M. Reza Pirbhai is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. His latest book is Fatima Jinnah: Mother of the Nation (Cambridge, 2017).
His article is shared below:
If visiting the Taj Mahal is on your bucket list, better get to it soon. The seeds of its demolition are being sown.
This UNESCO World Heritage site – a “teardrop on the cheek of time,” to quote the poet of yesteryear, Rabindranath Tagore – was built in the 17th century as the final resting place of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan’s beloved wife. It is recognized as one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture, receives hundreds of thousands of international visitors each year and generates many millions for the Indian treasury. But despite its historical, architectural and monetary value, the Taj Mahal was recently removed from an official booklet on the State of Uttar Pradesh’s tourist destinations. This comes on the heels of the State’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, declaring that the Taj Mahal does not “reflect Indian culture.” Soon after, his government also released a budget that does not fund the mausoleum’s maintenance in the coming year. Nor is it clear whether the previous State government’s plans to build a Mughal museum at the site will go ahead.
This State government’s move has prompted many Indian journalists, politicians, rights activists and academics to decry the omission. A Congress party spokesperson, for example, stated that it represented a “clear religious bias.” The Tourism Guild of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, echoed the sentiment, its spokesperson stating that “The current state government is not supporting Agra as a tourist destination because of its Mughal [Muslim] monuments… Their focus is on [Hindu] religious tourism.” To which the State government has responded that criticisms are based on misunderstanding. “The booklet was released only for the purposes of a press conference and is not a guide to Uttar Pradesh’s tourism spots,” an official told NDTV. “It mentions new and upcoming projects of the Uttar Pradesh tourism department, and new focus areas.” The government has also announced that it is in fact undertaking various projects to further facilitate visits to the Taj Mahal.
So why the alarm? Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a longtime federal parliamentarian, assumed his latest office earlier this year after his party, the BJP of ruling Prime Minister Narendra Modi, won an overwhelming three-quarter majority in one of the largest voter turnouts of recent Indian history. Adityanath’s initiation into the broader Hindu Nationalist clique – which includes the militant Sangh Parivar/Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and umbrella Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) – began with an act of iconoclasm. Having completed a bachelor’s in mathematics, he left home in the early 1990s to join the ‘Ram Temple Movement.’ The activists behind the movement claimed that the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya (a 16th century house of worship built by the Mughal dynasty’s founder, Babar) stood on the site of the Hindu god Rama’s birthplace. On this pretext, the mosque was seized by the followers of Mahant Digvijaynath, high priest of the Gorakhnath Math (temple), back in 1949, and statues of Rama and Sita placed in its precincts. Pressure would be applied on the Indian government from then on to officially legitimate the capture, but successive Congress-led administrations declared the mosque a disputed area and barred access to all. Digvijaynath and his successor, Mahant Avaidyanath, were both members of parliament, elected on Hindu Mahasabha tickets – the precursor of the BJP. Furthermore, the Sangh Parivar/RSS, BJP and VHP joined the movement in the 1980s, leading Avaidyanath, by then Adityanath’s spiritual guide, to join the BJP, too.
The Babri Mosque came to its infamous end in 1992, when supporters of all the above named Hindu Nationalist parties stormed the gates and demolished it. Two years later, Adityanath was named Avaidyanath’s successor as head priest of the Gorakhnath Math. He would assume the post in 2014. In the meantime, Adityanath was elected as the youngest member of India’s parliament (Lok Sabha) and has been reelected for five consecutive terms since 1998. In 2002, he founded the militant Hindu Yuva Vahini, which has been implicated in the instigation of various acts of communal violence, such as the Mau riots (2005) and the Gorakhpur riots (2007). The first led to charges of murder and arson being lodged against Hindu Yuva Vahini activists, while the second (which including the burning of a Muslim mausoleum) culminated in Adityanath’s arrest, sparking further violence by his supporters until he was released. Across his religio-political career, Adityanath has campaigned to ‘re-convert’ Muslims and Christians to his brand of Hinduism and stop Muslims and Hindus marrying. He has shared a public stage with colleagues calling for the graves of Muslim women to be dug up and their corpses raped. He has publically stated that if given a chance, he will install Hindu statues in every mosque in India. He has likened the words of the Indian Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan to those of a “terrorist,” compared Pakistan to Satan, praised Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US and urgued the Indian government to enact the same. He has even told his Hindu critics to leave India. His hateful credentials are indisputable.
It is precisely these credentials that recently led the historian William Dalrymple to refer to Adityanath as a “crazy fundo monk” when commenting on the absence of the Taj Mahal on the State of Uttar Pradesh’s tourist sites. Whether this is the act of a crazy man may be open to debate. But it is a fact that he is a violent, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-woman, Hindu chauvinist with a track record of destroying mosques and Muslim mausoleums. If he were a Muslim like the builders of the Taj Mahal he would undoubtedly have been labelled a terrorist world-wide. But he is not. He is Chief Minister of the most populous State in the ‘largest democracy in world,’ an inspiration to millions who have elected him to parliament five consecutive times, leading to his latest appointment following a landslide win for a party already at the helm in New Delhi. He is by no means on the fringes of society. Thus, when his State government suggests that it is promoting the upkeep and facilitating visits to the Taj Mahal, there is much reason to doubt its sincerity. Hopefully the millions generated by tourism will restrain the urge to destroy it, but there is little other reason for hope in a vitriolic environment populated by such so-called yogis, monks and their followers.
So, if you want to see the Taj Mahal, err on the side of caution by packing your bags sooner rather than later.