A 100-metre statue of Ram, worshipped as a god by many Hindus, might be installed on the banks of River Sarayu in Ayodhya, the 'birthplace' of the mythical king, by the government of Uttar Pradesh, as part of its proposal to give the city an image makeover.
Located in another part of the state, the Taj Mahal, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan's tribute to his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal, considered as one of the seven wonders of the world, has disappeared from the new brochures issued by the tourism department.
The contrast between these two statements highlights the priorities of the ruling dispensation in the state. Of course, CM Adityanath, who, until recently, was the leader of a religious mutt in Gorakhpur, before his elevation to the seat of political power, is an unapologetic firebrand Hindutva leader. Shortly after he was appointed to office, a section of the media went on a spree to report examples of his religious generosity.
Adityanath, we were told, is exemplary for being an equal-opportunity employer, having given jobs to Muslims and lower-caste Hindus in a range of roles at his organisation, from being the handler of finances to the caretaker of the cows. His frugal lifestyle and faith in the best of Bharatiya sanskar exonerated his previous track record of being a rabble-rouser, who preyed on dividing communities along religious lines.
Sample some of his statements: "If one Hindu girl is converted, we will convert 100 Muslim girls"; "Mother Teresa was a part of a conspiracy to evangelise India"; or "there is no difference in the language between Shah Rukh Khan and Hafiz Saeed". This is the man who fought election after election, won several of them, and had his party give him the top job in the state one day.
So it seems like a corollary that the government under Adityanath's watch is planning to put up a massive statue of Ram in a historically communalised part of the state, while wiping out the existence of the most glorious example of Mughal architecture in India from a tourist pamphlet. Initially, facing intense criticism, officials said the booklet was not a brochure for all the tourist attractions in Uttar Pradesh — only a list of the government's ongoing and future projects in the tourism sector. Soon after, the officials dropped every pretence.
Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary, a cabinet minister in Uttar Pradesh, said the Taj Mahal was "rightly kept out" of the tourism booklet because the Guru Gorakhnath peeth, presided over by Adityanath, was more deserving of being showcased as a religious symbol. His views were echoed in June this year by Adityanath. "Foreign dignitaries visiting the country used to be gifted replicas of the Taj Mahal and other minarets which did not reflect Indian culture," he said.
The Taj Mahal, as Shoaib Daniyal recently wrote in Scroll.in, is so immensely valued the world over that it is one of the 115 images included in the Voyager spacecraft, launched into space in 1977. "In case the ship was discovered by intelligent extraterrestrial life," he wrote, "the scientists who launched Voyager wanted them to know that earthlings had built the Taj Mahal." The fact of having a magnificent structure such as it in his state should inspire pride in Adityanath, not a crass competition exacerbated by a lingering sense of insecurity.
For it is insecurity that has pushed the Hindutva brigade into adopting risibly sinister strategies such as the whitewashing of the Taj Mahal and, in more extreme cases, the rewriting of history to assign the imagined victories on rulers of their choice. From Akbar losing the battle of Haldighati to the portrayal of Aurangzeb as a mindless tyrant, these revisions are meant to put the pride back in parochialism as well as establish a reign of untruths.
The nefarious agenda now extends to installing a statue of Lord Ram at a place which saw one of the worst communal riots in modern India, changing the political course of the country since then. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 — a section of the Hindus believe it was built by Muslim invaders over the original birthplace of Ram — and the resultant loss of life and damage to democracy should be warning enough for the state government to avoid any innovation that might destabilise harmony in the city of Ayodhya.
The only silver lining is that the Taj Mahal enjoys a pre-eminent place in the history of art and architecture across the world — and will continue to do so without a doubt
What's worse, for the integrated development of Ayodhya, the state government sent a detailed project report of ₹195.89 crore to the tourism ministry at the Centre, which has sanctioned ₹133.70 crore so far. Imagine the funds being diverted into improving the healthcare in the state instead, which was recently noted by global media for staggering number of deaths of children due to encephalitis — crossing 400 in one month alone.
The only silver lining is that the Taj Mahal enjoys a pre-eminent place in the history of art and architecture across the world — and will continue to do so without a doubt. A gigantic statue on the bank of a river may draw the attention of the public, but it's never going to obscure the appeal of one of the greatest creations of humanity for generations to come.
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