Shashi Tharoor: India's Rejection of the Taj Mahal and the Politics of Hate Toward Muslims | Opinion

The Taj Mahal is India's most magnificent piece of architecture. Built nearly four centuries ago by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, who had borne him thirteen children and died in the process of producing the fourteenth, it attracts tens of millions of tourists and is by far the country's most-photographed building.

The exquisite marble monument to love was hailed by India's only winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Rabindranath Tagore, as "a teardrop on the cheek of Time."

But the Taj now has other reasons for tears. Its gleaming white surface is yellowing as a result of rampant air pollution from factories and small businesses around it, as well as the Mathura refinery not far away.

Repairs are needed so frequently that scaffolding often obscures its famous minarets. There has been a 35 per cent drop in foreign tourists from the 743,000 who went there in 2012 to the 480,000 tourists who came in 2015. The crowded and grimy town of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, which hosts the Taj, puts visitors off: American basketball player Kevin Durant sparked a row with his graphic descriptions of the awful conditions around the Taj Mahal after a visit there in the summer of 2017.

And worst of all, the new ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has decided that far from being proud of its most famous edifice, it wants as little to do with it as possible.

Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister, began the controversy by deploring the fact that his government used to give models of the Taj as gifts to visiting foreign dignitaries. Declaring that the monument did not "reflect Indian culture," the Yogi announced the government would be handing out copies of the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, instead.

It got worse. The Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department issued a brochure listing the state's principal attractions—and omitted the Taj Mahal altogether. The state's (and the country's) biggest tourism draw was denied any cultural heritage funding in the allotments for the current fiscal year.

Domestic tourists have also decreased significantly. Indian tourists reportedly prefer the attractions of the holy city of Varanasi in the same state, Uttar Pradesh. This mirrors and reinforces the monument's neglect by the state government in favour of Hindu religious tourism.

But the objection to the Taj is more basic. One extremist BJP legislator labelled the tomb "a blot" on the fair name of his state, a relic that had been "built by traitors." The Taj Mahal "should have no place in Indian history," he said, demanding that India's history be "changed" to remove it.

The ruling party's campaign against the Taj Mahal might seem bizarre; after all, why would anyone undermine a universally admired architectural marvel that is such a revenue generator? But those familiar with the tortured prejudices of the ruling BJP would be less surprised. The attacks on the Taj are part of their politics of hate towards anything associated with the history of the centuries of Muslim rule in India.

As we have seen, to many in the BJP, this was a period of slavery and discrimination against the Hindu population, conducted by foreign invaders who had despoiled a prosperous land, destroyed temples and palaces, assaulted Hindu women and converted millions of Hindus. In their telling, this sordid saga culminated in the vivisection of the motherland in the 1947 Partition of India by the British, which created Pakistan.

That this is an unduly simplistic black-and-white rendition of a complex history, in which there was far more assimilation and co-existence than religious conflict, is irrelevant to Hindu chauvinists who constitute the bulk of the BJP's support base. To them, the Taj is an enduring symbol not of love, but of conquest and humiliation.

Resentment that a monument built by a Muslim emperor is Hindu majority India's most recognisable monument was, in the past, a fringe obsession of the 'loony' Hindu right. But the fringe is now in power in Uttar Pradesh and its enablers rule the roost in Delhi.

The Taj Mahal is India’s most magnificent piece of architecture. iStock

Before becoming chief minister in a surprise appointment by his party, Yogi Adityanath was best known for his incendiary, anti-Muslim speeches, laden with toxic rhetoric, and for leading a volunteer squad of hoodlums who specialised in attacking Muslim targets. Adityanath spent eleven days in jail in 2007 for fomenting religious tension through hate speech, earned notoriety by calling India's most beloved film star (the Muslim Shah Rukh Khan) a terrorist, and has urged his party's government in New Delhi to emulate Donald Trump's travel ban on Muslims.

But even he has been obliged by public and political opinion to surrender to national outrage over the latest controversy. After stoking it in the first place, the chief minister was forced to visit Agra officially to assure an anxious public that his government was committed to protecting the Taj. "What is important," he conceded grudgingly, "is that it was built by the blood and sweat of India's farmers and labourers."

This acknowledgement is only partly reassuring. It opens the door to another divisive fringe view of the Taj, that of the chauvinist historian P. N. Oak, who argued 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 in the mausoleum.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the Hindu 'family' of organisations that includes the BJP, has called for Muslims to be prohibited from praying there as well. To many Indians, in these circumstances, the BJP's newfound love for the Taj might be as alarming as its well-expressed hate for it.

(Meanwhile, while the Yogi was busy criticising the Taj, it was the Kerala government far away in the south that brought out an ad 'saluting' the Taj for its role in helping tourists discover India!)

The Taj Mahal is merely the latest victim of a political campaign over Indian history that seeks to reinvent the idea of India itself. Whereas for seven decades after Independence, Indianness rested on faith in the country's pluralism, the ascent of the Hindu-chauvinist BJP has brought with it attempts to redefine the country as a Hindu nation long subjugated by foreigners. This 'cultural nationalism' by the Hindu right, stoking long-buried resentments and promoting hatred for the Muslim minority, is not just deeply divisive; it undermines the country's global soft power and fragments its domestic political and social discourse.

As the author Nayantara Sahgal wrote: "Vast slices of our multi-religious, multi-cultural heritage—which includes our literature, architecture, language, food, music, dance, dress and manners are being dishonoured and disowned, leaving us shrunk into a monoculture which is not only not Hinduism, but the antitheses of all that India has stood for, worked for, and safeguarded as a proud and cherished inheritance."

This is an extract from Why I Am a Hindu, published by Hurst.

Shashi Tharoor served for twenty-nine years at the UN, culminating as Under-Secretary-General. He is a Congress MP in India, the author of sixteen previous books and has won numerous literary awards, including a Commonwealth Writers' Prize. His Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India was a Sunday Times bestseller and was named as a Financial Times book of the year.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​

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