shah jahan’s tajmahal vs raja’s corruption

Once in a while, we ‘discuss’ politics and allied goings-on (including the civic structures and civil society) with our impressionable adolescents. We sometimes discuss history too, in spite of the fact that in these times of the impending ‘secondary school leaving certificate’ exams and prep mode for some of our children, we can’t have interesting discussions like this all the time.

But, still…

Here is a gist of a rather tricky question posed and some ideas it generated…

1600s CE:

The Moghul emperor – Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram – popularly titled and known as ‘Shah Jahan’ in our horrendous history books – ordered the construction of a mausoleum (basically an elaborately & aesthetically constructed interment monument) – over the grave of his favorite queen (who was also Khurram’s maternal cousin) Arjumand Banu Begum – popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal. Arjumand dies in the mid 1600s and Khurram grieves for more than 20 years over the matter, and finishes the construction of the mausoleum – and of course orders the movement / transport of the remains of his queen to the monument from Burhampur, where  it was temporarily interred. The building apparently cost Rs 3.2 Crores at that time. In US dollar equivalent it would have then been some 1 million (US $ 1 million); the current value of the cost incurred would be in the region of tens of thousands of crores of Indian Rupees. Again, this would roughly translate to many billions of US dollars.

Khurram literally bankrupts his government in the process, in spite of the fact that India then was a very vibrant economy. He uses the tax payers’ money to build a monument for primarily his edification. If he had instead built a mosque or mosques or some other place of worship or a big university or a huge set of factories – they could have benefited the laity – at least to some extent. At least, these community structures are justifiable expenditure items.

Everyone then and now know that he diverted the state funds for his purely personal agenda. In other words, it is corruption. But, we don’t even think of it like that. We feel that it would be a blasphemy to think along these lines. We assume that kings can deal with the state treasury in anywhichway they want.

The fact that the Taj Mahal is considered beautiful is besides the point. (full disclosure: I haven’t visited it so far)

200os CE:

Andimuthu Rasa – popularly(!) known as A Raja, the much deservedly maligned ex minister of Telecommunications of the Indian Union, manages to make a monumentally corrupt set of deals and wheeeling-dealings – and has perhaps built many Taj Mahals elsewhere. We don’t know much about them. He is not willing to share the details. Not yet. The money (with the standard cut at 30-35% of the deal size) that he must have accumulated through this diversion of Indian Nation’s assets (tax payers’ money) will amount to some Indian Rs 40,000 Crores at least, as of now.

But, we call this Raja names. He has also done exactly what Khurram had done earlier. The only thing is that we don’t yet know the details of the taj mahals of this Raja. May be, his taj mahals would be modern day temples (as our Jawaharlal Nehru announced loooong back) like some huge industrial complexes or pleasure islands or housing mega-complexes. We don’t really know.

Raja was/is a ruler. Khurram was one too. Both have done almost similar things – using public money for personal ends. It was aristocracy then. It is a so-called democracy now. Frankly, the only difference that I find is that, to my limited knowledge, Andimuthu Rasa’s wife is still alive and so perhaps it is immature to talk about a multiplicity of possible Parameswari Mahals. (sorry, sorry…)

I also agree that, perhaps we cannot use the current definitions of corruption to historical contexts – I am a reasonable student of history. But the fact is, these kinds of cognitive dissonances continue to bother me. I feel that if A. Raja had lived in the times of Shah Jahan, say, what he had done now would have been normal. In fact, many of our historians would have praised him for his Parameswari Mahals.

Hmm. After much discussion (and a justifiable sense of uncomprehending horror from our adolescents) we kind of figured out that our notions of corruption stem from our understanding of the current concepts & notions of democracy, republic etc. And also that – as usual we always rely on our ability to articulate our double standards and selective application of ideals to understand an increasingly complex world.

(I would say that one of the impossibly beautiful rewards of being, teaching and learning with children is – the fantastic pleasure of looking at the faces of the children, when their brains go click-click-click and nerve impulses whiz thru their synapses making new connections and applying new contexts… and then, we get to see the impossibly radiant faces of our children. It is lovely, one has to experience this feeling to really appreciate it)

And, I would love to hear from you about our very own and contemporary Andimuthu Raja Shah Jahan…

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