India will regret its drift towards cultural chauvinism

The targeting of the Taj Mahal by Hindu nationalists denigrates the history of an entire continent, writes Faisal Al Yafai

FILE- In this July 21, 2012 file photo, monsoon clouds hover over the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. India's famed monument of love, the white marble Taj Mahal, is finding itself at the heart of a political storm with some members of India's ruling Hindu right-wing party claiming that the mausoleum built by a Muslim emperor does not reflect Indian culture. (AP Photo/Pawan Sharma, File)
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Once again, the cultural chauvinists have come for India's most famous monument. Weeks after a court asked India's highest archaeological authority whether there was any evidence that the Taj Mahal, a monument built by the Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, had started life as a Hindu temple, another right-wing politician has taken aim at the mausoleum.

Historians at the Archaeological Survey of India dismissed the claim, calling it concocted. But that didn't stop Sangeet Som, a firebrand politician from the ruling right-wing BJP, attacking what is India's most-visited tourist attraction, calling it a “blot” built by “traitors”.

“The Taj Mahal should have no place in Indian history,” he told a crowd in Uttar Pradesh, the state in which the Taj was built, two weeks ago.

Som's comments sparked predictable outrage and a new round of media discussion about the rise of Hindu nationalism and unverified historical claims. Other hardline politicians have called for protests by Hindus outside the Taj Mahal – a major one is planned for this weekend – sparking fears in Agra that tourism will be disrupted.


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Outside of India, the targeting of the Taj Mahal is perhaps the best known example of rising Hindu chauvinism. But it is only one part of a concerted BJP strategy to exploit divisions across Indian society.

The BJP has also sought to rally people around other, also deeply polarising issues, including banning the sale of beef, the importance of the flag, intermarriage between Hindus, Christians and Muslims, and the centrality of the Hindi language (to the exclusion of the continent’s other important languages).

Every single one of these topics arouses strong passions, and those passions spark argument and action. Across newspaper columns and on television, and especially online, these arguments have often been bad tempered, leading to threats of violence. Indeed, many have died in the aftermath of protests around these topics. When political arguments are framed as topics of life or death, it should be no surprise that some take that at face value.

But this is not unique to India. From Agra to Arkansas to Amsterdam, the topics are the same, even if the details vary. Purity and blood. History and land. The outsider and the interloper. The modern incarnations of extreme nationalism and cultural chauvinism that some parts of the world are living through disdain any belief in shared experiences or cultural crossovers. Rather, they thrive on creating narrow communities, impervious to outside beliefs or even facts. It should be no surprise that everywhere, cultural chauvinism rears its head, it is accompanied by conspiracies or fake facts. That these claims are based on nothing makes them easier to simply assert, rather than prove, and provides a particularly powerful piquancy for followers.

Confected controversies like the Taj Mahal claim seem like they have few real world consequences beyond the ostracising of communities. But chauvinism has serious political and economic repercussions. Take another topic beloved by Hindu nationalists: language and the promotion of Hindi and Sanskrit above other languages.

Earlier this year, Venkaiah Naidu, the vice president of India and a BJP politician, sparked widespread outrage when he called Hindi “India's national language”. In fact, India has no national language, only two official languages of Hindi and English, with a further 23 languages recognised by state governments. Although Hindi is the most widely spoken language, there are hundreds of millions of Indians who don't speak it.

Indeed, many of the most famous works of Indian literature were written in languages other than Hindi. Many of these works will not be familiar to readers of English – most, for example, will be more aware of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore's works in English than in his native Bengali – but they remain part of the bedrock of India's history and heritage. The Jnanpith Award, perhaps the highest literary prize in India, has been awarded to writers in 15 of India's languages.

Language has long been a battleground for Hindu nationalists. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is the main institution that oversees the curriculum across tens of thousands of public and private schools in India. CBSE works on a three-language formula: students are taught Hindi, English and another language, usually the regional Indian language. However most CBSE schools amalgamate Hindi and the regional language and offer as the third language a foreign language such as German, French or Mandarin.

Three years ago, the Modi government abruptly withdrew the German option from thousands of public schools, forcing them to replace it with Hindi or Sanskrit. Following the direct intervention of Angela Merkel, the option was reintroduced earlier this year.


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But then this month, the government signalled that it was preparing to mandate a change, whereby schools would have to teach at least two Indian languages, plus English, and teach them to students for two years longer than they currently do. Schools could still offer foreign languages, but they would not form part of the “three-language formula” core curriculum.

Critics have pointed out that what seems like a technical change would have an enormous impact across millions of students. It would, at a stroke, weaken the foreign language base of India, because those who wished to learn such a language would now have to sit exams in four languages. And it would encourage schools in states where Hindi isn't the primary language to study Hindi, thereby increasing the number of Hindi-speakers across the country, a prime goal of Hindu nationalists.

The language debate provides a good example of why cultural chauvinism doesn't work. India, with its myriad languages, ethnic groups, beliefs and political ideas has not survived and thrived for so long by retreating into narrow enclaves, whether of language or belief or ethnicity. It has, rather, taken strength from the cross-pollination of its many cultural assets.

The BJP politician who sparked this latest round of attacks on the Taj Mahal told his audience in Uttar Pradesh that he would “change this history” of the influence of the Taj Mahal. But history cannot be changed, it can only be built upon. By continuing to denigrate the history of India, nationalist politicians are creating social and political problems in the present. The India they dream of is a mean, narrow place. In reality, India is much more than the mere “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” that the cultural chauvinists believe.