Taj Mahal at center of efforts to erase India’s Muslim heritage
A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Hindu nationalist party and the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is controversial. As chief minister of Gujarat earlier in his career, he is considered by many to have been complicit in the 2002 riots, which have been described as a “cleansing” of the state’s Muslim populace.
Now in the highest office of state, his government has doggedly pursued Hindu nationalist policies, seeking to tear apart India’s diverse cultural and religious fabric. The concept of Hindutva, or Hinduness, has been central to Modi’s leadership, and is the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India.
Since assuming office in 2014, he remains a controversial figure domestically and internationally due to his Hindu nationalist beliefs and his role during the Gujarat riots. At the helm of the BJP, which has routinely exploited communal tensions — especially in Uttar Pradesh and the states of northeast India — Modi has empowered extremists who seek to rewrite the country’s history.
Part of the BJP’s election manifesto was to institute a uniform civil code to replace personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of India’s major religious communities with a common set of secular rules governing every citizen. This has been interpreted by some as marginalizing India’s tens of millions of Muslims.
The 17th-century architectural marvel of the Taj Majal has found itself at the center of these debates. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, questions over whether it is a tomb or a temple, its ownership, its cultural significance and its upkeep have contributed to the 400-year-old monument being dragged into court cases over some of these issues.
The visible deterioration and discoloration of the main tomb’s marble surface are a telling sign of the government’s flagrant disregard for India’s Muslim past. To add fuel to the fire, Surendra Singh, a legislator from the ruling nationalist party, has declared that the great Moghal mausoleum — one of the seven wonders of the modern world — should be renamed after the Hindu deities Ram or Krishna.
For a country that has always been home to a multicultural and multi-religious society, the alienation of certain communities would be a disservice to India’s vibrancy.
Zaid M. Belbagi
“The Taj Mahal’s name, we’ll make it Ram Mahal or Krishna Mahal. What’s in that?” he asked. “It should be called Rashtrabhakt (Patriotism) Mahal.” This provocative statement from an official within India’s ruling party is the latest in an ugly row over the country’s biggest tourist attraction. Such attitudes within the government have been bolstered by the rise in prominence of personalities such as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Having denounced it as “a blot on Indian culture,” Adityanath chose to remove a visit to the monument from his visit to the city of Agra, saying it was merely the product of “the blood and sweat of Indians.” In objecting to foreign dignitaries visiting the spectacular structure and being offered miniatures of it as gifts, he has previously said it does not represent Indian heritage.
Having stirred up religious tension in his own state, the most populous in India, Adityanath exposes a sinister and very divisive current within Indian politics that threatens the very existence of the world’s largest democracy.
At its peak, the Mughal Empire extended over nearly all of the Indian subcontinent. As the second-largest empire to have existed in the subcontinent, its place in India’s history is significant. Central to its legacy has been its pronounced effect on Indian art and culture.
According to Dana Awartani, a renowned contemporary artist and expert on the history of Islamic art, “the Mughal influences in India have resulted in some of today’s masterpieces in architecture, and the fusion of Persian and Hindustani styles have led to a uniquely beautiful aesthetic that has played a major role across northwestern India and is part of the country’s collective identity.”
Given India’s long and great history, other civilizations have undoubtedly made their mark on the country, contributing to its rich cultural melange. But to actively sideline them with a view to encouraging a homogenous society would be a crime against India’s great heritage.
The Mughals contributed not only to architecture but also to India’s art, music, literature, cuisine, language and textiles. An attempt to wipe out such history, in the words of Awartani, “would be a tragic loss for India.”
For a country that has always been home to a multicultural and multi-religious society, the alienation of certain communities would be a disservice to India’s vibrancy. Today’s debates over the Taj Mahal highlight how an object of great beauty can be prey to the ugly forces of fascist nationalism.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).