A landmark event, this day transports one back to the year 1952 when the then President of independent Bharat, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, did prana pratishtha Puja of the Saurashtra-based (Gujarat) Somnath Temple.
Illustrious leaders of the country like Sardar Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, Kanhaiya Lal Munshi, V.P. Menon, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and Dr. Rajendra Prasad had hailed the resurrection and restoration of the Somnath temple as a proud moment in the history of independent Bharat- an affirmation of our eternal legacy. However, Prime Minister Nehru had antagonised that development, deeming it “Hindu revivalism.” In his book ‘Pilgrimage to Freedom,’ K. M. Munshi, a minister in Nehru’s own cabinet, reproduced excerpts of a debate that ensued between the two of them at that time. Today, given the backdrop of Ayodhya, reinvoking parts of that debate in my opinion is crucial to better understand what is the cultural significance of the restoration of Ram Mandir in Bharatiya history, and also, why is there an opposition to this.
The history of Somnath Temple is comparable to that of the Ram Mandir of Ayodhya as the Muslim Turkic invader Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Somnath temple and successive Muslim invaders repeatedly demolished it, eventually destroying it completely. Despite confirmation of the remains of the temple found in the excavation conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India and the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, people that endorse a particular ideology are still opposing the construction of the Ram Mandir, calling the place “controversial.” Therefore, the excerpt from K. M. Munshi’s book is an outstanding testimony to understanding the centrality of the socio-political context in the study of the cultural heritage of the country.
A Jab at Bharatiya Legacy and the plight of Bharatiya People
The invader mindset does not simply seek capture and conquer of countries, it seeks pleasure in causing deep fractures to the pride and glory of an industrious society. When debating the issue of the temple and mosque it is imperative to begin by asking whether those ruins, which later came to be dubbed as a mosque, were actually built for the purpose of offering prayers? The answer is no. If Babur’s commander Mir Baqi wanted to express his gratitude toward the almighty in aiding his Ayodhya conquest by offering a namaz then he could’ve sought any spot under the vast sky to do so. Or, in the sprawling expanse of Ayodhya, he could have constructed a mosque elsewhere. Islamic scholars at the supreme court acknowledged, as per the religious code, namaz prayers offered on a forcefully conquered land or building are invalid. Therefore, razing the Ram mandir to the ground or constructing a mosque over its ruins neither bore a religious sanction nor was a religious quest. Then, what compelled Baqi to do what he did? He knew in vandalising the temple he was crushing the symbol of Bharatiya faith, pride and legacy. This flattered him and flattery alone was his motive.
K.M. Munshi recalled: “In December 1922, I went on a sort of pilgrimage to the broken shrine…Desecrated, burnt and battered, it still stood firm—a monument to our humiliation and ingratitude. I can scarcely describe the burning shame, which I felt on that early morning as I walked on the broken floor of the once-hallowed Sabhamandap.”
Temples that comprise the cultural heritage of a civilization are not mere physical symbols, they are in fact an embodiment of the moral values and traditions that bind and energize the whole society.
KM Munshi writes: “In November 1947, Sardar ..visited the temple. At a public meeting, Sardar announced: “On this auspicious day of the New Year, we have decided that Somnath should be reconstructed. You, people of Saurashtra, should do your best.” Munshi also believed, “The temple of Somnath is not just an ancient monument; it lived in the hearts of the whole nation and its reconstruction was a national pledge.”
Divergent Views over Issues of National Relevance and the Reasons Behind Those
The country’s leadership of that time too was splintered into two opposing ideological camps. With adherents of differing socio-political philosophies coming together, the existence of divergent views over issues of social and national relevance is commonplace in democracies. Nehru ji’s perspective over Somnath and the sporadic protests over Ayodhya in the current times should be seen in the light of this context.
K. M. Munshi writes: “At the end of the cabinet meeting, Jawaharlal called me and said: "I do not like your attempt to revive Somnath. This is Hindu revivalism." I replied that “I will go home and inform you about what has happened."
Now the question is, why did Nehru oppose this act and refer to it as “Hindu revivalism,” while Munshi referred to it as “Bharatiya collective-conscious” and saw the revival as a celebration for the common man? Why two stark dissimilar interpretations of the same situation? These two interpretations are in reality the two different ideologies that have inhabited the Bharatiya mind. Pandit Nehru was not opposed to Bharat but the Bharat of his dreams was a spin-off of European view of life which was diametrically opposite to the Bharatiya view. It was ‘abharatiya’.
Whereas the concept of Bharat of leaders like Sardar Patel, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, K.M. Munshi and many other political stalwarts of the time was seeped deep in the bedrock of Bharatiya civilization- its spiritual legacy. Mahatma Gandhi too supported this idea, his only reservation being that the ambitious plan be aided by funds raised from common people and not government money.
K. M. Munshi goes on to write- “On April 24, 1951, I wrote a letter to him (Mr. Nehru) which I am reproducing next literally….When the whole scheme was discussed by Sardar with Bapu, he stated that it was alright except that the funds necessary for reconstructing the temple should come from the public. Thereafter, the idea that the Government of India should finance the reconstruction of the temple was given up.”
"…..I can assure you that the ‘Collective Subconscious’ of India today is happier with the scheme of reconstruction of Somnath sponsored by Government of India than with many other things that we have done and are doing.”
“Yesterday you referred to ‘Hindu revivalism.’ I know your views on the subject; I have always done justice to them; I hope you will equally do justice to mine. Many have been the customs, which I have defied in my humble way through literary and social work to shape or reintegrate some aspects of Hinduism, in the conviction that alone will make India an advanced and vigorous nation under modern conditions…It is my faith in our 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.”
Shri VP Menon, who was then Advisor to the States Ministry, replied to Munshi’s letter saying, “I have seen your masterpiece. I for one would be prepared to live and, if necessary, die by the views you have expressed in your letter”.
And so the reconstruction went ahead. When the time came to install the deity, Munshi approached Dr Rajendra Prasad and asked him to perform the ceremony, but added a rider, “that he should accept it only if he was prepared not to fail us.”
Munshi says, “He promised that he would come and install the deity whatever the attitude of the prime minister, and added: “I would do the same with a mosque or a church if I were invited”.. but “when it was announced that Dr Rajendra Prasad was to inaugurate the Temple, Jawaharlal vehemently protested”.. Still, “Rajendra Prasad kept his promise. However, his speech delivered at Somnath was published in all the papers, but was cut out from the official organs.”
It is ironic that Nehru, the Indian icon of liberalism and freedom of expression, should make sure that the speech of the President is censored. In this manner despite opposition Somnath was rebuilt and today the magnificent shrine attracts millions of devotees from across the world. However, 60 years of rule of one regime and the patronage of the government have proliferated the proponents of the Nehruvian idea of Bharat in academia and the media. Hence, history is repeating itself and the opposition to the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is more vocal than the opposition to Somnath temple was.
But that does not dampen the spirits of innumerable Bharatwasis who believe in the integral and holistic spiritual tradition of Bharat, which is in tune with the idea of the “collective-conscious of Bharat” that Sardar Patel, K. M. Munshi, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Radhakrishnan, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and many such architects of modern independent Bharat vouched for.