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Taj Mahal or Tejo Mahalaya? Hindu Nationalists’ Revisionist Assault on Islam in India

On a balmy Rajasthani morning, Mohammad Afrazul, a 45-year-old Muslim laborer from West Bengal, woke to the promise of a handsome wage. Shambhulal Regar, the man Afrazul knew as his generous benefactor, was dressed neatly in a crimson kurta and white scarf. Unbeknownst to Afrazul, Regar was a religious ideologue who, under the pretense of construction work, sought to lure Afrazul to a remote site near the banks of the Rajsamand Lake.

Upon reaching a desolate wooded location, Regar discreetly signaled to his 14-year-old nephew to begin filming. Afrazul, walking unknowingly before Regar, suddenly felt the head of Regar’s ax rip into his back.

Last December, Afrazul was hacked to death, and his demise was immortalized on a cheap smartphone, in pixelated 240p resolution. For Regar, this was not a murder without cause; with his victim’s blood speckling his hands and sweaty brow, he addressed his nephew’s camera to decry “love jihad”a tactic India’s most fervent Hindus allege Muslim men have pursued to seduce, convert, and marry Hindu women.

This is what will happen to you if you spread love jihad in our country,” Regar ominously pronounced.

The marginalization of India’s Muslims is not confined to the small lake city where Regar assailed Afrazul. From riots in Gujarat to mob lynchings in Uttar Pradesh, Hindu nationalists’ assault on Islam comprises a far-reaching project. It even pervades what is widely considered a symbol of India’s national identity: the Taj Mahal.

Last October, regional legislators removed the Taj Mahal from the travel brochure of Uttar Pradesh: an Indian state controlled by the Bharatiya Janata (BJP), India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party. This move drew the ire of Hindus and Muslims alike.

Nikita Joshi ’21, a Mumbai native, told The Politic, “Prime Minister Modi plays the religion card way too much. The Taj Mahal is one of the seven World Wonders and to strike it from the brochure is wrong. This only deepens the divide between Hindus and Muslims.”

Despite protest, BJP politicians unsympathetically defended the monument’s omission from the brochure, declaring the marble mausoleum’s Islamic origins anathema to Indian identity. During a rally in October 2017, BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Sangeet Som made incendiary remarks about the Taj Mahal’s Mughal historya period he considers a “blot on Indian culture.”

“Many people were pained to see that the Taj Mahal had been removed from the list of historical places. What history…which history?,” said Som. “[Shah Jahan], who made Taj Mahal, imprisoned his father…the targeted the Hindus of Uttar Pradesh and India. If these people still find a place in Indian history, then it is very unfortunate.”

In a more direct condemnation of the vestiges of Mughal reign, BJP parliamentarian Vinay Katiyar attempted in a public statement to altogether efface the Islamic identity of the Taj Mahal: “Taj Mahal is a Hindu temple. There are many symbols of Hindu gods and goddesses in Taj. It was known as Tejo Mahalaya and water used to drip from its ceiling.”

This is not the first time right-wing extremists have sought fiercely to fix a religious identity to Islamic landmarks. In 1992, after years of political and religious contestation, a mob of Hindu nationalists demolished the Babri Mosque of Ayodhya, a sixteenth-century construction that they alleged was built over the birthplace of Ram, an Indian god. Despite inciting riots that left nearly a thousand dead, the destruction of the Babri Masjid “was an effective act of political mobilization that launched the BJP to its success today,” said Dr. Supriya Gandhi, a Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, in an interview with The Politic.

While the notion that the Taj Mahal is of Hindu origin is tenuously substantiated, the BJP’s endeavor in revisionist history finds rich support in Hindutva, the crux of right-wing Hindu nationalist thought. This ideology, steeped in religious orthodoxy, champions “hindu-ness” in Indian politics and culture, and seeks to make hinduism the defining feature of India’s national identity.

Professor Rohit De, historian of modern South Asia at Yale University, situates the rise of Hindutva in India’s political landscape as part of a contemporary global trajectory towards authoritarianism and cultural conformity.

“Right-wing Hindu nationalism is part of a global phenomenon that is happening in almost every state. It represents a sort of creeping neo-authoritarianism. Specifically in South Asian contexts, India’s Hindutva – a strand of identity politics which tries to create an ethnomajoritarian state in South Asia – is a homogenizing force, which is attempting to efface all identities in favor of a particular Hindu one,” De told The Politic.

The coincidence of Hindu revivalism in India with Hindutva’s meteoric popularity further explains the ideology’s success as the political stratagem of the BJP.

“We are in the midst of Hindu resurgence in India, and for a country that has always struggled to find an identity that is independent of foreign influence – especially the Hindu community – they tend to equate the resurgence of Hinduism with Indian nationalism,” stated Dr. Muqtedar Khan, Professor of Political Science and Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware, in an interview with The Politic.

Though contemporarily employed by the BJP, historical revisionism in India is not a new tactic, finding its roots in Great Britain’s balkanization of colonial India by caste and religion. As part of its colonial project, the European hegemon sought to reconstruct Indian history. The colonial state divided the writing of modern history into three generalized swaths: the Hindu period, the Muslim, “dark age” period, and the British “enlightenment” period, or renaissance.

This interpretation, De explained, “imagines that Hindus as peasants were being exploited, that the Muslim period was a period of slavery. So, there is an imaginative attempt to restore India to what it would have been before the coming of Islam.”

Driven by the belief that Mughal reign has hindered the creation of a “greater” India, Indian historians have been practicing historical revisionism, transforming Islamic landmarks into sites of political contestation and reimagining Hindu nationalists as Indian heroes.

The first “empirical” efforts to support the notion that the Taj Mahal mars an aggrandized vision of Indian history can be traced to writings of Purushottam Nagesh (P.N.) Oak, founder of The Institute for Rewriting Indian History. In Taj Mahal, the True Story: The Tale of a Temple Vandalized, published in 1989, Oak purports that the Taj Mahal, originally Tejo Mahalaya, was a Shiva temple built by King Jai Singh I. Shah Jahan, he alleges, seized the temple, launching a movement in which “all historic buildings and townships from Kashmir to Cape Comorin, though of Hindu origin, were ascribed to this or that Muslim ruler or courtier.”

Such research is of dubious authenticity, but still finds popular support in India: “P.N. Oak’s work mostly circulates in conspiracy-minded groups of people. It’s right up there with writings about alien abductions. However, the disturbing thing is that this claim has been mainstreamed in the last 2 or 3 years,” De remarked.

Revisionism has also permeated the school curricula of several Indian states. In 2016, the Rajasthan Board of Education erased from eighth-grade social science textbooks all references to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a vehement opponent of right-wing Hindu extremism and staunch advocate of political secularism.

More recently, the Board approved the removal of a textbook chapter concerning India’s Right to Information Act, legislation modeled after the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Such alterations to school curricula are a politically shrewd tactic for the BJP, for “about 50% of India’s population is under the age of 25. These are people with a shorter memory of the past, and that’s why the contest over history has become really central in the project of Hindutva,” De articulated.

While it is unclear whether BJP politicians specifically demanded these changes, Dr. Gandhi explained to The Politic that, regardless, such actions are consistent with those of the BJP: “There is an attempt by the BJP to topple national heroes like Nehru and install new ones, including several figures from the pantheon of Hindu nationalism.

Even Nathuram Godse, the Hindu extremist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, has been reimagined by India’s right-wing parties as a national hero. In 2014, the Maharashtra factions of the BJP and the Rashtriya Seva Sangh (from which the BJP is ideologically derivative) organized a ceremony for Godse in which he was portrayed as a patriot.

To Dr. Khan, this sort of historical reconstruction represents the antithesis of contemporary American debates regarding Civil War iconography.

“In the U.S. we’re bringing down statues and symbols of the Civil War. Now imagine the reverse: rebuilding the statues of those who fought for the South and claiming they fought for white nationalism. This is what’s going on in India; Hindu nationalists are trying to resurrect Godse as a true Indian hero who killed Gandhi because he did not realize the threat of Islam to India,” Khan asserted.

Beyond animus, the BJP’s motives for their polarizing politics derive from their failure to nationally replicate Indian BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s former political strategy. In Gujarat, Modi was elected Chief Minister in 2001 on a platform predicated on populist appeals like neoliberal capitalism, economic growth, and anti-corruption policies. On the national scale, these same endeavors failed; from religiously-motivated limitations on the sale of beef to ambitious demonetization plans, the BJP’s political schemes have adversely impacted the Indian dairy farmer and common citizen alike.

“A large part of the Indian population was made to feel that they were roped into a national project, even if that project was detrimental to their interests,” stated Gandhi.

Last November, Modi announced the demonetization of the 500 and 1000 rupee notes as legal tender. In a country where 90% of transactions involve cash, this change was profoundly disruptive: not just in quotidian trade, but also in the lives of Indian citizens, in particular, those Indians of modest means, forced to wait in endless lines to exchange their currency.

Yet it is in these moments of political failure that the BJP most fiercely antagonizes Indian Muslims, Islam, and Pakistan.

“If the BJP feels that the public opinion is such that it doesn’t perceive BJP as providing good governance, then they will resort to ratcheting up hate. People will then vote for the BJP not because they are providing good governance, but because the BJP is attacking and making the lives of Muslims miserable,” Khan explained, offering a perspective through which to contextualize the revisionism and scapegoating of the BJP.

Modi subliminally enacted these politics to score an electoral win in the 2017 Gujarat Legislative Assembly election last December, just days before Indians took to the polls. In a vague, convoluted speech, the Prime Minister alleged leaders like Manmohan Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyer from the opposing Congress party had colluded with Pakistan, with which India has a long history of hostility.  

Given the contemporary nature of Indian political antagonism, first-year Nikita Joshi was by no means sanguine about the current or the future state of Indian politics. Giggling quietly, then unleashing a heavy sigh, Joshi opined, “I would like to be optimistic and say there is an end to the Hindu-Muslim conflict, but I can only say that maybe one day things will be alright.”

More assuredly, Joshi condemned the direction of Indian politics: “The BJP is mixing religion with politics, and religion has no place there. In the future, political parties should not even indirectly instigate violence over members of other religions.”

According to De, the Indian government has long intervened in matters of religion; the state subsidizes Hindu and Muslim pilgrimages and appoints government officials to manage Muslim religious endowments.

As the election for Indian prime minister approaches in 2019, the challenge confronting Indian politicians will be to intervene in religion equally and to resist communal politics that alienate and demean minority religious groups. Whether or not the BJP’s vision of “Indian progress” includes redress for their insult to India’s Muslims, Islam will remain deeply entrenched in India. It lives on in India’s geography merely by the names of its cities: Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Allahabad; and it lives on in India’s cultural topography, from the towering marble spires of the Taj Mahal, to the eroding bricks of the demolished Babri Masjid.