India’s independence came at a high cost—bloodshed and division. The British, known for causing chaos wherever they colonised, ensured that we would hate each other instead of them. Millions died in riots during the country’s religious split. Pakistan suffered even more over the years. After attempting to impose one language over another, they split into two countries. Fortunately, India was led by wise statesmen rather than religious bigots like its neighbour.
One of the major issues at that time was the reconstruction of Somnath temple in Gujarat, which had been destroyed multiple times by Islamic invaders. As India approached Independence, the movement to rebuild the temple gained momentum. Somnath was in Junagadh province and the Nawab of Junagadh was against the construction. He also infamously tried to accede to Pakistan. A provisional government was established after the Nawab of Junagadh was overthrown on November 9, 1947. Sardar Patel announced the temple’s reconstruction and Mahatma Gandhi blessed the initiative with one condition: funding should come from public donations, not the government.
Patel initially wanted it to be done with government funding but agreed to Gandhi’s wishes.However, history took its course; Gandhi was assassinated soon, and Sardar Patel too passed away in 1950. It was left to KM Munshi, a member of the Nehru Cabinet, to complete the task, and he had to face opposition from Maulana Azad, who wanted the ruins to be handed over to ASI. Nehru wanted his ministers to stay away from sectarian disputes. Despite opposition, the temple was reconstructed in 1951 using funds from devotees. President Rajendra Prasad attended the inauguration as a private citizen, with some Cabinet members participating and others staying away.
Almost 73 years have passed since. On January 22, the pran pratishtha—roughly and inaccurately translated as the consecration—of the Ram temple in Ayodhya will happen, amid much fanfare. What changed in these seven decades? In the Somanath temple case, many national leaders, including Gandhi, associated reconstructing a temple destroyed by medieval invaders as a project of national importance and resurgence. The opposition to the move by leaders like Nehru was more on his idea of secularism.
Patel was dead, and Munshi was no heavyweight who could have challenged Nehru politically. As the Prime Minister, he could have stopped the construction, but didn’t. He didn’t want the President to attend in his official capacity. He accommodated Azad and Munshi in the Cabinet, making the debates public. He was principled enough to avoid the temple function while not using his power to stop it. There were no riots, prodded by fanatics of either side.
In the era, we saw nuanced opinions from important figures. Gandhi wanted the temple built with devotee’s funds, while Patel agreed, but with government funding. Nehru did not want government involvement, and Prasad attended in a private capacity. Azad freely expressed his views, and Munshi remained a minister while supporting the construction. This all occurred during a time of Partition and nation-building.
Now, see how we have handled the Ayodhya issue. The air is so poisonous that there is no chance of a nuanced stand. All political parties have used this issue to cater to their respective vote banks. And this is not going to stop here. We must define certain fundamentals to ensure we don’t end up like the Soviet Union. Irrespective of our private beliefs, no one can deny that a vast majority of Indians consider Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura to be holy. The Ayodhya issue was complicated by disputes over the history of the existence of a temple that was destroyed to make the Babri mosque. There is no doubt that the destruction of the historic structure while the case was in the court in 1992 was a crime. For better or worse, the case has been settled now by the Supreme Court.
There is no such ambiguity about Kashi or Mathura. Anyone who has visited the place can see that the medieval mosques of these cities stand on the half-destroyed ruins of temples, a sign of the religious bigotry of medieval Islamic rulers. These mosques are not vital to the practice of Islam in India, while for Hindus, these are a crucial part of their religion, perhaps as important as Mecca or Medina are to Islam. And the present-day Muslims are in no way responsible for the crimes committed by their co-religionist in the distant past. Nor do they have to justify such actions.
If politicians have their way, these two disputes are going to take centre stage in the elections of the next decade. They will create division and gain votes, not caring how many die in the riots. It is up to the religious leaders of both communities to come together and find a solution. Taking the Supreme Court’s verdict on Ayodhya as a precedent, mosques could potentially be relocated to better premises and reconstructed, while Hindus are allowed to build temples similar to Somnath or Ayodhya in these places considered holy by Hindus.
In order for peace to be maintained, the Hindu side should agree to a court-monitored agreement that ensures neither group will make any further claims about any religious institutions. Unless Mathura and Kashi are resolved quickly, we are going to see a rerun of the Ayodhya issue. The future of our nation should not be mired in such disputes that will hamper our progress and keep us an impoverished and divided nation.
The Supreme Court now oversees both cases. They could bring together religious parties to start a resolution process. As we approach the temple consecration in Ayodhya, we should strive for empathetic understanding and solutions.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy