‘Govt Must Focus On Agra’s Development, Not Fan Controversies About Taj’

Tahir Ahmed Qureshi, whose family is living in Agra for seven generations, says the government of the day is a party to the controversy created around Taj Mahal

I am a 7th generation Agra-wala. My forefathers settled in Agra in 17th Century when the city was at its architectural zenith. I have been associated with the tourism business for the last five years and conduct heritage walks in the city too.

Taj Mahal, the crown of India, has been in the news for reasons other than its historic beauty and the architectural genius. Recently, a petition was filed in the court seeking ‘opening of 22 sealed doors’. The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, mercifully, dismissed the petition.

We all know that the whole controversy behind opening close doors is related to some old theory — floated by a historian — that within these rooms lies a Shiva temple. This theory is preposterous. People who have visited the Taj Mahal three decades ago, when the mausoleum was not as secured and there were less influx of tourists like today, had the opportunity to get into those doors and areas which are closed today.

There is an evolution of every structure. If the Taj Mahal is a temple, what are the other temples that follow similar architecture style? Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) also released some photos of the rooms behind the doors that are at the centre of the controversy.

Qureshi runs Agra Heritage Walks, an enterprise dedicated to creating a platform for exchange of cultures between people of Agra and travelers through walks, stories, workshops and experiences

The entire tourism industry in Agra gets very upset every time such kinds of news about Taj Mahal makes the headline. There are hundreds and thousands of people who are directly or indirectly involved with the Taj. If the monument comes under the controversy like other structures, it will affect the livelihoods of all those people. Besides, the image of the city will also be affected.  

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The sad part is the government is also party to the controversy related to the Taj. Why have such litigation been filed by Hindutva organisations like VHP? The government needs to focus more on developing the city for tourism, just like Jaipur, focus on creating avenues of tourism for the people of the city.

There is no denying to the fact that different state governments have done satisfactory development works around the Taj. But, all of them have forgotten that the Taj was the product of Agra. The development hasn’t spread in other parts of the city.

It is required that the government focuses on the overall development of Agra.

As told to Md Tausif Alam


‘Athithi Devo Bhav’ (Guest is equivalent to God) according to Hindu tradition, but is India treating tourists according to this long-held custom? Recent shocking events of attacks on tourists expose a different side of us Indians and the failure of the state to promote this ancient practice.


India is one of the most desired places to visit for most foreigners, but, three in four express their apprehension to plan a trip to a country famous for its diversity, as per the Indian tourist planners. Their apprehension and fear are not unfounded, going by the number of recent attacks on the visitors.  

These unpleasant incidents are the reason that a good number of western tourists form an opinion about India, and think twice before planning a trip to India.  Instead, travellers readily pack their bags and hop off to travel to Europe, North pole, America, Canada, Switzerland, South Asian countries and even to the luxurious Middle-Eastern countries such as Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. They are hesitant to make a foray into the Asian countries, more particularly to India because of the risks and discomforts it holds.


Most travel buffs say that the overpopulated and mystically diverse India is one of their dream destinations. But lack of facilities and security prevents them from embarking on the journey. It cannot be dismissed merely to negative propaganda. If foreign travellers have their reservations about lack of facilities, luxury, hygiene and security–they are right to a large extent.


Isn’t it shocking? Since time immemorial, India has taken pride in the dictum ‘Athithi Devo Bhav’ (Guest is equivalent to God), and the Hindu scriptures suggested the host offers best of hospitality. This involved five steps of worshipping the guests. The tagline was used by the government to boost tourism in 2003. The rhetoric was not followed by a thorough preparation and support for ‘worshipping the guests’.


Going by the recent horrifying case of an attack on a young Swedish couple by the locals at Fatehpur Sikri, it appears that we Indians have little intention to make India a tourist-friendly state. The only fault of this couple who was beaten black and blue left with a fractured skull and arm was that they turned down the request for a selfie made by the errant locals. In another incident, a German backpacker was beaten at the airport for allegedly not responding to the greetings. A Scottish couple was beaten in Bihar after they caught the locals stealing their belongings. The list seems to be endless as each traveller has his or her own woeful anecdote related to India visit.  


According to World Trade and Travel Council (WTTC), India ranks seventh in the world in terms of overall GDP contribution. According to the new data, Travel & Tourism in India generated Rs 14.1 trillion ($208.9 billion) in 2016, which is the world’s 7th largest in terms of absolute size, the sum is equivalent to 9.6% of India’s GDP.


Moreover, the sector supported 40.3 million jobs in 2016 in India, which ranks India 2nd in the world in terms of total employment supported by Travel & Tourism. The sector accounts for 9.3% of the country’s total jobs. India’s Travel & Tourism sector was also the fastest growing among the G20 countries, growing by 8.5% in 2016. A further 6.7% growth is forecast for 2017. Tourism in India is third largest foreign exchange earners and its growth is expected to reach $147.96 billion by 2027.


This data reveals that tourism and tourists matter a lot to India. However, it is disappointing to note that despite being an important source of income and employment, the country seems to take little responsibility towards the visitors.


The incidence of violence, irregularities, molestation and rape of foreign tourists dismally show that India is not sending a positive signal of welcome to those who are looking forward to planning a trip.


According to the data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2015, out of the 365 cases of crimes against foreigners, 271 cases (or 74.2 percent), were registered under crimes against foreign tourists. Out of the 365 cases of crime against foreigners, 223 cases related to theft. This was followed by an assault on foreign women with intent to outrage her modesty (23 cases), forgery (15 cases), rape (12 cases), robbery (10 cases) and cheating (9 cases) during 2015.  


To give a fillip to tourism in India, the government launched the Incredible India- a scheme to elevate India’s global appeal for tourism and trade, in 2002. The promotional campaign featuring Aamir Khan as the brand ambassador tried its level best to put India on the global tourism map, and to a large extent succeeded too.


But campaign alone cannot give them security and pleasant experience. It does not make much difference if people do not develop a welcoming attitude towards the visitors.


Most travellers complain of the clingy attitude of we Indians, others get annoyed when people, including taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hotel managers and waiters unnecessarily get too intrusive, and some get irked at the fact that they receive too many requests to get a selfie clicked. Not to forget, getting mobbed by beggars at the crossings, and hounded by waiters for lucrative tips to lack of basic facilities as clean toilets in public places – the list is endless and foreign travellers surely have a story to tell.


All in all, we have ourselves to blame. Most of us who have travelled abroad would agree that tourism is a serious business for the government and its people. One can rarely fear getting duped or cheated at famous tourist spots, and if in crisis, the local police are ready to help.


Bustling tourists destination such as Thailand, Switzerland, Japan, Nepal, Greece, Sri Lanka and more have designated tourism police, for the safety of the tourists. There are 24 hour tourist hotlines which are actually effective.


The government-run Indian Institute Of Travel and Tourism Management (IITTM) had recommended the formation of a special force, donning uniforms with Incredible India logo, to guard the tourists. The idea was to have the vigil in prominent tourists places and also at the airports, railway stations and bus stands to ensure the safety of tourists. But where is it?


Ironically, barring Kerala and Goa, no other states till now have tourist police to safeguard foreign visitors. Most travellers come prepared to deal with hardship in India, after reading all the guidelines mentioned in the fat rulebook given to them before they step on our land, hoping to check out Qutub Minar, Taj Mahal, Gateway Of India, magnificent temples in the Tamil Nadu or the backwaters of Kerala. The list of Dos and Donts is way too many and that is unfortunate, to say the least.


External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been trying her level best to ensure an amicable environment for the visitors. It is time for the country after taking a cue from countries topping the list of best tourists-friendly nations to introduce systems to make tourists feel at home. We need to put real effort behind ‘Athithi Devo Bhav’ (Guest is equivalent to God) and not just leave this statement to another glory of the past.

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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?   // ]]>

Swiss couple brutalised in city of the Taj Mahal

Demographic Dividend meets Digital India It was selfies, ironically, that sparked events culminating in the brutalisation of the couple. Quentin has a fractured skull, a clot in his brain that has given him—doctors hope it will be temporary—a hearing impairment, and bruises all over his body. Marie has a fractured arm in addition to the bruises that were so generously meted out to the tourists for free. The couple were accosted by a group of young boys—all five involved in the violence are believed to be minors—when they were walking around the Fatehpuri Sikri complex of buildings on Sunday, October 22. The boys wanted selfies with Marie; some pictures were taken.

That wasn’t enough, however, and the boys followed the couple, harassing them for an hour, according to Quentin, before they finally attacked him with sticks. Quentin was savagely beaten to the ground, but the violence continued as Marie rushed to his aid. By the time passers-by rushed to help the foreign couple, they had been dealt with severe injuries. Adding to the ignominy of the stricken tourists was the fact that several bystanders filmed and clicked the episode on their cellphones. The couple did not file a report with the police even when asked to. All they requested was better medical treatment, and they were soon shifted to a high-end private hospital in the Capital. That External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Tourism Minister KJ Alphons had by then got involved in the matter may have had some bearing on this official kindness.   One person has been arrested while an FIR has been lodged against four persons over an attack on a Swiss couple in Fatehpur Sikri, the police said on Thursday. Additional Director General of Police (Crime) Chandra Prakash said the arrest was made from the Agra-Rajasthan border.
“It is shameful for us as Indians, that two young tourists who had gone to visit the beautiful symbol of love should have to face this horror. “I would request you to kindly convey to the young couple that we are ashamed and sad that such an incident should happen and that we strongly protest against the failure of the concerned authorities to provide minimum security to visitors.”
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat in a letter to the Swiss envoy in India
He declined to reveal the identity of the arrested person. He said the Swiss couple were found lying wounded on a roadside on October 22 and some locals informed police about the incident. They were picked up by police and taken to a local private hospital in Agra where first aid was given. The couple refused to lodge an FIR and requested the police to allow them to go for further treatment to Apollo hospital in New Delhi. Police ceded to their request. Police on its own lodged a complaint and a probe is underway, he said. “We are trying to arrest all the four persons involved in the incident,” the officer added. On Thursday, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asked for a report from the Uttar Pradesh government on the assault on the Swiss couple.

Yogi at the Taj, speaks of ‘rich history’

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on Thursday wielded a broom to clean an area outside the Taj Mahal and then visited the imposing monument which some of his party colleagues had dubbed a “blot” on Indian culture. Like any other tourist but accompanied by security personnel, he walked to the main mausoleum to look at the tombs of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Jehan, in whose memory the 17th century marble monument was built. Some tourists, including a foreigner, sought a selfie with the Chief Minister, who readily obliged. After his arrival, Adityanath first launched a cleanliness drive on the western gate of the Taj, India’s most popular tourist draw. He was accompanied by Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma, Tourism Minister Rita Bahuguna Joshi and cabinet Minister S.P. Singh Baghel. In the Taj, Adityanath went to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) office and saw a slide show about the historical and cultural details of the monuments in Agra and the steps taken to conserve them. He also went to the Yamuna side of the monument and spoke to officials about the river, its cleanliness and the proposed beautification of the area. The Chief Minister laid the foundation stone for a World Bank-aided pro-poor tourism development project at the Taj Mahal, under which the Shah Jahan park would be rejuvenated and a walking track is to be developed between Agra Fort and Taj Mahal. Earlier, he announced construction of a rubber check dam over the Yamuna and laid foundation stones of projects worth Rs 22 crore at Kachpura area. Adityanath said his government was committed to conserve the rich cultural and historical identity of Agra. He also announced a special skill development programme so that youths benefit from the tourism industry. According to him, under the Gangajal project, the flow of drains into the Yamuna river would be checked and a sewage treatment plant (STP) would be built. When Adityanath reached the Taj in the morning, BJP activists shouted slogans hailing him and also ‘Jai Shri Ram’. His visit comes in the backdrop of statements by BJP leaders that the Taj, one of the wonders of the world, was a blot on Indian culture and history. The statements triggered a backlash from many quarters, forcing the Bharatiya Janata Party to distance itself from the comments. Later, the Chief Minister announced he would visit the Taj and that the monument had been built by the sweat and blood of Indian labourers. (with IANS) // ]]>

It's Indian: Yogi does Taj penance

 In a damage control exercise after a BJP MLA’s comments on the Taj Mahal sparked outrage, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on Tuesday said the famed monument in Agra was a part of Indian heritage.

Adityanath also told the media that the 17th century marble monument, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, was constructed “by the blood and sweat of Indian labourers”. An official said the Chief Minister will also visit the Taj. “It does not matter who built it and for what reason. It was built by the blood and sweat of Indian labourers,” Adityanath said of the Taj, India’s biggest tourist draw. “Taj Mahal is a part of India’s heritage,” he went on. “Taj Mahal, Red Fort are all part of India’s heritage.”   The statement came after Uttar Pradesh BJP legislator Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal a blot on Indian culture and said it was built by an emperor who wanted to finish off Hindus. “We should not focus on Som’s statement,” the Chief Minister said, in the clearest sign that his Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh was distancing itself from the MLA’s controversial remarks. Adityanath said the Taj was important for the Uttar Pradesh government, specially “from the tourism perspective” and “it is our priority to provide facilities and safety to tourists there”. Adityanath is scheduled to visit the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and other important monuments in Agra on October 26, an official told IANS. Considered one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj attracts millions of Indian and foreign tourists every year. Last month, the Uttar Pradesh government had omitted references to the Taj in a booklet published to mark six months of the Adityanath government. This drew sharp criticism, prompting Tourism Minister Rita Bahuguna Joshi to say that that Taj Mahal was of great importance to the state government and to the nation. (IANS)
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