Americans aren’t the only ones having a dumb national discussion about monuments associated with morally compromised political leaders: In India, people are talking about knocking down the Taj Mahal.
Indian architecture is very old — the Mahabodhi Temple, which is still in use, was built around the time of the First Punic War — but the Republic of India is very young: It is, in fact, younger than Donald Trump. Inevitably, most of the historically important architecture and public monuments were built during India’s long period of domination by alien powers, and often built by those alien powers. This is, understandably, a sensitive subject. India also is having a particularly ugly period of Hindu chauvinism, which has manifested itself in ways that are serious — the emergence of violent anti-conversion campaigns targeting Christians and anti-conversion laws in several Indian states — and in ways that are comical, for instance the exclusion of the Taj Mahal from a government-published guide to historical sites in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. About 10 million people a year visit the Taj Majal, but there is an effort under way to read Islam and Islamic rulers out of India’s history.
Sangeet Som, a legislator with the Hindu-nationalist BJP, made his case in roughly the same way as Americans seeking to raze Confederate monuments: “Many were sad when the Taj Mahal was removed from the list of historical places. What kind of history? What place’s history? Whose history? The history that the man who built the Taj Mahal imprisoned his father? The history that he wanted to wipe out the Hindus from all of Uttar Pradesh and India?” The Mughal emperors — Babur, Akbar, et al. — were, in his estimate, traitors. Shah Jahan might have been a bad guy, but if you think it’s strange to judge Thomas Jefferson by the standards of the Bryn Mawr College political-science department in 2017, then consider the difficulties of getting a moral read on 17th-century absolute monarchs. “Shah Jahan” means “King of the World,” if that’s any indicator.
Presented with Som’s remarks, another Indian politician, Azam Khan, said: “We should destroy all reminders of slavery that reek of those who once ruled over us. I’ve said this before too. Parliament, Qutab Minar, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Red Fort, Agra’s Taj Mahal . . . all of it.” The Times of India, whose editors are very cautious, added: “It was unclear if Khan was being sarcastic or serious.”
Foreign imperial rule of India frequently was brutal, from the Mughal empire to the British empire. But there’s a practical question: How much of Lutyens’s Delhi do you really want to burn down to irritate the ghost of Reginald Dyer?
We Americans like to talk about our diversity, but consider navigating the cultural minefields of a country with: Thirty languages having at least 1 million native speakers each (and maybe 1,599 languages in total, depending on who is doing the counting) and no consensus national language; a Muslim minority that composes only 14 percent of the population but which is in gross numbers as populous as the United Kingdom, France, and Spain combined; a besieged Christian minority; a Sikh minority that was as recently as the 1980s fighting for independence, having assassinated a sitting prime minister and then suffering thousands of deaths in the ensuing retaliatory pogroms; a legal and political system largely adopted from an alien power; remote tribal areas where you can still encounter the occasional headhunter; 2,000 ethnic groups; and only 70 years of formal national history.
There were some 22,000 slaves employed in building the Taj Mahal.
The folks in Dallas are at the moment having a dispute over renaming Stonewall Jackson Elementary School. Members of the community complain that they have not had enough time to consider the question and think through the ramifications of the name-change. To stop and think is usually good advice. In India, they’re still fighting over the legacy of a mosque built in 1528. If the vandals take a more Taliban-esque view and turn their attention to Buddhist monuments, the stupa constructed over the relics of Siddhārtha Gautama at Sanchi was built around 260 b.c.
But, if we take the Buddha at his word, he condoned slavery, so no complaints about knocking that down.