Updated: August 5, 2020 11:45:17 am
The bhoomi poojan at Ayodhya on Wednesday for the construction of the Ram temple will mark a milestone moment in the long, chequered history of the Ram janmabhoomi movement. For decades, the demand made by the RSS, VHP and the BJP for a temple dedicated to Ram at the site of Babri masjid (believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram), has dominated the religious and political history of India. It reached a culmination with the Supreme Court verdict in November 2019, ordering the handing over of the disputed land to a temple trust. The highlight of the event on Wednesday though, would be the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the site.
Modi’s decision to attend the function, however, has sparked off a debate over whether the leader of a secular state ought to attend a religious ceremony. President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), Asaduddin Owaisi, has expressed his objection to the PM’s visit in a tweet stating that it would be “a violation of PMO’s constitutional oath”. “We can’t forget that for over 400 years Babri stood in Ayodhya and it was demolished by a criminal mob in 1992. Lakhs of people sacrificed for the Ram Temple construction,” he tweeted.
The debate over Modi’s visit is a reminder of a similar conversation about 70 years ago when the newly-restored Somnath temple in Gujarat had to be inaugurated. The then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had expressed strong objection to the presence of president Rajendra Prasad at the event, which he believed went against his idea of an India in which state and religion were to be separated.
The restoration of Somnath temple
Located near Veraval, at Saurashtra in the western coast of Gujarat, the Somnath temple is believed to be the first among the 12 jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva. The site which was part of the erstwhile princely state of Junagadh, is also connected to Lord Krishna. Most historical accounts suggest that the temple was ravaged in 1026 CE by the Turkik ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni who looted its riches and desecrated the idol.
In the years preceding the Independence of the country, K M Munshi, a Congress leader from Gujarat, expressed his disappointment at the nation’s inability to rescue the spot of Krishna’s worship for all these generations. “My heart was full of veneration and shame. Millions have worshipped and worship today, Shri Krishna as ‘God himself’…none had dared to raise his voice to rescue the sacred spot where once His mortal remains had been consigned to flames… Reconstruction of Somanatha was then but the nebulous dream of a habitual dreamer,” Munshi wrote in his book, ‘Somanatha: the shrine eternal’, recollecting his visit to the ruins of the ancient temple in 1922. Munshi’s words had turned the issue of Somanatha from a largely regional issue to one of national and Hindu pride.
At the time of India’s Independence, the nawab of Junagadh decided to accede to Pakistan, even though 82 per cent of Junagadh’s population was Hindu. The Indian National Congress formed a parallel government and led an uprising against the nawab who fled to Pakistan. Consequently, the dewan handed over Junagadh to Indian administration.
Soon after, on November 12, 1947, the then home minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel visited Junagadh. At a huge public gathering, he announced the decision to reconstruct Somnath.
When Patel, Munshi, and other leaders visited Mahatma Gandhi to propose the reconstruction of the temple, the latter gave his approval but suggested that it should not be state funded. “Let the people and not the government bear the expenditure,” Gandhi is known to have said. Accordingly, a trust was created with Munshi as its chairman.
The inauguration of a restored Somnath
With the death of Patel in 1950 though, the responsibility of the reconstruction fell on Munshi’s shoulders. Since the Independence of the country, Patel and Nehru had been at odds on many issues ranging from who should be president of the country to who should take the presidency of the Congress party. On the question of minorities too, the two stalwarts were at odds. “Nehru felt that it was the responsibility of the Congress and the government to make the Muslims in India feel secure. Patel, on the other hand was inclined to place the responsibility on the minorities themselves,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha, in his book, ‘India after Gandhi’.
Guha further notes that Patel’s death “removed the one Congress politician who was of equal standing to Nehru.” But the prime minister still had to deal with differences with two other leaders — Congress president Puroshottamdas Tandon and President Rajendra Prasad. “It was clear that the prime minister and the president differed on some crucial subjects, such as the place of religion in public life,” writes Guha.
These differences came to a head in 1951 over the question of the inauguration of the newly-restored Somnath temple. In his book, ‘Pilgrimage to freedom’, Munshi writes that after a cabinet meeting in early 1951, Nehru told him, “I do not like your trying to restore Somnath. It is Hindu revivalism.” Munshi, who was the minister in charge of Food and Agriculture, wrote in his reply: “Yesterday you referred to Hindu revivalism. You pointedly referred to me in the Cabinet as connected with Somnath. I am glad you did so; for I do not want to keep back any part of my views or activities… I can assure you that the ‘Collective Subconscious’ of India today is happier with the scheme of reconstruction of Somnath… than with many other things that we have done and are doing.”
Later Munshi went ahead with his plans and asked Prasad to inaugurate the temple. When he heard of Prasad’s presence at the event, Nehru was appalled. He wrote to him expressing his disapproval. “Personally, I thought this was no time to lay stress on large-scale building operations at Somnath. This could have been done gradually and more effectively later. However, this has been done. [Still] I feel that it would be better if you did not preside over the functions,” he wrote.
While Prasad disregarded the advice of the prime minister and went ahead with the inauguration ceremony, he was sure to emphasise on the Gandhian ideal of inter-faith harmony in his speech at Somnath. He pointed out that to reconstruct the temple was “not to open old wounds”, but rather “to help each caste and community obtain full freedom”.
One does not know how Nehru reacted to the speech or if at all he happened to read it. On the difference of opinion that Nehru shared with Prasad on this matter, Guha writes: “The prime minister thought that public officials should never publicly associate with faiths and shrines. The president on the other hand, believed that it should be equally and publicly respectful to all.” At Somnath, Prasad justified his idea of state and religion thus: “I respect all religions and on occasion visit a church, a mosque, a dargah and a gurdwara.”
‘Somanatha, the Shrine Eternal’ by K M Munshi
‘India after Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy’ by Ramamchandra Guha
‘Ayodhya and Somnath: Eternam shrines, contested histories’ by Peter Van Der Veer
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