People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 32

August 08, 2010

Mourning Professor Suraj Bhan


Irfan Habib


NOT only colleagues and fellow archaeologists, not only the very large number of his friends, but very many other people as well, who felt for the causes that he stood for, deeply mourn the passing away of Professor Suraj Bhan (July 14, 2010).


Born in March 1931 at Montgomery, now in West Punjab (Pakistan), Suraj Bhan belonged to a peasant family of village Asodha, in Jhajjar District, Haryana. After receiving his college education, his interests in India’s classical past led him to take his MA degree in Sanskrit from the Delhi University.  He thereafter shifted his attention to archaeology and went to MS University, Baroda (Gujarat) where he obtained his Master’s degree in that subject.  After a stint as lecturer in the Punjab University, he was appointed reader in the newly-founded University at Kurukshetra in the 1960’s; he was later appointed professor in the same university. From the late 1960’s alongside teaching, Suraj Bhan pursued field archaeology with great vigour. He undertook excavations at the Indus-culture site of Mitathal in 1968, and also conducted extensive explorations along the old river channels of Haryana. On the basis of this work, he submitted a thesis at the MS University, Baroda, on the Prehistoric Archaeology of Haryana, for the Ph D degree, that was conferred on him in 1972.  His reputation as a notable archaeologist was finally established when his report, Excavations at Mitathal and other Explorations in the Sutlej-Yamuna Divide, was published in 1975.


Professor Suraj Bhan continued his explorations as well as theoretical studies after this major work of his. He was president of the archaeology section of the Indian History Congress at its 47th session (Srinagar, 1987), delivering an address which exhibited his great strengths in the grasp of archaeological method as well as of the specific features of the Indus and post-Indus cultures in the Haryana-Punjab region.  He was wholly dedicated to a scientific approach; and firmly rejected views that appeared to him to be inspired by any irrational bias.


Suraj Bhan saw with increasing concern the turn that Indian archaeology, as represented by sections of the official Archaeological Survey and the Indian Archaeological Society, began to take towards a chauvinistic and communal standpoint, especially revolving around the issue of Ramjanmbhumi at Ayodhya and the claim for an Aryan authorship of the Indus Civilisation. In 1991 he joined three other historians headed by Professor RS Sharma, in penning a “Report to the Nation” on the Ramjanmbhumi-Babri Masjid issue, in which there was a detailed refutation of the VHP’s claims of there having been a Ram temple at the Masjid site. Subsequently, when the Allahabad High Court (Lucknow Bench) began to take evidence on the VHP’s claims, he, as an expert witness put up the historians’ case firmly and fully before the Bench in 2001. Subsequently, when in 2003, at the orders of the Court, the Archaeological Survey of India dug up the Babri Masjid site, and in its report, written by BR Mani (new joint-director general, ASI) and H Manjhi, tried to justify the VHP claims, Professor Suraj Bhan, who had personally visited the site, published a strong critique of the ASI’s officers’ unprofessional methods and approach.


In the meantime, Suraj Bhan persevered with his opposition to the other distortions of archaeology. In his presidential address to the Association of the study of History and Archaeology (1996), he refuted the notions of Mahabharata and Ramayana archaeology that Professor B B Lal had in particular been propagating.  In a paper published in a volume, The Making of History (2000), he clinically dissected the proof offered for the alleged Aryan authorship of the Indus Civilization by B B Lal, S P Gupta and others.  His tone was always courteous, just as his scrutiny was always severe.


Suraj Bhan’s academic work deeply bore the imprint of Marxism throughout and he was especially influenced too by the writings of Professor R S Sharma, the doyen of Indian Marxist historians. Such commitment was in line with his practical activities. He was deeply involved with the work of CPI(M) in Haryana, and he took particular interest in the People’s Science movement, literacy campaigns and the cause of women’s rights. And he never forgot his own deep rural roots.


Not to be forgotten is the seriousness with which Professor took his work as a teacher. Once I was travelling with him in a taxi and we were involved in a minor accident near Karnal. The police officer threatened the taxi driver with prosecution, when he suddenly noticed Professor Suraj Bhan. Apparently, a cousin of his had been Professor Suraj Bhan’s pupil, and the latter’s name was legend in the family. The law’s threat lifted immediately, and we were honorably allowed to proceed.


As I write about him I recall a cheerful, kindly, thoughtful man, his physical frame attesting what immense labour he was capable of. That memory makes the feeling of loss still so much greater.