The History-Thieves: Stealing the Muslim Past?

Article excerpt

At the heart of the Muslim problem in India lies their dramatic history and its ironic twists and turns. The Muslims who once ruled India from Delhi are now slowly but surely sinking into an under-class, lacking economic, political or media power. They only have memories of the past to remind them of their dignity, identity and achievements, their sense of self and worth. This, too, is under threat by those who would steal their history.

Of the many historical monuments created by the Muslims probably the most famous are the Taj Mahal in Agra and, in Delhi, the Qutub Minar, the Red Fort and the Jamia Masjid. The Muslim inspiration and source of their creation have never been in doubt. But extremist groups are claiming the first two, with a long list of other Muslim monuments, as of Hindu origin (of our four examples the first three are administered by the Government of India, while Muslims retain the mosque for worship). The Muslims, these Hindu groups say, forcefully appropriated them, adding Quranic verses and calligraphy to give them an islamic character; it is time to restore them to their Hindu character.

Although few serious Indian historians - whether Hindu or not - give credit to these arguments they are beginning to gather a popular bazaar following. On a recent visit to India last year I saw evidence of how the process works.

At the Taj Mahal Hindu priests, skull-shaven and in loincloths, placed a flame on the grave of Shah Jahan and began to chant Sanskritic verses in my presence. This may have been the famous cultural synthesis of India, the blurring of religious boundaries, it may have been, as the Muslim guide with Ayodhya on his mind claimed, the declaration that this was a Hindu temple and it would once again be a place of Hindu worship. In the blurring of reality and rumour in South Asia it was difficult to tell.

Last year an unruly mob of 30,000 Hindus had burst into the Taj Mahal wishing to |capture' and |convert' it. Fire was exchanged. Armed soldiers with rapid-fire guns testify to the tension. It is ironic to see the symbols of violence and force in this monument of love and peace.

Although some Hindu scholars have tried to prove that the Taj Mahal was a pre-Islamic Hindu monument few established ones have taken this seriously. None-the-less small, cheap, plastic replicas of the Taj Mahal are now on sale with the trisbul, the Hindu trident of divinity, replacing the crescent on top of the dome, indicating its conversion to a Hindu temple. There are ominous contemporary political resonances here. In view of the tensions in Ayodhya, only a few miles away, generated by the claims of millions of Hindus that Muslims destroyed the temple of Lord Rama and built a mosque on the site, and the deaths that have resulted all across India, the argument assumes significance.

At the Qutub Minar I bought a guide book which looked like an official one but was not. It had two pages explaining the Hindu origins of the Qutub and how the original Hindu temple was converted. The official plaque placed by the Archaeological Department contradicted this point of view.

Why should Hindu extremists wish to take this path? There are numerous reasons which are inter-linked: to continue to focus on Muslims as the |enemy' and thereby maintain the momentum of national support for the extremists built up over the last few years which has generally united Hindu society as never before over caste, language and regional differences; to put Muslims in their place; to reinforce the image of Muslims as an alien and destructive force who built their monuments on the site of, and after destroying, Hindu ones and, above all, to deny them their historical role as great builders, artists and rulers, which would not fit into the perception of Muslims as a poor and illiterate under-class.

History is never far from the surface in contemporary India. Newspaper articles and letters constantly cite Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, as a hero among some Muslims but a villain for most Hindus. …