Yesterday (11 May) marked 66 years since the restoration of the Somnath temple in Gujarat. It was on 11 May, 1951, that President Rajendra Prasad had led the reinstallation ceremony of the lingam at the temple. However, the path to the ceremony was not straight and was preceded by strained exchanges between Nehru on one side and Rajendra Prasad and KM Munshi on the other.
After India’s Independence and the accession of Junagarh State into Indian Union, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the then Union Home Minister, pledged that Somnath will be reconstructed and restored to its original glory. When Patel broached this subject with Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi endorsed the plan but said that the contribution for the reconstruction of the temple should come from the public. Patel accepted this advice.
With the demise of Patel, the task of the restoration of the temple was ably led by K M Munshi, a cabinet minister in then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. Munshi wrote , “I was clear in my mind that the temple of Somnath was not just an ancient monument; it lived in the heart of the whole nation and its reconstruction was a national pledge.”
However, Nehru never liked the idea of restoring this ancient monument, and “more than once criticised” Munshi for working for its reconstruction. Munshi was referred to in the Cabinet as someone “connected with Somnath”.
In the early months of 1951, just few weeks before the temple inauguration, the matter came to a head. At the end of a Cabinet meeting, Nehru called Munshi and said:
I don’t like your trying to restore Somnath. It is Hindu revivalism.Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru had revealed his cards. He was haunted by the spectre of ‘Hindu revivalism’. Restoring an ancient monument, a place of immense veneration, which had been repeatedly obliterated, was according to Nehru an act of Hindu revivalism.
Munshi was incensed. Without replying to Nehru’s insinuation, he left the meeting and the very next day wrote to him a long letter, stating “Yesterday you referred to ‘Hindu revivalism’. I know your views on the subject; I have done justice to them; I hope you will equally do justice to mine…. It is my faith in the past which has given me the strength to work in the present and to look forward to our future. I cannot value freedom if it deprives us of the Bhagavad Gita or uproots our millions from the faith with which they look upon our temples and thereby destroys the texture of our lives…. this shrine once restored to a place of importance in our life will give to our people a purer conception of religion and a more vivid consciousness of our strength, so vital in these days of freedom and its trail.”
Nehru evidently wasn’t too convinced. When the then president of India, Rajendra Prasad, was invited to inaugurate the temple, Nehru shot him a letter, admonishing, “I confess that I do not like the idea of your associating yourself with a spectacular opening of the Somnath Temple. This is not merely visiting a temple, which can certainly be done by you or anyone else but rather participating in a significant function which unfortunately has a number of implications”.
It seems by “number of implications” he meant that Rajendra Prasad inaugurating a temple would be a challenge to the secular fabric of the Indian Republic. Rajendra Prasad ignored Nehru’s advice and added, “I would do the same with a mosque or a church if I were invited.”
So, on 11 May 1951, Rajendra Prasad, while presiding over the opening ceremony of the temple, gave a stirring speech. He said that the physical symbols of our civilisation maybe destroyed, but no arms, army or king could destroy the bond that the people had with their culture and faith. Till that bond remained, the civilisation would survive. He added that it was the creative urge for civilisational renewal, nurtured in the hearts of the people through centuries that had once again led to the praan-pratishta of the Somnath deity. Somnath was the symbol of economic and spiritual prosperity of ancient India, he said. The re-building of Somnath will not be complete till India attains the prosperity of the yesteryear.
This speech was covered widely in the press but was “cut out from the official organs”.
Thus, with the devotion of millions, the pledge of Patel, the blessing of Gandhi and an untiring effort by Munshi, the majestic Somnath temple was restored and a soothing balm was applied to the unhealed wounds of the nation. Meanwhile, Nehru did change his mind regarding ancient shrines. He donated land for the construction of pilgrim’s centre in Sanchi for Buddhist travellers and provided grants for the restoration of Sarnath (another Buddhist site).
“Many years later, reflecting on the Somnath incident, Munshi, penned the most devastating critique of Nehruvian secularism. He stated: “In its (secularism) name, anti-religious forces, sponsored by secular humanism or Communism, condemns religious piety, particularly in the majority community.”
In its name, minorities are immune from such attention and have succeeded in getting their demands, however unreasonable, accepted.K M Munshi
“In its name, again, politicians in power adopt a strange attitude which, while it condones the susceptibilities, religious and social, of the minority communities, is too ready to brand similar susceptibilities in the majority community as communalistic and reactionary. How secularism sometimes becomes allergic to Hinduism will be apparent from certain episodes relating to the reconstruction of Somnath temple.
“These unfortunate postures have been creating a sense of frustration in the majority community.
“If however the misuse of this word ‘secularism’ continues…if every time there is an inter-communal conflict, the majority is blamed regardless of the merits of the questions; if our holy places of pilgrimage like Banaras, Mathura and Rishikesh continue to be converted into industrial slums…, the springs of traditional tolerance will dry up.”
Written in the Sixties an erstwhile member of Nehru’s Cabinet, truer words were perhaps never spoken.