Archaeologist or ‘faith’ healer: Babri Masjid excavation and the legacy of KK Muhammed

A vocal proponent of the temple-beneath-the-Babri-Masjid theory, former Archaeological Survey of India regional director KK Muhammed seeks to be reckoned as someone who tried to build bridges between two polarised communities.
The Archeological Survey of India team which excavated the Babri Masjid site in 1976-77. Muhammed is the person sitting on the ground in the middle in the first row.
The Archeological Survey of India team which excavated the Babri Masjid site in 1976-77. Muhammed is the person sitting on the ground in the middle in the first row.
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Towards the end of the interview held online, KK Muhammed, an archaeologist and a member of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team which undertook the first excavation at Babri Masjid in 1976-77, posed a counter question to TNM: “Do I come across as a BJP man, someone who stands for the Hindu cause?”

It’s a label he is terribly uncomfortable with and wants to shake off. A liberal Muslim who wanted to heal wounds and build bridges between two communities is the mantle perhaps he yearns for. But in the quest for glory, the ideal of an archaeologist as the unattached truth seeker sifting through stratified layers of a syncretic civilisation seems to have been lost somewhere.

A protege of the late Braj Basi Lal, a former Director General of the ASI, and a vocal proponent of the temple-beneath-the-masjid theory, Muhammed has stayed in the limelight for the past two decades, feted by supporters of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement even as critics saw him as a willing participant in a polarising Hindutva political project. He is also the second person from Kerala, after Faizabad district magistrate KK Nair, who took a stance favourable to Hindu ownership of the land on which the Babri Masjid stood in 1949.

A former regional director of the ASI, Muhammed has for long argued that Muslims should voluntarily hand over the property to Hindus because of his conviction that they have a greater claim on it due to reasons of faith. In media interviews, he strives to portray himself as a liberal Muslim in favour of the community giving up two more places of worship built by Aurangzebthe Shahi Eidgah masjid in Mathura, which stands adjacent to the Krishna Janmasthan temple, and the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi.

It’s not that Muhammed is unaware of the duplicitous nature of the claims raised by Hindutva groups on Muslim properties. “We should not create an atmosphere favourable for such endless demands. But exceptions should be made for three places – Ayodhya, which has been realised, and Gyanvapi and Mathura. For Muslims, Gyanvapi and Mathura are only connected with Aurangzeb but for Hindus, these sites are associated with Lord Siva and Krishna,” he said.

Another reason he gives for his argument for Muslims giving up the claim is that while Hindus cannot shift the site, Muslims can. “I have witnessed excruciating pain and agony that Hindus face because of their faith – you cannot ask them what’s the scientific evidence – the average Hindu is a simple man. I am not speaking about the RSS or the BJP. I have nothing to do with them. I am talking about simple ordinary men,” said Muhammed, who retired in 2012 and was awarded a Padma Shri in 2019, the year in which the Supreme Court decided on the Ayodhya dispute.

In his biography, Muhammed narrates what he told some Muslims who were SIMI [the now banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India] sympathisers from Kerala, while he was in Oman for an excavation project. “When the Baitul Muqaddas of Jerusalem fell to Jews, we assembled in Koduvally Juma Masjid and cried to Allah to get it back. An ordinary Hindu suffers the same pain that we suffered at the loss of Baitul Muqaddas.”

In 2019, after the SC verdict on Ayodhya, Muhammed while welcoming it had stated that it cannot be a precedent for other mosques to be replaced by temples as they are now safeguarded by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991. He now seems to have become accommodative towards Hindu right-wing claims on Gyanvapi and Mathura.

Many consider January 22, 2024, when the idol will be consecrated at the Ram temple being built in Ayodhya, as the day on which Hindu Rashtra is being unofficially ushered in. But Muhammed, whose work as an archaeologist gave credence to the temple-beneath-the-mosque theory, said he has nothing to do with it. He was someone who was shaken when the mosque was demolished in 1992.

“I have nothing to do with Hindu Rashtra, I want a secular country. But Muslims should also come to some sort of understanding. My humble request to Leftist people is please don’t misguide the Muslim community. There is such an effort by a group of Leftists. If you are misguiding Muslims, you see, Semitic religions have their faultlines. They think only they are right and others are wrong. If you are misguiding them, the effect would be terrible. If you are misguiding a Hindu, the effect might not be that much,” he said. When questioned on the accuracy of drawing such a parallel in the light of the violent nature of the Hindutva movement, he said that Hinduism too, of late, has acquired several traits of Semitic religions. “But that is not inherent, it is a reaction to Islamic fundamentalism,” he said, reflecting an argument found in liberal right-wing circles.

Muhammed says he lived with police protection for three years after the 2019 SC verdict due to threats from extremist outfits. When TNM sought a face-to-face interview, he sought to be excused because of renewed threat perception in the run-up to the Ram temple inauguration. He has fallen out of favour with community members because of the pro-Hindu stance he had taken.

Muhammed identifies himself as someone with a liberal ethos of the Congress party, ideologically distancing himself from the BJP. He is appreciative of the actions of Rajiv Gandhi, who was instrumental in opening the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986 and allowing puja to be conducted three years later. “I think these were the turning points in the history of the Ram temple movement, they helped bring about a solution to the issue. How long can one continue with this problem – it would be another Gaza,” drawing a problematic comparison with another project of occupation.

Muhammed was a PG Diploma student of archaeology in ASI’s own school when he joined the team that undertook the excavation at Ayodhya in 1976-77. The two-phase excavation was part of the ‘Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites’ project by BB Lal. A pioneering archaeologist, Lal had taken up a similar ‘epic’ project in 1950-52, ‘Archaeology of the Mahabharata Sites’, which critics allege was an early attempt to create links between Hindutva ideology and archaeology. He had made a correlation between Painted Grey Ware (PGW) and Period II in Hastinapur, which became controversial, as events mentioned in the Mahabharata were pushed to 1000 BC.

“Prof BB Lal excavated Hastinapur, the capital of the Pandavas, as part of the Archaeology of the Mahabharata Sites project. He wanted to take up Ramayana sites. We went without any kind of prejudice or preconceived notions,” said Muhammed, who joined ASI’s PG Diploma programme after completing graduation and post-graduation from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

“Before taking up any kind of excavation work, we usually explore the entire area where we are going to excavate so that you can contextualise. As part of that, we went to the mosque. When we went inside, we could see that the mosque was standing on temple pillars,” said Muhammed.

While most of these pillars were from the 12th century, some dated back to the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, he said. “On the lower part of the pillars, we could see purna kalasha, a pot from which foliage is coming out, considered as one of the eight auspicious (ashta mangala) symbols in Hinduism,” said Muhammed. This was the first evidence of the layer beneath having a temple, he said. Some defaced sculptures found at the site formed the second type of evidence while the discovery of brick bases on which pillars stood in the western and southern parts of the mosque was the third evidence of a temple having existed in the spot. Purna kalasha is, however, common to Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions showing offerings to deities and as decorative symbols in shrines and buildings.

Vishnuharisila phalak, a slab with 20-line inscription, dated 12th century AD, found from Babri Masjid during 1992 demolition. Muhammed says the slab is proof of the existence of a Vishnu temple though it only has an associative value.
Vishnuharisila phalak, a slab with 20-line inscription, dated 12th century AD, found from Babri Masjid during 1992 demolition. Muhammed says the slab is proof of the existence of a Vishnu temple though it only has an associative value.

The pillar theory, first expounded by BB Lal, received media attention in 1990 after an article he wrote spoke about a series of pillar bases found to the south of Babri Masjid. The article was published in Manthan, an RSS publication, and critics alleged that these details were not part of ASI reports. Muhammed, however, refuted this argument.

“It was published in an archaeological journal. ASI did not want to provoke people, the report was only for academicians. But Marxist historians went to the press and gave a statement that Prof Lal had excavated the base and did not get anything associated with temples at all,” Muhammed alleged.

Muhammed is distressed by allegations made by academicians like Prof Syed Ali Rizvi of AMU and historian Prof Irfan Habib in 2019 that he was never part of the 1976 excavation. Prof Rizvi, chairman, Department of History, AMU, had in a response letter to an interview with Mohammad published in the Times of India said “the only possibility of Muhammed having visited the site when it was being excavated was as a diploma student for two or three days, as is the usual practice.” Muhammed’s name was also missing from the ASI’s annual report, he said.

But this was rebutted by BB Lal, who was then 98, and three other archaeologists who vouched for the presence of Muhammed as the only Muslim member in the team that excavated the Ayodhya site.

The incident deepened the long-running feud Muhammed has had with Leftist intellectuals, who he alleges misguide Muslims in India. His first spat was with Irfan Habib, who he alleges in his autobiography, An Indian I Am, discriminated against him as the head of the AMU History Department, for joining the Congress-affiliated National Students’ Union of India and denied admission to PhD.

“I have a bad opinion about intellectual communists. Some of them don’t even have communist principles and use them only as a weapon. They would help organise funds for a cause from elsewhere but do nothing for the society from their own pockets,” said Muhammed, who spoke of running philanthropic projects on his own – schools for disadvantaged children from slums – while he was a resident of Delhi.

“Had I not met people like Irfan Habib I too would have been a communist,” he said.

The criticism raised by them against inferences made by the ASI with regard to Babri Masjid has no merit, said Muhammed. “Firstly, none of these people are archaeologists, archaeology is a technical subject and they have no domain competence to speak on a subject which is purely archaeological. Secondly, none of them had visited the site during the excavation. If you want to make any complaint, you should visit the site during the excavation, look at different layers. Even after excavation none of them had visited the site. What could Prof Lal do? Archaeologists don’t come out with big statements because once it goes public it becomes a problem, so he had to defend himself. We had excavated and found enough evidence associated with temples,” he said speaking about the criticism Lal faced after the Manthan article.

But the pillar theory had met with criticism from archaeologists themselves. Supriya Varma and Jaya Menon, archaeologists who were present as witnesses at the behest of the Sunni Central Board of Waqfs during the ASI excavation, questioned the theory. They said that the ASI had a preconceived plan of carving out pillar bases and that the investigation was biased. The Allahabad High Court did not pay heed to the argument. The 2019 SC judgement too refused to validate the pillar theory espoused in the 2003 ASI report.

“The ASI report has left unanswered a critical part of the remit made to it, namely, a determination of whether a Hindu temple had been demolished to pave the way for the construction of the mosque,” read the verdict. The temple was identified by the ASI as dating back to the 12th century, four centuries before Babur came to India, and there was no evidence available to explain what transpired in the course of the intervening period, the court observed.

Ayodhya is also known as Saket, an ancient centre of Buddhism. Several ASI reports, right from the first survey in 1862-63, have confirmed Buddhist links to Ayodhya. A report by Patrick Carnegie in 1870 said that the Kasauti pillars at the Ayodhya site bear strong resemblance to those found at Buddhist viharas in Sarnath and Banaras. In 2018, the SC accepted a petition by Vineet Kumar Maurya, an Ayodhya resident, seeking to investigate the Buddhist past of the Ram Janmabhoomi site.

When questioned why the apex court failed to accept ASI’s contention with regard to temple pillars, Muhammed asked: “If this was the case, why did they finally award the land for the temple?”

Much of the science in archaeology slipped through a sieve as the courts got mired in knotty legal arguments, and the final verdict became an adjudication of faith-based claims. Muhammed too appears torn between rationalist impulses and spiritual inclination.

“I may be a rationalist, but it’s not essential that all others are rationalists too. I don’t claim to be a believer or a rationalist, sometimes you are between such things as you move on in life. I can’t speak for anybody else. If you keep your faith despite being a rationalist, it may be because of certain experiences. I have had such experiences,” Muhammed said.

In a video clip available on social media, Muhammed is seen speaking about such an experience. While he was in charge of Bhopal as a Superintending Archaeologist, a temple priest sought his help to renovate a dilapidated Siva temple in Lafagarh in Chhattisgarh. Muhammed expressed his helplessness as the area was not under his jurisdiction. But the same night, Lord Siva appeared in his dream promising to help. The next day, Muhammed received a directive giving him additional charge of Chhattisgarh.

KK Muhammed with Sudha Murty of Infosys Foundation at a Bateshwar temple.
KK Muhammed with Sudha Murty of Infosys Foundation at a Bateshwar temple.

In other interviews, Muhammed has said that he took up the renovation of the Bateshwar temple complex, a cluster of sandstone temple ruins near Morena in Madhya Pradesh flattened by an earthquake, in 2005, because of a “divine calling”. He received help from Chambal dacoits who had made the broken monuments their hideout. But there is a sense of deep bitterness as the renovation, now a National Cultural Fund (NCF) project in association with Sudha Murty’s Infosys Foundation, has failed to progress because of government indifference. In a recent interview to The New Indian Express, Muhammed said that not a single temple was renovated in the last nine years.

KK Muhammed with his wife at one of the Bateshwar temples under renovation. In the middle, a Chambal dacoit who turned a security guard.
KK Muhammed with his wife at one of the Bateshwar temples under renovation. In the middle, a Chambal dacoit who turned a security guard.

Muhammed’s autobiography was critical of the BJP for turning the ASI into a dormant organisation after the party assumed power. The party has been accused of meddling with archaeological investigations if they didn’t suit the agenda of Hindu nationalism. After three rounds of excavations in Keeladi in Tamil Nadu, 26 ASI officers, including the Superintending Archaeologist, were transferred across India in 2017 because the excavations unearthed evidence of an advanced Tamil civilisation, independent of the Hindu tradition.

The BJP, it appears, is interested in renovating temples and running campaigns for the Hindu cause only if it suits their politics.

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