Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Islam and Muslim Societies’ Category

In my previous essay on this blog, on the foolishness of the legislation that is now before the Vidhan Sabha or legislature of the Punjab Government that would render “blasphemy” an offence punishable with a life sentence, I adverted to the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, a close study of which suggests just how vulnerable such legislation is to exploitation not only by the state but by those who terrorize the population in the name of adherence to Islam.  Political repression is a problem in every country in South Asia, and the recent crackdown on human rights activists in India, and the arrest of the acclaimed photographer and social activist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, are ominous signs of how the repressive apparatus of the state has been deployed to stifle the freedom of speech and create a climate of fear in which agents of the state can act with utter impunity.

The problem in Pakistan is, if anything, more acute.  There is widespread agreement among scholars, experts, political commentators, and those who have been keenly observing developments in Pakistan that the country has been overwhelmed by political turbulence in the last two decades. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are quite innocent of any real self-reflexivity and are impervious, in their own fashion, to critiques of a notion of “human rights” which often has done little except serve, even if inadvertently, imperialist regimes.  This is apart from other, equally pressing, considerations of the questionable ontological bases of conceptions of ‘rights’. Nevertheless, whatever the soundness of such critiques, the reports of these organizations and other similar human rights group do furnish something of a barometer by which we may judge how far states are observant of the rights of their subjects and whether they treat most of their subjects with dignity.

Going by these reports, Pakistan’s record on the human rights front has been abysmal. Successive reports over the last five years of Human Rights Watch, quite possibly the most respectable international organization of its kind in the world alongside Amnesty International, provide unimpeachable evidence of the breakdown of the rule of law and the arbitrary dispensation of justice. Extrajudicial killings and political assassinations are all too common, corruption in the police forces is rampant, and security for common people can no longer be even remotely guaranteed by the state.  But let us begin with this fact: The official religion of Pakistan is Islam. That was not the case at the inception of Pakistan, even if the country was founded as a Muslim-majority state. Though there are small numbers of adherents of other religions, principally Hindus and Christians, Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.   There is substantial and even conclusive evidence, which emanates from a wide array of sources, that religious minorities are at grave risk in Pakistan—though, again, having said this, one must also allow for the fact that there are equally reliable reports and ethnographies of Hindu communities which suggest that Hindus continue to have a place in Pakistani society.

PakistanAsiaBibiCase.jpg

Protestors holding up placards at a rally in Karachi in 2010 demonstrating against the death sentence handed down to a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, on charges of blasphemy, and also calling for an end to discrimination against religious minorities. Photo: Akhatar Sumroo, Reuters. Source: http://time.com/3969035/asia-bibi-death-sentence-stayed-appeal-pakistan/

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2014 Annual Report, expressed alarm at the declining environment for religious tolerance in Pakistan and went so far as to recommend that it be designated, alongside nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, a “Country of Particular Concern” (p. 8).  Once again, we shall have to leave aside the politics of this commission, and the question of why it should be viewed as having any real standing:  the right that American organizations have arrogated to themselves to pontificate on the shortcomings of others is much more than suspect. “The past ten years”, state the report’s authors, “have seen a worsening of the already-poor religious environment in Pakistan” (p. 10),  and they add that “in the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shia Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus” (p. 80).  Though the Ahmadis, or Ahmadiyyas, accept all five pillars of Islam and are rigorous adherents of their faith, Pakistan is the only country in the world to have them officially declared non-Muslims since, in addition to the Prophet, they also accept Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as a Messiah.  (Ahmadis face considerable persecution in Bangladesh; however, they have not officially been branded as ‘kafirs’.) The Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan as well as Ordinance XX of 1984, promulgated during the military administration of General Zia-ul-Haq, not only deprive Ahmadis of their religious rights but even debar Ahmadis from reading the Quran, reciting the Kalima (the Muslim creed), or from joining other Muslims in prayer.  The level of religious intolerance in Pakistan towards those who are deemed as heretics may be gauged from the fact that an Ahmadi who uses the Muslim greeting, “As-salam alaykum”, has committed a criminal offence under the laws of Pakistan and can be prosecuted accordingly.  One does not have to accept the authority or even legitimacy of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to come to such conclusions.

A recent December 2014 report by the London-based Minority Rights Group, the most respected non-governmental global organization of its kind, furnishes more decisive evidence of the climate of religious intolerance in Pakistan and the “daily challenges faced by Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and other groups in the country.”  The executive summary of the report, entitled Searching for SecurityThe Rising Marginalization of Religious Communities in Pakistan (London:  Minority Rights Group International, 2014), states that though minority religious communities “have suffered discrimination in Pakistan for decades, their persecution has intensified in recent years and has now reached critical levels” (p. 3). Among other forms of discrimination, the report notes “the frequent use of blasphemy laws” (p. 3) to denigrate non-Muslims and points out that the extremists among some Sunnis, who constitute the vast majority in Pakistan, view Shias as apostates and have thus directed violence at them.  Apostates, the authors stated unambiguously, may “face regular hostility from extremists and public calls for members to be killed” (p. 8).

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both define an apostate as a person who “renounces a religious or political belief or principle”, and furnish the following words as synonyms:  traitor, defector, turncoat, deserter, among others.  The December 2013 report of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, makes the point that apostasy is no longer a crime anywhere in the world except in Muslim countries (p. 7).  Twenty-seven countries where Islam is the only or the predominant religion inflict punishment on apostates or blasphemers, including those who are “atheists, secularists, and freethinkers” (pp. 6, 8).  Pakistan is not among those eleven countries—including Sudan, Yemen, and two countries that see themselves as implacable foes of each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia—where apostasy is a capital offence, punishable by death, and there are no explicit anti-apostasy laws in Pakistan.  However, this report is unequivocal in its description of the consequences for apostates in Pakistan: “Other countries without apostasy laws, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, use blasphemy and other religious protection laws to persecute apostates” (p. 6).  The report describes the introduction of blasphemy laws (Sections 295-B, 295-C, and 298A-C) into Pakistan’s Penal Code in the 1980s and the restrictions henceforth on the right to freedom of speech with regard to religion, and states that “since then, it has been extremely dangerous to express dissent against Islam.”  Though apostasy itself is not explicitly punishable, blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan under the Pakistan Penal Code:  defiling the name of Muhammad carries a death sentence, as affirmed by the federal Sharia Court which in 1990 ruled that defiling Muhammad’s name is “death and nothing else” (p. 67).  Moreover, it is important to emphasize that blasphemy laws are, in fact, stringently enforced:  between 1986 and 2010, at least 1,274 people were charged under the law.

PakistanBlasphemyLaw

Demonstration calling for the death sentence of 34-year old Nadeem James, who was charged with blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam in a WhatsApp message to a friend.  Mr. James was handed down a death sentence by the court in Gujrat in eastern Pakistan.

The Political and Legal Status of Apostates highlights other features that need to be underscored. A charge of blasphemy is often a cover for an ordinary crime: now, five years after the publication of this report, the Pakistani press reports the death of a young artist, Qutab Rind, who was killed by a landlord on account of an alteration over rent and then falsely accused of blasphemy.  An accusation can be made falsely, and often is made, without any consequences for the accuser though the accused might face enormous risks including oppression by an enraged public.  Owing to the number of false accusations, the government in 2005 passed a law requiring the police to investigate accusations of blasphemy before filing charges, but this law is not always followed and certainly has not precluded mob justice.  The report thus notes a climate of vigilante justice; in other words, even where the state may not take action against an apostate or a blasphemer, this does not preclude people from taking the law into their own hands.  The report notes that “at least 51 people accused of blasphemy were murdered before their respective trials were over” (p. 67); the newspaper report from last month on the death of Qutab Rind states that “nearly 70 people had been lynched to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges whereas another 40 are currently on death row or serving life sentence for blasphemy charges in Pakistan since 1990.”  As is well known, and as was reported widely in Indian, British, and American newspapers, the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated in broad daylight on 4 January 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws; so was, ironically, the Minister for Minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, specifically for his support of Asia Noreen Bibi, the first woman sentenced to death, allegedly for defaming the name of Muhammad, under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

PakistanAnti-BlasphemyLawDemonstration

Demonstration against Blasphemy Laws by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Photo:  Abid Nawaz/Express Tribune.

There is corroboration for the views stated in the report The Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam in various other authoritative reports from organizations in Canada and the US.  Let me return to the afore-mentioned report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where it is argued that blasphemy-like codes in Pakistan have stifled religious freedom and emboldened extremists to commit violence.  In the report’s own words, “In Pakistan, such codes fuel extremist violence threatening all Pakistanis” (p. 3), and again:  “Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious in this regard, with its constantly-abused law penalizing blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison” (p. 27).  The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, issued a report in 2013 entitled Pakistan:  Religious conversion, including treatment of converts and forced conversions (2009-2012) which again substantiates these finds. The report states, and I quote, “In all mainstreams of Islamic jurisprudence abandoning Islam is considered a capital crime, particularly for men”. This is true for those who have converted to another religion as it of those who have abandoned Islam without taking up another religion.

With all this evidence from a neighboring country before it, does the Punjab Government want to push forward a blasphemy laws to protect worshippers from blasphemers?  Emphatically not; indeed, wherever such laws are to be found in India, they should be summarily scrapped.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

PunjabAssemblyMarch2017

Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

GuruGranthSahibDesecration

Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

LatuffCartoon2006

A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

HinduBlasphemy?

So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.

Read Full Post »

Part II of Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  70 Years of the Palestinian Naqba  

The village in western Galilee where Mahmud Darwish was born was razed by Israel’s armed forces after the Jewish state came into existence and he lived, as many Palestinians have, in exile for the greater part of his life.  That displacement, occupation, and exodus is now seared into the memory of Palestinians as the nakba, ‘catastrophe’.  The Palestinians have today become the diasporic people that the Jews once were—that may be one of the more ironic elements of this convoluted narrative of displacement after displacement.  Jews in the twentieth century, facing not just another around of pogroms and anti-Semitism, but the prospect of their absolute elimination from lands where they had been often lodged in ghettoes and yet also integrated to varying degrees, resolved to ameliorate the historical conditions of their distress by dislodging the Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.  “My roots”, says Darwish, “were entrenched before the birth of time”.  But, of course, all three Abrahamic faiths claim Palestine as their ‘holy land’:  that, too, has perhaps brought the conflict into a wider public domain.  Thus, even as the conflict revolves centrally around the dialectic of displacement and home, one is compelled to probe further the meaning of home and equally of homelessness.  Now that the Jews claim to have been restored to their ancestral homeland, and have as a consequence defied the design of history which for centuries seemed to have bound their very identity to the condition of diasporic rootlessness, can we say that they are properly ‘at home’?  What is a home that is gained, some would say, at the expense of another’s home?  One may be at home and yet find that the home that one craved for repels as much as it attracts.

Mahmud Darwish

Mahmud Darwish.  Source:  https://arablit.org/2013/08/09/selected-works-on-the-5th-anniversary-of-mahmoud-darwishs-death/

Beyond all this, the conflict over Palestine disturbs even those who may be indisposed towards Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims because it presents harrowing images of the enormous disequilibrium of power between Israel and the Palestinians.  That disequilibrium of power has sharpened over the years, widening to an enormous gulf in the last two decades; but it was present at the outset, since the migration of Jews into Palestine in the 1930s, which began to alter the demographic composition of Palestine, and subsequently the very foundation of the Jewish state of Israel, were both facilitated by British arms.  Then, as now, the Palestinians were left to fend for themselves.  In the most recent round of protests, in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel as well as the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, this immense chasm between Israel and Palestinian protestors has yet again been glaringly evident.  While Israeli soldiers snuff out Palestinian lives at will, deploying the arsenal that a well-armed nation-state can draw upon, Palestinians can only respond with burning tires, sling shots, and other contrivances that suggest extraordinary ingenuity on their part as much an awareness that the odds are stacked against them.

Palestinian protesters throw stones towards Israeli policemen during clashes in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud

Photo Credits:  Reuters/Ammar Awad.

Naturally, Israel contests any such representation of the conflict, pointing to the frequent rocket attacks against the Jewish state launched by Hamas, or even to the stalemate forced by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, to suggest that it is not the invincible military machine that it is made out to be by its detractors around the world.  Lately, under Netanyahu, the swagger with which Israel acts has intensified, but even now, after repulsing one contingent of Palestinian demonstrators after another determined to breach the fenced border between Gaza and Israel, the claim that Israel remains forever vulnerable to attacks by Hamas or young men who have been initiated into violence not simply persists but has become the linchpin of Israeli self-aggrandizement.  After the humiliating defeat of the Americans by the rice-eating Vietnamese, a possibility that would have shocked Montesquieu and many other proponents of the idea that the world might reasonably be divided into consumers of wheat, potatoes, and rice, each set of people marked by indelible signs of manliness or effeminacy, there is certainly reason to believe that sheer technological prowess does not necessarily confer victory.  Nevertheless, as I have already argued, there is no gainsaying the fact that the conflict presents a hugely disproportionate allocation of technological resources, pitting Israel’s advanced fighter jets against the stone-throwing boys who perhaps gave the intifada its most enduring image.

If all this were not enough to lend the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a particular poignancy, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, now having crossed the five decade mark, is nearly singular in its length, intensity, and normalization of the experience of humiliation.  Numerous political manifestos, not only those issued by the leaders of al-Qaeda, have called for the liberation of various Muslim lands now under the ‘occupation’ of the infidel, and Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya have been mentioned in the same breath by those who argue that there is a global ‘war on Islam’, but there is little question that these struggles for self-determination are far from being similar.  Portions of India, not just Kashmir, are in fact among the most militarized zones in the world, and the inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley have not infrequently had to live under curfew.  The Kashmir Valley has certainly seen its share of strikes, lockdowns, ‘disappearances’, house-to-house searches, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation of common people by the state and non-state actors alike, but it is doubtful that daily life at all presents the humiliations and dangers that are now terrifyingly common in the Palestinian territories.  The distinguished scholar of Indian languages, literatures, and religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Shulman, who is also an activist in the ranks of Ta‘ayush, an Arab-Jewish Partnership, states candidly in the introduction to his chronicle of peace activism that “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is unacceptable, illegal, and ultimately self-destructive.  Yet I am not one of those who think that what has happened here is entirely our fault.  The ‘other side’, as it is called, is also staggering under a burden of folly and crime.  Neither side has a monopoly on right or, for that matter, wrong. There is much harshness and suffering everywhere” [Dark HopeWorking for Peace in Israel and Palestine (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2007)].

But Shulman, shaped perhaps by his reading of the Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, and myriad Indian religious texts, and recognizing that the onus lies on the stronger side to take the bolder initiatives and show the generosity without which strength is revealed to be merely brute force, is constrained to admit that over the last four decades, “destructive elements [in Israeli society] have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise.” These individuals “have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.”  The book itself catalogues, sometimes in chilling detail, the crimes of the settlers and their state sponsors: one is not likely to forget soon the account of the rat poison scattered over Palestinian fields, with an aim all too clear:  “to kill the herds of goat and sheep, the backbone of the cave dwellers’ subsistence economy in this harsh terrain, and thus to force them off the land.”

(to be continued)

For a translation of this article into Norwegian by Lars Olden, see:  http://prosciencescope.com/del-ii-av-vising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-70-ar-av-palestinske-naqba/

Read Full Post »

Part V of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

Most histories of the Taj Mahal that have ventured into politics advert either to Aurangzeb’s intolerance for what he took to be idolatry or to Hindutva accounts of the Taj as narrated in the first three parts of this article.  Shah Jahan watched as his sons competed to succeed him on the throne, with Aurangzeb eventually emerging triumphant.  The war of succession was brutal, as such wars are—everywhere.  It is said that Aurangzeb had his father imprisoned:  as narrated to me by my father decades ago, the pitiful old man was put behind bars in a room from where he could view the Taj.  The commonly accepted account is that Shah Jahan was confined to the Agra Fort, where his daughter Jahanara tended to his needs for eight years before he passed away in 1666.  One of the more moving compositions of the great artist Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath and the younger brother of the celebrated Gagendranath, is called “The Passing of Shah Jahan.”  The Emperor’s last thoughts were evidently on the Taj. He reposes in bed with Jahanara at its foot; his head is turned towards his greatest creation.  The longing in his eyes is palpable, but the object of his attentions is ever so far away.  Jahanara’s own tomb, though elegant, was to be very simple by comparison: it is open to the sky and part of the famous Nizamuddin complex in Delhi.

The_Passing_of_Shah_Jahan

‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’ (1902), a painting by Abanindranath Tagore.  At the foot of the bed is Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan; the Taj Mahal is in the background.

jahanara-begum-s-tomb

The cenotaph of Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, in Nizamuddin, Delhi.

The political history of the Taj, for the present, thus appears to be bookended by Aurangzeb at one hand and the Hindutva nationalists, whose loathing for Aurangzeb is unqualified, at the other end.  There are a few numbers which appear in nearly every history of the Taj that is more than a paragraph long:  20,000 workers are said to have labored over a period of 22 years.  There would seem to be something in this for the historian of the working class.  The craftsmen appear to have come from as far as Baghdad and Constantinople.  But just exactly how were ‘workers’ and ‘craftsmen’ distinguished?  We can imagine that those who inscribed the verses from the Koran, wove the jewels into the stone, or carved out the most delicate windows from the stone were all “craftsmen”. The dome of the Taj is nearly 20 stories high; it required a ramp one mile in length to take the workers to the top.

But, moving beyond the construction of the Taj, why is it that we hear so little about the Taj in the colonial period?  In the mid-19th century, apparently, the Taj was little more than a honeymooning site and a pleasure resort.  The histories tell us that at this degenerate point, when neither the Indians nor the British cared much for the Taj—the Indians because they were supremely indifferent to their own cultural achievements, the British because they were indubitably certain of their own superiority—the intrepid and far-sighted British hero came along. That hero was none other than Nathaniel George Curzon, later Earl Curzon of Kedleston, who commenced his Viceroyalty at the close of the 19th century and served until 1905.  A popular Balliol College rhyme on Curzon summed it up neatly:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim [the ancestral home of Churchill] twice a week.
George_Curzon

George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India. Source:  Wikimedia.

Curzon had the Taj Mahal restored and the canals repaired and filled with water; the gardens, which had fallen into decline, were likewise spruced up though Curzon did not entirely follow the original design. The Taj was finally becoming a candidate for admission into the modern age.  It is around this time that Jamsetji Tata opened the first luxury hotel owned by an Indian and named it, perhaps not coincidentally, the Taj Mahal Palace, which since 1903 has remained one of the most iconic landmarks of Bombay.

It took something like 250 years for the Taj Mahal to become part of the traveler’s itinerary, another fifty years before it became part of the tourist trail, and another two to three decades before it would become an item of consumption.  The Taj’s history would henceforth be inextricably linked up with the ugly trinity of modernity in India:  banality, corruption, and terrorism. First, the banality: one imagines that this is easily explained.  The Taj is unlike any other building in the world: a visit to Buckingham Palace, the Kremlin, the White House, or the Forbidden City counts for something, but nothing mesmerizes like the Taj. A visit to the Taj without having oneself photographed in front of it is nearly inconceivable; the photograph is a rite of passage, almost. We may think of something like the selfie before “the selfie” was invented.  But that is only the most predictable source of the banality behind a visit to the Taj.  I was astounded to learn that, on the 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997, the Greek musician Yanni was allowed the rare honor of giving a live concert at the Taj Mahal.  Those who have even the remotest kind of familiarity with Yanni’s music will recognize it as something like a slightly superior kind of ‘elevator music’. To suppose that the Government of India could find no more elevated specimen of a musician, and that in a country like India, to perform live at the Taj is staggering to the imagination.  Yanni has his fans, and they will take umbrage at my verdict, but the fact that the Government of India associated the sentimental hogwash around Yanni’s music with the Taj tells us something about the kind of Mills & Boon romanticism in which the Taj is drenched.

The banality offends or one may just shrug one’s shoulders.  One may also view the decision of the Government of India to permit a live concert at the Taj as a challenge to the terrorists, though it would not explain the choice of Yanni.  Last year, terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State appear to have issued a threat against the Taj, but terrorist threats to blow up the Taj have a much longer history.  The most palpable of these threats emanated from Sikh secessionists in the mid-1980s, who were enraged when the government of then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi launched an attack on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, Amritsar’s Golden Temple, in an attempt to weed out militants who had holed up in the shrine and amassed a large arsenal of firearms and bombs. They promised to blow up the Taj Mahal in retaliation, and I recall days in the mid-1980s when the Taj was shut down.  Viewings of the Taj by moonlight were halted.  The militant secessionists had for some years been targeting not only Hindus but ‘moderate’ Sikhs, those who—like men shorn of beards—refused to keep the symbols of the faith, but in issuing threats to blow up the Taj they may have, quite unknowingly perhaps, been triggering off a new chapter in the history of Sikh-Muslim animosity.  Two of the Sikh Gurus had been martyred at the hands of Mughal Emperors, one at the hands of Aurangzeb and another by the command of his grandfather, Jahangir. If the Sikh militants thought they were sending a message to the Government of India and their Hindu persecutors in issuing a threat against the Taj, the message was quite possibly being read and interpreted by Indian Muslims as an assault on their history and cultural memory.  A political history of the Taj revolving around semiotics and what I would characterize as ‘message panics’ is yet to be attempted.

The political history of the Taj, however, can be written in other idioms as well. I have briefly alluded to ‘corruption’ and others will have in mind the ‘pollution’ that has at times disfigured the Taj and remains an ever-present threat.  Agra, for all the great monument that characterize the city, a city which was the capital—an exceedingly short-lived one—of the Mughals and even of Sikandar Lodi before the Lodis were sent packing by Babur, has long been in shambles; the state of Uttar Pradesh is nearly rock-bottom in India with respect to most of the important markers of economic and social progress.  Small-scale industries—highly polluting, largely unregulated—have over the decades sprung up around the Taj, in both very close and medium proximity.  The Taj, by the late 1980s, was beginning to look dirty, disfigured, decrepit; soot had formed around the minarets and domes; even the marble in the interior was losing its sheen.  Intellectuals, ‘concerned citizens’, environmentalists, the various keepers of India’s heritage:  these were among the groups that agitated for government action to save India’s most famous monument from irreparable harm.  Others sought the same outcome for the more practical reason that the Taj was then, as it is today, a principal revenue earner for a state government that is not only strapped for cash but is corrupt to the core. The Supreme Court ordered these unregulated industries around the Taj shut down: however, in India, as in other countries where there is a separation of powers, the Court can command change but cannot execute it.  Moreover, in India the stories of ‘pollution’ and ‘corruption’ are intertwined.  Far too many local and state-level politicians were invested in the industries; some only received bribes from the businessmen who owned these interpreters, others were themselves owners.  Most of these industries would eventually be shuttered:  when it comes to the question of the Taj, the country’s reputation is at stake.  Whatever else the Taj may be good for, it is also likely to exercise something of a restraining effect on those who only act because they long that India should look good before the world.

(concluded)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

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

Read Full Post »

Part IV of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

I recall hearing a number of stories about the Taj Mahal, which I first visited around the summer of 1987, through my teens and into my twenties.  Some Greek philosopher or savant—it may have been Heraclitus, Parmenides, or perhaps Homer, but not Socrates—said that you cannot go anywhere without running into a story.  Human civilization can do without history, anthropology, indeed all the academic disciplines that in their own bloated fashion think of themselves as indispensable, but it cannot do without stories.  The fire around which primeval men and women huddled was meant not only to keep away wild animals, provide warmth, and cook raw meat:  so long as the fire kept burning, the stories kept flowing. Civilizations are known by the kind of stories they tell:  the fact that social scientists, about whom I know a thing or two, have so little interest in stories, and even less a capacity to narrate them, tells us something about the state of civilization. The most egregious offenders in this respect, as in most others, are the economists:  one pathetic specimen, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whom I met several years ago in the lion’s den, that is at a gathering of professional economists that I visited out of anthropological curiosity, assured me that he could “model love” and do economic regressions to establish the best conditions for suitors, consensual fornication, and pure lust.  But even professional historians, a tribe that I know well, generally disavow stories in favor of a rank positivism—a positivism that is rarely admitted as such and is now disguised by work that purports to be global, interdisciplinary, mindful of ‘networks of exchange’, etcetera.

TajMahalSymmetry

Source:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/eight-secrets-taj-mahal-180962168/  The article also discusses what it calls the greatest “myths” about the Taj.

 

The dazzling and venerable “magic” of the Taj itself owes everything to the story of the love that Shah Jahan, ‘Emperor of the World’, apparently had for Arjumand Banu, upon whom the Emperor conferred the title, ‘Exalted One of the Palace’.  When she died bearing his 14th child, his grief was as deep as the ocean; and so he resolved to build her a mausoleum that would be worthy of this love.  Six of their children died before reaching the age of four, another at the age of seven—and that is perhaps why Shah Jahan kept subjecting Mumtaz Mahal to pregnancy.  However, except for her first-born, the five children that followed all survived—and among them were Aurangzeb, Shah Shuja, Dara Shikoh, and the Emperor’s two famous daughters, Jahanara Begum and Roshnara Begum. One might quite easily put Mumtaz’s constant state of pregnancy down to “the times”: in predominantly agricultural societies, and certainly in pre-modern societies, it seems to have been common for women to bear a very large number of children.  One could also say that not enough was known about the perils of repeated pregnancy for women.  But considering that the first half of her flock survived infancy and early adolescence, and that three of Mumtaz’s children, before her last pregnancy, were to die in infancy, we must ask what kind of love Shah Jahan bore for Mumtaz. It may be that one conception of love for a woman demands of her that she be a child-producing machine, but whatever one’s opinion of the matter the received view of Shah Jahan’s unmatched love for Mumtaz requires some deliberation and reconsideration.

Mumtaz&ShahJahan

Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan:  A contemporary painting (2010) in the Mughal ‘miniature’ style.

However, it is not this kind of story that I have in mind when I advert to the rumors and legends that swirled around the Taj.  My father was the source of some of these stories about the Taj; but I also heard them from family friends, acquaintances, and others whose views I sought in my endeavor to be something of an ethnographer of Taj legends.  Two such stories I heard frequently. Shah Jahan, I was told, had apparently planned on having another Taj built for himself from across the white-domed splendor on the banks of the Yamuna, except that his mausoleum was going to be in black marble.  It had to be black, of course, or how else would one have a radiant symphony in black & white.  I didn’t ask where the black marble would have been mined:  the white marble in the Taj is quarried from Makrana in Rajasthan’s Nagour District.  But Aurangzeb, who waged an eventually successful battle to eliminate his brothers (and thus, some have said, almost certainly rewrote history) in the struggle over succession, had other plans for his father in his own quest for the Mughal throne.  And how common is black marble, anyhow? Common enough to build a Taj?

Another widely circulating story has Shah Jahan ordering the amputation of both arms of the architect of the Taj Mahal so that the building would never be replicated.  Often the same person who told me the first story would tell me the second story!  So, either Shah Jahan would have the Taj in black or no one else would have it:  such are the prerogatives of Emperors, something akin to the tantrums of children.  But surely Shah Jahan would have known that once you replicate the Taj, it is no longer the Taj.  Moreover, an armchair architect, as it were, could easily have presided over the construction of a second Taj, guiding junior architects and supervising the workers.  Accordingly, this story survives in variants:  one version has Shah Jahan directing that the architect be killed, while another version points to a more draconian expedient, the only one calculated to ensure that the rays of the sun would never fall upon another Taj Mahal:  all the 20,000 workers were, on completion of the Taj, blinded, maimed, or put to death.

Luckily, there is no archive contemporary to Shah Jahan to tell us the story of the Taj. Historians may lament this omission, but storytellers should rejoice.  Lovers should celebrate that we know little in concrete; if we knew more, it is not impossible that we might have the most pedestrian explanation for the Taj’s existence.  Who is to say that Shah Jahan might not have been a pre-modern Donald Trump:  the latter, in any case, has not been reticent in appropriating the legacy of the Taj, as we know from the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.  The architectural plans do not survive; almost nothing has been recorded about its construction. There is some discussion that the architect may have been European in origin: just as P N Oak held it impossible that any Muslim could have built anything so beautiful as the Taj Mahal, there are Europeans who have long held that it is inconceivable that any Indian could have built something so majestic. A Venetian architect has been mentioned in this connection.  Florentine influence has been detected in the pietra dura gemstones.

Whoever the architect, every visitor has been most impressed by the symmetry that the building and the complex presents to the naked eye; and some would perhaps have thought of these lines from Blake: “What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Yet the story is not complete. Shah Jahan had placed the marble cenotaph beneath which Mumtaz’s body rests in the dead center, in open view from the outside; however, Aurangzeb, who otherwise left the Taj, placed the body of Shah Jahan next to that of his wife. Was Aurangzeb being the dutiful son, rendering homage to the father whose death he precipitated, by placing Shah Jahan alongside his dearly beloved wife? Or did he wish to ruin the perfect symmetry and trouble his father’s soul? Was this perhaps the most expeditious way that he could leave his mark on a wretched but ever so beautiful building? Or should we perhaps pay some credence to the “Hindu Brahmin” guide who told the New York Times reporter, Amy Waldman, that in Islam symmetry is reserved only for God and that Aurangzeb, “a fanatic Muslim”, was only doing his duty?

CenotaphOfMumtazMahal

The Cenotpah of Mumtaz Mahal at the Taj Mahal.

(To be continued)

See also:

Part I:  “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

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 V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers

Read Full Post »

Part III of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

PNOakPhoto&TajPamphlet

Preposterous as P N Oak’s arguments doubtless are, scarcely worthy even of rebuttal, the position adopted in recent months by BJP hardliners and their supporters, as outlined in the first part of this article, compels us to move towards a history of the Taj Mahal that would be more sensitive to considerations which are far removed from those who marvel at the architecture and the design of the entire complex or who are entranced by the idea of romantic love.  Oak’s popularity is not of recent vintage: his claims generated a controversy that was, as I had written fifteen years ago in my History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2002; 2nd ed. with postscript, 2005), carried out in the “Letters to the Editor” column of the English-language daily Indian Express over a period of four months in 1987-88. Historians have felt bound to rebut his claims, which suggests how Hindu nationalists have been able to shift the grounds of the debate.

Indian-Conspiracy-Taj-Mahal-Or-Tejo-Mahalaya-800x445

This is from a website called “The Truth Behind Taj Mahal (Tejo Mahalaya).”  It offers what is claims are “103 Facts” about the Taj.  Source:  https://www.moviemint.com/the-truth-behind-taj-mahal-tejo-mahalaya-lord-shiva-temple/

In December 1989, to take one illustration, the monthly magazine Seminar, which has at times occupied an important place in the intellectual life of the country, devoted an issue to the theme of “Mythifying History”.  One of the contributors, R. Nath, then a historian at Rajasthan University, penned a piece called “The Taj:  A Mausoleum”.  Nath, who had devoted many years of his life to the study of the Taj Mahal, sought to show conclusively that Oak does not have a shred of evidence to support his various allegations that the Taj Mahal was earlier a temple devoted to Shiva, or even a palace built or owned by one of Akbar’s generals, Raja Mansingh (1550-1614).

DomeOfTheTajMahal

“The dome of the Taj Mahal bearing a trident pinnacle made of a non-rusting eight-metal Hindu alloy. The pinnacle served as a lightning deflector too. This pinnacle has been blindly assumed by many to be an Islamic crescent and star, or a lightning conductor installed by the British. This is a measure of the careless manner in which Indian history has been studied till now. ”  This is part of the caption that appears with a photograph on one of many websites, following P N Oak, which claims to offer proof that the Taj Mahal is Tejo-Mahalaya, a Shiva Temple.  Source:  http://www.krishnapath.org/photographic-evidence-taj-mahal-a-vedic-temple/

There is little doubt that the political preeminence of the BJP at present has given Oak’s ideas a fresh lease of life.  On 26 March 2015, a petition was filed in the Agra District Court by six lawyers acting on behalf of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindutva’s principal ideological organization.  I should say rather that the petition was filed on behalf of Lord Shiva himself, since this deity is named as the plaintiff:  it is alleged by Mahadev [Shiva] that the Taj Mahal complex, which has long been under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India, is its lawful property.  The petition, where the lawyer Harishankar Jain appears as “friend” of the deity, states that “during the 12th century, Raja Paramardi Dev had built [the] Tejo Mahalaya temple palace, which at present in common parlance is known as Taj Mahal. The temple was later inherited by Raja Maan Singh, the then maharaja of Jaipur. After him in [the] 17th century, the property was held and managed by Raja Jai Singh but was annexed by Shah Jahan (1632) during his regime.”  The deity therefore sought lawful restitution of his property—and also protection from encroachment, defilement, and usurpation.  “The property is not a burial ground and has never been so in the past”, the petition continues, and it therefore requests that the use of the property for “purposes” other “than Hindu ‘pooja’ of the deity”—these other purposes being the offering of prayers by Muslims—be barred as “unconstitutional”.

There is much that is marvelously interesting in this petition:  as I have had occasion to remark to my students on many occasions, Hinduism suggests a continuum between asuras [demons], humans, demi-gods, and gods.  If gods and goddesses can be born and reborn, there is no reason why they cannot ‘appear’ as plaintiffs in courts of law. Hinduism is nonpareil, as far as religions go, in its homage to the element of play.  The admixture of an invocation of the prerogatives of the deity and rights guaranteed under the constitution is likewise more than worthy of comment.  But let us leave aside all the fecund possibilities that come to mind. The Agra court in its wisdom admitted the petition, directing the central government, the ministry of culture, the Archaeological Survey, and the home ministry to file their replies within a month.  In November 2015, the Minister for Culture addressed Parliament and made it be known that in its opinion the Taj Mahal was a “tomb” and not a “temple”; more recently, on 17 August 2017, representatives of the Archaeological Survey appeared before the Agra Court and flatly rejected the claim that the Taj Mahal had ever been a Shiva temple.

There may be, it has been argued by Ebba Koch in her 2006 book on the Taj Mahal, a longer history of Hindu misgivings about the Taj.  She notes that despite the monument’s worldwide fame, it has been little studied—except perhaps by architectural historians.  Koch contends that the Archaeological Survey, which has been in existence since 1861, has never published a guidebook to the monument.  But Koch seems to puzzle little over this omission, if indeed she is right about the ASI’s failure to publish a guidebook to the most famous site under its care, and seems rather certain about what this failure portends.  Thus, she writes: “The image of the Taj Mahal has been reproduced more often that of any other building. It has become a symbol of India, despite India’s uneasiness with its Islamic past and despite being a tomb, which has no place in the Hindu tradition.”  Has India always been uneasy about its Islamic past?  Are some communities rather more uneasy than others?  “That the Taj was founded as a Hindu temple is now the firm belief of many a visitor,” Koch argues, “who is at pains to put his foreign fellow visitors right about the origin of the building”: “The Taj Mahal is really ‘Tejo-Mahalaya’, a Shiva temple.”

Dwight Eisenhower, Jawaharlal Nehru

President Dwight Eisenhower on a visit to the Taj Mahal with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 13 December 1959.

So perhaps, whatever the Archaeological Survey or the Culture Ministry might say, P. N. Oak and his acolytes have triumphed after all.  But perhaps we should also be less hasty in reaching such a conclusion.  I have not read Koch’s book and have only seen excerpts from her book in reviews, and I am unable to say what led her to the view that the communal history of the Taj has now become part of Hindu commonsense and that the Taj-as-Tejo-Mahalaya is now part of “the firm belief of many a visitor”.  Did she speak to the so-called guides who roam the Taj’s grounds in the hundreds? Has she read pamphlet literature in Hindi which would lead her such a view?  The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti [literally, ‘Organization for the Reawakening of Hindus], set up for the “Establishment of the Hindu Rashtra” [Hindu nation-state], has already deified “Pujya [Venerable] P. N. Oak” and given over an entire web page to the “Shocking Truth of the Taj Mahal”, but do these Hindutva enthusiasts reflect the views of common Hindus?  As I have argued so often before, Hindu nationalists have been, from the inception of the internet, ardent advocates of the digital rewriting of Indian history.

And yet Koch’s reading is not entirely communal, even if she doesn’t pursue the further implications—about Indian Islam—of her own argument.  The Taj Mahal poses problems for Muslims as much as it does for Hindus—perhaps even more so.  As Koch points out, “tombs were from the beginning a controversial issue” in Islamic traditions:  the devout have held tombs “to be irreligious, heathen, and non-Islamic”, and there are hadiths which unequivocally forbid worship at tombs as a form of idolatry and polytheism. Certainly, if India had been under Wahhabi rule, the Taj might well have been reduced to rubble by now.  The Saudi religious establishment is nothing if it is not full of ferocious anti-idolaters, and we should remember that they have not even spared the mosque of Fatima, the grave of Muhammad’s mother, the tombs and graves of early martyrs of the religion, and so on. Ziauddin Sardar is among many scholars who have documented the wholesale desecration of Mecca in recent years—not by infidels, but by those who describe themselves as Islam’s most zealous votaries.  I doubt, however, that there are more than a handful of Muslims in India who would call for the destruction of the Taj Mahal as ‘grievously un-Islamic’.  Indian Islam has not been reduced to this state—not yet, in any case.

(To be continued)

For Part I, “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

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 IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers

Read Full Post »

Part II of “The Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

Someone else’s “history”, be it of a phenomenon, event, or country, generally appears to be myth.  By common consent, we reserve the word myth for all that which we find unsupportable, incredulous, unlikely, and, most importantly, unpalatable.  Those who view themselves as reasonable understand that histories may be disputed, and according to this judicious point of view the least we can say is that some histories are better than other histories.  They may be better because they are supported by what is generally called “evidence” or they put forward an account that is more persuasive. But I suspect that, more often than not, and however little we are willing to acknowledge this, our reasons for construing some narratives as better or as reasonable has little to do with their intrinsic qualities as “reasonable”. Rather, some narratives, that is some accounts of the past, appear to conform to the intellectual and ideological predispositions with which we view texts.

All this might quite reasonably seem to the reasonably educated reader to be a rather lengthy and circuitous way of affirming that most readers approach a text with some bias, however little they are willing to admit this.  However, my claim here is not merely about bias, or the force—which is considerable and occasionally overwhelming—of prejudice in human reasoning and evaluation; rather, my concern here is with the epistemic status of history, which is derived in part from the opposition to myth, which as a word has only derogatory implications.  History as we know it is nothing without the Promethean struggle against myth.  There are, to be sure, times when ‘myth’ appears in more of a neutral vein, such as in discussions of a Greek myth.  That (to take one illustration) the story of Vishnu reclining on a serpent is a ‘myth’ is undisputed:  what we make of the myth is quite another matter.  The Hindu might find such a myth full of meaning, but to the science zealot such a myth is mere rubbish, or at best a story that people might tell to themselves for amusement. Then there are others who might find the myth full of meaning, but do not at all consider themselves as Hindu; there are yet others who find myths meaningful, though it is the general pattern to which myths conform rather than the meaning behind a particular myth that is of interest to them.

Taj_Mahal-10_WithRiver

How might we locate Hindutva myths, histories, or mythohistories about the Taj?  The fact that the BJP is now the all-powerful party and therefore seeks to control the narrative is assumed to be behind the recent attempts to alter the received narrative about the Taj, but in fact alternative accounts were first put forward over five decades ago.  In the early 1960s, the self-professed historian, P. N. Oak, and a number of other like-minded men formed an organization which they described as the “Institute for Rewriting Indian History”.  By the mid-1970s, this organization had over 200 members—a very small number, if one considers that we are all engaged in rewriting history, but a rather large number if one takes into account the extraordinarily bizarre views to which the members appear to have subscribed.  Little is known about Purushottam Nagesh Oak apart from a note left behind by him:  he was a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Indore and spent some time in Agra, home to the Taj, and then Pune, that den of Brahmin orthodoxy. He claims to have spent some time as a member of Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army: this claim remains unverified, and of course claiming association with Bose is a sure way of winning cultural capital in India, especially among the ultra-nationalist set that has had enough of Gandhi and (as the Hindutva advocates have often argued) his soft womanly wiles.

PNOakTajMahalBookletCover

Oak and his friends took it as their divine brief to demonstrate that all major monuments associated in India with the Muslim faith are Hindu in origin, which was meant to imply not merely that they had been built with the remnants of Hindu edifices, but that they had been converted from Hindu to Muslim places of worship.  The further implication was that Muslim rulers do not have the capacity to construct architectural masterpieces. “Our Institute is pledged, among other things,” wrote Oak in 1976, “to rid Islamic history of the silly notion that Muslim rulers and courtiers who built no palaces built majestic and massive mosques and tombs.  The world must know that those buildings are all pre-Islamic.”  Oak put foreign scholars on notice “that all historic buildings in India are captured Hindu buildings”, and students of the “Islamic period of Indian history” were admonished to recognize the “basic fact that every temple, mansion and fort overrun by Muslim invaders was advertised as a mosque tomb or citadel ‘built’ by them.” By this time, Oak had been able to publish a score of books, the titles of many of which adequately convey the gist of his claims:  The Taj Mahal is a Temple Palace; Fatehpur Sikri is a Hindu City; Agra Red Fort is a Hindu Building; Delhi’s Red Fort is Hindu Lalkot; and The Taj Mahal is Tejo Mahalaya:  A Shiva Temple.  In his efforts to leaven his claims with the nectar of popular devotion, Oak went so far as to characterize, in his pamphlet Lucknow’s Imambaras are Hindu Palaces, the famous mosques from the time of the Nawabs of Oudh as “conclusively proved in our research volume to be of holy and hoary Ramayanic origin.” [See Annual Report of the Institute for Rewriting Indian History (New Delhi:  IRWI, 1976), pp. 8-9, 11, 18.]

PNOakBooklets

The covers of two other books by P. N. Oak.  The Hindi book on the left states:  Fatehpur Sikri is a Hindu City.”

The presence of great Islamic architecture outside India does not appear to have been disconcerting to Oak, since he was prepared to argue that “his findings in history have a worldwide application”:  all great Islamic building complexes, whether in Iran, Central Asia, or elsewhere, were “earlier Hindu palace complexes.” But it is his views on the Taj Mahal which are particularly germane for us.  The word ‘Mahal’, Oak wrote, refers to a palace, which the Taj is assuredly not; after Shah Jahan had “seized” the Tejo Mahalaya, which was a Rajput palace and the site of a Shiva Temple, he renamed it the Taj.  The Taj’s octagonal shape owed everything, Oak maintained, to the guardians of eight directions (ashta dikpala), and the lingam that would have been in the Shiva temple was desecrated and removed.  According to Oak, Shah Jahan and the Europeans colluded, perhaps in an earlier illustration of how Muslim and Western opinion is joined at the hip in an animus against Hinduism, to create a massive and elaborate fraud.  The Europeans offered what purport to be eyewitness accounts of the construction of the Taj; Shah Jahan’s administrators and the keepers of the treasury generated fictitious financial records in an attempt to fool people into thinking the Taj was constructed in Shah Jahan’s lifetime and at his orders. All of monumental history, and I mean this in multiple senses, embodied most gloriously in the Taj Mahal had as its source nothing more than the malicious intent to disguise its own Hindu origins.

(To be continued)

For Part I, “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

For Part III, “Communalism and the Politics of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/06/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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »