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TAJ MAHAL IS ALSO OUR HERITAGE

A common line of self-deprecation among Indians is that they take one step forward and then take two steps backward, making it difficult to determine which step is correct.

Much of the step-back is caused by the past, the historical baggage that has nurtured mistrust and prejudices. So there is no final word among the argumentative Indians.

And, these days, much of this has to do with politics and with elections. It may be self and time-serving and even an aberration, but the damage is often lasting.

The current targets are Taj Mahal that Mughal Emperor Shahjahan built in memory of wife Mumtaz Mahal and Tipu Sultan whose birth anniversary falls on November 10.

The 18th century King of Mysore had fought the British and befriended the French. But that is hardly the reason for which he is being revered or reviled.  

Since Ashoka the Great, India was arguably the largest political entity, well beyond its traditional borders, under Shahjahan. He was also a marvelous builder of forts, gardens and cities. But the Taj, declared a heritage monument by UNESCO and popular as one of the wonders of the world, is his greatest contribution. That legacy is being challenged.

Tipu’s four wars with the British East India Company humbled British Governors Cornwallis and Wellesley during a 17-year reign. The British were rattled by two things: his befriending the French and developing what were called “Mysore rockets” that European armies later copied.

Had the French won the Battle of Nile and not the British, they had plans to land on the southern Indian shores. India’s history would, perhaps, have been different.

Both Taj and Tipu are victims, yet again, in the current political discourse. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Advaityanath, celebrating triumph in the assembly polls in which he had no real role, revived the Taj controversy by declaring that the monument did not represent “Indian culture.”

He has revised his stand on the importance of the Taj as a tourists’ destination, though he is unlikely to have changed his ideas about what he calls “Indian culture.”

Tipu has a divided legacy in Karnataka state: he is a hero in some regions where he patronized Hindu shrines, but definitely a villain in others, besides northern Kerala, where he destroyed shrines and killed Hindus and Christians.

Elections are due in the Congress-ruled Karnataka and Tipu celebrations, an annual event, have gone controversial. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to re-take Karnataka and its union minister Ananthkumar Hegde has gone to the extent of calling Tipu “a mass rapist.”

Now, damage control has begun. Unusually, but significantly, the correctives have come from President Ram Nath Kovind who, incidentally, swore in Hegde as a minister only three months ago.

It was left to the president to ‘save’ the Taj from being further maligned and pay tribute to Tipu as a warrior who fought and died for the country. The toxic debate seems to have ended, or possibly halted for now.          

Hegde is unlikely to be removed because these are election times. And equally significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in whose council he is a member, stays silent on such controversies.

Questions arise over what Yogi, Hegde, their colleagues and a legion of social media supporters have to say.

History of which nation in any part of the world has had conquerors who did not kill? While Tipu was a Muslim, Ashoka was a Hindu who promoted Buddhism. References to Ashoka having killed in the Kalinga war before he reformed go unrecognized because the current controversy is made-up and motivated.

If Tipu was ‘good’ in some parts of the kingdom and ‘bad’ in others, surely, he may have taken decisions that were political in nature irrespective of who it hurt or protected.

To view him through the binaries of good or bad, or patriot or traitor, is too simplistic a way to analyse the complexities in history.

To judge a historical figure through a contemporary prism is incorrect. To arouse popular sentiments during election times or otherwise about the past in the present, is the worst disservice to the society. The political class in general ought to avoid. 

Taj Mahal that Rabindranath Tagore had memorably described as “a teardrop on the cheek of time, forever and ever,” has suddenly become “a monument of exploitation,” and the result of “slave labour.”

Were monuments and cities through the history built with some modern-day labour welfare laws in force?

The present-day critics, mostly rightwingers, are not being original. It was a theme of the Marxists, much-maligned today, in the last century. Sahir Ludhianvi had trashed not just Shahjahan but also the romantics for using poetic imagery to mock at the poor.

But what can one say of a people who, in the 21st century, want to review their past by looking for rulers who were, or should have been, moral, democratic, secular, benevolent and good, law-abiding employers — like the ones that are rare to find even today?

There is little doubt that each ruler, anywhere, sought to gain wealth and extend territory. These were political and military decisions, often ruthlessly enforced.

Don’t we have pro-poor slogans, welfare measures by governments and corporates, after amassing profits, performing social responsibility?  

What is the answer today to the unending debate on what is “Indian culture”? It is no longer considered fashionable or politically correct to talk of India’s composite culture born of the Hindu-Muslim cultural confluence. But political chatterati do not believe in keeping silent on issues they do not agree with. Divisive issues are pushed for political gains, and when they touch lives of ordinary folks, the damage is tremendous.

Skewed versions of history are being spread through social media.  School students are the worst victims since their history books are being re-written.

It is rhetorically said that history belongs to the conqueror. History, along with social and cultural norms, has been re-defined and re-written by the ruler of the day.

But that was in the past – of military conquests that were accompanied and followed by much violence and trampling of human values.

Can that be the norm in a modern, democratic society in which popular mandate won in an election has a life of five years?  

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