Targeting symbols

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The Taj Mahal. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath taking part in a cleanliness drive at the western gate of the Taj Mahal in Agra along with Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma and Tourism Minister Rita Bahuguna on October 26, 2017. Adityanath said the Taj was built with the blood and sweat of Indians. Photo: PTI

The Taj Mahal faces a serious threat as the saffron brigade, in order to deflect attention from the failures of the BJP government, is out to annex or attack landmark achievements of the “Other”.

IF one can use a cricketing term, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in T-20 mode. Staring at a floundering economy, the disastrous outcomes of demonetisation, and jobs that do not seem to exist, the party has undertaken the time-tested exercise at deflection: open up aggressive fronts on society, history, love and romance. Hence the increasing incidents of mob lynching in the name of the cow (the latest incidents were at Hapur in Uttar Pradesh on June 18 and in Godda district in Jharkhand on June 13), love jehad (the regional passport officer in Lucknow refused to renew the passports of an interfaith couple on June 22), and appropriation of historic monuments and places of worship of the “Other” (M.S. Golwalkar’s expression for those whose pitrabhoomi and punyabhoomi are separate, a euphemism for Christians and Muslims).

If in 2002, Chief Minister Narendra Modi turned a Nelson’s eye to the flattening of a Sufi shrine in Gujarat during the post-Godhra violence, in 2018, when he is the Prime Minister, a Tughlak-era tomb has been converted into a temple in New Delhi. All this pales in comparison to the relentless attacks on the Taj Mahal, the 16th century monument that earns more tourist revenue than any other in the country. Many summers ago, the writer and self-proclaimed historian P.N. Oak caused a flutter when he claimed that the Taj was originally a Rajput temple. The suggestion invited a few guffaws in intellectual circles and died a silent death. Interestingly, his book Taj Mahal: The True Story began to be sold under the mythology category instead of history in many bookstores before they became unavailable. Now, there are multiple Oaks, each more ignorant and spiteful than the original one.

Sangeet Singh Som, the BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly and an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, called the Taj the work of traitors, “a blot on Indian culture”. “It was built by a man who imprisoned his father,” he claimed, ignorant that it was the father, Shah Jahan, who got it built in memory of his wife Mumtaz. The multipronged attack on the Taj continued with a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) spokesperson claiming on a live television show that it was a Siva temple. As a damage-control exercise, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visited the Taj and announced: “The Taj was built with the blood and sweat of Indians.” Of course, it was beyond him to utter the name of Shah Jahan or to distance himself from the noises about the Taj being a Siva temple. Not unexpectedly, the State government brochure “Apaar Sambhavnaaye” (Unlimited Possibilities) did not mention the monument, preferring to give space to the Gorakhpeeth in Gorakhpur besides the Ganga “aarti”, and Ayodhya and Mathura. The brochure was in tune with the Chief Minister’s statement that the Taj did not represent Indian culture.

VHP activists lay siege

However, all these comments, initially dismissed as utterances of ignorant politicians forever keen on attention, now seem to be part of a move to discredit the Taj. In early June, around two dozen Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists laid siege to the western gate of the monument. They uprooted the 10x11 feet gate arguing that it blocked the way to Siddheswar Mahadev Mandir, which they claimed preceded the Taj. The Archaeological Survey of India lodged a complaint with the police following which a first information report (FIR) was filed against 25 people. The VHP brigade’s actions drove tourists away from the historic site. The incident came a few months after the history wing of the RSS, the Akhil Bharatiya Itihaas Sankalan Samiti, urged that the tomb be opened to Hindus to offer prayers just as Muslims are allowed to offer Friday prayers there. Demanding that the mausoleum be opened to all on Fridays, the body insisted on the right of Hindus to conduct pooja on its premises. This demand came hot on the heels of some right-wing activists’ entry into the Taj for reciting “Hanuman Chalisa”. The police defused the tension by urging the activists to move away from the monument. A mix of persuasion and threat worked.

The attacks on the literary, political and religious fronts have been stonewalled, but for how long? The danger to the Taj is real. The Taj is a victim of the sustained hostility of the Hindutva brigade, almost a throwback to colonial times when after the war of independence in 1857, the British went for Muslims with renewed vigour, holding them largely responsible for the revolt. With that, the British sowed the seeds of Hindu-Muslim animosity. Explains the noted historian and author, Raziuddin Aquil: “The Taj Mahal is one of the finest examples of Muslim cultural excellence in the medieval and early modern era, when large parts of the subcontinent was brought under an inclusive political system established by Muslim rulers of the kind that fits in the broader Indian national scheme of things we cherish. This and many other markers of cultural achievements of the medieval period are in complete contrast to the kind of canard that is sought to be peddled as history by right-wing propagandists, who like to present medieval India under Muslim rulers as a dark age. The rightists will, therefore, try to appropriate the magnificent Mughal monument as a Hindu temple, if not destroy it altogether.”

Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, periodic noises have been made about the monument being a Siva temple, with recent calls by a BJP legislator to rename it Ram Mahal or Krishna Mahal. At the same time, a constant attempt is made to deride the Mughal emperor Akbar and hail the Rajput ruler Rana Pratap as the biggest hero of the era. Says Prof. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, the author of Fatehpur Sikri Revisited: “It is not only Taj that the Hindutva brigade goes after: they are against anything which presents Muslims in a good light. The mindset is, ‘How could Muslims have created something which the Hindus were incapable of?’ This was a logic which they drew from their masters, the colonial subjugators, who also could never imagine the Mughals as capable of building such structures. In fact, to them no Indian or Asian could have built such a building. It must have been built by a European or at least a Christian.”

According to Rezavi, the Hindutva followers’ logic flows from such arguments. “The European is, however, replaced by the ‘Hindu’. Thus, it should be either a Hindu palace, or a temple,” he says.

Aquil, who wrote Lovers of God: Sufism and the Politics of Islam in Medieval India, says: “As if celebration of [the Maratha ruler] Shivaji’s reported success against Mughal emperor Aurangzeb wasn’t enough, the Hindutva brigade has turned to vilify Akbar who is otherwise recognised in the Indian national narrative as an outstanding example for articulating and implementing a broad-based political theory and practice, which provided space for all the conflicting political interests and scintillating cultural diversity to coexist under a peaceful consensus. Socially and culturally, this coexistence and tolerance is reflected also in powerful interventions of Sufi-Bhakti saints and gurus. The grandeur of visual culture, including paintings and architecture, further confirm the excellence of the heritage that has come down to us. However, historically, conquerors seek to write history on the bodies of people they subdue and mutilate, but they do not succeed in decimating everything, as the suppressed people survive to tell their own history. This is a struggle that will continue.”

Even as historians talk of an endless struggle of history, the State government only makes feeble noises that nobody should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. Aquil says: “The exclusive and narrowly conceived ideology of the people currently in power is out of sync with the fine heritage, which they are otherwise supposed to protect. Therefore, not only do they frequently unleash mobs of the kind which vandalised one of the gates of the Taj recently, but ministers themselves come up with irresponsible statements on the prehistory of the monument as a temple, besides other fanciful propositions betraying their height of ignorance and intellectual poverty.”

There is a growing fear that the continued attacks on the Taj may result in it meeting the same fate as that of the Babri Masjid.

Aquil says: “State machinery permitting, nothing is impossible in a state of exception when law and order are suspended. Places of worship of the powerless have been destroyed in the past as they are frequently attacked in the present. The trouble is, going after the contested sites at places such as Mathura and Banaras [Varanasi] is no longer creating the same level of impact as it did with the campaign for the demolition of the Babri Masjid.”

Like Rezavi, he too believes that other medieval monuments are not safe. He says: “There are other sites which are being targeted in different ways—the possible defacement of the Red Fort and occasional claims on the Jama Masjid in Delhi—and the worst case scenario will be to pull down or saffronise the Qutub Minar, which will appear ludicrously ugly and will be in utter disregard to the sringar rasa of Indian aesthetics. The Indian political system has this ability to check any attempt to destabilise it beyond a point. Even as people in powerful position have frequently expressed their disdain for the constitutional guarantees to ensure a just order of things, natural justice will prevail. If those in power have themselves no respect for law, there will be anarchy on the streets, which will defeat the very purpose of their being in power. In the meantime, a few places of worship and monuments associated with the Muslim past can be defaced, demolished or completely appropriated here and there, of the kind frequently reported even from the capital city of Delhi. But then this is a small phase in India’s long history of several millennia of political stability, economic prosperity and cultural efflorescence—this is a phase that will go for sanity to be restored. From our historical experience, we know extreme politics of any kind can’t be sustained for long. In the end, the most important thing, as they say, is the economy! No amount of deflection of the kind we come across, as through attacks on historical monuments, can deliver on the economic front. Some rulers have governed here for 50 years or more, others have struggled to survive even for five years or less. History will judge them accordingly.”

He adds: “They are aware of the farcical logic of their argument! And thus they want it [the Taj] destroyed rather than preserved.”

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