Soon after Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited Gujarat’s Somnath temple on Wednesday and a social media storm broke out over the entry of his name in the visitors’ book as a “non-Hindu,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned, at a rally about 25km from the temple and on Twitter, whether the Gandhi scion had forgotten his family’s history and accused Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s great-grandfather and India’s first prime minister, of opposing the reconstruction of the temple, one of the 12 jyotirlingas in the country.

“If there was no Sardar Patel, the temple in Somnath would never have been possible. Today some people are remembering Somanth. I have to ask them: have you forgotten your history? Your family members, our first Prime Minister was not happy with the idea of a temple being built there,” Modi said.

Modi reiterated this in a tweet later: “Addressed a rally in Prachi. It is indeed puzzling to see certain Congress leaders visit the Somnath Temple when their own family members opposed the construction of a grand Temple as envisioned by Sardar Patel.”

Archival evidence shows that Nehru, a proponent of secularism in post-independence India, was against those in government associating themselves with the reconstruction of the temple, which he termed “Hindu revivalism.”

Sardar Patel, the most prominent leader the Patidar community has ever had, pushed for the temple’s reconstruction. This was supported by Mahatma Gandhi, too, albeit with a clause: that the public, and not the government, bear the expenditure.

However, both died before work on the temple could be completed. K.M. Munshi, who was then a member of Nehru’s cabinet, took up the baton, and by early 1951, the rebuilt Somnath temple was ready to be inaugurated.

Munshi invited Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, to inaugurate the temple—something that Nehru opposed. In an 11 March 1951 letter to C. Rajagopalachari, India’s last governor-general and also a member of Nehru’s cabinet, the prime minister wrote: “The President wrote to me about his proposed visit to Saurashtra and said that he had been invited to inaugurate the Somnath temple after the recent repairs and additions to it. He himself wished to accept this invitation and asked for my reactions. I wrote to him that while there was obviously no objection to his visiting the temple or any other temple or other places of worship normally, on this particular occasion the inauguration of the temple would have a certain significance and certain implications. Therefore, for my part, I would have preferred if he did not associate himself in this way.

“I have now received his reply, a copy of which I enclose. As the President is anxious to associate himself with this function, I do not know whether it is desirable for me to insist that he 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.”

In communications to Munshi; K.M. Panikkar, the journalist, novelist, historian and diplomat; U.N. Dhebar, chief minister of Saurashtra State; Digvijaysinhji, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar (now in Jamnagar); Congress general secretary Mridula Sarabhai, and others, he repeatedly voiced his disapproval of the association of the government with the temple.

On 17 April 1951, in a note to the secretary-general and the foreign secretary in the ministry of external affairs, Nehru wrote: “...It is fantastic that our Embassies should be addressed in this way and asked to collect the waters of distant rivers and twigs from various mountains...” and “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...”

On the same day, he wrote to Munshi disapproving of the requests. “...This letter has rather upset our Embassy (in China) and I am myself equally upset at the thought that such letters have been sent to our Embassies 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...”

Between 21 and 24 April that year, he addressed letters to Dhebar, Sarabhai and Digvijaysinhji about newspaper reports that said the Saurashtra government was providing financial assistance for the reconstruction.

To the Jam Saheb, who was also chairman of the trustees of the Somnath temple as well as rajpramukh of Saurashtra, he wrote on 24 April: “...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.”

Munshi had been rather forceful in his response to Nehru's accusation of “Hindu revivalism.”

After one cabinet meeting from which he walked out, Munshi wrote: “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 sponsored by the Government of India than with many other things that we have done and are doing.”

“...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 India’s 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.  I have been given the privilege of seeing my incessant dream of Somnath reconstruction come true. That makes me feel—makes me almost sure—that 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 trials.”

Two days before the inauguration, Nehru wrote to S. Dutt, the secretary in the ministry of external affairs, expressing his eventual feeling of resignation.

“...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...”

The point that Nehru was trying to raise in his correspondences is, on the face, self-evident. His letters seemed to pre-empt the rise of religion- and caste-based vote-bank politics, while trying to underline that decisions made by members of the executive and their choices as private citizens should be separate.

That point is still relevant.

 

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Neil Rodricks tweets at @nrod144.

 

Sources: Selected Works of Jawahar Lal Nehru, Second Series-16 Part-II (Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, edited by S. Gopal)

Pilgrimage to Freedom: K.M. Munshi (Bhavan’s Book University)

Rediscovery of India: A silence in the City and Other Stories, Marie Cruz Gabriel (Orient Blackswan, 1996)