the institution is with the strategies of the Hindutva forces. It is baffling why a professional and public institution such as the ASI would intervene into the matter with such remarkable enthusiasm. What made the Dandiakheda excavation merit such immediate attention over and above all other ongoing or proposed archaeological excavations in the country? In the last ten years ASI has appalled many with its neglect in preserving important excavation sites and monuments. The lack of interest in medieval and early colonial monuments is most conspicuous.

Should not the ASI and the government of India be made answerable to the democratic people of the country for this frivolous act? The ASI should reveal the real motive behind this excavation. On whose orders from South Block, New Delhi did the ASI feel that it was incumbent to act? What was the exact amount of public money that has been squandered in this undertaking? There is not an iota of doubt that the region is an important site of archaeological interest. In fact, Dandiakheda finds specific mention in Seventh Century Chinese texts. The ASI must clearly give an account of the artefacts that have been found from this excavation and what historical information can be elicited from them. Are iron tools and pot shards so insignificant archaeologically that the ASI had to abruptly stop the excavation after kick-starting the project with much fanfare?
The neo-liberal reforms initiated by the present regime have ushered in a period of extreme social insecurity. With the Lok Sabha elections in sight, one might assume that the Dandiakheda excavation was a desperate bid by the present regime to garner cheap popularity. By invoking soft line Hindutva sentiments is the government trying to compete with Narendra Modi and the bandwagon of hard line fascists? The homeless victims of the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar are watching this morbid and farcical spectacle. And so are we.

*The authors are historians based in University of Calcutta, University of Pittsburgh and Jadavpur University respectively. This statement is endorsed by Vikalp’s editorial team.

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