Quentin Jérémy Clerc and Marie Droz were getting away from the tourist trail. Visiting Fatehpur Sikri – once the capital of the Mughal Empire, and about 40km from the Taj Mahal – the young Swiss couple decided to explore a secluded portion of its crumbling fortress.
The trouble began around midday after they left the fortress, following a set of railway tracks to a scrubby field where they encountered a group of local boys and young men. Youths would later tell the police that the couple, both 24, had offended them by ignoring their greetings and kissing in front of them.
Not so, Droz told the Times of India. They were trying to force her to take selfies with them, Clerc added. Eventually, they began beating the couple with sticks and rocks.
By the time a crowd had gathered and the youths had run away, he had a fractured skull and possibly permanent hearing damage and she had a fractured left arm. "The blood was flowing," said Ram Kishor, a police constable in the area.
The assault late last month made headlines for several days in India. It was a fresh setback for tourism in this part of the country, which is home to some of the world's most famous monuments but finds its status threatened by disputes about its Muslim heritage, amid reports of declining visitor numbers and of harassment of tourists.
Stops at Fatehpur Sikri and in the nearby city of Agra to see the Taj Mahal, all of which are in Uttar Pradesh state, are at the top of many itineraries for tourists in India. Built in the 17th century by the Muslim emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal attracts millions of visitors every year. Tour operators call it India's monument to eternal love.
But Hindu nationalists, some of them aligned with the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, have taken aim at the Taj Mahal and its ties to a Muslim ruler. During a trip to Agra in June, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said at a rally that small replicas of the monument given to foreign dignitaries "did not reflect Indian culture". Other far-right leaders went further, describing it as having been built by "traitors" who "wanted to wipe out Hindus".
But Adityanath seems to be softening his stance, at least in public. When he visited Agra in late October, he called the Taj Mahal a “unique gem”. A tourism brochure published by the state government that initially omitted the Taj Mahal has been updated to include it.
Tour guides said the controversy had hurt their business. “These politicians, they don’t know about what is the architecture, what is the archaeology, what is the mausoleum,” said Rishi Vashisth (56), who has worked as a guide for over three decades. “So we are unable to represent our own product in the proper way.”
Under the current government, Vashisth said, fringe religious groups had proliferated in Agra like “mushrooms after the rain”.
Around the city, where ox carts, motorbikes and sport utility vehicles all barrel down the same potholed streets, many residents and tourists seemed unperturbed by the political noise. “A thousand voices will say a thousand things” was how Girdhari Lal (62), a seller of sweets, put it. But visitors had different reactions to harassment.
On a recent day, a throng of tourists formed a line at the mouth of the Taj Mahal complex, pressing their bodies forward. Among them was Vital Labonte, (66), a French Canadian visitor in hiking boots, who said the occasional jostle or appeal for money did not bother him. “The kids run at you, they want money to better their life,” he said. “Just say no. I’m not worried with it.”
Viktoria Simeoni (23), an Austrian visitor who had booked a trip to India on a whim, said she sometimes felt unsafe when men stared at her or asked for pictures, a request often made to foreign tourists in India. “One lady gave me her baby,” she said. “I was just holding the baby, and then she took pictures of me. I didn’t feel so comfortable.”
The police found it necessary to crack down. In the days after the attack, they arrested over 50 people they accused of being touts with reputations for hounding tourists.
In Fatehpur Sikri, officials emphasised that the severity of the attack against the Swiss couple was rare. The crime that tourists report most often is theft. Five youths ages 13 to 19 are being held by the police over the attack on Clerc and Droz on October 22nd.
Police officials said the youths were found several days later, with the help of photographs the couple had taken as their assailants ran away. They came from a poor community who make a living as farmers, basket weavers and acrobatic performers.
"We cannot say with surety what exactly transpired," said Pushpendra Pal Singh Chauhan, a police officer. "Charges have been filed under various sections for beating, breaking bones, loss of hearing in the right ear due to beating, attempt to cause grievous injury and causing head injury," he said. The group face years in prison if convicted.
Clerc and Droz have declined further interview requests. The Indian government has tried to make amends, offering them a free stay at The Ashok, a five-star hotel in New Delhi, as a "token of concern".
But Shamsuddin Khan (69), a longtime guide with the Department of Tourism, worried about the negative publicity from the assault, listing other instances of harassment and a general shrinkage of tourism in Agra. He wondered what the future held.
“We have a slogan: The guest is a god,” he said. “But what are you doing with the gods? You’re punishing them. Come to India, why?” – New York Times