Sunday, October 27, 2013

Govt’s Gold Hunt: Obnoxious and Medievalist

IT appears the government of India has gone bizarre. Right now, a treasure hunt is on. And, as retrograde as it may sound, the whole exercise is undertaken by officials of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the express direction of the union government.

That medievalism has a field day here in contemporary India is a telling commentary on the current state of affairs. There is presumably search for ‘gold’ near a deserted temple covered by thick foliage in the Daundia Khera village in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. The temple is supposed to have been built on the ruins of a palace belonging to a 19th century king, Rao Ram Baksh Singh. He was a ruler in these parts of the country and was a fierce opponent of the British raj. He actively participated in the 1857 rebellion.  The British retaliated by executing the king by hanging.

As folklore in the locality suggests that the king, before being executed, hid his treasures in the fort complex adjacent to the palace. But this was just hearsay; no substantial evidence was offered till now to suggest that this folklore had any material basis. In many parts of the country, thousands of such local gossips must be doing the rounds inspiring ‘storm in tea cups’ in numerous rural chaupals!

Till this point, there is nothing unusual in a country like India where ancient and modern intertwines almost inseparably.  Reportedly, the sadhu had been shooting off letters to various state and central agencies about the ‘golden treasure’; but a new dimension which was infused in this bizarre episode began with Charandas Mohant, minister of state for agriculture and food processing industry, visiting this area on September 22 and October 7.  The minister shared with the local media that he has come to know from a local sadhu about hidden treasure in this temple complex.

The sadhu, Sobhan Sarkar, is from Mytha block of Kanpur (Dehat) district.  He has been building his ashrams in the vicinity.  His disciples believe that he has ‘divine powers’ and the ‘dead’ communicate with him in his dreams.  Now Sarkar has claimed that Raja Rao Ram Baksh Singh met him in his dreams and suggested that 1000 tonnes of gold is hidden in the temple complex.

Having heard that the Indian government is facing a crisis, he claims to have taken it upon himself to inform the government, through minister Mohant, that this gold could be recovered and this could greatly help relieve the difficulty of the government.  In fact, he had shot off a letter to the prime minister who is also the president of Archaeological Survey of India to this effect.

And strangest of the strange things happened. After minister Mohant’s visit to the area, ASI has started excavating the area from October 18. The government in New Delhi is generally attacked by its critics for suffering from ‘paralysis’; but the promptness with which the ASI has been tasked to act on this question can surely take the wind out of the detractors sail!

The sadhu in question, however, seems to be speaking with a forked tongue! On the one hand, he has been claiming that he has put his credibility on the chopping block by making such a precise prediction.  But having seen the mad rush among locals and demands already coming up for sharing the booty once it is ‘recovered’, Sarkar told reporters “Officials of the Archaeological Survey of India and the Geological Survey of India started working here in the first week of this month (October). Since the area is spread over 60 acres, they failed to locate the point. Then I went with them and pointed out the spot. They made two holes and realised there was a possibility of huge stock of gold buried in the earth.”  And, added, “ASI may reach the point where thousand tonnes of gold is buried, but they cannot touch the treasure without the permission of my gurus. If at all they try to ignore my suggestion, the gold will vanish from there.”

A local sadhu making such stupendous claims is one thing; but it is totally horrendous that ASI and the government are drawn to his tunes like the mice in ‘pied piper of Hamlin’.

ASI is an organisation which was envisaged in its modern form,by no less than India’s first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.  In a bid to develop a modern and scientific temper, he had a vision to uncover the history of the ancient civilization that houses this Republic, freeing it from distortions engineered by colonial historians.  And, to do that, it was so important to promote a scientific study of our history – and archaeology was going to be a crucial instrument in that endeavor.

Having come across this bizarre behaviour of the government, dusting off an old report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture which was tabled in both Houses on November 25, 2005 became pertinent. The unanimous report by the Committee titled “Functioning of the Archaeological Survey of India” had lambasted the then NDA government and particularly the ministry of culture for misusing the ASI to perpetrate ‘myths’.

It will be worthwhile to recall the context.  Jagmohan, the then minister for tourism and culture, had forced the ASI to initiate the Saraswati heritage project which aimed at providing legitimacy to the existence of Saraswati river which finds repeated references in epics and Hindu mythology. The report of the Parliamentary Committee completely debunked the attempts by the government to legitimise and perpetrate a myth through clear violations of the functional procedures of ASI. The ASI cannot take up any excavation without a reference to the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology (CABA) or else without a recommendation from any independent academic body. In fact, while doing its study, the Committee also found that how governments have systematically undermined the official decision to establish ASI as a scientific and technical department.

As, media reports clearly suggest that the present exercise by ASI also suffers from a similar unlawful course.  The excavation has not been suggested by the standing committee of CABA or any academic body as the ASI’s mandate requires.

When asked closely on the violation of this requirement, an official of ASI has observed “ASI works under the union culture ministry, which ordered it to start excavation at Unnao. The dig was not discussed by the standing committee. ASI Director-General gives permission for excavation as per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act”. On being asked whether this was done through any ministerial interference, he was clearly evasive.

It is pathetic that Nehru’s own ilk presides over this proliferation of medievalism. Does the government really believe in such utter ‘colourful imagination’?  Is the government so desperate for money?

Narendra Modi has also pitched in this sordid saga, exposing his real colours. In his initial reaction, he had lampooned the government for its official patronage of the gold hunt thus “The world is laughing at India as the government is searching for gold because of someone’s dream”. But stung by a strong a criticism from the sadhu Sarkar’s ashram, he did a lightning quick somersault and tweeted obeisance to the sadhu stating ‘I salute the austerity and renunciation of Sarkar, with whom is associated the faith of lakhs of people for many years’. Modi understands perfectly well which side of the bread has to be buttered; between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ his position is well cut out!
The media has reported that two silver snakes were buried in the earth at the spot where Narendra Modi addressed his election rally in Kanpur.  This has been on the basis of suggestions of Vastu experts. Increasingly, such reports concerning ministers and elected representatives fill the media; not to speak of scientists and academicians also following suit. No wonder that men like Narendra Dhabolkar has to become martyr in fighting ‘blind faith’. But those who cherish modernity and reason will have to be unyielding in this struggle.

Nilotpal Basu People's Democracy 27-10-2013

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