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Taj Mahal dropped from tourism booklet of Uttar Pradesh

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 09/10/2017
The Taj Mahal is reflected in a puddle in Agra, India August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY [Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera The Taj Mahal is reflected in a puddle in Agra, India August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY [Reuters]

Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, attracting more than six million tourists a year. It attracts more tourists than any place in India, but the monument it seems is out of favour from the government of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where it is located.

The iconic monument, a UNESCO world heritage site, considered a "symbol of love" was not featured in the tourism booklet issued by the UP government last week.

The 32-page booklet titled "Uttar Pradesh Tourism: Its High Potential", released by State Tourism Minister Rita Bahuguna, mentions a number of Hindu and Buddhist religious places but gives a miss to one of the most famous monuments in the world.

Sohail Hashmi, writer and a heritage expert, accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of playing politics over the Taj.

"The BJP has come to power on the basis of the discourse that only things that are identified as Hindu are Indians. Taj does not fit into their idea of culture," Hashmi said.

"They have divided our heritage into Hindu heritage and Islamic heritage."

Built in the 17th century

The stunning white marble mausoleum was built in the 17th century by Mughal King Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal in Agra, about 200km from Indian capital, New Delhi.

Joshi denied there was an attempt to ignore Taj Mahal as a tourist destination.

"How can anyone in the tourism sector ignore the Taj Mahal, one of the big tourist attractions in the country?" said the minister, adding that the government was committed towards the development of Taj and tourist sites associated with it.

But her boss, Yogi Adityanath - a monk known for his anti-Muslim bigotry - is clearly not fond of the Taj. He has in the past said that the Mughal mausoleum is not part of India's culture. He has previously claimed that the mausoleum was a Hindu temple.

Replying to a petition by Hindu groups, the government archaeologists told Supreme Court in August that the monument was indeed a Muslim tomb and not a temple.

Since he took over as the chief minister of India's most populous state in March, Yogi has pushed for Hindu festivals and religion despite India being a secular nation.

The central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also belongs to the BJP, has also been accused of rewriting history textbooks, including medieval period, when Muslims ruled over India.

As part of this, roads named after Mughals have been renamed and Muslim rulers, who have been accused of reaping "holocaust" on Hindus, have been demonised.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, considers Muslims and Christians as outsiders, and has been at the forefront of the campaign to rewrite history textbooks.

"For the BJP, the understanding that anything that has happened in this country over the last thousands of years has no connection with clear definition of Indian culture," Hashmi said.

"What makes India such a vibrant place is its phenomenal diversity."

Poor infrastructure in Agra

Despite repeated attempts BJP spokespersons could not be reached for a comment.

Last year Taj attracted 6.2 million tourists, but that number is a drop from the previous year. People in tourism industry say successive governments have done little to upgrade infrastructure in Agra.

An expressway built by the previous state government to connect Agra to New Delhi has not boosted tourist numbers either.

"We care very little for our heritage. Over several years, heritage conservation and culture has been getting less than 0.1 percent of the national budget," Hashmi said.

And Yogi government's turning its back on the monument has baffled businessmen in the city.

Rajeev Tiwari, President of the Federal of Travel Association in Agra, says that Taj is not the priority of the state government.

"More than 400,000 people are directly or indirectly get employment because of Taj. Tourism is important for the economy of Agra," he said.

"If we play politics and ignore it, then tourist number will further drop. It will not only be a loss to Agra but also affect the revenue of the state."

More than 20 percent UP's tourism revenue comes from tourism related to the Taj, according to the CNN-IBN news channel.

Tiwari says that Taj should not be made into a "sectarian issue". "It is a monument of love, and it should be seen that way," he said.

"Anywhere in the world, when the name of India comes, the first thing that people ask is Taj Mahal. It is a symbol of India."

But Tiwari's fears are not unfounded. India's numerous 24/7 news channels have conducted hours of debates that exposed the divide over the monument.

Anila Singh, the BJP spokesperson, in a discussion on CNN-IBN news channel justified dropping of Taj Mahal from the booklet.

"Days of all those people who have crushed the feelings of Hindus has come to an end. What Hindus want we are going to do that," Singh said.

'Religious bias'

Spokesperson from the main opposition Congress party, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, has criticised the Yogi government for the omission.

"If it is a booklet on tourism and it excludes Taj Mahal, at one level it is a joke and at another level it is tragic. It is like saying we will have (William Shakespeare's) 'Hamlet' without the Prince of Denmark," Singhvi said.

"… If it is indeed a booklet on tourism and excludes the Taj, it shows a clear religious bias which is completely misplaced," he added.

Tiwari from the Agra travel association backs the Yogi government's plans to develop religious sites to attract tourism.

"Development of religious sites is welcome, but in a multicultural societies, such as India, you can't focus on one area, you have to focus on all," he said.

"Our shared culture cannot be ignored especially in UP. Development has to be for all. Development should not be linked to any particular religion."

Many say Yogi has resorted to divisive issues to cater to his hardline Hindu base while others accuse him of being simply inept.

"The trouble with this man is that he has still not decided whether he is the head of the temple or the head of the UP government," said Sharat Pradhan, a senior journalist in Lucknow, the capital of UP state.

"It is certainly damaging the image of the state. This is India's largest state and conceived as representative of the country. It will affect the image of the country."

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