Technical Discussion – What Happened at WAC?

The third World Archaeological Congress (WAC) was held in New Delhi in 1994.

This international conference was chaotic and overwhelmed by the Ayodhya issue. On arrival, delegates were surprised to be asked if they had “any major disagreement with the following:

Following a meeting in New Delhi on the eve of the Third World Archaeological Congress, the WAC Executive is making it known that it supports the view of our Indian colleagues that there should be no papers or discussion within the Congress programme nor resolutions or discussion at meetings of the Executive Committee, in Council and in the Plenary Session on the politically and communally sensitive Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid (Ayodhya) issue. The Executive recognises that the practical consequences of discussing this issue would be beyond the Executive’s control. In asking members of the Congress to respect this understanding, the Executive assures participants that this is the only concession that it is willing to make to limitation of the WAC principles of discussion of the historical and social role, and political context, of archaeological enquiry and interpretation. Signed: Jack Golson, President WAC” (Colley 1995, 15).

The WAC Code of Ethics (1990) prioritises the views of indigenous peoples over those from countries that have historically acted as colonisers, and effectively bans discussion of issues deemed sensitive by indigenous peoples. By seeking to enforce this Code, WAC was deliberately attempting to avoid having the discussion of this extremely contentious issue hijacked by Hindu nationalists.

Importantly, “The main Indian organisational committee' included two partisans of the Hindu side in the conflict: B. B. Lal, the principal person to excavate near the Ayodhya mosque, and S. P. Gupta, an archaeologist known for his close associations with an extremist Hindu paramilitary organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]. Lal served as president of the congress, while Gupta acted in the capacity of liaison between the Indian organizers and the congress's international executive committee. Some Indian archaeologists and historians of the "other side" chose to boycott the congress in protest against what they considered to be the misuse of archaeology for divisive political purposes” (Bernbeck & Pollock 1996, 139)

Colley (1995, 17) considered that those who wanted WAC to talk about Ayodhya fell into several camps:

Writers in the RSS’s mouthpiece Organiser expected WAC delegates to provide international endorsement for their ‘irrefutable’ evidence for Hindu claims to Ayodhya. Critics wanted WAC to censure Gupta, B.B. Lal and others whom they argued had broken the law and violated professional codes of practice and ethics in their abuse of archaeological evidence at Ayodhya, and in Lal’s attempts to suppress discussion of the issue, given WAC’S Code of Ethics and its explicit interest in the political context of archaeology. Colin Renfrew, Rhys Jones and other non-Indian delegates also called for open discussion of Ayodhya on the grounds of academic freedom.

Colley’s eyewitness account of the Plenary session (Colley 1995, 16) then gives a sense of the event as it happened:

The organizers kept changing the time for the Plenary which eventually started while I was still queuing to reclaim my lost accommodation deposit. I entered a scene of chaos and uproar with angry Indian delegates screaming abuse at each other. It was difficult to follow the arguments. As things seemed to be getting nasty many people left. Several motions were presented. Some, from various Indian factions, called for discussion of the banned Ayodhya issue. Another, from an assortment of WAC delegates deplored the pressure put on WAC not to discuss Ayodhya as a curtailment of academic freedom. Hard-line fundamentalist Hindu delegates prevented discussion by filibustering and Conference President B.B. Lal, clearly sympathetic to their views, then terminated the meeting amid general uproar. To prevent any attempt to restart the Plenary, Academic Secretary Makkhan Lai removed the PA system from the room. In protest at these events the WAC Council then met and decided to boycott the official closing ceremonies.