The inauguration of the building of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on 5th August has invited comparison with the rebuilding of the Somnath Temple after Independence. Predictably, Hindutva advocates have used the occasion to indulge in their favourute pastime of Nehru-bashing, by accusing him of opposing the building of the temple because his vision was “abharatiya”. (Manmohan Vaidya in Indian Express 4 August 2020). They suppress the fact that it was Gandhiji who first gave “secular” advice to Sardar Patel and KM Munshi that the Somnath Temple should be rebuilt with contributions from private individuals and not with government money. For Nehru as well, as the correspondence cited below will show, the issue was not opposition to the building of the temple, but of the identification of the state with the project.
On 2 March 1951, Rajendra Prasad, the President of India, wrote to Prime Minister Nehru that he had been invited to preside over the opening function of the Somnath Temple and he personally did not see any objection to associating himself with the function as he had never "ceased visiting temples" of various religious faiths.
Nehru replied to him the same day: “My dear Rajendra Babu, 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.”
Rajendra Prasad wrote to Nehru on I0 March 1951 that the Somnath temple had been built entirely with private subscriptions and he was not doing anything extraordinary if he associated himself with the function, as he visited other places of worship whenever he felt inclined to do so. Moreover, he did not feel it right to refuse the invitation because the Somnath temple had much historic significance and the invitation came from the Rajpramukh of the State, who was also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s reply shows how those days differences at the highest level were handled with great courtesy and mutual respect. In his reply on March 13, 1951, he said: “I am sorry for the delay in answering your letter of the I 0th March regarding your visit to Somnath temple. I have already conveyed my reactions to this. But 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.”
In another letter more than a month later, when the Somnath issue became a matter of considerable debate, he again explained that his objection was to the association of the government with the temple. On April 22, 1951, he wrote: “My dear Rajendra Babu, I am greatly worried about the Somnath affair. As I feared, it is assuming a certain political importance. Indeed, references have been made to it internationally also. 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. Questions are being put to me in Parliament and I am replying to them saying that Government has nothing to do with it and those persons who are connected in any way are functioning entirely in their personal capacity.”..
According to newspaper reports, the Saurashtra Government has set aside Rs 5 lakhs for these Somnath installation ceremonies. This seems to me completely improper for any Government to do and I have written to that Government accordingly. 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.”
Excerpts from Jawaharlal Nehru Selected Works, Second Series, Volume 16, Part-1, p.270, and pp 603-612.
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)