(First of five parts)
Part I: A Monument to Love and the Shenanigans of Yogi Adityanath
Rabindranath Tagore called it a “teardrop on the face of eternity”. He was referring to the Taj Mahal, often described in more pedestrian if less maudlin English as perhaps the world’s greatest monument to love. When one has a “monument to love”, one suspects that the narrative is no longer only about love—but let that pass, for the moment. The Government of India’s own webpage on the Taj Mahal adverts to Tagore’s characterization of the Taj as a “teardrop on the cheek of time”. If time and eternity were one and the same thing, we wouldn’t have any need for the hundreds of philosophical tomes that have been written on time and its interpretation. (I would like to thank a friend in Amsterdam who has asked not to be named for drawing my attention to the original text: the poem from where the phrase is taken is called “Shah Jahan”, not “Taj Mahal”, and the collection is named Balaka.) Whatever else Tagore may have meant, I suspect that he would not have been disinclined to consider the Taj Mahal as a poem to love in stone. My late friend, Teshome Gabriel, whose own piece on “stones” dazzles and sparkles more than most diamonds, had not taken the Taj into consideration when he was writing on the life of stones.
But we have come to a different pass. Now some idiots, egged on by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, have called for the Taj’s removal if not destruction. Some are moved by the thought that the Taj Mahal sits, so they think, on top of what was once a Hindu temple; others allege that it is not “Indian” enough, by which they mean of course that there is far too much in the Taj of foreign origins. The Taj is associated, in their mind, with Muslims; and Muslims, in turn, call to their mind terror not love. To describe Adityanath and others who share his view of the Taj Mahal as philistines is to given them more credit than they deserve: their conduct partakes of the barbarous in various respects. It should be recognized, however, that some Indians are alarmed by the wholly pragmatic (and, by the yardstick of the economy-obsessed modern world, not insignificant) consideration that the Taj Mahal is India’s largest foreign and domestic revenue earner among tourist sites.
Yogi Adityanath is, speaking in something like a neutral idiom, a “colorful” character. Rascals may sometimes be colorful; the same may be said even of some rulers, otherwise alleged to be despots or even tyrants, such as Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ (Emperor of Hindustan, 1719-1748) and Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Of Robin Hood, for instance, it may be said without much controversy that he was a colorful character. Adityanath is only colorful because he is bizarre, a firebrand, and utterly shorn of ideas and yet capable of producing mirth—though not among his followers, most of them the kind of ruffians dressed in polyester who loiter about public thoroughfares while scratching their crotches and making a nuisance of themselves. (This is not to say that there are no khadi-clad scoundrels.) Adityanath is among those “leaders” here and there who have expressed solidarity with Trump’s ban on the entry of Muslims from several nations into the US and called for India to emulate the leader of the free world, though I doubt very much that the White House has paid any attention to this militant Hindu youth leader turned into politician.
Adityanath, much like White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, thinks that “women are sacred”—women (alongside children) exclusively so, one assumes, as opposed of course to men, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, trees, and much else—and he has expressed himself as “bigly”—a little nod to Trump—concerned with women’s safety. All this would be very commendable, were it not for the fact that, on the worldview of Adityanath and his followers, women can best be safe if they retreat from the workplace. That apparently secures them from the ignominy of sexual harassment—never mind that domestic sexual abuse outweighs all other forms of sexual harassment and assault, and that across cultures women are much more likely to be face abuse and assault from men known to them, most often older male relatives, than from utter strangers. Adityanath’s acolytes and fellow travelers in misogyny in India’s heartland have similarly suggested, apropos of female college students, that they need fear no one if they accept that a curfew commencing at dark is best calculated to preserve their moral integrity and purity. A woman has no place out in the streets after sunset; nocturnal activities must be left to men and the devil. Women who display manly characteristics, Adityanath has noted, have a tendency to turn into demons.
But it is of course the figure of the Indian Muslim that more than anything else that animates Adityanath. The looted virginity of one Hindu woman, Adityanath told cheering crowds, can only be avenged by deflowering one hundred Muslim women, and he has called for a campaign against “Love Jihad”, or the idea that the wily Muslim in India has sought to wage jihad by seducing Hindu women and turning them into sexual slaves of the Muslim. Adityanath has on more than one occasion also called for the installation of Hindu idols in every mosque. So perhaps it is not altogether surprising that he should have turned his attention to the Taj Mahal, making it known in public comments in mid-June 2017 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had done the right thing in substituting copies of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita for miniature replicas of the Taj as gifts for visiting foreign dignitaries. The Taj Mahal “and other minarets”, Adityanath is reported as having said, did “not reflect Indian culture” .
Taking a hint from their boss, the functionaries at the Tourism Department of the Uttar Pradesh State Government released a brochure in early October of principal tourist sites in the state which omitted any mention of the Taj Mahal. In mid-October, another BJP politician, Sangeet Som, jumped into the fray with this observation as recorded by NDTV: “Many people were worried that the Taj Mahal was removed from the list of historical places in the UP tourism booklet. What history are we talking about? The man who built Taj Mahal imprisoned his father. He wanted to massacre Hindus. If this is history, then it is very unfortunate and we will change this history, I guarantee you.”
The young Sangeet Som is one of the principal accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013; moreover, though he is among those who have been vociferous in calling for cow-protection as in integral part of Hindu dharma and instigating the forcible closure of Muslim-owned meat-processing and export companies, he himself has considerable investments in companies engaged in the export of halal meat and was on the board of directors of one such company, Al-Dua, for two years before being exposed by the Hindustan Times in October 2015. Som is most likely no worse than most other politicians in all these respects, and dishonesty and rank hypocrisy are just par for the course. The more germane questions for us, to which I shall turn in the next part of this article, are really these: what do Adityanath, Som, and others with their worldview understand by history? From where do they derive their history? What is the epistemic status of ‘facts’? Should we say, as liberals and those on the left would urge everyone to do so, that ‘myths’ are being substituted for history?
(To be continued)
For Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/
Part III: Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal
Part IV: Towards Another History of the Taj: Rumors, Legends, Longings
Part V: A Political History of the Taj Mahal: A Few Thoughts for Researchers