There is a strange air hanging over parts of the country ever since the vaults in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple were opened to reveal their hidden treasures. In the most criminal of events, a 14-year-old was murdered in Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh in January in a human sacrifice for treasure in a fort. Informed journalists say that in many parts of Andhra Pradesh, people are now digging under monuments looking for their own Padmanabhaswamy pots of gold, thereby endangering those structures. Now in the centre of Hyderabad, in a bizarre series of events unfolding over the past 10 days, the State Department of Archaeology, basing itself on some bizarre information, has embarked on an incompetent, arbitrary and perhaps illegal pursuit of its own pot of gold.

On the afternoon of February 18, a large team of government officials and police descended without prior notice on the premises of Vidyaranya School, an institution which over the past half century has practiced a philosophy of education based partly on the thinking of J. Krishnamurti.

The officials came with an order to “survey” a portion of the hillside of Naubat Pahad, a hillock that is partly in the school, to look for “treasure.” The source of information? A group of self-styled “eminent citizens” had apparently given an affidavit saying that they had met a construction worker who, while working nearby, had seen (a) a tunnel at the bottom of the hill, and (b) an iron gate, and beyond it, a treasure chest (???) that could not be opened.

By the same evening, a portion of the hillside had been stripped bare of vegetation — alas to reveal no tunnel, gate or treasure . By the next day an earthmover had been brought into the school; over the next two days a 30 ft wide and 10 ft deep pit was dug in the football field — still no sign of treasure. By midweek, the National Mineral Development Corporation was brought in and is offering its own selective leaks, but this time of an underground hollow.

In a remarkable display of media management that would be the envy of any PR agency, the Department of Archaeology had media personnel tripping over each other for the story of the day. The officials and their informants have held forth on TV channels on the untold riches in the city centre. In no time at all, we had a figure — apparently the treasure's value (estimated by the construction worker?) was Rs.20,000 crore — equivalent to the budget of the Government of Andhra Pradesh. Soon the State Minister for Tourism too visited the site and the secretary of culture followed, both lending legitimacy to the destructive operations of the Department of Archaeology. The rare questioning of the government archaeologists evoked verbal threats and retorts like: “We have the powers to raze the school building to the ground” and “We will instruct every government department to create trouble for the school.”

Can these bizarre events be explained as some form of State-sponsored land grab in the heart of a city, in which a school is an easy victim? Or does it have to do with senior officials of the Department of Archaeology, embarking on a publicity stunt towards the end of their tenure? February's theatre of the absurd in Hyderabad continues. Hard questions still need to be asked of the actions of the state bureaucracy.

Four questions

First, how does the Department of Archaeology go by the supposed statement of one construction worker? Why was it not deemed important to consider that hundreds of children, teachers and parents who have passed by that very spot every day over five decades saw nothing? How is it that children who regularly clamber up the hillock looking for their own tunnels never experienced such a thrill of discovery? Why did the Department of Archaeology never contact any teacher or parent, or the school management — groups who would know better about tunnels and gates?

Second, Section 24 of The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 clearly states:

“No State Government shall undertake or authorise any person to undertake any excavation or other like operation for archaeological purposes in any area which is not a protected area except with the previous approval of the Central Government.”

Was permission sought before entry? If not, is the State department not engaging in an illegal operation? The officials have told the local media that permission is not necessary because they are only conducting an exploration. Is digging up a hillside exploration? Is bringing in earthmovers to dig 10 feet deep holes exploration? It is perhaps time for the Archaeological Survey of India to take suo moto notice of this operation.

Third, unlike archaeologists around the world who use shallow spades, shovels, and often just brushes for their explorations, using a JCB to conduct excavations must be a world first for archaeology. What does this say of the competence of a department entrusted with the protection of ancient monuments?

Four, what concern does this government department have for education and the safety of children? The careless stripping of part of the hillside raises the threat of mud slips during the monsoon, threatening the lives of children playing in the grounds below. The stone and boulder strewn football ground is now unusable and also dangerous for children to play on. The presence of hordes of strangers brought in by the department and walking all over the site raises issues of safety of the toddlers in the school. And while the Archaeology Department says the ICSE exams in the school, which is a centre, will not be affected, they have refused to stay exploration/excavations until the exams are over. What comes first, the safety of children and their education or a wild goose chase by officials searching for their moment of glory?

The disregard for the rights of citizens is now becoming endemic. The poor of India live with the state exercising arbitrary power every day. The middle and upper classes have hitherto enjoyed protection from such state behaviour. But soon, it seems, even they will have to face the arbitrary and illegal exercise of state power.

(The author is a Vidyaranya parent. His son's grandmother established the school in 1961. He is also Editor, Economic and Political Weekly. Email: crr100@gmail.com.)

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