Taj Mahal in Political Crossfire over Nationalism

The Taj Mahal, India's most popular cultural symbol and its most recognizable icon, called one of the most universally admired masterpieces of the world’s architectural heritage, is caught in a political crossfire that has sucked in politicians, activists and experts of all hues and ideologies and raised troubling questions over the rise of rampant Hindu nationalism.

The controversy began earlier this month when the state government of Uttar Pradesh, where the Taj Mahal is located, released an official 32-page official tourism brochure pointedly leaving out the marble jewel, commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1628 to 1658, to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Once called “the world’s greatest monument to love,” it is also regarded as India’s best example of Muslim Mughal architecture if not the world’s. The guide highlights numerous landmarks throughout the northern Indian state. Yet the Taj Mahal is missing.

That could have been a bizarre oversight. But the real agenda soon came to light. Uttar Pradesh, like the government in New Delhi, is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is known for his hard-line political Hinduism.

Since assuming power, Adityanath has repeatedly undermined the importance of the famous monument, noting in June that the Taj Mahal “did not represent Indian culture." The historic structure has also seen a steady decline in footfall in recent years. In July, it was excluded from the state's heritage plan budget, with funding instead being allocated to various Hindu pilgrimage sites. Later, he moderated his statement, saying the monument was “built by blood and sweat of Indian laborers,” then added that the Taj is an important monument, especially from a tourism perspective, and that it was his government’s priority to “provide facilities and safety to tourists.”

Soon after the Taj's exclusion from the brochure, legislator Sangeet Som, also of the BJP, added fuel to the fire by saying the monument was a “blot on Indian culture.” Justifying the state government’s move to exclude the Taj Mahal from its list of tourism sites, Som said it was built by “tyrants” who had worked to destroy the Hindus of Uttar Pradesh and the country.

"I can tell you with complete guarantee that history will be changed,” he said. “History which was misrepresented and distorted is being corrected now. The state government and the central government are working to fix the history and include Lord Ram, Maharana Pratap and Shivaji in the history books. The governments at the state and center are working to remove stories of the blot that Babur, Akbar and Aurangzeb stand for,” he said

Som's inflammatory remarks were welcomed by a vast section of hardcore Hindu voters, the BJP's largest political constituency. So rather than rubbishing Som, BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao piped up to support his colleague. He said that “as far as Muslim Mughal rule in this country is concerned, that period can only be described as exploitative, barbaric, and a period of incomparable intolerance which harmed Indian civilisation.”

Another BJP member Vinay Katiyar went a step ahead by claiming that Shah Jahan had destroyed a Hindu temple to build the monument. Katiyar urged patriotic Indians to go inside the Taj Mahal and see several “Hindu signs” for themselves. According to Katiyar's theory, Hindus “gifted” this breathtakingly beautiful monument to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who passed it off as a mausoleum.

As the controversy raged, attracting unwelcome attention from the international press and threatening to hurt the country's image, PM Narendra Modi decided to do some damage control. In a direct snub to Som, Modi said at a public meeting that “no country can move ahead without (taking) pride in its heritage.” Nations, he said, “cannot develop if they don’t take pride in their history and heritage. If they do, they are sure to lose their identity over a period of time.”

However, many feel this mild chiding. More so, because the current controversy isn't a one-off incident but points to something more insidious: a stealthy Hindu nationalism intent on rewriting India's cultural history and damaging its plural and inclusive fabric. The message it emits is unambiguous: India is a Hindu country with no place for Muslims. The latter were our oppressors and need to be shown their place now that we're in charge.

Many say the move to politicize the Taj Mahal is a shoddy attempt to further radicalize an already polarized political narrative. In fact this intent has been visible ever since the right-wing BJP came to power at the Center in 2014. Books have been banned, scholars or journalists who have dared to present an alternate point of view have been harassed (or killed) and school texts tampered with in an attempt to distort history and project the country's Hindu ethos.

Liberals and an outraged citizenry are suggesting that why stop at the Taj? Why not wipe out all cultural symbols across India built by non-Hindu rulers? Azam Khan, a leader of an opposition party said that Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official home of India’s president, should also be demolished. “Why single out the Taj Mahal? Why not Parliament, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Qutab Minar, Red Fort? They are all symbols of slavery,” Khan said.

The same logic, said others, could be extended to Delhi's Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Old Fort, Jama Masjid (all built by Muslim kings). Then there's the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the erstwhile Victoria Terminus, and the Gateway of India, built to welcome George V, both in Mumbai as well as the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and India Gate in Delhi which is a war memorial to sepoys killed in WWI fighting for the English.

As Brahm Thakur, a Delhi-based author and guest lecturer at Jamia Milia Islamia University put it: "The Taj Mahal is India’s top tourism destination and a cultural symbol at par with other world heritage like Egypt's pyramids or Peru's Machu Picchu. It needs to be respected as such. Dragging it into low-level politics shows that Hindu fundamentalists won't stop at anything to push their regressive agenda and divide the country along caste lines."

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor & journalist. Follow him at Twitter, @neeta_com