In October this year, Sangeet Som, a member of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) legislative assembly from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shocked the country by calling the Taj Mahal a blot on Indian culture. Built by the Mughal king Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj, situated in Agra in Western UP has for centuries been synonymous with India and Indian culture.
I was born Agra and spent 18 years there. For as long as I can remember, this incredible monument has been a source of pride for a city that – thanks to rampant corruption, malfeasance, and public apathy –has little else to be proud of. Yet, on my latest visit, which happened to be a few days after Som’s remarks, I sensed a change. While not many were ready to disown the Taj as readily as the BJP’s Som, they agreed with the spirit of his argument.
“Mughals were obviously traitors,” said my grandfather. “Don’t call it that!” admonished my aunt when a neighbor’s kid compared the marble on our courtyard floor to the Taj Mahal. “The BJP has put the Muslim in his place,” my childhood friend rejoiced. I was a foreigner in my own city.
Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In hindsight, though, I should not have been surprised. Som’s statements are symptomatic of the communal malaise that has gripped India for centuries now. Since coming into power at the center and in various states the BJP has tapped into it and exacerbated it – but the blame for the malaise’s origin cannot be placed at its feet. Nor is the BJP original in using communalism as a political weapon. The Hindu-Muslim divide was fostered by the British to maintain the Raj, used by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to garner support for the creation of Pakistan, and then exploited by the Congress Party in India for the next 60 years to keep its hold on the reins of power.
Centuries of Hindus and Muslims being pitted against each other does not make for a convivial relationship. Indeed, in his Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington identified the Hindu-Muslim divide as one of the great civilizational fault-lines. To any reasonable observer then, it would appear that the Hindu and the Muslim are constituted in direct opposition to the other, destined to share a relationship characterized by intolerance and conflict. The observer would be wrong. The (admittedly distant) past sheds a very different light on relations between the two communities.
Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar, ruled almost all of India from 1556 to 1605. During this period, there did exist various areas of contestation between the two religions, but it was largely characterized by a syncretism that has few parallels in modern-day India. Akbar’s era represented the zenith of Islamic power in India and the zeitgeist was a reflection of the man himself – curious, open-minded, and pragmatic. He is quite possibly one of the first regents in the world to lend his support to regular state-sponsored inter-faith public dialogue, which brought together learned men from across the religious spectrum – Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Parsees, Jains, and even atheists from across the realm were invited to participate in what must surely have a unique event at the time.
At the famed Ibadatkhana (House of Worship), which was completed in 1576, Akbar is said to have proclaimed that his sole aim was to lay bare the facts of any religion, “whether Hindu or Muslim.” Thanks partly to these dialogues, and partly to personal interactions with Hindu Brahmins, he acquired ever deepening knowledge of the various schools of Hindu thought. Thus, of the transmigration of the soul and divine reincarnation, he is believed to have said: “In India (Hind’) no one set forth a claim to Prophethood: this is because the claim to divinity has had precedence.”
Upon consideration, this is a remarkable statement. For a Muslim ruler to even brook the idea of reincarnation, let alone to take to its logical conclusion — i.e. the inadmissibility of a Prophet — shows a startling level of open-mindedness. At the same time, he did not shy away from criticizing those sages who advocated that Hindus should do good deeds in order to reap the rewards in their next life: “To me it seems that in the pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practice virtue simply because it is good.”