An Indian politician has sparked fresh controversy after saying that Taj Mahal, a popular tourist destination in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, will soon be turned into a Hindu Temple.
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 the Indian capital, New Delhi.
Vinay Katiyar, a member of parliament for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told local media on Monday that “there is not much difference between Taj and Tej [Mandir]”, referring to a Hindu far-right claim that a temple existed in place of Taj Mahal.
“It was our temple. Taj Mahal will be converted into Tej Mandir soon,” he said.
This is not the first time that Katiyar, who is currently facing a criminal trial for his role in the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque in 1992, has made such a claim. In October 2017, he was again quoted as saying that Taj Mahal was actually a Shiv temple.
Unfounded claims that Taj Mahal is a Hindu Temple have been expressed sporadically over the years, mainly by fringe, far-right groups.
In August, replying to a petition by Hindu groups, government archaeologists told India‘s Supreme Court that the monument was indeed a Muslim tomb and not a temple.
Apoorvanand, an Indian activist and academic, told Al Jazeera that Katiyar’s “absurd and rubbish” remarks were meant to “erase this period of history from social minds and from the memory of Indian people.
“What it does is to instil in Hindus a sense of loss,” he said.
“[It] inspires them to believe in this theory that something has been taken away from them. And now is the time to take it back. This instils hatred among Hindus and Muslims in the country, deepens the divide and distances Hindus from Muslims,” he added
“This is a pattern when it comes to all the monuments built by Muslims. This is what is happening in the case of Taj Mahal, claiming that originally it was a Hindu structure and the land was forcibly taken by [Muslim ruler] Shah Jahan.”
Reacting to Katiyar’s comments, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said the MP “has the right to practise freedom of speech under the Indian constitution”.
He added that Katiyar’s statement did not represent the party.
“He has his own point of view and we cannot stop him from having an opinion,” said Kohli.
The Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, attracts more than six million tourists a year.
Although it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was not featured in the tourism booklet issued last year by the government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.