Can one hate the Great Wall of China or the Mona Lisa? What about the pyramids of Giza? Humans squabble a lot, but almost the entire planet agrees that these great works of beauty and art are treasures. On that small list is one monument from India. In a poll conducted among a million voters in 2007, the Taj Mahal in Agra made it to a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. Built as a mausoleum by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is the world’s foremost symbol of love. So treasured is it as an artefact of humanity, a picture of it – one of only 115 images – was even included on the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. In case the ship was discovered by intelligent extraterrestrial life, the scientists who launched Voyager wanted them to know that earthlings had built the Taj Mahal.
Yet, as one has recently learnt, it is possible to hate even the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal might have been good enough for the Voyager but it didn’t make the cut for the state of Uttar Pradesh, which left it out of its tourism brochure. In case one thought this was an egregious clerical error – it wasn’t. On Monday, a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson clarified: “What Hindus want, we are going to do.”
This is not the first time BJP has run down the Taj Mahal. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath, has previously attacked the mausoleum as not being Indian enough since it was built by the Mughals, who were Muslim. Other proponents of Hindutva, smarting at the fact that India’s most well-known tourist attraction was built by a Muslim emperor, have taken to manufacturing a made-up past for the Taj Mahal. They claim that it was once a Shiv temple called Tejo Mahalaya.
Hindutva has always had a history problem. Its hate for something as benign as the Taj Mahal simply tells us how intractable the issue is. There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Hindutva project: it wants to wipe out the entire medieval period from India’s history books.
The ruling party, for example, takes great issue with Aurangzeb as a Mughal emperor, whom many colonial historians have painted as a bigot. Of course, the issue was never Aurangzeb per se – any historical analysis of the emperor does not justify the hate – but he is simply a convenient target for attack.
Sure enough, the vitriol did not stop at him. Emperor Akbar was dragged out too, in spite of – or maybe because of – his remarkable record of syncretism and rational thought in an otherwise dark age. In 2016, a BJP Union minister compared Akbar to Hitler.
Tragi-comically enough, the BJP-controlled government of Rajasthan literally rewrote history, teaching children that Akbar lost the Battle of Haldighati – in spite of the rather glaring fact that his antagonist, Maharana Pratap, fled the battlefield in order to save his life.
Matters moved on to even minor players in Indian history. In 2016, Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor named their new-born son Taimur, a common enough name. Yet the matter caused a furore since it was shared with a 14th century Turkic king, Taimur Lang.
Of course, this discomfiture with history goes right back to the roots of Hindutva as a political force. The BJP went from being a two-seat party in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to ruling New Delhi in 1996 on the back of its campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid, which it claimed was a mosque built by the Mughal army on the site where Ram was born. The party’s workers eventually demolished the 300-year-old mosque in 1992 – nine years before the Taliban managed to blow up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
The parallel with the Buddhas of Bamiyan is not incidental. There are many differences between Hindutva and Islamism but both ideologies are terribly troubled by history. They are such a violent break from the past that to make things fit, they seek to wipe it out.
The grievance with history is part of the raison d’être of both ideologies. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi often talks of 1,200 years of slavery, bundling all Islamic rulers as colonisers. Not only is this definition of colonialism incorrect, he intentionally exaggerates the time period. Not even Delhi, the seat of Muslim power in South Asia, ever had 1,200 years of rule by Muslim kings. Of course, the length is significantly smaller in many other parts of India. Yet, this lack of accuracy helps, not hurts, Hindutva, which build itself on a sense of imagined historical grievance.
Unsure of itself
Politically, the campaign to destroy the Babri Masjid helped the BJP become a major party in large parts of north and west India. Yet, that was more 25 years ago. Today, the BJP is not a challenger – it is the ruling power. That it feels the need to angrily attack India’s medieval history even today is a troubling sign.
It shows that the saffron party has not been able to build enough intellectual capital to prop up its claim to power. Any ruling ideology that cannot connect with the past in some way or the other remains in a state of flux. Even the British, a foreign colonial power, was careful enough to preserve symbols of Mughal might in its architecture. And the modern Indian state still retains the basic skeleton of the Raj.
That Hindutva has been unable to even absorb something as benign as the Taj Mahal into its narrative is a sign that it lacks confidence in itself as a ruling ideology.