Narendra Modi is not the first Prime Minister to disregard India’s promise of secularism, but he is certainly the most vicious when it comes to attacking the man who strived to uphold it
Prime Minister Narendra Modi says his rival Rahul Gandhi should not have visited the Somnath temple in Gujarat because his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, opposed reconstruction of this temple. In Modi’s telling of this ‘itihas’ (history), Nehru “threw a fit” when he heard Sardar Patel’s proposal to rebuild the temple, and he wrote strongly worded letters to President Dr Rajendra Prasad to not preside over the new temple’s installation ceremony on May 11, 1951.
What Modi is telling his Gujarati audience is that Nehru was not a good Hindu as he showed no reverence for this most important of Shiva temples. Also, Nehru could not bear other Hindus practising their faith, and finally, his great-grandson’s temple visits are a sham. These sentiments usually win votes in Gujarat.
But is Modi speaking the truth? Only half-truths. Let’s see how.
Did Nehru oppose reconstruction of the temple because he disliked Hindus or Hinduism, or did he have a different motive? As the first Prime Minister of secular India, Nehru was sticking to his principles. He was thinking about the country’s image abroad and the internal conditions after the tumult of Partition.
A principled stand
That the temple would be built, and built with people’s contributions rather than government funds, had been decided in the lifetime of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. There was no going back on that. But a controversy arose in March 1951 when Digvijaysinghji, the Jam Saheb of Navanagar, who was chairman of Somnath temple trustees and Rajpramukh (titular head) of Saurashtra state, approached Dr Rajendra Prasad with an invitation to preside over the ceremony.
Prasad wrote to Nehru on March 2, 1951: “I personally do not see any objection to associating myself with the function, particularly because I have never ceased visiting temples, and… denominational religious or semi-religious institutions…”
Nehru replied the same day: “I confess that I do not like the idea of your associating yourself with a spectacular opening of the Somnath temple.” But it wasn’t a whim or an anti-Hindu feeling. Somnath was not just any ordinary temple and its history was a communal flash-point.
“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,” Nehru wrote to Prasad. “Personally, I thought that this was no time to lay stress on large-scale building operations at Somnath. This could have been done gradually and perhaps effectively later. However, this has been done. I feel that it would be better if you did not preside over this function.”
But Modi is colouring the event to suit his interest, as this letter from Nehru to C Rajagopalachari, sent on March 11, shows. “I do not know whether it is desirable for me to insist that he (Prasad) should not do so. I propose, therefore, subject to your advice, to tell him that he can exercise his own discretion in the matter, although I still think that it would be better for him not to go there.”
On March 10 again, Prasad wrote to Nehru saying it would not be right to turn down the invitation because the temple had much historic significance and the invitation had come from the Rajpramukh himself. Nehru replied on the 13th: “if you feel that it will not be right for you to refuse the invitation, I would not like to press my point any further.”
The two leaders are on perfectly cordial terms. Nehru has very strong views on the topic but he is not arm-twisting Prasad in these letters.
While Nehru was trying to convince Prasad to not preside over the Somnath ceremony, the Jam Saheb was sowing new headaches for him by shooting off letters to Indian embassies to send the waters of rivers and oceans from across the world.
On April 17, 1951, the Somnath business weighed heavy on Nehru’s mind. He received a letter from K M Panikkar, then India’s ambassador to China, informing him about the demand from the temple trustees for “waters from the Hoang Ho, the Yangtse and the Pearl rivers and also some twigs from the Tien Shan mountains… necessary for the reconsecration of the Somnath temple.”
“The whole thing is fantastic,” Nehru replied to Panikkar. The same day he wrote to Rajagopalachari: “I am very much troubled about this, and yet I do not know what I can do. In any event it is amazing for people to write to our embassies for the waters of the rivers there.”
To the secretary-general and the foreign secretary in the ministry of external affairs, he wrote: “Does External Affairs know anything about these letters addressed to our embassies abroad asking for the waters of various rivers? I think you might write to our embassies not to pay the slightest attention to these appeals…”
Nehru’s letter to K M Munshi, who was the driving force behind the temple’s reconstruction after Sardar Patel’s death, shows how strongly he cared about the event’s impact on India’s image abroad. “It would not have mattered so much (although even that would have been undesirable) if some private individual had made this request. But the request coming from persons connected with the government and with the President’s name mentioned is most embarrassing for us abroad…”
Pakistan was already using the controversy to foment trouble in Afghanistan. On April 17, Radio Pakistan (Peshawar) broadcast the lie that tribals from Quetta to Chitral were opposing Afghan Prime Minister Shah Mahmoud Khan’s decision to return the Somnath temple’s gates — carried off by Mahmud of Ghazni after the sack of the temple — to India.
Nehru protested in a letter to Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan, on April 21: “My dear Nawabzada, …nobody knows if there are any such gates anywhere and nothing of the kind is being sent from Afghanistan to India. Nevertheless, the Pakistan Press has been full of this story. I leave it to you to judge how far the broadcast, a report of which I am enclosing, is decent or desirable from any point of view.”
A matter of propriety
Then reports reached Delhi that the government of Saurashtra had set aside Rs 5 lakh — an enormous sum those days — for the ceremony. India was an extremely poor country at the time and food was in short supply. On April 21, Nehru wrote to U N Dhebar, chief minister of Saurashtra: “this is not a governmental matter and it is for private individuals to collect money for it. I doubt it it is a proper use of public funds held by governments to be spent in this way.”
Next day, he wrote to Prasad about it: “At any time this would have been undesirable, but at the present juncture, when starvation stalks the land and every kind of national economy and austerity are preached by us, this expenditure by a government appears to me to be almost shocking. We have stopped expenditure on education, on health and many beneficent services because we say that we cannot afford it. And yet, a state government can spend a large sum of money on just the installation ceremony of a temple.”
That letter of April 22 again shows Nehru’s anguish at the beating India’s image was taking abroad. “In criticism of our policy in regard to it, we are asked how a secular government such as ours can associate itself with such a ceremony which is, in addition, revivalist in character.”
Here is a Prime Minister standing up for India’s founding principles, but six decades later he is ridiculed and tarred for it.
On April 22, Nehru finally wrote to the Jam Saheb: “If it was merely a private affair, it is none of my concern. But there is a widespread belief that this is a governmental affair… My real difficulty is that the President is going to the ceremony. I have pointed out to him that this might be misunderstood. But I do not wish to come in the way of his personal inclination in the matter…”
The Jam Saheb responded with an invitation to Nehru, and the Prime Minister’s reply of April 24 is such that every politician in India, including Narendra Modi, should read it: “I must be quite frank with you about this ceremony. Indeed I have written to you about it in another connection already. I am troubled by this revivalism and by the fact that our President and some ministers and you as Rajpramukh are associated with it. I think that this is not in line with the nature of our State and it will have bad consequences both nationally and internationally. As individuals, of course, it is open to anyone to do what he chooses in such matters. But many of us happen to be more than private individuals and we cannot dissociate ourselves from our public capacities.”
Where are such statesmen in Indian politics today?
By end of April Nehru had resigned himself to Prasad’s decision. This is from his letter to Mridula Sarabhai on April 24: “It is too late to change the President’s plans now, even if he wanted to do so. I do not think it is worthwhile your writing to him. You may, if you like, see him and tell him briefly how you feel about it and about the criticism of the Gujarati press to which you refer.”
Nehru could not stop the President from going, but it would have been worse if the radio service went overboard with its coverage of the ceremony. Accordingly, he wrote to R R Diwakar, then Union minister of information and broadcasting, on April 28: “I think that this pompous ceremony regarding Somnath temple and any kind of governmental association is going to injure us abroad and even in India… I feel that in the circumstances our radio broadcast should rather tone down the description of what happens at Somnath and not make it appear in any way that it is a governmental function.”
On May 9, just two days before the ceremony, he wrote another note to S Dutt, secretary, MEA, about his disappointment with the turn of events. “I have been much distressed at the association of the government of India with the ceremony that is taking place at Somnath… I find now that in fact some ministries of the Government of India, including our ministry, had been consulted and in fact they encouraged various steps that were taken. I am afraid we can do nothing further in the matter now. But I think all this association is most unfortunate.”
(S II/V 16/P 1/pp 270, 603)