The Siege of the Taj Mahal
For seven decades after independence, Indian identity rested on cultural pluralism. Now, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking to redefine India as a Hindu nation long subjugated by foreigners – a divisive and self-defeating effort exemplified by its attacks on one of the world's most famous monuments.
NEW DELHI – In a country where politics has turned toxic, leading virtually everything – from festival firecrackers to animal husbandry – to take on a “communal” religious coloring, perhaps it should not be surprising that even one of the world’s most famous monuments has become a target. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic – or destructive.
The Taj Mahal is India’s most magnificent architectural wonder. Built nearly four centuries ago by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, the marble monument was hailed by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s only Nobel Prize-winning writer, as “a teardrop on the cheek of Time.”
But the tears this time are for the Taj itself. Its gleaming white surface is yellowing, owing to air pollution from nearby factories and cottage industries. Repairs are needed so frequently that scaffolding often obscures its famous minarets. The town of Agra in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Taj is located, is crowded and grimy.
Unsurprisingly, tourism is down: the number of foreign visitors to the Taj Mahal fell by 35% from 2012 to 2015, and domestic tourism has also declined. Those who do still show up are bowled over by the Taj, but often appalled at what they see around it. This past summer, the American basketball player Kevin Durant sparked a row with his graphic descriptions of the monument’s surroundings.
But now the Taj is being rejected even by India’s own government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules Uttar Pradesh, has apparently decided that it wants as little to do with it as possible. The reason comes down to religious chauvinism.
Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister, a saffron-robed Hindu monk named Yogi Adityanath, initiated the assault on the Taj by condemning the state government’s former practice of offering models of the Taj as gifts to visiting foreign dignitaries. Declaring that the monument does not “reflect Indian culture,” Adityanath announced that the government would hand out copies of the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, instead.
Furthering this erasure, the Uttar Pradesh tourism department issued a brochure of the state’s main attractions, but left out the Taj Mahal, the state’s (and the country’s) main tourism destination. The government, preferring to promote Hindu religious tourism, such as the attractions of the holy city of Varanasi, has denied any cultural heritage funding to the Taj Mahal in the current fiscal year.
To outsiders, the BJP’s campaign against the Taj Mahal might seem bizarre. Why would anyone, let alone a country’s ruling party, want to undermine a universally admired – and revenue-generating – architectural marvel? And yet anyone familiar with the BJP knows that its attacks on the Taj are just one manifestation of the party’s politics of hatred toward anything connected to the history of Muslim rule in India.
To BJP true believers, the Muslims who ruled India for centuries were foreign invaders who despoiled a prosperous land, destroyed temples and palaces, enslaved and discriminated against Hindus, assaulted Hindu women, and converted millions to Islam. In this telling, this sordid saga of assault on Hindus culminated in the 1947 Partition of India by the British, which created Pakistan.
This is a highly simplistic interpretation of a complex history – one characterized far more by assimilation and co-existence than by religious conflict. But that doesn’t matter to the Hindu chauvinists who constitute the bulk of the BJP’s electoral base. They agree with the hardline Hindu chauvinist and BJP legislator Sangeet Som, who last month called the Taj Mahal “a blot on Indian culture” that had been “built by traitors” and “should have no place in Indian history.” If people like Shah Jahan – who supposedly wanted to “wipe out all Hindus from India” – were part of India’s history, Som said, “we will change this history.”
India’s Hindu extremists have long considered it humiliating that a monument built by a Muslim emperor could be Hindu-majority India’s most recognizable site. The difference now is that this is no longer a fringe group; its members are now in power in Uttar Pradesh, with enablers leading the government in Delhi.
Adityanath, for example, first gained attention for his incendiary anti-Muslim speeches – he spent 11 days in jail in 2007 for fomenting religious tension – and for leading a squad of volunteers who specialized in attacking Muslim targets. He earned notoriety by calling India’s most beloved film star – a Muslim – a terrorist. More recently, he urged the national government to impose a travel ban on Muslims, as US President Donald Trump has attempted to do.
Adityanath’s attacks on the Taj, however, have sparked national outrage powerful enough to force him to visit Agra to assure an anxious public that his government is committed to protecting the monument. “What is important,” he grudgingly conceded, “is that it was built by the blood and sweat of India’s farmers and laborers.”
This acknowledgement is only partly reassuring, as it enables another fringe position on the Taj: the late chauvinist historian P.N. Oak’s claim that the monument was originally a Shiva temple named “Tejo Mahalaya.” Some misguided Hindutva elements have already been caught trying to perform a Shiva puja (a rite to worship Lord Shiva) there. The RSS, the parent body of the Hindu “family” of organizations that includes the BJP, has even called for Muslims to be prohibited from praying at the Taj.
For seven decades after independence, Indian identity rested on cultural pluralism. Now, the Hindu-chauvinist BJP is seeking to redefine India as a Hindu nation long subjugated by foreigners – not just British colonizers, but also Muslim conquerors. By stoking long-buried resentments and promoting hatred of Muslims, the BJP’s kulturkampf is dividing Indian society, fragmenting its political discourse, and undermining its soft power in the world.
If the BJP is to avoid doing further damage to the Indian nation, it must recognize that the past is not a blunt tool for scoring petty political points. One cannot avenge oneself upon history: history is its own revenge.