Saturday, September 19, 2009

Greed versus Heritage

In an exceptionally courageous move, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court issued notice on Friday to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and her cabinet colleague Naseemuddin Siddiqui giving them three weeks’ time to file a counter-affidavit and two weeks subsequently to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to file a rejoinder in the Taj Corridor case. This is a clear indication that the Allahabad High Court has decided to reopen the controversial case initiated many years ago (during Mayawati’s earlier avatar as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh) relating to a proposal to build a corridor alongside the Taj Mahal of Agra. Going by the standard Indian practices in such matters, law courts in India generally prefer not to admit cases against dignitaries like the Chief Minister of the State or a Union minister. But the Allahabad High Court has been an exception even in the past. One recalls how an adverse Allahabad High Court verdict impelled then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to promulgate internal emergency in the country in 1975 and to put most Opposition leaders as well as dissenters behind bars without rhyme or reason. The nation punished her at the general elections immediately after emergency was withdrawn by defeating her and the Congress party in a decisive manner. Therefore, the Allahabad High Court is not to be equated with all other high courts in the country in the matter of standing up to the high and the mighty.

The Taj Corridor case involving Mayawati and Siddique and a swindle of Rs 175 crore is old enough for the details to be blurred and for people to have forgotten the less important details. However, the fact remains that Mayawati and Siddiqui conjured up this wonderful plan of building a corridor on the river front leading up to the Taj Mahal. The Rs 175-crore plan was pushed through with unholy haste and some of the work had begun when someone undertook public interest litigation to prevent such sacrilege to a heritage monument. Through the centuries that this remarkable monument has stood on the banks of the Yamuna and drawn millions of tourists to it from all over the world, no one ever dared to suggest changes even to the outlying structure of the Taj Mahal that would have offended the sentiments of the great architects and builders who had created the marvel and even the sentiments of the residents of Agra who want no changes to the structure motivated by greed and little else. If anything, there has been a great deal of concern about the white marble of the Taj being blackened by the smoke from the Mathura refinery.

Given the general concern about the preservation of our archaeological wealth and our heritage (real concern for all this is regrettably rather recent compared to what one sees in other civilized countries), it is time chief ministers and their cabinet colleagues learnt that our heritage ought to rate far greater priority than the cupidity of people who arrive on the scene with the transient power of a few years. People like Mayawati can get hundreds of statues of Ambedkar built at several times the fair cost. But even if they had several stints of power they are unlikely to be able to get anything like the Taj Mahal ever built again. That is precisely why people like Mayawati need to develop a bit of humility over what they can do and what they cannot. And it is for this reason the CBI must consider its duty to India and the Indian ethos as being far more vital than its duty to shield transient chief ministers like Mayawati and ministers like Siddiqui who have no respect for our heritage. THE SENTINEL

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