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Feb 07, 2018

Before Turning Taj into a Temple, the BJP Would Do Well to Remember Its Guru Mookerjee

The next time a Vinay Katiyar makes a claim to turn mosques, mausoleums and memorials into temples, the least one can do is cite Mookerjee's impartial view.

The next time a Vinay Katiyar makes a claim to turn mosques, mausoleums and memorials into temples, the least one can do is cite Mookerjee’s impartial view.

Taj Mahal. Credit: Reuters

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s website proudly and rightly proclaims Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s impeccable academic credentials: Calcutta University, Lincoln’s Inn, the country’s youngest vice-chancellor, and what have you. The party even has a separate research cell working on the life and times of the Jana Sangh founder who is being promoted as a party — and even national – hero.

But like everything BJP, Mookerjee is merely a slogan – a bit of rhetoric, to be bandied about with seriousness. That’s about it. Even if we discount the lazy right wing’s hatred for scholarship, one would have imagined at least their own icons would not be treated the way the ‘Macaulayputras’ and Marxists are.

In the past six months, two BJP leaders and thousands of Hindutva trolls on social media have demanded that the Taj Mahal be turned into a temple, which they allege it was at some point in the past. Of course, they have their Pran Nath Oak and his The Taj Mahal Is A Temple Palace to rely upon. In the pantheon of right-wing scholarship, army officer-turned-historian Oak has an enviable position, not because he claimed to have worked with Subhash Chandra Bose but more as a ‘historian’ whose imagination knew no bounds. Even the few genuine Oxford-educated historians and journalist-historians in their stable have not been able to dislodge Oak from his pedestal. His twisted theories on the Taj Mahal, Christianity (‘Krishna Niti’, if you may) and scores of other contentious issues and sites of history have kept his legacy alive.

Oak’s books are selling and his ideas have been picked up by the likes of Vinay Katiyar and other out-of-work BJP politicians from Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Modi’s maun and the over-excitement of news channels only adds to such putrid historic claims.

Also read: BJP MP Charged With Demolishing Babri Masjid Now Wants Taj Mahal Converted Into ‘Tej Mandir’

So here it is. Why not suggest a reading of Mookerjee to his legatees, including Modi, who already has a post-graduate degree in ‘entire political science’? Next time a lumpen element in his party, now at the centre stage, makes a claim to turn mosques, mausoleums and memorials into temples, at least he could look at them sternly and cite Mookerjee. If he wants to, that is.

I understand academic tomes are anathema to them, so I am only requesting they read a speech by Mookerjee delivered on November  23, 1940 at the convocation of Agra University.

As convocation addresses go, it was a long speech full of insight but bereft of partisan politics. Mookerjee’s scholarship was on full display.

He told the students that even if the university is just 13 years old, “its habitation in this historic city of Agra, whose ancient and mediaeval associations are indeed unforgettable, gives you the dignity and a prominence which have a value of their own.”

Like a tourist guide selling Agra, Mookerjee gave an evocative description of the city – its ancient roots, Mughal past and modern future – without being partial.

It was a period of intense communalism in the United Provinces and elsewhere and Mookerjee himself was a poster boy of the right. But he had left all of that outside the convocation hall.

“The sacred river which glides past, the battlements of your city carries our memory back to the heroic age of India, to the days of the Mahabharata and even to that of the Rig Veda itself. The ancient castle of the city figured in the Qasidas of the Ghaznavid period. The noble town which grew round it flourished under the fostering care of the greatest of the great Mughals who founded the famous fort of cut red stone, the like of which those [who] had travelled over the word in the days of his son, could not point out.”

Then he moved to the Taj. He was not being Frank Cowan, who devoted a large section of his The Rime of a Rambler Twice Around The World in praise of the magnificent white monument and even had The Taj Mahal: A Poem culled out of this book.

Mookerjee was merely proud of India’s composite culture, the Mughal contribution and wanted students to learn from it.

He had already praised Akbar’s Agra fort. Now was the turn of his grandson Shah Jahan’s memorial of his wife. “But it was left to [Akbar’s] famous grandson to adorn the city with its brightest of ornaments – one of the seven wonders of the world – a crowning tribute in marble to India’s womanhood. The land around the Taj was also the birthplace of Faizi and Abul Fazl. For years it was the residence of Tansen and the resting place of many an eminent personage of the Mughal period,” he told the students, reminding them again that “a university founded in a city with such noble associations has a responsibility to the Motherland which need no emphasis”.

Mookerjee also said something that might sound Greek to his ideological inheritors. He emphasised that “colleges should provide at the base of what has been known for generations a sound liberal education that is catholic, expansive, free from narrowness and bigotry in ideas or doctrines, appropriate for a broad and enlightened mind”.

As I cite Mookerjee to the likes of Katiyar, another point needs to be made. A factual one. Taj Mahal’s caretaker under Aurangzeb was Chandar Bhan Brahman, an intellectual munshi of Shah Jahan’s court, also his favourite. Having served both father and son, when Chandar Bhan’s retirement came, Aurangzeb sent him to Agra as a caretaker. To the curious right wing mind – how a brahmin rose to top under Mughals – I will not recommend Chandar Bhan’s magnum opus Chahar Chaman in Persian about the life and times, politics, administration and machinations of the Mughal court but a brilliant, less than 400-page book on Chandar Bhan Brahman by Rajeev Kinra – Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary.

It is better to read your own icons and others and let Arjumand Banu Begum, aka Mumtaz Mahal, rest in peace in her rauza-i mutahhara (the sacred tomb).

Akshaya Mukul is a senior journalist and the author of Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India.

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