Past and present -- eternal face-off  

Shihab Sarkar     | Published: December 01, 2018 22:37:18

The news report about the opposition of some villagers to an attempt to excavate a historical site in an area initially triggered premonition of many. They suspected the action to be the work of obscurant elements. These sections of people have demonstrated least interest in the country's past heritage, let alone the digging of invaluable remnants and relics.

To the relief of the archaeological team, the opposition finally proved to have been sparked by a fear of the local people. The fear was one of displacement from their centuries-old homesteads. With these settlements taken over by the archaeological department, they will in all probability be turned homeless. The local administration, has, however assured them of keeping their habitats unaffected by the excavation work. A two-thousand-year-old culturally rich semi-urban centre is presumed to be lying buried in the neighbourhood. The above incident occurring in the country's north is nothing extraordinary. Opposition to archaeological ventures was once frequent in the country. Thanks to the rise in the number of educated and enlightened youths, and their advocacy of the need for preserving the past, the attitudes of the common villagers have undergone a positive change. But a mundane problem continues to haunt them: Displacement and nonpayment of compensation in case they are made to leave the place.

In a different context, the displacement of people from their ancient neighbourhoods brings to the fore a universal phenomenon. It comprises the age-old clash between two forces, in which the domineering and the powerful one defeats those weaker. At the dawn of civilisations, this clash involved mainly humans and the inhabitants of the wild. Along with the nonstop march of progress, humans' need for areas cleared of forests, and thus beasts, became more acute. Invariably a clash, a face-off to be precise, ensued. In terms of form, this clash emerged more as an intangible one than something earthly where the parties in clash can be distinguished by their clear identities. Man can clear forests and drive animals out to set up settlements including villages and towns. Animals can only retaliate after being spurred by their stimuli. They cannot formulate battle strategies and declare war on humans.

The universal face-off has yet to be over. However, there is a twist. In place of animals, lots of which are on the verge of extinction, man has now made the fellow humans his adversaries. The latter are apparently weaker physically and on the count of intelligence. Thus in almost every confrontation, the weaker segments concede defeat. In cases, they are annihilated en masse. This is what has happened to the native Indians in the North American countries, and also to those in Brazil, Peru and other South American territories. In the vast Sub-Saharan African region, the so-called progress of civilised communities, and later the widespread activities of archaeologists have exacted a toll on the local indigenous cultures. Let's take the case of the West African nation of Mali. The country once witnessed the flourishing of a resourceful empire from 13th to 17th centuries. It can be presumed that the vast desert-dominated, landlocked kingdom could not have reached its zenith without the sacrifices of its native communities. Like in many other African countries, the archaeological excavations in Mali too had to go through the bouts of forced displacement and disruptions to their age-old lifestyle.

At this point, many would feel tempted to place growth of civilisations and archaeological activities in a position hostile to the common man's mundane life. Which comes first: a creatively knowledgeable living or remaining deprived of the finer sensibilities. Should man remain fascinated by the marvels of the past or put in his best of efforts to savour the pleasures of a fulfilled life? It is indeed a great dilemma of the times.


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