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The Taj Mahal: A Stigma On Indian History And Culture?

In a country as diverse as India and with a myriad history such spiralling of identity politics will hijack developmental discourse at best and at worst, have incendiary consequences that will lead to palpable civil unrest

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Controversy and the Taj Mahal have been two sides of the same coin. Just that this time, the furore following BJP politician Sangeet Som's comments that the Taj is not a part of Indian history and culture, means that a world famous monument that has united India's national imagining in the shared glory Indians feel towards it, is now being usurped to divide India.

Recently, the Taj has been removed from Uttar Pradesh's tourism booklet. It has also been omitted from receiving any fresh funds in the State budget. These measures, and especially Som's comments, are sadly said with the intent of being inflammatory whereas what India, being on the cusp of an overarching emergence to greater development, needs is developmental politics as compared to identity politics raising its ugly head. In a country as diverse as India and with a myriad history such spiralling of identity politics will hijack developmental discourse at best and at worst, have incendiary consequences that will lead to palpable civil unrest.

Moreover, if the logic of the BJP leaders that the Taj Mahal ought to be annihilated from the Indian narrative because it was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and the Mughals were cruel to the Hindus is to prevail, then what can be said about the Indian princely rulers who bit by bit sold India to the British by ceding territory to the East India Company in return for their support to fight wars with other Indian princely kingdoms? On closer inspection, every epoch is arguably tainted by some excess or the other. Which parts of the excesses in Indian history do we eliminate? And which do we conveniently 'keep'? And who do we 'allow' to decide this?

Most epochs, not just in India but through the trajectory of human history the world  over, have been marked by excesses - can those epochs and all the culture (architecture, music, dance, food, language etc.) that have emerged be entirely erased? Where do we draw the line? Or do we simply and selectively throw out the baby with the bathwater, in this case simply erase the standing of the Taj Mahal, a supreme and sublime architectural feat, known globally as a wonder of the world and recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO. Rather, what is salient, if Indian politicians really had the best interests of the Indian people at heart, is the uplift of the city of Agra in which the Taj Mahal adroitly stands. While the Taj has brought in much foreign revenue to the Indian ex-chequer in the form of being India's foremost tourist attraction (230 million rupees from 6.2 million visitors just in 2016 entrance fees alone), is it sad and oxymoronic to note the city Agra that houses it is weighed down by penury. It is striking to see how this monument, an ode to magnificence, is encircled beyond its periphery by abject poverty. Mendicants line the way to the Taj and crowd the city.

Secondly, to hold the argument (in a holistic way) that the Taj Mahal is a stigma because it was constructed by an Emperor belonging to a dynasty formed on blood and spoil, means we must also apply this argument to other world wonders like the Egyptian Pyramids that were built by slaves and thereby also stand shamed as compared to being celebrated as feats of human possibility and endeavour. Infact, many great cities and monuments have emerged from the womb of war, tyranny, blood and barbarism. Is the glitter of Dubai not from the under belly of  twenty first century slave labour?

The Taj, in particular, the story goes was built by 20,000 labourers (allegedly Hindus and Muslims) who slaved for 22 years only to be maimed and/or blinded by Emperor Shah Jahan once the monument was complete, so that they would be unable to replicate the structure ascertaining the Taj's place as a one-off, most exceptional masoleum to Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved second wife. To the other side of the love story then a lesser known story of heartlessness presides. This often elided story ought to be made known for humanitarian reasons.  Let the prevailing narrative be about a rethink of human love, often at the cost of heartlessness, as compared to narratives being aligned to whip up tension between peoples and among communities - in this case, the Muslims and the Hindus.

Som's remarks made with divisive communal intent at heart is not the way forward to 'development' and 'progress'? They are  just a poor and sadly inflammatory distraction from real developmental goals. India, especially in its current location, does not need such regressive rhetoric but rather it needs speak that is from the heart of a genuinely progressive agenda. The BJP may have shown India economic prowess but if it continues such speak, its downfall will come by it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr Priya Virmani

The author is a political and economic analyst, a writer and a social entrepreneur. She contributes to print, radio and television. As a TED speaker and an international speaker, she gives talks on disruptive economics, politics, psychology and entrepreneurship. She is the Founder of Paint Our World, a children's charity

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