W.H.Kitchen, World Archaeological Congress


The World Archaeological Congress: Indian Summer or Nuclear Winter?

Department of Archaeology & Prehistory, University of Sheffield

I remember well the growing sense of unease with which I first read the introductory chapters to Bruce Trigger's A History of Archaeological Thought (1989). I had recently left the law, dissatisfied with my role as mouthpiece for those with whom I disagreed, and had sought instead the quiet life of academic archaeology. Here, I thought, I might dwell free from liberal guilt and the responsibility to make a difference. Whilst Trigger's account of fascism and the place of nationalism and socio-evolutionary theory in archaeology challenged my preconceptions, could not these be safely consigned to the past as artefacts of a less enlightened age?

WAC and Indian nationalist politics
The nationalist background.

Regrettably, archaeologists in India were only muted spectators when 450 year old monumental Masjid was demolished at Ayodhya. Let us all rise at least now to redeem the sullen and scarred prestige of Indian archaeology .... May we hope that henceforth the Indian archaeologists will not emulate the German archaeological community that played a pivotal role in legitimating notions of Germanic racial and cultural superiority and thus contributing to the political legitimisation of the Nazis in the 1930s (Shrimali 1998: 8).

As K.M. Shrimali, Professor of History at the University of Delhi, observes, the nexus between archaeology and nationalism remains a very real and dangerous one. Delegates at the WAC Inter-Congress on the 'Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property', held recently on the island of Brac, Croatia (Ascherson 1998; Kitchen, in press; Tierney 1998), heard papers and saw videos which can have left few in doubt that Shrimali is warning of no idle threat. The nuclear tests conducted by India's BJP dominated government, only days after the Inter-Congress finished, should serve to persuade any continuing doubters (Ascherson 1998). Nor should the BJP's most recent attempts to 'rewrite' Indian history come as a surprise to delegates (Suroor 1998).

Whilst all Indians are justifiably proud of the vibrant and robust achievements of their society in its many different forms, there are elements within the overwhelmingly Hindu majority in India (80 percent of the total population) who continue to work toward the establishment of an unchallenged Hindu hegemony. Indeed, for some, to be Indian means to be Hindu (Charlton 1997: chapter 5). Such people's perception of past wrongs and response to them manifest themselves from time to time in indefensible intolerance toward India's Muslim minority population (more than 100 million people), other religious minorities, and even the much less vocal majority within the country which continues to support India's secular constitution.

The main exponents of the new wave of the Hindu fundamentalist revival is an axis formed by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which, broadly speaking, constitute the militant, cultural, and political arms, respectively, of a powerful and well organised coalition of economic and religious elites (Brass 1990; Charlton, 1997). In practical terms, these elites largely comprise higher-caste Hindus. Whilst the category of 'untouchability' is outlawed under the Indian Constitution, the influence of the caste system itself still pervades Indian society (Charlton 1997). Thus Asghar Ali Engineer observes, it was the RSS, VHP 'and other upper-caste Hindu organizations' who were primarily responsible for the reassertion of Hindu pre-eminence in India in the 1980s. This was in part a response to the conversion of a few low-caste southern Indians to Islam and the resurgence of Sikh claims to separate recognition under the Indian Constitution (Engineer 1993: 188-92). Resentment surrounding the preferential treatment and reservation of places within governmental institutions to lower-caste Hindus, Muslims, and other religious minorities was also a contributory factor (Charlton 1997; Gupta 1995). Nevertheless, as Engineer argues,

Hindu-Muslim relations are not merely governed by the religious factor alone but, more often, by political and economic developments... . [I]t is the process of economic development, social change and political perceptions which are far more important than the religious factor in determining intercommunal relationships (Engineer, 1993: 191-2).

The realities of the situation were perhaps brought home best for delegates at the Inter-Congress in Brac by the presentation of a videotape (In the Name of God, by Anand Patwardhan 1992) which documented the progress of the then BJP leader L.K. Advani across Northern India in a van made up to resemble a divine chariot. The goal of Advani's rath yatra was to occupy the site of the mosque at Ayodhya, and in his wake followed a trail of rioting which resulted in the violent deaths of a thousand innocent Indians (Gupta 1995; Hasan 1993: 100). What was most striking about the documentary, however, was the mixture of bewilderment and powerlessness with which events were greeted by those lower-caste Hindus interviewed. For them as for most others interviewed -- of whatever religious creed -- Hindus and Muslims co-existed peacefully within their own communities, often in conditions of extreme poverty. It was irrelevant whether an Hindu temple had been destroyed in the sixteenth century to be replaced by the Mosque, as Advani alleged, even if such a temple had once marked the birthplace of the god-king Rama. Rather, it was the violence, pain, and anguish which resulted from agitation on both sides of the fundamentalist divide (Hindu and Muslim) which concerned them. When we listened to their voices, it became impossible to accept the arguments of some at Brac who claimed the destruction at Ayodhya was unavoidable -- the inevitable casualty of a deep-seated and commonly held religious belief (Ascherson 1998).

Controversy at WAC3. Now, whilst the very complex history of events at Ayodhya deserves much more specific treatment than can be offered here (see, for example, Gopal, 1993), it is essential that archaeologists across the world take careful note of what has been said and done on the subject in the name of archaeology; both in India and under the auspices of the World Archaeological Congress.

In New Delhi in 1994, the organisation's third Congress (WAC3) was all but hijacked by elements on the local organising committee largely sympathetic to the aims of the VHP, RSS and BJP. In direct contravention of WAC's statutory acknowledgement of 'the historical and social role, and the political context, of archaeological enquiry, of archaeological organisations, and of archaeological interpretation', and its statutory commitments to human rights, the international Executive committee banned all discussion at WAC3 of the issues arising out of the destruction, two years earlier, of the mosque at Ayodhya (Colley 1995; Golson 1996; Hassan 1995a and 1995b; Kitchen 1998; Muralidharan 1994a and 1994b; Navlakha 1994; Ronayne 1995; Sawday 1995; Tierney 1995).

Some press reports at the time suggested that the Indian government, who feared for the possible consequences of discussing such issues at the time of the second anniversary of the mosque's destruction, leaned upon the Executive to make them act this way. Others suggested it was the work of Marxist historians, and Muslim and Pakistani sympathisers, who feared the strength of the 'clinching archaeological evidence' being paraded by a group of Indian archaeologists present immediately after the destruction of the mosque (Tierney 1995; Kitchen, in press). These nationalists claimed this evidence proved the existence of a thirteenth-century Hindu temple below the mosque, the former of which had been destroyed to make way for the latter. Reports concerning the Indian government were subsequently rebutted, whilst those who saw the nature of the 'clinching evidence', repeated ad nauseam in Brac, for themselves, cannot have been impressed by the case presented (Ascherson 1998). Indeed, it seems more likely that members of the local organising committee themselves sought to suppress discussions, fearing attempts by others to expose their own dubious histories of activity to the scrutiny of the Congress (Kitchen in press; Muralidharan 1994a and b).

WAC organisation and congresses
WAC will be holding its fourth international Congress (WAC4) in Cape Town, South Africa, in January of 1999. It is likely to be the best attended since WAC1 in Southampton in 1986, when the Congress's structure was first conceived (Ucko 1987). As a direct result of proceedings in Southampton, and continuing splits in the UNESCO sponsored International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences (IUPPS) over the question of South African participation in conferences during the apartheid era, the founding members of WAC formally adopted Statutes of their own at WAC's second international Congress in Venezuela in 1990 (WAC2). On the basis of these, WAC has continued to function as a separate international body ever since. In response to events in New Delhi and elsewhere, however, the time has now arrived for a careful reassessment of WAC's role as an organisation which seeks to operate on a global scale (Kitchen 1998).

There is a series of practical debates to be had, some of which will be spelt out in position papers to be circulated with other WAC4 documentation in advance of the Congress. These are likely to consider the desirability of opening up the organisation to greater scrutiny, both of individual WAC representatives' actions and of Council and Executive decisions, more generally. Some consideration must also be given to the role of the WAC Charitable Company, which benefits from the receipt of royalties from the One World Archaeology series of books, but which has no formal connection with WAC itself (Kitchen 1998).

Papers circulated in advance should also address questions of electoral procedure, the more rapid provision of information to members, and the need to forge much stronger regional bases in many parts of the world. One of WAC's chief handicaps has been its inability to attract and retain sufficient numbers of members in the period between the international Congresses it holds every four years (Kitchen 1998). Problems of language, relevance to individual members, and speed of information exchange may all contribute to this apathy. To my mind, it will be addressed most effectively by a shift in organisational emphasis, away from the international Executive which is rarely able to meet more than once between international Congresses and towards more local or regional Executive committees. In this way, a more rapid and effective response to issues of local concern, such as the debate surrounding the mosque at Ayodhya, could be worked out in consultation with the membership as they arise, thus drawing the membership into debate and revitalising the organisation as a whole. Such an approach would focus the responsibility for action on the membership in a way which is currently absent and would inevitably involve the membership more closely in the transaction of WAC business.

Responses in different parts of the world would certainly differ, and it is conceivable that different Executive committees would act in antithetical ways. Nevertheless, the organisation's politics would be realised in practical ways, made visible at a more local scale. Central to such an endeavour would be a consideration of how such an organisation of disparate elements might continue to cohere around specific sets of core ideals or practices, and it is these principles which must dictate the form of new Statutes and organisational structures. Rather than seeking to boost membership by the provision of a better 'level of service' (Executive minutes, 2-3 December 1994: Item 5), members should be attracted by the aims and ambitions of the organisation as a whole and should be willing to contribute both time and money in pursuit of these. This will become possible, however, only when WAC is seen to act more effectively. In turn, WAC's existing activities will become more visible only with an improvement in communication between the Executive and WAC's wider membership.

Postgraduate participation at WAC and beyond
I would like to address briefly the ways in which postgraduate students might make an important impact upon WAC in Cape Town. From its inception, student involvement in the organisation has been encouraged (Ucko 1987: 10), postgraduates continue to sit on its Executive body and some have sat as National Representatives on the Council, the organisation's primary policy-making forum. Students have been funded by the organisation to attend its Congresses, and postgraduates have also been encouraged to contribute papers. Yet my own experiences in New Delhi have highlighted both the ways in which our seniors often disperse into smaller groups to make important decisions, ignoring the breadth of wider experience available at all WAC conferences, and the speed with which the post-processualist critique melts away when the bullets (albeit soft rubber ones) begin to fly.

The meetings scheduled for Cape Town represents a great opportunity to be heard and to make a difference, just so long as we come along prepared. In addition to the brief exchange on the 'arch-theory' e-mail discussion list in May and June of this year, a number of reports of events in Croatia should shortly be appearing in journals (for example, Kitchen, in press; Tierney 1998). I know others are planning discussions elsewhere, and those of you registered for the Congress in Cape Town ought to receive position papers, Statutes, and copies of various WAC resolutions in advance of the Congress. Finally, the briefest of introductions to the World Archaeological Congress is available on the Worldwide Web at <http://wac.soton.ac.uk/index.html> and copies of the papers given in Croatia can be read at <http://www.soton.ac.uk/~jmg296/croatia/index.htm>

Beside its official business, WAC4 will provide the opportunity to meet archaeologists from all over the world, working in a wide range of different circumstances and each with a different world of experience to offer. For some, this will provide a practical introduction to the difficulties of archaeology conceived on a global scale. For others, it may offer insights into the development of more local, community-based, archaeologies, such as those discussed in one of the workshops at Brac. I would argue that the opportunity to forge a new identity for WAC and to compare experiences of much more small-scale approaches to archaeology go hand in hand. Cape Town may be the one real chance we have to mould a different future for the organisation. Aside from this, it can provide the inspiration to go back to our different communities with a greater commitment to projects of more local concern. Recent events have shown the difficulties inherent in keeping dialogue open without falling into the trap of appeasement, of entertaining Hitler beyond the point of diminishing returns. We should not let this deter us from a wider belief in the value of ethically informed political dialogue within archaeology.


Copyright © W.H. Kitchen 1998


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