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Taj and bigotry

BJP’s misreading of history raises questions on the Indian state’s ability to be a custodian for the nation’s historical sites, including Mughal monuments.

Written by Audrey Truschke | Published: October 24, 2017 12:42 am
Taj Mahal, Taj Mahal controversy, sangeet som, sangeet som taj mahal comment, sangeet som taj mahal blot remark, Taj Mahal tourists, BJP, Yogi Adityanath, UP tourism booklet, Mughal history, Mughals in India, Mughal empire, Hindu nationalists, indian express column The Indian subcontinent has a long, rich history, but the Indian nation state has had a quite brief existence to date. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The Taj Mahal is easily the most recognisable icon of modern India. The monument is a cash cow for the state, drawing millions of visitors and bringing in crores of rupees annually. It has been a World Heritage Site for decades and is frequently listed as among the Seven Wonders of the World. Many people around the globe know nothing about India except that it is home to the Taj Mahal. Among those who cannot make it to Agra, many still try to glimpse something of the Taj’s spectacular beauty, and the site has emerged as a favourite on Google Street View in recent years.

Given the illustrious reputation of the Taj Mahal and the widespread perception that it is deeply linked with Indian culture, many have been surprised at the BJP’s attacks on the monument in recent months. Yogi Adityanath’s government deleted the Taj Mahal from a UP tourism booklet earlier this month. A few days ago, Sangeet Som, a lawmaker in Uttar Pradesh, maligned the building as a “blot on Indian culture” that was built by “traitors.” Such actions and comments are part of a growing rejection of Mughal heritage in India. In the past year, numerous BJP politicians have derided the Mughals as “foreign invaders” and promised to change Indian history to deemphasise their importance. Several Indian states have started to make good on that promise, eliding — and even flatly lying about — Mughal history in school textbooks. Such attitudes stem primarily from anti-Muslim bigotry, an old BJP prejudice.

An element in the BJP’s most recent attack on the Taj Mahal reeks of the old warning: Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Even Yogi Adityanath — who has shown appalling levels of bigotry against Muslims, past and present, throughout his career — seems to recognise that Sangeet Som’s condemnation of the Taj was a step too far. A few days ago, Adityanath honoured the monument as “built by blood and sweat of Indian labourers” and announced plans to visit the site later this month.

Even with a bit of recent hedging, the BJP’s assaults on the Taj Mahal as, in its essence, an anti-national building are striking. Thinking on the monument has come a long way from when Rabindranath Tagore described the building, whimsically, as a “solitary tear [that] would hang on the cheek of time”. An increasing number of Hindu nationalists would prefer to wipe away that tear, it seems, but why? How have BJP leaders and like-minded Hindu nationalists come to perceive a 17th century stone building as viscerally threatening in 2017?

Part of explaining the threat of the Taj, as seen by the BJP, lies in understanding the narrowness of the Hindu culture espoused by this political party and its cultural affiliates. Hindu nationalists often fancy themselves as belonging to a quintessentially Indian tradition that stretches back to time immemorial, but history tells a different story. Hindutva ideology is a political philosophy that dates to the late 19th century. In other words, Hindu nationalists are not part of an ancient tradition but rather practitioners of a new one.

Hinduism can reasonably be seen as a long religious tradition that stretched back 3,500 years to the Vedic period and has encompassed many ways of life over the centuries. But much about ancient Hindu traditions, to say nothing of ancient Indian traditions more broadly, is anathema to Hindu nationalists. For example, the people who composed and recited the Rig Veda for centuries were a beef-eating, horse-sacrificing lot. Medieval Hindu rulers desecrated one another’s temples and idols (a practice which inspired similar behaviour among Muslim rulers after they arrived in India). I hesitate to even mention Tantric practices, an important part of pre-modern Hindu traditions that few Hindu nationalists would easily embrace today.

Hindu nationalists are often in denial about their ideology being rather modern and, frankly, rather Western in its formulation. This is odd from a historian’s perspective since, after all, Hindu nationalists fall within the broad umbrella of nationalism, a doctrine that only makes sense in the context of the relatively recently-formulated world of nation states. Moreover, early Hindutva ideologues openly modelled their ideology on European fascist movements in terms of methods and objectives.

The Indian subcontinent has a long, rich history, but the Indian nation state has had a quite brief existence to date. When people conflate the two, they lose the bulk of Indian history and end up making nonsensical statements, such as that Shah Jahan, the Mughal king who sponsored the construction of the Taj Mahal, was a traitor. One might ask: A traitor to whom or what exactly? To the modern Indian nation state that was not founded until nearly 300 years after Shah Jahan’s death?

Indian history does not belong to the modern nation state of India. Often in the West we speak of South Asian history, in part, to make precisely this distinction between the region’s past and nationalist claims upon it. Nonetheless, the Indian state is the de facto custodian of the historical sites contained within the nation’s borders, including Mughal monuments. Recent politically-charged statements and actions designed to erode the crucial role of the Mughals in India history raise the question of how much longer the Indian state will serve as a responsible caretaker for monuments that are much beloved across the world.

Truschke is assistant professor of South Asian History, Rutgers University and the author of ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth’.

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  1. S
    Sas das
    Nov 17, 2017 at 6:18 am
    "Medieval Hindu rulers desecrated one another’s temples and idols (a practice which inspired similar behaviour among Muslim rulers after they arrived in India)." This is utter s t and blatant lie by this so-called historian. The medieval Hindu Kings fought between them and captured the prominent deities of the defeated kingdom and brought back that idos of deities to their home kingdom to get spiritual blessing of that deity. Neither was the actual temple desctroyed nor were the local Hindus (even if they were of different sects such as Vaishnavites, Shaivites, Tantrics or Buddhists ) forced to change their religious beleifs. On the other hand, Muslim invaders such as Mahmood Gazni, Khilji, Mohammad Ghori, Tughlaq, Tipu Sultan and so on were very clear with their motives: kill the infidels (kaffirs) and convert them to Islam. Even their own Muslim historians wrote down about the millions of Hindus that were butchered or converted, let alone the razing the prominent temples.
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    1. K
      Koushik
      Nov 6, 2017 at 1:34 am
      s: scroll /article/856178/aurangzeb-was-a-bigot-not-just-by-our-standards-but-by-those-of-his-predecessors-and-peers
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        Koushik
        Nov 6, 2017 at 1:23 am
        Medieval Hindu rulers desecrated one another’s temples and idols (a practice which inspired similar behaviour among Muslim rulers after they arrived in India).” Were the likes of Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb just following an indigenous Hindu tradition when they sacked religious sites? Truschke bases her conclusion on three sources, Richard Davis’s Lives of Indian Images, Richard Eaton’s, Temple Desecrations in Pre-modern India, and Michael Willis’ Temples of Gopaksetra. Eaton’s article contains no original research in this respect, merely recounting the findings of Davis and Willis, also cited by Truschke. Davis, in a chapter from his book led Trophies of War, describes how Hindu kings often looted idols considered specially powerful, and installed them in custom-built shrines within their own domains. This seems the precise opposite of the idol smashing of Islamic iconoclasm. Acknowledging this, Eaton writes, “Although the dominant pattern here was one of looting royal temples
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          Pitambar Sharma
          Oct 26, 2017 at 11:38 am
          In Germany, it is illegal to deny the holocaust. Why? Because there are many people who are willing to justify what Hitler did. Aurangzeb was worse than Hitler. But most Muslims, many leftists, and some crazy Hindus who think they are enlightened, deny that Aurangzeb was a monster -- the devil in the form of a human. Maybe we should have a law for such Jihadi, Marxist, pseudo intellectuals and foreign troublemakers.
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            S T
            Oct 25, 2017 at 4:19 pm
            Taj Mahal is not a muslim building, it was NOT built by destroying any temple, it was not build by muslims, its architecture is not Mughal. It was a Hindu Shiva temple, existed well before Shah Jahan and he only usurped it from Raja Jaisingh to bury his wife. All the love story is a big fraud. Study the material sincerely and accept the truth. The Badshahnama itself says clearly, the palace of Raja Jaisingh was taken by Badshah for buring his wife. Nowhere it says how it was built, how much did it cost, no orders of construction seen anywhere. simply there is no evidence that Shahjahan ever built it.
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