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.