There is a generation of us, for whom the most enduring memory of childhood is the television news. Two events occurred in the early Nineties, both televised, which would change our idea of terrorism and the course of the country’s politics forever.
The first was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
The second was the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
We watched as children, in disbelief and perhaps excitement. The adults at home, in the collective memory of me and my friends, were all too shocked to be anything but silent.
Could it be possible that a man who had been Prime Minister and in all likelihood would ascend the throne again could actually be killed at a rally, in the suburbs of a city not known for violence?
Could it be possible that pickaxes and crowbars could bring down a monument that had withstood the vagaries of weather and will for centuries?
Yes, it was.
Terrorism makes things possible.
When I read about a group of between twenty and thirty men from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad vandalising a newly-installed gate at the Taj Mahal, I was filled with foreboding.
Suddenly, the only thing I could think about was WhatsApp and email forwards about ‘Taj Mahal’ being a corruption of ‘Tejo Mahalaya’, accompanied by pictures of the finial, which to wishful thinkers is evidence of the monument’s Hindu architecture. There are those who refuse to see the crescent at the top of the dome, and choose instead to see a trishul, or a kalash bearing a coconut and mango leaves.
The theory of Tejo Mahalaya was propounded by the historical revisionist Purushottam Nagesh Oak, who dedicated several decades of his life to publishing similar fantasies, under the disingenuous name ‘P.N. Oak’, which enabled him to disguise his ethnicity.
But the theory was so popular that the Supreme Court has been approached to decide whether there is a temple hidden inside the Taj Mahal.
To learn of the VHP workers, armed with hammers and iron rods, march up to the western entrance of the Taj Mahal, break down a metal gate which reportedly measures 10X11 feet, and throw it fifty metres away before the authorities could intervene, is chilling.
It brings to mind the ominous images of young men climbing trees and mounting walls to bring down a centuries-old mosque even as vans filled with armed policemen watched helplessly, their weapons and uniforms impotent against the handheld tools and war cries of the mob.
If fewer than thirty men could demolish a turnstile gate installed by the Archaeological Survey of India in minutes, and we have already seen what a mob did nearly three decades ago, how do we stop history from repeating itself?
The VHP workers claimed the gate was blocking the way to a 400-year-old Shiva temple, and that an alternative path had not been provided. Yet, rather than choose dialogue, they chose violence.
And though the men who have been identified have been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including rioting and assault, no arrests had been made at the time of writing this piece. The men who have been charged with the crime have spoken to the media, and boasted that they will bring down the gate again if it is replaced.
Government property has been destroyed, and there is a debate on television about whether or not an alternative route was provided.
It does not matter whether an alternative route was provided.
If the way to a temple was blocked, the issue should have been sorted out either through petitions or a court case, not with hammers and iron rods.
We need to recognise acts of vandalism in the name of religion as terrorism.
What the Taliban did to the statues of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 was an act of terrorism.
What the ISIS has done to the heritage of Palmyra since 2014 is a series of acts of terrorism.
What the karsevaks did to the Babri Masjid in 1992 was an act of terrorism.
And unless the state comes down hard on the hooligans who believe they are doing a service to their religion in destroying symbols and monuments that they consider sacrilegious, the state is silently sanctioning the hooliganism.
There is a sense of sanction for certain kinds of hate speech, a shift all of us can sense even within our own extended families and sometimes even immediate families, from the left to centre, from the centre to right, from the right to the far right, and from the awareness of being on the far right to the conviction that the far right is the centre.
Perhaps it should start with us calling out the moronic uncles and aunts who claim Jesus was Krishna and the Taj Mahal was a Shiva temple and the Pushpak Viman was an aeroplane and that the Kauravas were test tube babies on their confusion of mythology and fantasy with science and fact.
It should definitely end with the arrests of vandals and not simply a rap on the knuckles.
At the moment, some of the most virulent spreaders of hate have the sanction of approval from the Prime Minister’s Twitter handle.
Hate speech fosters acts of hatred; acts of hatred are acts of terrorism.
The state and its heads are failures if they sanction these.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury
Karnataka: Death of democracy
India shining as ecosystems die?
Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless
When death does not deter
Power play at a time of crisis
A country in denial
The gods have left the temples
What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show
Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private
No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
Do we really have the right to die with dignity?
Democracy has no place for mobs
The Sridevi South India lost
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.