BJP threat to Taj Mahal

26th Oct 2017
BJP threat to Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal. Photo Creative Commons

By Sajeda Haider

The Taj Mahal is synonymous with India. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and on the must-see list of any tourist visiting the country. The magnificent white marble mausoleum was built in the 17th century by the Muslim Mughal king Shah Jahan for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal as a token of his affection. But the breath-taking symbol of love has become a thing of hate for the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is currently ruling India.

In their desire to wipe out all traces of Muslim rule in the sub-continent, the BJP has since it came to power in 2014, been changing names of places which bear Muslim names, wantonly rewriting school textbooks so that they Muslim influence on Indian culture and heritage is removed and changing history.

To this end, the recently elected state government of Uttar Pradesh, headed by the new Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, decided to quietly drop the Taj Mahal from its list of ‘must-see’ tourist destinations and replaced it with the monastery, the Gorakhnath Mut. The monastery’s only importance is that it is the seat of power of the Chief Minister and is not even a place of pilgrimage for the ordinary devout Hindu.

Adityanath is a known Muslim-baiter and has been sent to jail for making divisive hate-speeches. Many believe it is because of this ‘qualification’ that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who has a similar disposition, hand-picked Adityanath for the chief ministership after the BJP won the state election in March 2017.

The Taj Mahal is located in Agra which is part of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically important state sending the largest number of Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha (House of Commons) in New Delhi.

The seeds of the current controversy over the Taj Mahal were laid by Adityanath in June this year when he proclaimed that the world famous monument was not a part of Indian culture. “Earlier, when the head of state would go abroad he would take something as a gift that would represent Indian culture. Similarly, when heads of states from other countries would visit India, they would be given a replica of Taj Mahal or any other minaret (read Muslim-built monument) that was not in consonance with Indian culture. For the first time, we have seen that when PM Modi goes abroad and a head of state or government comes to India, he is given the Gita or Ramayana (Hindu holy books)”, said Adityanath at a public meeting in Bihar. He was criticized by the Opposition parties for his remarks. “A poor and regressive reading of history can only make you speak of Taj Mahal as alien,” said Manoj Kumar Jha, spokesman for the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Most BJP analysts were not surprised by the Uttar Pradesh tourism’s decision to drop the Taj, knowing that it fitted in with the party’s agenda of Hinduising India. To make matters worse, a few days later Sangeet Som, a BJP leader called the Taj a blot on Indian culture and history built by a traitor. Som, an elected member of UP’s Legislative Assembly (MLA), is one of the persons accused of inciting the anti-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. Seeing the furore Som’s comments created, BJP quickly distanced itself saying these were his personal views and not those of the party but took no action to stop him.

Reacting to Som’s comments Adityanath cleverly added more fuel to the fire. “It is not necessary to go into why Taj Mahal was built, who built it and for what purpose… What is important is that Taj Mahal was built by the blood and sweat of India’s labourers and sons,” said the Chief Minister. With one fell swoop Adityanath took the credit away from Shah Jahan for conceptualizing the most beautiful building in the world, and also accused him of being a cruel tyrant who made Indian labourers toil with their sweat and blood. The use of the word ‘blood’ also brought attention to the well-known calumny against Shah Jahan – that the ruler cut off the hands of all the labourers who worked on the Taj. The myth created decades after the tomb was built has made its way into popular conception of the mausoleum with no facts to back it. However, it fits in nicely with the BJP’s narrative of despotic Muslim tyrants ruling India.

Even as the controversy was still hot another leader from UP waded in resurrecting an old BJP claim – that the Taj Mahal was built after destroying a Hindu temple that stood on that site. Vinay Katiyar, a UP MLA and more importantly the founder president of the BJP’s armed wing, the Bajarang Dal, claimed that the Mughal emperor first destroyed a Hindu temple which existed there called “Tejo Mahalaya” and then had the monument built on it. Katiyar is one of the prime accused in the Babri Mosque demolition case.

In the 1980s the BJP had launched a campaign claiming that the site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in UP was actually the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram and had demanded the mosque be handed over to the Hindus. Here too they argued that Mughal ruler Babar had had a temple destroyed and built the Babri Mosque on its debris. Even while the dispute of ownership of land was in the courts, the BJP and its affiliated organizations brought their supporters to Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, and physically destroyed the 16th mosque. The watershed incident led to sectarian riots all over the country and propelled the BJP into becoming the prime opposition party to the Congress in Delhi.

At around the same time, the theory of the Tejo Mahalaya temple being the precursor of the Taj Mahal was also first floated by a BJP sympathetic historian called PN Oak. In his book, Taj Mahal: The True Story released in 1989 Oak wrote that the monument was probably built in 1155 CE by a Hindu ruler as a temple and a royal palace name Tejo Mahalaya. It was captured by Shah Jahan and turned into a tomb and renamed the Taj Mahal. However, there is no historical or physical evidence of this theory. In fact, any visitor to the Taj can see that it is influenced by Islamic architecture and follows in the same traditions of many other building built by Mughal rulers in India.

In 2000 the Supreme Court of India quashed Oak’s petition to declare Taj Mahal was built by a Hindu king. Again in 2015, the Agra District Court admitted a petition by six lawyers who claimed that the Taj was a temple and Hindu devotees should be allowed to perform Hindu rituals inside it. The Archaeological Survey of India(ASI) responsible for research, conservation and preservation of historical monuments, told the Agra court that the Taj is only a tomb and not a temple.

However, observers who saw the dispute over the Babari Mosque start and escalate in exactly the same fashion are also worried about the fate of the Taj Mahal. Azam Khan, former minister of UP, said: “If Babri Masjid can be destroyed, then any building in the country can be pulled down. It was under the protection of the Supreme Court but even that meant nothing to these people (BJP).” Khan feels that the only reason why the Taj Mahal is still standing is that there is so much international attention on the monument. He could well be right. If the BJP is able to build a false narrative about the Taj in the same way that it did about the Babri Mosque then it is quite possible that if they continue in power for long enough one day the symbol of love will no longer be there for people to see.


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