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The shifting stance of RSS on India’s past means the debate on Taj Mahal isn’t over yet

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It was in the book by the self-declared Hindu scholar P. N. Oak that the Taj Mahal controversy was first introduced in the 1960s.

(This is the second piece in a two-part series. You can read the first part here)

It is now assumed that the controversy about Taj Mahal has died down. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has already clarified that ‘there is no need to go into ‘history of Taj Mahal’ and his government is committed to its ‘conservation and the security of the tourists’.

However, this controversy gives us the opportunity to trace the shades of discourse from Hindu organisations on India’s medieval past, especially Taj Mahal.

The Taj controversy (and even the Babri Masjid issue) is an outcome of a long debate on desecration of Hindu temples by Muslim rulers. This has always been presented as a political question to achieve the larger objective of establishing a Hindu Rashtra.

But even on Savarkar’s term Hindutva, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had a disagreement. In his book ‘Bunch of Thoughts’, RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar said Hindutva was a communal expression.

The ideological differences had a very different manifestation with regard to the Hindu temple debate. Savarkar’s book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History (1966) offers us an intelligent re-reading of India’s past, but does not have any reference to the desecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, or the (purported) Shiva temple in Agra, where Taj Mahal was built in later years.

Interestingly, the 1959 resolution by the RSS about Hindu temples does not speak about the disputed site at Ayodhya or the existence of any Shiva temple beneath the Taj Mahal. It only recognises the temple at Banaras, which was allegedly destroyed by Aurangzeb:

Many intolerant and tyrannical foreign aggressors and rulers in Bharat have, during the last one thousand years, destroyed many Hindu temples and built mosques in their place, with a view to smiting the nationalistic sentiments of our people.….The A.B.P.S…demands that the Government…should take steps for the return of all such desecrated temples…..Out of all such temples, the Kashi Vishwanatha temple occupies a special place of honour ….The Sabha urges the Government take steps to return this temple to the Hindus. (A.B.P.S. 1959: Issue of Temples Turned into Mosques)

But the re-opening of the Babri Masjid in 1986 for Hindu devotees changed the entire discourse of right-wing politics. ‘Temple desecration’ by Muslims emerged as the main agenda.

The RSS resolution of 1989 on Shri Rama Janmabhoomi is very relevant here:

The A.B.K.M. is of the considered opinion that the holy birth place of lord Shri Ramachandra enshrined in the hearts of crores of Hindus from time immemorial cannot be made a subject of judicial probe….The A.B.K.M. would like to warn the Govt. that if it persists in its policy of appeasement of fanatic Muslims, the Hindu society would be left with no other alternative but to resort to peaceful struggle and would feel no sacrifice too great for its success.

The radical overtone of this resolution clearly shows the political confidence. The Ram temple, which was not in their imagination in late 1950s suddenly occupies the status of a crucial political project.

The two volumes of ‘Hindu Temples: What happened to them?’ (1990) edited by Sita Ram Goel must be seen in this context. The books revolve around the Babri Mosque – Ram Temple site focusing on the listing of desecrated temples, Islamic iconoclasm in India and the problems of Islamic theology. Goel and his contributors, however, did not recognize Taj Mahal as a problematic Hindu temple.

The Taj controversy was first introduced by a self-declared Hindu scholar P. N. Oak in the 1960s. Oak was an independent journalist and there is no information about any association with the RSS or Hindu Mahsabha.

Oak wrote:

The people who dominate the Agra region are Jats. Their name of Shiva is Tejaji. The Jat special issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India (June 28, 1971) mentions that the Jats have the Teja Mandirs i.e., Teja Temples. This is because Teja-Linga is among the several names of the Shiva Lingas. From this it is apparent that the Taj-Mahal is Tejo-Mahalaya, The Great Abode of Tej. (The Real Story of Taj Mahal, p. 10)

This very polemical statement, which even relies on The Illustrated Weekly of India as a principal source, was not taken up formally by any Hindu political organization. Yet, literature of this kind was always used for popular mobilisation rather indirectly both by the RSS and BJP.

The recent revival of Oak’s work — with videos, posts and book extracts hailing him as a legitimate, authoritative historian — has helped spread the provocative imagination of Hindu victimhood on which Hindutva politics is based. If Hindutva can be interpreted as “a way of life” for RSS, and Lord Ram can become the most revered deity in 20 years, what stops such groups from presenting Taj Mahal as Tejo-Mahalaya! And predictably, BJP Vinay Katiyar said Wednesday that Taj Mahal was “a Hindu temple”  and there were signs “of (Hindu) gods and goddesses”.

Hilal Ahmed is the author of “Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation”. He is also an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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